Numbers 18:1-32

Remember, we are in a sub-section of the wilderness narrative dealing with the priesthood, its privileges and responsibilities. We have read of the rebellion of Korah and his compatriots against the authority of Moses and especially of Aaron. We had the remarkable demonstration of God’s choice of Aaron as the chief priest with the budding of his staff. Now we have a chapter of priestly regulations placed here obviously by Moses because it fits with the narrative that has gone before it.

Text Comment

It seems an innocuous beginning but there is something noteworthy here. Only here and in Leviticus 10 are the Lord’s instructions given directly to Aaron. Everywhere else they are given to Moses for Aaron. This direct communication to his high priest serves to emphasize the instructions about to be given concerning priests and Levites.

The point is that only priests can be responsible for offenses committed by other priests; for example, if priests who are unclean serve at the sanctuary, or if a priest is drunk or improperly clothed or in violation of any of the regulations that have been set down in the law of God. [Milgrom, 146] Priests are the guardians of the priesthood. This has generally speaking been the law in our Presbyterian Church government: ministers are subject to the discipline of other ministers, and ministers only, though that principle has broken down somewhat in the modern era.

The Levites – that is, male descendants of the tribe of Levi who were not of the particular family of Aaron – were appointed assistants to the priests and to the sanctuary but no more. They could not enter the sanctuary proper any more than any other Israelite could; they could not officiate at the altar, offer sacrifices, or burn incense. The violation of these boundaries was punishable by death: the death both of the Levite violators and the priests who permitted the violation. One chief task of the Levites was to guard the sanctuary and to keep out those who would violate its holiness and so bring down upon Israel God’s wrath. Think of them as the “secret service” of the tabernacle. Theirs was dangerous work because it brought them so close to the sacred spaces that they ran the risk of violating God’s holiness. It was a greater temptation for them than it would be for an ordinary Israelite who never got that close to the sacred spaces. It was in other words a danger they risked on behalf of the rest of the people. Someone had to be near to God so that his presence could be mediated to the people; but that presence was dangerous for its holiness. [Duguid, 224]

The holiness of God being what it is, these regulations are concerned especially with the encroachment upon the sacred spaces by those who are not authorized to be there.

As return for their service at the altar and in the sanctuary the priests were to receive a portion of the sacrifices brought to the sanctuary and the first fruits of the harvest and the firstborn of the flocks and herds. They were to receive either the animals themselves or the redemption price fixed for them. This provision is in compensation for the fact that the tribe of Levi would not receive a portion of the Promised Land such as would be allotted to the other tribes. They would be given some villages in Canaan, but not any large tracts of land to settle.

There were, of course, many more Levites than priests. The priestly portion of the sacrifices and of the first fruits would not be sufficient to feed the entire tribe of Levi: men, women, and children. For them was appointed the tithe of all Israelite agricultural products.

In other words, if the Levites failed to preserve the holy places from encroachment by the unworthy and unauthorized they would pay the price as well as those who encroached. The penalty, we have already read, would be capital punishment.

The tithe of Israel was the Levite’s income and so they had to tithe it in the same way as the rest of Israel.

Israel’s tithe went to the Levites; the Levites’ tithe went to the priests. The priests apparently did not tithe.

Now, I suspect that your first impression reading this text was that this is another one of those boring parts of the Bible. Regulations regarding priests and Levites, how they were supported, their division of labor: what can this possibly have to do with me? What help am I going to find for myself here? What encouragement for my life of faith? What lifting up for me in my trials and troubles? Well, first of all, stop being so selfish and always thinking about yourself. Think of your pastors for a change! Here is a chapter about how ministers get paid and it shouldn’t be hard for you to realize that while it may seem boring to you this material is fascinating to Mr. DeMass, Mr. Krulish, and me. In fact, these are some of our favorite passages in the entire Bible.

But, actually, there is more here than might at first meet the eye! Remember this; always remember this when you are reading Holy Scripture and, in particular, those parts of the Old Testament that seem strange, alien and distant to you. The people who first read these passages, or heard them read, or lived under them, were people just like you. They lived lives that in almost every important respect were just like yours. They had the same problems; they struggled with the same temptations; they enjoyed the same things and they wept over the same things. As believers in the one true God they lived the same life that you and I as Christians live today and had the same difficulties living it that you and I do here in the early years of the 21st century.

There is a great deal of biblical evidence for this and the more we learn about the ancient world the more this simple fact is confirmed. People in those days lived lives very similar to the lives you and I live today. But it is especially the book of Proverbs that helps us to see this. Proverbs shows us what life was like back then. There were good marriages and bad marriages in Israel. There were folk who had so much money they never worried at all about finances. But most people didn’t and worried a lot about money and paying their bills. People in those days were distinguished by the same character traits that distinguish people today: some were lazy and some were hard working; some were cheerful and happy-go-lucky and others were melancholy; some were healthy and others were sick. In other words, those people, different as their outward circumstances were in many ways, less sophisticated as their technology certainly was, experienced all the typical problems of life, had the same joys and the same sorrows, faced the same challenges and the same spiritual temptations that we do today. It is the identity of our spiritual world with the biblical world that makes the Bible’s teaching so immediately accessible and relevant to an honest heart. It speaks to us about our lives!

So, in reading Numbers 18, we are to remember that God’s Word addressed those people in keeping with the spiritual world in which they lived, which happens to be the same spiritual world in which we live today. So the texts that we have read addresses the life of ordinary people like you and me. It addresses questions concerning worship, the organization of their church, and questions that concerned very directly their ordinary daily lives; those lives that are so much like yours and mine. In this particular case it concerned issues that are as directly relevant to our lives today as ever they were in the 15th century B.C.

Take, for example, the calling of the Levites. They played second fiddle to the priests. There is no getting around this. They could go only so far into the sanctuary courtyard; they could be involved in certain liturgical acts; but the sanctuary itself, the altar, these were off-limits. You have only to be a human being to know what that is like: looking over at what you cannot have and what you cannot do to where you cannot go and watch others who have a place and a position and a calling that you do not have. As the old adage has it: it takes more grace than I can tell to play the second fiddle well. And, for that matter, the rest of the people played second fiddle to the Levites. They couldn’t go into the sanctuary even as far as the Levites did. But then the Levites played second fiddle to the rest of the people in regard to their farms and their estates none of which the Levites had or could have.

I have been reading a book, Quitting Church by the religion editor of The Washington Times [Julia Duin] on what she finds to be the problems with the evangelical church in the United States these days. The subtitle of the book is: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About it. She has some good things to say, some trenchant observations; but in one chapter especially she pays far too much attention to the grievance that many have apparently communicated to her, including many women, that they don’t get to do enough in the church, that they aren’t given positions of power and authority, and that they aren’t allowed to be as significant as they think they ought to be. I will bypass the obvious retort that this is precisely the grievance that everyone has about virtually every institution they have anything to do with: adolescents make the same complaint about their families, students about their schools, workers about their companies, citizens about their government. And, predictably, these complaints are never made by those who occupy positions of power and influence in those institutions. Parents don’t ordinarily complain that they have too much authority. The CEO and the president hardly ever complain that they aren’t listened to, or don’t have the same opportunities, or aren’t given the same respect as others are given. There is something timeless about these complaints in other words. “The church doesn’t seem to be organized to give me the place I think Ideserve,” might have been a better subtitle for the book!

Well, what is new about that? There were first violins and second violins in the Israelite orchestra and it has been so ever since. And, what is worse, most of the people weren’t and aren’t even second violins! What was the Lord thinking?

Or consider the question of the tithe. This too is an issue as real and vital for Christians today as it was in the days of Aaron. Again and again the principle is laid down that those who have the office of the priesthood in the church should make their living from that office and that the church is obliged to provide it. Jesus remember, in sending his disciples out on a preaching tour, told them not to take provisions for their journey – not money, not extra clothing, not a second pair of sandals, or even a staff – they were to travel light. Why? Because, he said, “the worker is worth his keep.” That is, in doing the gospel’s work, in representing the kingdom of God in this official way, they will be in the Lord’s employ and he will meet their needs. And he will meet them through his people.

The Apostle Paul works this out in more detail, as you remember. He cites the provision of the law of Moses, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” (1 Cor. 9:9; 1 Tim. 5:18) and applies it to the church’s support of its ministry. In speaking of Christian ministers he says, “The worker deserves his wages.”

And it is Paul who applies the principle of the tithe – that is the principle of proportionate giving – to the life of the church in the new epoch. In respect to the giving of money to the church and its work (not simply the support of the ministry but all its work) he speaks of our giving “according to our means” which is the principle of the tithe (1 Cor. 8:11), of our sowing sparingly and reaping sparingly or sowing generously and reaping generously, and of the Lord loving a cheerful giver.

But let’s be honest. We Christians can sometimes think about our tithe, our tenth, or whatever we give to the church and its work, as if it were taxes and we all know how cheerfully we pay taxes! Why do we have to give so much? Cheerful givers? Not all the time by any means; perhaps rarely in many cases. How come those Levites get such a large chunk of my hard-earned wealth? The rest of the Old Testament tells us what we would suspect anyway simply from our knowledge of human nature: folk in the church in those ancient days as today often shaved their tithe, resented the obligation to give, and found ways to give less to the Levites and the priests than God had appointed as their due.

Why? Why do have so much difficulty keeping the rules? Why do we resent God’s commandments? Why do we chafe under our circumstances as God appointed them? Why are we always looking at somebody else and thinking how much we would like to have what he has or to do what she does or even to be what she is? Why do we always want things to be different than God made them to be? I think the answer to that question is very obvious: we have a reality problem. It makes all the difference in the world whether a person, even a believer, takes with utmost seriousness the view of reality that is taught us in Holy Scripture or takes it with only a certain, partial seriousness, an intellectual assent perhaps, but not a real reckoning on the part of the total person.

Take, for example, the striking fact that the death penalty, mentioned in three separate places in this chapter, was appointed for priests and Levites, and, for that matter, for ordinary worshippers, who violated the boundaries of the divine holiness. The death penalty. If a Levite touched the altar or stepped into the sanctuary out of natural curiosity, “I always wanted to know what was behind that curtain,” he was to be executed! And the priest that let him get away with it was to be executed as well. That is how serious the holiness of God is! That is how serious a matter it is for a sinner to come into the presence of God uninvited and unwelcomed. One reason the church has lost its power over the conscience of the culture is that it too has lost most of a true sense of the divine holiness. Are people being told today or shown today that they cannot approach the Almighty casually, “with a designer coffee in one hand and a donut in the other,” waving a cheery hello? [Duguid, 224-225]

“…when God summoned Adam and Eve into his presence after the fall, they didn’t come eagerly expecting to enjoy a timely message about how to make their marriage better, an inspiring song or two, and great refreshments. They came in fear and trembling, knowing that they had transgressed against the Lord’s power and majesty. They could not but come when God called them, but they came knowing they deserved…death. Until their desperate need for forgiveness was dealt with, nothing else mattered. This somber reality is part of the message that we have to communicate to our culture….until this is understood, the gospel itself will make no sense. We need to show people the gulf that exists between them as sinners and a holy God for their own sake, lest they be consumed by his wrath.” [225]

But we believers need to have that same message constantly brought home to our own hearts or the Christian life won’t make sense either. The Levite who put his foot wrong in the sanctuary of God was to be executed; a husband and father taken out and put to death! Why, for goodness sake? Because that is how holy God is and how fabulously complicated a thing it is and how great an accomplishment it must be for a sinner to be able to come into his presence. That is the reality! That is what actually the case is! That is the truth about us and about God! That is why Jesus Christ, his atonement and our faith in him, is so absolutely necessary. But that is also why a sense of this reality is so crucial to the living of the Christian life.

I have been reading recently a new and very fine biography of Francis Schaeffer. Many of you who are familiar with the Schaeffer story and the story of L’abri are aware that Dr. Schaeffer, early on in their sojourn in Switzerland, went through a crisis of confidence in his Christian faith. He had been raised in a church-going but not seriously evangelical home and had become a Christian in high school largely through his own reading of the Bible. By the providence of God he had then moved into separatist Presbyterian circles and had become a stalwart of those separatist principles. But now a missionary in Europe he found himself troubled by the extent of the gap he observed in his own life and in the lives of other Christians he knew between what the Christian life ought to be and what it was. Where were the power and the glory? Where were the joy and the super abounding love? Where was the impressive witness of the Christian life? Where were its authenticity and its integrity? He admitted that many of the Christians he knew and that he himself were committed to serving the Lord, but, as he put it in an article written for the fundamentalist paper The Sunday School Times, “it is obvious from our faces and our conversations that few [of us] enjoy [the Lord]” or revere him as we should. [Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life, 103] It was over this question and this very existential and personal concern that he paced back and forth in the attic of the chalet they were renting in an alpine village in Switzerland in 1951.

The question, as he came to understand it, was a question of reality. Was Holy Scripture true or not? Was the gospel real or not? Was the worldview of supernatural Christianity, in fact, as he had come to believe as a teenager, the way things actually are or not? If not, then no wonder people can’t seem to make it work. No wonder it doesn’t seem real even to believers. At some level they must know that it isn’t real or, at least, doubt its reality.

But if it is real, then there is no excuse for us not to live, to speak, to feel, and to behave in keeping with this reality. “Finally,” Schaeffer recalled, “the sun came out. I saw that my earlier decision to step from agnosticism to Bible-believing Christianity was right….” Out of that crisis and its aftermath came the notes that would eventually become his book True Spirituality the thesis of which is that given the fact that the Bible describes things as they actually are, our lives must be lived so as to reflect that reality. There must be for us an existential dimension to this knowledge of reality that we have been given. [104] Reflecting on this same point many years later, Schaeffer said this to an interviewer.

“Of course. There is no reason to believe in Christianity if it isn’t true. It is hard to put this into words, and yet I think it’s crucial. I think there are many Christians – I mean real Christians, real brothers and sisters in Christ, people I’m really fond of – who believe that certain things in the Christian faith are true, and yet, somehow or other, never relate this to truth. I don’t know if it comes across, what I’m trying to say, but I believe it’s truth – and not just religious truth, but the truth of what is. This gives you a different perspective….

I would say if Christianity is truth, it ought to touch on the whole of life. The modern drift in some evangelical circles toward being emotionally and experientially based is really very, very weak. The other side of the coin, though, is that Christianity must never be reduced merely to an intellectual system. It too has to touch the whole of life, which means the devotional and so on…. I think it fits into the concept of the fullness of truth. After all, if God is there, [if] it isn’t just an answer to an intellectual question, then he’s really there. We should love him, we’re called to adore him, to be in relationship to him, and, incidentally, to obey him…. If God is really there, he is to be worshipped, he is to be adored, but he’s also to be obeyed…. The concept of Christianity as being truth and touching the fullness of life ought to contain all these elements. But then we would all have to say that none of us does it very well. We sure ought to struggle for it.” [106]

Is all of that not right? Is that not the inexorable logic of our position? We say, all true Christian believers say that what is described in the Bible is what is real. What we have in God’s Word is the way things actually are. We get the facts and nothing but the facts. But, that being so, surely then our lives – aware of that reality as we are – ought to correspond to those facts and ought to be driven by those facts. The connection between us and reality should be obvious to us and to everyone else.

Now, with all of that in mind, let’s return to our chapter. Let us go back to consider again all of this ordinary, seemingly somewhat boring regulation – interrupted dramatically as it is by the proclamation of a death sentence for those priests and Levites who transgress the boundaries of their calling.

First there is the matter of the reservation to certain men – males, indeed, not females – of specific responsibilities in the sanctuary of God. We may wonder why? Some Levites certainly wondered why they were not permitted to do the work that priests were given to do. It occurred to them no doubt that they were just as able as the sons of Aaron and could have done the work as well if not better. I suspect there were priests who would have rather had the Levites job and Levites who wanted the priests’ job. There were Israelite laymen who wanted to be Levites or priests and there were priests and Levites who would have preferred to be Israelite laymen, farmers, and ranchers. But what of it? The Almighty God, whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and who will by no means clear the guilty has established an order for his church and for the life of his people. He being who he is, we being who we are, who are we to complain or quibble. Ours is to accept and cheerfully and eagerly to obey. If God is the Living One he is described in Holy Scripture, what else would be right or even safe? We should be hurrying to obey and to submit. That is what a sense of reality brings you to: clarity of purpose; a set of priorities; a philosophy of life and, together with all of that, an emotion, an enthusiasm, and a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. We are doing the Almighty’s will in his world! We are pleasing and serving him, the maker of heaven and earth. How cool is that! There is a cosmic fitness to our lives; doing exactly what we have been put on the earth to do.

Second there is the matter of the tithe and our giving to support the work of the church. We may have our quibbles and we struggle with our temptation to keep the money for ourselves. We think first about our bills and our pleasures and then wonder if money will remain for the church. But, again, in any of that are we reckoning with reality, with the facts? Are we face to face with things as they actually are? In reality, the living and true God is and must be the focus of our entire existence. He must always be first. Everyone else must always come after. Everything must be understood in its connection with him because that is the meaning of everything and its only meaning: its connection with him. What is our money but a gift from him, a means to serve him, a way of loving him, something by which we may give ourselves to him? If that is reality, and it is, if that is how things really are, then the tithe becomes not a duty but a joy, not an isolated form of obedience, one among many, but another gesture of love and gratitude, not so much a regulation but an actual and living connection between ourselves and the living God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our heavenly Father. You see, don’t you, how the conviction of the reality of these things changes everything. We are not any longer putting money in the offering plate, we are giving a gift to the Holy One himself; we are serving him; we are, like some ancient supplicant or servant laying our contribution at the Great King’s feet.

And then there is the death penalty for violations of the sanctuary order. If this is reality, the terrible holiness of God – and it is (we see this terrible reality everywhere we look in God’s world; the awful death that is visited everywhere upon the sin of mankind, the unbelief of human beings) – if this is reality then how seriously you and I ought to take this holiness. How we ought to revere God? How we ought to conduct ourselves in circumspection before him. This God who executed offending Levites and priests; this consuming fire, is the God we know today; the God who loved us and sent his Son to save us from our sins and the God to whom we are going with every step along the way of our earthly life. There is a blazing fire of purity at the very center of reality. Its reality is precisely what ought to leave its mark on us.

I do not deny that Numbers 18 is somewhat boring in comparison with the more naturally electrifying passages of the Bible. The account of creation in Genesis 1-3 is endlessly interesting to us as giving us a foundation to understand ourselves and the fundamental structures of human life. The exodus is a thrilling depiction of God’s mighty works. The account of David’s victory over Goliath puts flesh and blood on the skeleton of faith. And the miracles of Jesus, his passion, his resurrection all of this is and must be endlessly interesting to one who knows that these mighty works and these only stand between him or her and eternal doom.

Here, to be sure, we have regulations and regulations that seem strange to us looking back across the millennia. But then we stop and realize what lies behind: the reality that informs this chapter of the Bible as surely as any other chapter of God’s Word. And suddenly a frisson, a shudder, a shiver, passes through us. There is a moment of intense excitement as we realize that we can work back from Numbers 18 to the mightiest, most wonderful thing that we know or any human being knows: the holy God, our relationship to him, our life to be lived in his service, reflecting in every conceivable way our belonging to this Mighty One who inhabits eternity and dwells in unapproachable light.

Oh, if only we could see the divine glory! How that would animate this chapter and its teaching! How carefully he must be approached; how faithfully he must be served; how humbly we must accept his will for our lives whatever that will maybe. But then, he is the Lord! To know him, to be acknowledged by him, to belong to his people: this is privilege upon privilege upon privilege. We would think if we could see the glory of God, we would not hesitate to think and to say: tell me what I might do to honor and serve this God, this king!