Numbers 7:1-89

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Tonight we have before us the longest chapter in the Bible save one, Psalm 119. As I mentioned in announcing the evening sermon in the bulletin this morning, it has been thought by many also to be one of if not the most boring chapter in the Bible. It is a record of gifts given upon the completion of the tabernacle and its dedication for use at the sanctuary of Yahweh. First the twelve tribes together contribute six carts and twelve oxen, two for each cart, which would be employed in the transportation of the sanctuary from place to place. Then the chiefs of each of the twelve tribes, on twelve successive days, brought the same gifts to the sanctuary: one silver bowl and one silver basin, each filled with flour and oil for cereal offerings; one gold spoon or ladle filled with incense; and the same number and the same kind of sacrificial animals.

Text Comment

This opening statement carries us back to Exodus 40, the last chapter of Exodus, which narrates the setting up of the tabernacle. Verse one with the similar statement in 9:15 form an inclusio. The material in between the two statements concerns what was done when the sanctuary was set up. All of this fills in material that might have come immediately after Exodus 40 but was placed here because of the intervening material concerning the sacrifices and feasts, the ordination of the priests, and so on.

I won’t take the time to review it all, but the time references given in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers indicate that the ordination of the priests and the commencement of sacrifices in the sanctuary were occurring at the same time during which the offerings of the twelve tribes were being delivered to the sanctuary. And, interestingly, this occurred before the census reported in chapter 1. The arrangement of the material in Numbers is not strictly chronological, but thematic. [Cole, 135] These were momentous days and represented a new beginning in the life of Israel. A people in covenant with Yahweh were now ready to worship him in accordance with his will and enjoy the favor of his presence.

In other words, these are the same men, who were listed in 1:5-16, the men the Lord assigned to oversee a census of each tribe.

“…before the tabernacle” because they were not allowed to enter the sacred area.

The Merarites are given four carts because they were assigned to carry the bulkier, heavier parts of the sanctuary (4:29-33). The Gershonites carried less and so needed fewer carts (4:21-28). The Kohathite family of the Levites was assigned the most sacred objects: the ark of the covenant, the table on which the bread was put, the lampstand, and so on and all of this was to be carried on poles which passed through hoops on corners of the items and then rested on their shoulders; so no carts were assigned to them.

The twelve days, of course, would have included a Sabbath day, but it was no violation of the Sabbath to bring such gifts however great a distance was required. The rabbis would later wonder how come the same sort of work was done on the Sabbath day that was done on other days but then in many ways they didn’t understand the Sabbath commandment.

Nashon is the only one of the twelve men who is not specifically identified in his introduction as a chieftain or leader of his tribe. The canny rabbis thought they knew why. “…if he should ever felt tempted to lord it over the other chieftains by saying ‘I am your king, since I was the first to present the offering,’ they could retort by saying, ‘You are no more than a commoner, for every one of the others is called a chieftain while you are not described as a chieftain.’” [Milgrom, 54] I doubt that is the reason, but it makes a good story!

The order of the tribes that will give their offerings is the same as in 2:2-31 when the arrangement of the tribes around the sanctuary is given.

Each silver plate weighed about 3 lbs; each bowl about 2 lbs, and each gold spoon or ladle about 4 oz. There is a debate among scholars as to whether the word should be translated spoon or dish. The Hebrew word literally means hand or “palm.” And the smaller weight of this last item has convinced some that a spoon or ladle is meant.

Though some have argued that these gifts were given spontaneously without being commanded (e.g. Cole), it does seem in fact that the Lord had assigned them and that the tribes brought what they were told to bring; that accounts for the distribution of the carts and oxen for example (Ashley).

Each class of sacrificial animals is represented and the numbers of them were contributed to the supply available for offering sacrifices in the sanctuary. Three of the four major sacrifices are mentioned; only the guilt offering is omitted. This appears to be because the guilt offering did not belong to the ordinary round of offerings but was reserved for especially egregious sins when they had been committed by individuals. [Wenham, 203]

Skip to verse 84. We now are given the grand total of each of the gifts given. It is typical to be given such summaries. For example, we were given the individual totals of the census by tribe in 1:20-43 and then a grand total in 1:43-47.

Before Moses had met with the Lord in a tent outside the camp, it was called the tent of meeting or tent of testimony. But now, with the tabernacle completed that tent was no longer necessary, Moses entered the Holy Place, the outer room of the sanctuary, not the Most Holy Place where the ark was located, which only the high priest could enter and that only once each year on the Day of Atonement. But even to enter that room involves a certain exception for ordinarily only priests worked there. But this fulfills the promise the Lord had made to Moses in Exodus 25:22: “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.” In other words, the Lord is now in this formal and complete way with his people and he stands ready to direct them as they make their way to the Promised Land.

The question every modern reader of Numbers 7 has is why the author chose to repeat the list of gifts twelve times. Why couldn’t he have simply said, each tribal chief brought the following gifts and listed them as he did in vv. 13-17. Then, if he had wanted to, he could have provided a summary of the total as he did in vv. 84-88. In that case the chapter would be twenty-three verses in length and not 89, a much easier bite to swallow when reading through the Bible in a year!

Well there is little doubt that it is emphasis he was after and that it is emphasis that is served by repetition. That was even more the case in an oral and aural society as Israel was in the 15th century B.C. The Israelites were not reading this; they were hearing it read. Modern readers love conciseness, especially in such a text as this, but ancient hearers were more willing to listen and more sensitive to the impact of repetition.

Let me give you an example. Turn to Zechariah 12:11-13. In a text designed to impress upon us the greatness of the mourning, the sorrow, the shame of the people of God when they realize how they have betrayed the Lord, when, as the text says, “they look on me, the one they have pierced” – a text the NT teaches us to refer to what we did to Jesus Christ by our sins, our sins that made it necessary for him to suffer and die – I say, in this text about the great mourning and sadness of the people of God, we read in the NIV:

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great… The land will mourn each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, and all the rest of the clans and their wives.”

That is how it reads in the NIV. Concise and straightforward. But if you read the same text in the ESV you realize that the NIV has left out a lot of words. The reflexive pronoun in fact occurs eleven times in the last two verses of chapter 12. The ESV translates each word and the result is:

“The land shall mourn each family by itself: the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Levi by itself and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shimeites by itself, and their wives by themselves; and all the families that are left, each by itself and their wives by themselves.”

The NIV, with its modern American translation, has, in other words, dulled the impressive emphasis on solitary and lonely repentance and mourning for sin. The NIV translation of that text reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon. As I remember, it depicts an office with an editor sitting across the desk from an author and offering his comments. The caption reads, “Let’s see Mr. Dickens if we can’t tighten up that opening sentence. How about: ‘It was the best and worst of times.’”

Even we moderns know the importance of repetition as a vehicle of emphasis. Think of the Christmas carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas. The partridge in the pear tree gets mentioned, you guessed it, twelve times. [Duguid, 97] Or think of the praise choruses that are now so widely sung in Christian worship services. They are regularly sung twice through or even more often because their brevity makes a single singing seem pointless or trivial. It needs to be repeated to give it some weight.

Well here the weight falls on the gifts given and the fact that they were given by every tribe. In fact, put yourself in the place of an Israelite listening to this passage being read in worship. You happen to belong to the tribe of Naphtali or Zebulon. You would listen intently for the name of your tribe and so would the members of every tribe. And you would listen carefully to be sure that your tribe contributed everything the other tribes did.

In this particular case the gifts given were given in support of what nowadays we would call the mission of the church. All the gifts were given to the Levites to enable them to perform their responsibility – the ox-carts, the animals for sacrifice, and the utensils filled with meal and oil – gifts for grain and incense offerings – all fall into the category of gifts for the work of the church.

In that sense all of the gifts represent the people’s concern that, now that the tabernacle has been built and set up, it can finally be used for its appointed purpose as the place of divine worship and of seeking and finding the presence of God. Think of the various sacrifices for which animals were brought. They represented cleansing from sin, the dedication of the people to God, and the enjoyment of fellowship with him. That, by the way, is a good summary of what our worship services are for. In any case, what all of this giving meant is that the tabernacle could finally begin to function precisely as it was designed to function and the people could begin to receive the blessing and benefit of that worship. The final verse of the chapter – seems to emphasize that. Yahweh was there and was communicating with his prophet and through him to his people just as he had promised would be the case.

And as the exact repetition suggests, as well the absence of the guilt offering – a more personal and individual form of sacrifice as the guilt offering was – this worship was to be offered by and for the people together. Everything that was contributed to the tabernacle, to the sanctuary, in the gifts given by these twelve tribes at this particular time was for the corporate worship of the church.

I have been asked many times through the years and often, frankly, with somewhat of an aggrieved tone of voice why a person needs to go to church. I was told by a man very sick in the hospital not long ago that though he was a Christian he hadn’t gone to church for years. But the Bible doesn’t permit us to think that as possible or, at least, very likely. Communion with God, cleansing from sin, peace with God, commitment to God, hearing God’s voice, enjoying fellowship with him: all of that can certainly be experienced by individuals. The Bible leaves us in no doubt about that. But these blessings are chiefly communicated to individuals when the church is together in worship. And whether such blessing is given to individuals who do not seek the Lord with his people in his house is very much an open question. The individual is present here in chapter 7 only as part of his tribe and only as part of the people of God at worship together. The benediction that we considered last time, described at the end of chapter 6, also is pronounced upon God’s people when they are together in the sanctuary; we have no evidence of its use for individuals, though I would not say that is inappropriate in certain situations.

If there is a subtitle that would apply to Numbers 7 both in its historical context in Numbers and with respect to the timeless principle that is enunciated here it should read: “We are all in this together and need to be.” The gifts that were given in this way for the use of the sanctuary were precisely not gifts that were used by an individual for his own worship of God. They were used in the sanctuary for the worship of the entire people. These were gifts, in other words, that were given both to God and to others. They were not first an investment in one’s own spiritual welfare.

Many of the gifts that we give today to the church are of precisely the same kind. They fund the worship and ministry of the church. It is ironic, in fact, that the IRS now requires the receipt that the church provides those who have given money to it during the previous year to say that the donor did not receive any goods or services in exchange for their donation. No services? We understand what the IRS means but what a ridiculous thing to say! No services were received? Those donations underwrote every one of the services of the church, services through which Christians receive those things that the soul of human being most longs for whether it understands those things may be received in Christian worship or not. Now, in one sense you certainly did not give your gifts to the House of God in order to receive those services – as if you thought you could buy the presence of God for yourself; neither did these chieftains who brought the gifts of their tribes. But you surely knew as they did that in giving to the church the gift would be used to provide for yourself and for others worship services in which you would participate with many others and other forms of ministry that the church provides and offers to the world. You do not toss your money into the river as Charles Simeon did as a demonstration of your devotion to the Lord; you invest it in the life and work of the church. [In case you have not heard that story, Simeon was determined to get up earlier in the morning and devote himself at greater length to prayer and the study of the Bible. But it was cold in those stone rooms of his. At first he promised the Lord that he would give half a crown to his cleaning lady if he did not get up at the appointed hour. And Simeon was a man who knew the value of money. He once paid an accountant a lot of money to find an error of one penny in his own private bank book. The problem with that first promise was that on cold mornings he found himself telling himself that the poor woman could use the money and he would excuse his sleeping in by thinking of the blessing it would be to her. So finally he told the Lord that if he did not get up on time he would throw a gold crown into the River Cam. Somewhere in the mud at the bottom of the river lies one gold crown thrown there by the great preacher and pastor. But the entire Christian church has been blessed in the centuries that have passed because Charles Simeon so regularly got up early in the morning.]

Well the Israelites brought their gold to the house of God, they didn’t throw it away. They put it to the very best possible use, to underwrite the worship of the church through which the presence of the Lord is mediated to his people and then to the world. In the same way, you are not throwing your money away for such a purpose; you are giving it to the Lord and the work of his church. You expect blessing in return, not because you have earned it or purchased it but because you know how much blessing there is in the worship of God for you and for all who come to the Lord’s house gladly and expectantly.

Another way of putting this point is to say that this giving of the twelve tribes to the worship of the tabernacle was in response to God’s grace not a method of acquiring or obtaining his favor. There are a number of clues in the context that we should take this lesson away from the chapter. First, the gifts of chapter 7 are given after the account of the Lord’s blessing the people at the end of chapter 6. What is more, all of this, of course, happens in the wilderness after the people’s rescue from slavery in Egypt. And, of course, the people of Israel had been slaves until the day they were delivered from their bondage in Egypt. They didn’t have gold to hammer into utensils. They got all of that from the Egyptians themselves after the 10th plague. Indeed, most of the expensive material that went into the construction of the tabernacle itself must have come from their former masters. And the people had given that willingly as well. In Exodus 35 a great point is made of how willingly and generously the people gave their gifts to supply what was needed for the construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings: they brought the gold and other precious metals, the gemstones, the yarn, the linen, the skins, the wood, and the olive oil and spices for use in the lamps and incense burners. Whatever the sanctuary required was supplied by the people and cheerfully so. They knew where all of this had come from: the Lord had given it to them out of the clear blue. They were giving to the Lord nothing but a portion of what he had given to them. In the words of William Walsham How’s famous hymn:

We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be,
All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.

It is certainly worth our remembering that all of this reappears in a New Testament form. We offer sacrifices to God in our worship together – different kinds of sacrifices but sacrifices nonetheless, worship is called the giving of sacrifices in the NT; we eat a fellowship meal in the presence of the Lord – remember it is the fellowship offering or peace offering that we said was the true OT counterpart and anticipation of the Lord’s Supper – we bring our gifts to support the worship and work of the Lord’s house because we are grateful to him for what he has done for us.

And we do this for the same reason the twelve tribes did what they did in Numbers 7. We know how much we have been blessed and we know how precious is the presence of the Lord that is mediated to us in the church’s worship and introduced to others in the church’s ministry. We give what are in fact little gifts because we have received stupendous gifts. We give a little something of ourselves to God because he has given his Son for us. We give to the church because it is his church and the body of Christ his son.

How many times in Holy Scripture this principle of giving cheerfully and generously to God gifts to his house and his work is set before us. Abraham’s tithe, the Israelites generous donations first to the tabernacle and later for the building of the temple, Zacchaeus’ half of all his possessions to the poor (he no doubt gave the money to the church to be distributed to the poor) ( (and that on top of the four times the amount he had unfairly extracted from people as a tax collector), the entire bottle of perfume Mary poured over the Lord, the widow’s mite which was all she had, the generous donations of the churches of the Apostle Paul to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. The extravagance in all of this is one of the most powerful and practical embodiments of the principle of a gospel-ordered and gospel-driven life: we love him because he first loved us. Love is demonstrated in your life and mine by the giving of gifts. It always has been and always shall be.

I remember reading of a traveler in Africa years ago who wrote home of seeing a nun dressing the wounds of a leper. The wounds were revolting, disgusting. As he watched her work, he said to her, “I wouldn’t do that for ten thousand dollars.” She looked up at him and replied, “I wouldn’t either.” Love and gratitude give where the hope of reward will not.

There is something very beautiful about gratitude and about its expression and all of us instinctively recognize this. Our hearts go out to people in a very powerful way when they show gratitude to us for something we have done. I read not long ago an interesting piece of the biography of Ulysses S. Grant. You may remember that in the years before the Civil War Grant had left the army. He was never very good with money and once found himself in New York penniless, without even the funds he needed to get home to Ohio. In his embarrassment and desperation he approached a West Point classmate and comrade in the Mexican War, Simon Buckner and Buckner generously gave him the money Grant needed for the trip. Eight years later Grant won his first great victory as a general of the Union Army: the capture of Fort Donelson on the Tennessee River. The confederate fort was surrendered by its commander, General Simon Buckner. In a speech delivered years later at a birthday dinner for then President Grant, Buckner related what had happened there at Fort Donelson. “I met him on a boat [tied to the river bank],” Buckner said, “and after the formal surrender he followed me when I went to the quarters to which I had been assigned. He left his own officers behind and followed me until it was just the two of us alone in the hallway and there he handed me some money.” No words of explanation; just a gift given when it was most needed and most appropriate as a response of love for a gift given when it was desperately needed. A kindness was being repaid from the heart. Generosity was being returned.

Well, the Lord has given infinitely more than we could ever give to him but the impulse is the same. Kindness, goodness, grace must be repaid even when it cannot be repaid. So says the author of Psalm 116:

“How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of his people.”

That is the Christian spirit, both toward giving and toward the house of God, both of which are brought beautifully and powerfully together with emphasis in Numbers 7. In one of his characteristically solemn sermons, Robert McCheyne addressed those who loved their money and hated to part with it.

“I fear there are many hearing me who now know well that they are not Christians because they do not love to give. To give largely and liberally, not grudging at all, requires a new heart; an old heart would rather part with its life blood than its money. Oh my friends! You better enjoy your money; make the most of it; give none of it away; enjoy it quickly; for I can tell you, you will be beggars throughout eternity.”

No Christian ever regrets giving to the Lord and to the Lord’s house and work. No Christian fails to give rightly, wisely and well who gives with a view to the whole church of God. No Christian who gives cheerfully fails to obtain the presence of the Lord in his life. And with that presence, every wonderful thing. I remember the riddle put forward by Old Mr. Honest at the house of Gaius in Pilgrim’s Progress Part II:

“A man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he cast away, the more he had.”

And think of this. Roll it over in your mind. Meditate upon it and consider what it must mean. Paul says it when talking about gifts to the church, the ministry of the church and the body of Christ.

“God loves a cheerful giver.”