Numbers 8:1-26

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Remember, we are now in a section devoted to matters having to do with the setting up the sanctuary and the beginning of liturgical operations there. These chapters follow on the account given in Exodus 40 and resemble that account in some important ways. For example, four times in chapter 8 emphasis falls on the fact that the instructions the Lord gave were followed to the letter. Decided emphasis falls on the same strict obedience to the Lord’s instructions in Exodus 39 and 40.

Text Comment

v. 1
Only the priests could operate in the Holy Place so Moses receives instructions for Aaron regarding the menorah, the seven-branched lampstand. In form it was a solid gold flowering tree and seems to have symbolized the life-giving power and presence of God. [Wenham, 94] Interestingly, by comparing the description of the menorah given in Exodus with other ancient Near Eastern lampstands it has been possible to demonstrate its antiquity. It is most like other ANE lampstands dating from the 15th to 13th centuries B.C, another piece of evidence confirming the OT’s dating of this history. Once again, Hebrew worship employed many of the forms of ANE worship but gave them new meaning and a new theological context.

In Exodus (25:37) we read that the lampstand should light the space in front of it but here we get further detail regarding the direction in which the lamps should point. The lamps themselves were detachable pieces that were cleaned in the morning and lit at night. The lampstand stood against the south wall of the Holy Place. Remember, the door of the sanctuary faced east and the Most Holy Place was at the west end of the sanctuary. Here we read that these lamps are to be pointed so that they cast their light forward, illuminating the table of the bread of presence – twelve loaves of bread representing the twelve tribes of Israel and their offerings – which stood against the north wall. Light and fire represented the life-giving presence of God, so the arrangement visually represented God’s presence with his people. It suggests in a physical arrangement what we are told in Hebrews, that Christ is forever in the sanctuary of heaven making intercession for his people.

The purification of the Levites required nothing so elaborate as that required for the priests; it is closer to what was required of any Israelite who found himself ceremonially unclean.

This ritual of sprinkling the water of cleansing may be the ritual described in chapter 19 – in which case the cleansing of this water would have been for defilement resulting from contact with the dead – or the water may simply have been taken from one of the lavers in the courtyard of the sanctuary and been for purification generally. In the former case the sprinkling was not reserved to priests, as we read in 19:18, so Moses may well have done the sprinkling himself. [Milgrom, 61]

The “you take” means, “take from them…” As we read in Lev. 4:4 the worshipper had to bring his own offering for the sin offering. If the bathing cleanses the man from minor impurity, the sin offering cleanses him from more serious violations of God’s holiness.

That is, the Levites represent the entire nation, a point to be made more explicitly shortly. Actually, as we already read in 3:11-12, the Levites were a substitute for the firstborn son of each Israelite family who were themselves a representative sampling of the people. Remember what we read there:

“The Lord also said to Moses, I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether man or animal. They are to be mine. I am the Lord.”

So there are layers of representation here. No doubt the rite of laying hands on the Levites was itself performed by representatives, the elders of the people. As the Levites replaced all Israel as temple guards, so here in all their work at the sanctuary and in transporting it from place to place they are regarded as the agents of the people, the people doing their work through them.

The Levites are being offered to the Lord as a sacrifice for the entire people. Indeed, later in v. 19, we will read that the Levites make atonement for the entire people. They substitute for the first born sons who, as a result of the first Passover, had been given to the Lord and thus should be sacrificed. But there is no human sacrifice in Israel. So the Levites were given for them and, as we will read in vv. 12-13, animal sacrifices were made for the Levites. Substitution, for substitution, for substitution.

There is a difficulty here. In the census of chapter 4 (3, 23, 30) a count is made of Levites between the ages of 30 and 50. Here the starting age seems to be 25. In 1 Chronicles (1 Chron. 23:24-27) the starting age is twenty, the change explained as a result of the fact that the Levites had different responsibilities for moving the sanctuary once the temple was built. As the nation grew and spread out and as the temple responsibilities increased the demand for Levitical services were greater and both the age of admission to duty and the age of retirement were changed to lengthen a man’s period of service. As to the twenty-five here in Numbers 8, one suggestion is that the Levites entered into training at 25 but undertook their full responsibilities only at 30 years of age. It is perhaps impossible to say for sure how to resolve the discrepancy with the information we have. [Milgrom, 66; Wenham, 97-98]

We said at 3:7 that the word the NIV translates “duties” is thought by some scholars always to refer to “guard duties.” Older Levites could continue to serve in this way and perhaps others. [Milgrom, 66]

Now, how does one faithfully preach this text: the lampstand pointed toward the table that holds the loaves of bread and the dedication of the Levites for their service? What have you thought the sermon would be about as we read the chapter together? What did you think was the main point, the theme of a proper sermon on this text? Well one very fine commentary that I have been using in preparing these sermons on Numbers waxes eloquent on the light of the menorah, how light brings God’s blessing, how light divides and separates, how it transforms; how we are to be sources of reflected divine light to the world and, finally, how our light comes from the Lord Jesus Christ who is the light of the world. All of that is wonderfully true and all interestingly described in that commentary, but I’m not sure it has much to do with Numbers 8.

Another commentary made a great deal of the Levites as examples of dedicated service and likened them to a great many Christians through the ages who did yeoman work behind the scenes – not as great preachers or gifted leaders – but whose supportive role made the influential ministry of others possible and whose guard duty at the sanctuary was akin to those who serve society as moral watchdogs today. Again, all important points to draw whether or not they can be fairly said to be the burden of Numbers 8.

Well, I could certainly ring the changes on the presence of the Lord with his people and the way in which that presence is mediated through worship. That is certainly clearly the point of the opening verses of the chapter. But I have chosen rather to consider what seems to be the central point of the section dealing with the purification and the offering of the Levites, viz. the matter of making atonement.

Theology is to a significant degree the study of words. There are certain words in the Bible that carry the freight. Define those words clearly and accurately and you have gone a long way toward understanding a biblical doctrine or teaching. Define “justification” properly, or “election,” or “church,” or “hell” and you will understand a great deal of what the Bible is most concerned for you to understand. We have another such word before us this evening. It is the word atonement and it occurs three times in the chapter: in verses 12, 19, and 21. In this case it is the Hebrew verb כפר, kippēr. There are a few other terms in the Hebrew Bible and several in the Greek New Testament that also serve to define for us the idea of atonement but this is one of the most important of them all.

One standard Hebrew lexicon [“lexicon” is a fancy name for the dictionary of an ancient language] defines כפר, kippēr in this way: “to make propitiation,” “to cover over,” “to atone for sin.” [BDB] The other standard Hebrew lexicon [KB] offers more than a simple definition. It explains:

“The aim of כפר … always is to avert evil, especially punishment. Human beings accomplish this aim by expedients (gift, offering, act of atonement). Where God is the subject of כפר expedients are lacking. God covers guilt out of free grace, but his acting thus is less the pardon of a father than the releasing by a judge.”

That isn’t an entirely acceptable explanation because when God pardons his people there is always a sacrifice, a sacrifice offered by his own appointment and according to laws he himself established. For example, in the Passover itself, the lamb was provided by the Lord’s direct command and only when the people did what God commanded them to do were they protected from the avenging angel who passed through Egypt that night killing the firstborn sons. So while it is true that “God covers guilt out of free grace,” it is not true that he does so without sacrifice. The dictionaries agree that the first idea of the verb is propitiation, that is, the turning away of wrath and punishment.

But there is also a noun related to this verb: the noun kopher. It looks like and sounds like a word that belongs to the same family: kippēr and kopher. That noun means “ransom” or “the price of a life.” [BDB] The verb “to atone,” as is demonstrated in a number of texts in the OT, means “to atone or to propitiate by the payment of a ransom.” Sometimes the verb and the noun appear together; more often you have one or the other. But the meaning of the noun kopher makes still clearer that the atonement, the propitiation, the turning away of God’s wrath is effected by the substitution of some payment in exchange for the sinner’s life.

For example, we read in the law of Moses that if a man owned a dangerous ox and he allowed it to run amok and it killed someone, the owner was liable to the death penalty. But the court could decide to save his life if he paid a ransom (Exod. 21:30). The ransom, or kopher, was a substitute for the death penalty that would otherwise have to be born by the guilty man. Only for premeditated murder was such a ransom or substitution for the penalty not allowed (Num. 35:31, 35). Or in Exod. 30:12-16 we read of every Israelite 20 years of age and older paying a ransom of half a shekel. It was, we read, a “ransom for his life.” And if paid it would prevent a plague befalling the people, as here in Numbers 8. Both the verb kippēr and the noun kopher appear in that text. The half-shekel is the kopher and by paying it atonement is made. Kippēr means to pay a kopher so as to avoid punishment. In a number of other instances kippēr means to deliver from penalty by the payment of a ransom. And it is this notion that is carried into its ritual use, its use in sacrifices as here in Numbers 8 where kippēr again means to pay a ransom so as to avoid punishment.

By the way, the English word “atonement” is not a precise translation for any biblical term. It is said to have been coined by Thomas More, the 16th century Catholic cleric who ran afoul of King Henry VIII and whose martyrdom is the subject of the excellent film of some years ago, A Man for All Seasons. Before More writers would speak of reconciliation with God in terms of “at onement” (two words: “at” and “onement”) but Thomas More apparently was the first to make a single noun out of the prepositional phrase. Atonement thus means the “at-one-ment,” that is, the state of being reconciled to God and at peace with him. It is a weaker term than the biblical terms it is now used to translate because the biblical terms for effecting of peace with God for the most part also suggest how that reconciliation takes place. “Atonement” by itself does not. I’m not sure frankly that it is as helpful a term because it needs definition and, in fact, is subject to quite a number of definitions depending on the biblical scholar or theologian defining it. “Ransom,” on the other hand, or “to pay a ransom” or “to propitiate by paying a ransom” these biblical terms are much more specific. They explain how propitiation or reconciliation is achieved.

I could take more time to demonstrate the meaning of כפר, kippēr from a host of OT texts, but I don’t suspect I need to convince you of this. Its meaning is, in any case, also demonstrated by the ritual of the laying on of hands. When a worshipper brought his animal to the sanctuary he laid his hands upon it before it was killed. While he was doing so, other texts indicate, he was praying, no doubt confessing his sins. For example, when on the Day of Atonement the high priest placed his hands on the scapegoat he confessed over it “all the sins of the Israelites…and he must place them on the head of the goat and drive it into the wilderness.” In that ritual the goat, as it were, carried Israel’s sins away. There was a transfer of guilt from Israel to the goat and then the goat was sent away. That ritual, you remember from Lev. 16, used three animals, a sin offering killed for the priest’s own sins and those of his family, another animal which was killed in the ordinary way of making a sin offering for the people, and another that was driven out into the wilderness away from the people. The same laying on of the high priest’s hands took place also in the case of the first two animals that were killed as part of the Day of Atonement ritual. The ritual clearly expressed the transfer of sin and guilt. The animal then died in the sinner’s place. It is important to note that the ritual of the laying of the worshipper’s hands on the head of the animal occurs only in blood sacrifice. It is not used in the offerings of grain, for example, because in those sacrifices there is no idea of substitution, of the sacrifice being offered in the worshipper’s place. In the grain offerings the worshipper is simply making a gift to God. In the animal sacrifices there is a substitution taking place; one is dying in another’s place.

The use of this word כפר, kippēr in the OT rituals indicates that the understanding of the way of atonement, or reconciliation with God, or peace with God in the ancient church was understood to be by propitiation, the turning away of God’s holy anger and punishment by means of the payment of a ransom, in this case, the death of a substitute, a lamb or goat or bull. Or, to put it in theological terms, what we have underlying the OT ritual of blood sacrifice is the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. A sinner who is guilty before God is put right with God by the punishment of his sins, but punishment inflicted upon a substitute who dies in the worshipper’s place. This is also called vicarious atonement, because the propitiation is accomplished not by the worshipper himself but by a substitute. Vicarious refers to something done or suffered by one person in the place of another and for the benefit of another. And this system, of course, was provided Israel by God himself who promised to bless their use of it, to forgive their sins as they worshipped this way, and, much more, to send in due time the more perfect and valuable sacrifice of which the sacrificial animals were enacted prophesies.

Any Christian immediately understands the centrality of this concept to the entire Christian faith. Jesus Christ is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He died for us, “the just for the unjust, to bring us to God.” “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or spot.” “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” And on and on. Times without number we are taught that we are saved – which is to say, our sins are forgiven and we obtain the favor of God and peace with him – because Christ died for us, on our behalf, in our place.

All of what Jesus would eventually accomplish for his people is here in anticipation in the rituals of Numbers 8. The principle of representation or substitution is present in several layers. The firstborn sons of the first Passover night were taken by the Lord for himself. He had bought the people by sparing their lives from slavery and death but took only the firstborn in substitution for the whole people. The Levites, who you remember distinguished themselves with their zeal for the Lord in the affair of the golden calf, were taken in substitution for the firstborn. That it should be clear that the Levites represented the whole people and worked at the sanctuary on behalf of the entire people of Israel, the ritual of the people laying their hands on the Levites was conducted. No one yet has died. But then the Levites – now representing all Israel – must lay their hands on the bulls which are then killed to make atonement for the Levites who are representing the entire people.

And what is the result of that substitutionary death, the death of the bulls in the place of the Levites? We read in v. 19 that no plague will strike the Israelites when they go near the sanctuary. Approaching the holy God is always dangerous for sinful people. That point is made in a thousand ways in the Bible. Men are God’s enemies Paul writes because they sin, they continually sin, and they love to sin. They hate God, Paul says, because he demands that they stop sinning and submit to his holy will. That sin provokes a response in God: both personal anger or wrath and a determination to punish. We have precisely the same responses when we are at our very best as human beings and are confronted with manifest and egregious injustice. We too think that evil should be punished. All men do. They can’t help it. One theologian defines the wrath of God this way:

“[It is] an energy of the divine nature called forth by the presence of daring or presumptuous transgression, and expressing the reaction of the divine holiness against it in the punishment or destruction of the transgressor. It is the ‘zeal’ of God for the maintenance of his holiness and honor, and of the ends of his righteousness and love, when these are threatened by ingratitude, rebellion, and willful disobedience…of the creature.” [James Orr in Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, I, 77-78 cited in Packer, God’s Words, 123-124]

But that wrath, that holy zeal for justice can be satisfied for the sins of God’s people through a vicarious sacrifice made on their behalf. You do not have to read very far in the Bible to find blood sacrifice, that is, sacrificial death everywhere. This has always offended people and does today. In our own time there are so-called evangelicals urging us to give up the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, that is, that we obtain peace with God by Christ suffering our punishment in our stead. They argue that God is big enough simply to forgive sins; he doesn’t need his pound of flesh. The very idea that God should have to have his anger assuaged by watching someone die seems grotesque to them.

I remember a walk I had with a family friend some years ago in our Colorado mountain valley. She wanted to talk about something that was troubling her and it was just this: all of this killing of animals in the Bible, all of this bloody worship. It bothered her. It didn’t seem loving and pure and good to her. It was troubling to think of all of those animals being killed. I pointed out to her that that system of blood sacrifice, of the death of animals in substitution for human beings provided the presupposition for the greatest thing that ever happened in the world. It made it all clear as to what it meant when it finally came to pass. We all know what Jesus did for us precisely because he is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The categories, the terminology, the theological idea, it is all made vivid and powerful to us first in the OT sacrificial rituals. Without them it would have been very hard to know precisely what Jesus was doing when he died on the cross; with them, it is so clear that he who runs may read. She had been troubled by the thought that God should have to be moved to forgive by watching someone or something die.

And such an idea is grotesque. But then that is not the Bible’s idea. God’s anger is not a fit of temper, some unworthy passion as so much of our anger is; God’s wrath is his holiness and justice being expressed toward human sin. And as cannot be stressed enough, Christ is not a third-party. This mistake underlies almost all wrong thinking about the atonement or Christ’s sacrificial death. There is alienation on account of man’s sin between God and man. There must be because God is holy and will not clear the guilty. We don’t expect any judge to clear the guilty and we certainly, therefore, shouldn’t expect the Supreme Judge to do so. Sin must be dealt with in keeping with justice. We recognize that principle; it is fruitless to protest it. But men and women cannot deal with their sin or the guilt before God it has produced because they are sinners and cannot stop being sinners. One does not solve his problem in a courtroom by committing more crimes before the judge! If there is to be reconciliation God must act and he has. As Paul puts it, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” [2 Cor. 5:19] The sacrificial death is God’s death. That is what makes the incarnation so central to the Bible’s entire doctrine of salvation. It is God who comes to suffer and die. He must do so as a man and so he becomes a man. But it is God himself who came and who gave himself up to death. The death is not suffered by a third party; it is suffered by the offended God himself whose own justice demands the punishment. He is meeting the demands of his own justice himself!

The substitute is God himself, God the Son; the substitutionary death is God’s gift to his people. His anger is not assuaged by watching someone else die; his love for his people brought him to offer himself up to death for them and their forgiveness. That is why from the very beginning it was an animal that died for man. To be sure, it was an expensive animal. “Unblemished rams and bulls were even more expensive then than they are today.” [Wenhem, Leviticus NICOT, 61] But it was an animal and pious Israelites were as clear then as we should be now that the blood of bull and goats cannot take away sin. Those sacrifices were the enactment of another substitution, the anticipation of another propitiation. When John the Baptist identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world he understood and every faithful Israelite understood what he was saying. He was the lamb, not a lamb; the lamb toward which all the lambs and goats and bulls of Israel’s sacrifices had all along been pointing. Isaac Watts gave expression to this in words any Christian immediately understands.

Not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain,
Could give the guilty conscience peace, or wash away the stain.

But Christ, the heavenly lamb, takes all our sins away,
A sacrifice of nobler name and richer blood than they.

My faith would lay her hand on that dear head of thine,
While like a penitent I stand, and there confess my sin.

My soul looks back to see the burdens thou didst bear,
When hanging on the cursed tree, and knows her guilt was there.

We have no difficulty understanding the magnificent love that would lead one person to give his or her life for another. The ultimate sacrifice we are very likely to call it. John Bunyan, in virtually the only reference he makes in all of his writings to his own experience as a soldier in the English Civil War, tells us that he was assigned to a unit ordered to besiege a city. Just as they were about to leave to take up that assignment, another soldier volunteered to go in his place. Bunyan doesn’t say why. In any case this soldier, while standing sentinel, was shot in the head and killed. He died in Bunyan’s place. [John Brown, John Bunyan, 51]

But, of course, no one intended that outcome. The other fellow did not give his life for Bunyan’s. He didn’t die so that Bunyan might live. But the substitution, the tremendous power of the idea left its mark. The one thing Bunyan records from his time as a soldier in the war is that someone else died in his place!

But it wasn’t in our case simply another fellow. It was God the Son. It wasn’t an accident; he came precisely for the purpose of laying down his life in our place. We did not deserve such love and, in fact, were not in any way knowing parties to the transaction. It took place, Paul says, while we were God’s enemies. It was done for us long before we knew how desperately we were in danger before the judgment of God. And it wasn’t simply a death; it was the worst and greatest death imaginable because it was the death of the Prince of Life. Atonement was made, reconciliation with God was achieved, and God’s holy wrath was turned aside because a ransom was paid. That ransom was paid for us by another. It was this that God’s love for us did and achieved. And that is so much more than people think of when they use the word love, even with respect to God and salvation. This love was what Dostoyevsky called a “harsh and dreadful love.”

It is not a mere feeling of benevolence toward you, a fond hope for your welfare and happiness. This kind of love is the sort of love that called forth the universe and this world; it is far more powerful than the fiercest love of a parent for a child or the jealous love of a man and woman. That love that led to that death is what brought and brings today our salvation. That mighty love that led God to offer himself for us in our place as the victim of his own holy wrath, that is kippēr!

And that is the Bible and that the Christian faith in a nutshell. James Denny sums all of this up – all that is conveyed by this most important Hebrew word, kippēr –

“If a man with the sense of his sin on him sees what Christ on his cross means, there is only one thing for him to do – to abandon himself to the sin-bearing love which appeals to him in Christ, and to do so unreservedly, unconditionally, and forever. That is what the New Testament means by faith.” [The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation, 287, 289; in Packer, 126]