Numbers 3:1-4:49

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Remember, now, we are in the opening section of Numbers that is devoted to preparations for Israel’s setting out from Mt. Sinai on her journey to the Promised Land. A census was taken to determine the nation’s fighting strength. The camp was organized for both movement and rest. The next two chapters describe the special roles appointed to the Levites, the servants of the sanctuary that was physically and spiritually both the center of the nation in camp and on pilgrimage and its hope of success, being as it was the embodiment of the Lord’s presence with his people. There are over 70 references to the Levites in the book of Numbers, more than in any other book of the Bible. In this context the Levitical responsibilities mentioned have to do with the movement of the sanctuary because, as we said, the nation is preparing to move and the sanctuary will, of course, move with it.

Text Comment

The NIV’s “account” is the Hebrew toledot, generation or family history or “line”, that serves ten times in Genesis as a chapter heading. Here, as in Genesis, the toledot of someone concerns not the person himself but his descendants. Terah’s toledot was about Abraham, Jacob’s was about his twelve sons, and here, Moses and Aaron’s toledot concerns the following generations of their family, the Levites.

Aaron is mentioned first because he was the firstborn. Aaron is mentioned before Moses only in genealogies.

At the outset we are warned that carelessness or indifference in the service of a holy God can be fatal. The account is given in greater detail in Leviticus 10. Nadab and Abihu offered incense using other coals than those taken from the altar as the Lord had commanded. The coals were impure and it was these men’s disobedience and unconcern for purity that brought down God’s judgment upon them. Their public role as leaders of divine worship meant that an example needed to be made of them and so the immediate and drastic punishment.

Before we come to the more specific duties of various Levites we are given a general summary in vv. 5-10.

There was far too much work in providing for the worship of the tabernacle for the two priests to be able to do it themselves and so the Levites were appointed to assist them. A similar principle, you remember, lay behind the establishment of the diaconate in Acts 6. The Apostles couldn’t do all that needed to be done.

The NIV’s “perform duties” in v. 7 translates a word that, in reference to the tabernacle always means “guard duty.” We already learned in 1:53 that the Levites formed a cordon around the sanctuary in Israel’s camp. They also apparently accompanied worshippers into the tabernacle outer court and assisted them in their preparations to ensure that all was done properly. [Milgrom, 16]

In other words, the duties of the Levites might have devolved upon the firstborn of each Israelite family, but instead the Lord took the males of the tribe of Levi as substitutes for the firstborn.

In the census of chapter one only the males twenty years of age and older were counted. But all the Levite males were to be counted. They were set apart to the Lord from birth and, as we shall see, they were to substitute for the firstborn sons of all the other tribes, so there needed to be a total count made of their number.

The first of the three Levitical clans is counted, assigned a position on the west side of the tabernacle and its specific responsibilities summarized. The Gershonites were responsible for the soft furnishings or the fabric of the tabernacle. To the Kohathites were assigned responsibility for the furniture of the tabernacle and the equipment of the sanctuary itself, the most sacred objects of Israelite worship. They were situated on the south side of the tabernacle. The Merarites were placed on the north side and were responsible for the frame of the tabernacle, its outer wall, the planks and posts, etc.

Moses and the priestly family would camp on the east side of the sanctuary, the most favored side, the side upon which the door of the sanctuary opened. The sanctity of the sanctuary was to be jealously guarded.

The number of Israelite firstborn exceeded the number of Levites counted by 273. These additional 273 will be redeemed by money so that the Lord has received in these two ways a substitute for every firstborn Israelite.

Chapter 4 records a second census of the Levites, this of the men between the ages of 30 and 50. The harder labor of dismantling, carrying, and assembling the tabernacle was limited to the adult men in their physical prime. The duties of each of the three Levitical clans are also more specifically defined than in the summary given in chapter 3. Here in chapter 4 the objects to be carried by the respective clans are listed in decreasing order of sacredness. So while the Gershonites were listed first in 3:21, the Kohathites are listed first in chapter 4.

In this chapter, as in all the biblical material relating to the sanctuary you encounter this principle of graded holiness. Ordinary Israelites could come into the sanctuary’s outer court to worship, but only priests could enter the sanctuary itself and only the high priest the most holy place, the innermost room of the sanctuary where the ark of the covenant was located. In the same way, the objects that are at most distance from the Lord in the sanctuary can be made of more ordinary materials, but the closer one comes to the presence of God the higher the standard of materials and workmanship required. Within the most holy place all is gold. When on the move the ark – the footstool of God himself – receives the most careful treatment. It was to be covered by the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the sanctuary. The package was then to be further wrapped in a protective covering and the whole again wrapped in a cloth the sacred color of blue: three sacred coverings. As we move outward to the table of the bread (two coverings), then to the lamp stand, then to the altar (each with one covering), the covering required also becomes less elaborate and symbolic of a lesser holiness.

This principle of graded holiness is reflected in the warnings that are repeated through the section devoted to the Kohathites who must carry the most sacred objects. In v. 15 we read that they are not to touch the objects lest they die, in v. 20 that they are not even to look at the holy things lest they die.

Now there are several notable features of the material in these two chapters that detail the organization of the Levitical tribe and specify the responsibilities of its various clans. We already noted the principle of graded holiness, a way in which every Israelite was constantly reminded of the transcendent holiness of God and of the care that must be taken in approaching him. We also noted the emphasis placed on observing the liturgical requirements laid down in God’s law with precision and exactness. Again and again we read that Moses did precisely as he had been commanded and that disobedience pays a wage. Nadab and Abihu found that out and the Levites are sternly warned of the consequences of even an idle curiosity in dealing with the things of God.

I cannot stress the importance of our grasping the uniquely Christian view of God that is demonstrated to us in these regulations that we might otherwise take to be boring and irrelevant. Do you see how utterly different this view of God is that we are given here. It is not the view of our culture, to be sure, but it is also not the view of any other religion in the world. In every other worldview God is either immanent, near to us, or he is transcendent, far above us. In Buddhism to the extent there is a god, he is in everything. God is absolute immanence. In Islam God is high above us and cannot be known by us. God is absolute transcendence. In corruptions of Christianity, again it is one or the other. In deistic forms of Christianity God is distant and far above his creatures. In popular forms of secular and sentimental Christianity, now so common in our land, God is a harmless, avuncular figure standing nearby to help but never to provoke fear or even awe.

It is only in biblical Christianity that we get both: the living and true God, the maker of heaven and earth, the judge of all men, whose glory no man has seen or can see, who inhabits eternity and dwells in unapproachable light, on the one hand, and, on the other, the God who draws near to us, to love and care for and concern himself with his people and their small and ordinary lives. Here you have the living God in the camp of his people, right near to them to help them and guide them; but he remains the holy God of infinite glory to whom his people owe great fear and reverence and whose approach they must take care to make only in those ways appropriate to his holiness.

And let me remind you this does not change in the NT. There too God is a God of fearful majesty and faith in him requires that we live in godly fear. It is the transcendence of God that makes his immanence so wonderful and amazing and it is his immanence that makes his transcendence so glorious and so wonderful to behold and admire. We have a God who is worthy both of our fear and our love at one and the same time. And it is because and only because he is worthy of both that he is a God who can save us and deliver us to the Promised Land. It is only because he is a God who made the vast universe and rules the wheeling galaxies with absolute sovereignty that we can utterly rely on his word and his power. And it is because he is a God of love and fatherly affection that we can count on his caring for us no matter that our lives, in so many ways, seem too small to be of any consequence to even other human beings, much less to Almighty God. People are usually either sympathetic or strong, but rarely both. But the living God offers both company and help, sympathy and power, affection and sovereign rule. Our God lives in a high and holy place, we read in Isaiah 57:15, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit. He offers salvation to sinners and promises indescribable joys to those who trust in him, but he threatens the impenitent and the unbelieving with doom. He rules over this world to such an extent that every single thing that happens is in some respect his will, so that no one will finally get away with disobedience to him, but he feelingly and tenderly sympathizes with his children as a loving parent. He pitched his tent in the midst of Israel, but that tent was surrounded by guards, by mystery, and by danger. [Duguid, 61]

That is your God, Christian. Not the sentimental and toothless god of American civic religion and not the distant and unapproachable God of deism and Islam, but the God who must be loved and feared at one and the same time. There is no other God but the true and living God who is also our Savior and father in heaven. “Behold the goodness and the severity of God!”

Now it is in the context of that revelation of God in his nature as both present with us and far above us, immanent and transcendent, the God of both glory and tender love, that we find here some specific instruction for us and for our individual lives.

I am speaking of the matter of our calling. We have a particular instance of this here, the calling of the Levites, but the principles apply to every one of us. What is it that you are called to do with your life? What are your possibilities? What are your opportunities? How will you serve the Lord? What is to be the story of your life?

In the case of the Levites, they had no choice in the matter. That was determined for them by their birth. They couldn’t be what the sons of the other tribes could be: merchants or farmers or soldiers. They were Levites and they were set apart to the Lord’s work very specifically from birth. Depending upon what family they were born into, they had a set of responsibilities that were theirs and that could not be shifted or changed. If they were from the Gershonite clan they did one thing; if they were Kohathites they did another. What is more, these particular assignments were ordered for them without any specific rationale. We never learn, for example, why the Lord chose to replace the firstborn of all Israel with the tribe of Levi. What is more, Gershon is the oldest son of Levi, but his descendants are not given pride of place in the Levitical hierarchy. Kohath was the second son [Ex. 6:16] but his descendants are given responsibilities for the most sacred objects of the sanctuary. It seems that this honor fell to them because Moses and Aaron were Kohathites, not because of any achievement of Kohath’s part.

I can well imagine a young Gershonite or Merarite feeling that it wasn’t fair that he should be consigned forever – no matter his gifts, no matter his zeal, no matter his eagerness to do more – consigned forever to more lowly tasks. I can imagine that just as easily as I can imagine a spiritual young man from the tribe of Judah or Naphtali wondering why he could not be a priest. He had an interest in theology and liturgy, he loved the sanctuary, and he would be a very good priest. It wasn’t fair, he thought, that he couldn’t be a priest simply because he was born into the wrong family. He had nothing to do with that. That wasn’t his fault.

But the fact is God calls his people to their various stations in life and their various assignments in the kingdom of God. He has his own reasons and he very often does not disclose them to us. This is a special emphasis in the Bible’s teaching about our callings in life. God called Jeremiah to be his prophet and Jeremiah didn’t want to be a prophet. Others want callings that he has not seen fit to grant them. In fact, throughout history it has proved a temptation to people to make their own decisions about their calling without regard to God’s will.

When the kingdom was divided between north and south, Jeroboam I, the king of the ten northern tribes set up his own priesthood and his own sanctuaries. The rules that God had established for his worship were changed and priests were selected without regard to their Levitical ancestry. In fact, in 1 Kings 12:31 a point is made of saying that Jeroboam appointed priests, “from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites.” No doubt the King was heard to ask: why should good men be prevented from serving the Lord? What difference does it make whether a man is from a particular family? I’m after quality!

The same thing is happening today. The Lord has said – for whatever reason – that men and men only should rule his church but people in the church have thought it unfair to exclude women, unfair even to exclude children in some denominations. They want the church, so they say, to be welcoming of everyone into leadership. It doesn’t seem right that a person should be limited in what she can do in the kingdom of God simply because she happened to be born female, or that he or she is young, or that he doesn’t have this gift or that. Or, in our day more and more people are thinking and saying that it isn’t fair that he should have to be a man or she a woman. People should be free to be whatever they wish to be.

But here in Numbers 3 and 4 God isn’t asking his people how they would like to serve him. He is telling them how they will serve him and warning them that they must serve him in the callings he has given them and in the way he has ordered or else. The church of Jesus Christ is not a democracy. It is a kingdom. It has a king. And the king has spoken. He gives such assignments to his people as please him. They may not understand why this and not that, but it is not theirs to reason why, but to do and die. Or, better, to do or die. [Duguid, 47ff.]

And so it is with you, every one of you. God has called you to be what you are: some of you are of Judah, some of Simeon, and some of Levi. He has called you to specific responsibilities as men or women, as married or single, as parents or children, as having these gifts or those, many gifts or few. It is not ours to know why he has called us to live the life we have. It is ours to trust and obey. It is very easy to want to live someone else’s life. But it is not our choice to make. Our God has made it for us, as is his right as our Maker, our Savior, and our Father. We are to fulfill our calling, whatever that calling may be, in obedient service to the living and true God.

Our greatest problem, yours and mine, is that we deceive ourselves so easily. We find it so easy to think that things are what we want them to be. A famous illustration of this tendency is offered by the German biologist Bruno Müller-Hill.

“When I was a student in a German gymnasium and thirteen years old, I learned a lesson that I have not forgotten…. One early morning our physics teacher placed a telescope in the school yard to show us a certain planet and its moons. So we stood in a long line, about forty of us. I was standing at the end of the line, since I was one of the smallest students. The teacher asked the first student whether he could see the planet. No, he had difficulties, because he was nearsighted. The teacher showed him how to adjust the focus, and that student could finally see the planet, and the moons. Others had no difficulty; they saw them right away. The students saw, after a while, what they were supposed to see. Then the student standing before me – his name was Harter – announced that he could not see anything. ‘You idiot,’ shouted the teacher, ‘you have to adjust the lenses.’ The student did that and said after a while, ‘I do not see anything, it is all black.’ The teacher then looked through the telescope himself. After some seconds he looked up with a strange expression on his face. And then my comrades and I also saw that the telescope was nonfunctioning; it was closed by a cover over the lens. Indeed, no one could see anything through it.” [Cited in P. Johnson, Objections Sustained, 156-157]

The boys “saw” the planet that they were told they were looking at. Their doubts were overcome by the confidence of the teacher and their expectation that things would be as they had been told. And that is happening to all of us all the time. We are all of us tempted and all of us succumb to the temptation to see our lives and the reality of which they are apart as our own hearts and our culture teach us to see them, to see God as we are inclined to want him to be, to see our responsibilities as we want them to be, our freedoms and rights as our culture teaches us to see them. And into that make-believe world cuts like a knife the revelation of the one, true God in Holy Scripture. There is but one God, the Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth. There is but one way, God’s way. His calling is your calling, whether or not you understand it, whether or not you wish you have been given another. It does make a difference whether and how you serve God. Not everyone will drop dead on the spot like Nadab and Abihu, but everyone will answer for what he does in disobedience to the Lord.

Suppose you were born in one of those lesser tribes of Israel, one of those like Dan or Asher. No service in the sanctuary for you. Last in line when Israel was on the march. Couldn’t be a priest; couldn’t be a king. What could you do? Well, you could serve the Lord where he put you and do his will from the heart. That is all anyone can do, that is the only service any Christian can offer to the Lord.

Your culture will tell you that you ought to be able to do whatever you want and that the Lord would certainly reward you for your gumption in refusing to bow to foolish conventions, however biblical. But the Bible tells you to offer what you have been given to a God of such terrible majesty that it is insanity to disobey him or to rebel against his will and to offer your life, the life God has given you, to him in the certainty that loving you as he does, he will consider your gift a great thing and honor you for it.

Francis Schaeffer years ago published a volume of sermons with the title No Little People. That’s right; there are no little people in the kingdom of God. Or, better, there are lots of little people in the kingdom of God who become great simply because of their association with the great God and King. There are a lot of Levites in the contemporary church, of course, ministers who serve in the sanctuary. Some are more gifted than others, some much more. Some are famous and some are unknown. Some have large congregations and some very small. I’ll never forget the first time I read of a Mr. Castlelaw of Stewarton, a 17th century Scottish minister of very modest gifts and a small parish. He was, I supposed we might say, a Merarite of his day, just responsible for the poles and the crossbars. But he was God’s man. He loved the work God had given him to do even though he knew he wasn’t as good at it as many others. So, for the blessing of his people he encouraged them to go hear other better preachers whose parishes were not so far away and he invited better preachers than himself to preach in his own church and would accompany them on foot to Stewarton and back again to their home just to thank them for their preaching to his people. You would have to be a preacher to know how remarkable that man was and how great his reward must be in heaven. A man who embraced with a whole heart the calling the Lord had given him.

It is striking to me – I wonder if it is striking to you – that we read about all of these Levites who have pretty pedestrian jobs. Only a third of them and, probably only a few of that third, actually got very near the really sacred stuff of the sanctuary. The rest moved the poles and the curtains and the furniture. Surely some of them thought to themselves: “I’ve been set apart to be a furniture mover? Where is the glory in that? Where is the fulfillment in that? I’d rather be a soldier.”

But it isn’t up to you to determine your calling. God orders that for his people. He has decided your family, your background, your education, your mental and spiritual and physical gifts. He has determined what you look like, how tall you are. He has also ordered the life experiences, both good and bad, that have so profoundly shaped you and made you what you are today. He determined where you would live and in what time and under what circumstances. Not that much is really left to you to decide. What is more, God has laid down the rules by which he intends for you to serve him. But you ask: “Will he give me something important to do? Will my life be useful to him? Can I find real satisfaction in his calling if it isn’t what I had imagined for myself?

Let me tell you a story about a man a few of you may remember, Glenn Fearnow. He was a missionary in the middle east when I was growing up, for sometime a colleague of the LaVerne Donaldsons, relatives of Miriam Shelden and Debbie Mellot. Glenn finished high school not knowing what he wanted to do and so he went to work in the oil fields of the southwestern U.S. Two years later he answered an ad to study as a male nurse. While studying in Philadelphia, a Presbyterian elder witnessed to him and he came to Christ. He went to seminary still unsure of what he wanted to do.

In chapel at seminary one day a lady missionary from the middle east was speaking of the need for someone to replace her, but she said it seemed impossible that such a person could be found. He needed to have some knowledge of the oil business; he needed to be a qualified nurse, and he needed to be theologically trained. All eyes in the chapel turned to Glenn Fearnow. And he spent the rest of his life doing what God called him to do. Not too promising a beginning but the Lord knew what he was doing and how to use a life that was committed to him.

My simple point is that the Lord knows you, knows your life, knows what he has given to you in gifts and opportunities. No one cares more than he that you live a good and fruitful life as his disciple and servant, that you make the most of your calling in this world. If you are a Merarite or a Kohathite it matters not. That is the Lord’s doing. If you camp east, south, west, or north of the sanctuary, what is that? God has determined your place. You concentrate on doing what he has commanded you, trusting his presence, his love, his power, and his absolute authority over everything and everyone in this world. Do all that you can and see what the Lord will do with that!