In the wilderness
“The Lord’s Sovereign Order”
by Mark Huey
Now that the Book of Leviticus has concluded, with its admonition for Israel to be holy as its God is holy, we turn in the Torah to the Book of Numbers. Its Hebrew title is Bamidbar, meaning either “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” (Numbers 1:1). It is appropriately named, because it chronicles many of the experiences of the Ancient Israelites sojourn from Mount Sinai, through the desert, to the border of the Promised Land. From the opening verses, one can conclude that by requiring a census of the congregation, the Holy One definitely desired some orderliness as the march commenced:
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, ‘Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies’” (Numbers 1:1-30).
After all, migrating thousands of people from Egypt to Canaan required some coordination and cooperation to avoid chaos. Earlier in the Torah it is recorded that the Ancient Israelites entered into the wilderness with the military precision of a marching army, so that the Exodus would be successfully completed:
“Hence God led the people around by the way of the wilderness to the Red Sea; and the sons of Israel went up in martial array from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 13:18).
So, after a year of receiving the revelation from the Lord at Mount Sinai, and suffering the punishment attributed to the golden calf rebellion, the word of the Lord now instructed Moses to bring even additional order into the camp. It is certainly true that the Lord has foreordained certain functions within the assembly, for specific individuals to accomplish. As noted many centuries later by the Apostle Paul, “for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the [assemblies] of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33).
Perhaps in the contemporary world, Believers in the Messiah can take some good lessons from these ancient texts, in understanding that disorderliness and confusion are not from the Holy One—but instead are attempts by the enemy to distract and cause division, being harmful to God’s plans for His people. The Lord does have order for His people, designated by His sovereign will.
Interestingly, when the census of the men twenty years and older is taken, the recorded names of the two leaders of each tribe indicates that the Exodus generation was dominated by people given edifying names, that reference either directly or indirectly the Holy One of Israel (Numbers 2). These include names incorporating the title El or “God,” the word tzur or “rock,” or even shaddai or “almighty.” Most assuredly, this generation was foreordained to be reminded, by at least their names every time they were uttered, of their unique connection to the Creator God. This was not by chance, but rather by God providentially preparing the final generation in Egypt to focus their attention on His glory and His attributes.
However, beyond just recognizing the leaders of the various tribes and designating where they were to be positioned during marches or encampments, our Torah portion also elaborates on the role of the Levites and their respective duties in and around the Tabernacle:
“The Levites, however, were not numbered among them by their fathers’ tribe. For the LORD had spoken to Moses, saying, ‘Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor shall you take their census among the sons of Israel. But you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings and over all that belongs to it. They shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it; they shall also camp around the tabernacle. So when the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle encamps, the Levites shall set it up. But the layman who comes near shall be put to death. The sons of Israel shall camp, each man by his own camp, and each man by his own standard, according to their armies. But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there will be no wrath on the congregation of the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall keep charge of the tabernacle of the testimony.’ Thus the sons of Israel did; according to all which the LORD had commanded Moses, so they did” (Numbers 1:47-54).
The Lord assigned the tribe of Levi for particular responsibilities after the golden calf incident, when the Levites stood with Moses and executed God’s judgment on the rebels in the camp (Exodus 32:25-35). Additionally, we see that the Lord explained that part of His reassignment of the Levites was also to draw some attention to the judgment of the firstborn that was executed on the Egyptians at the onset of the Exodus:
“Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Now, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be Mine. For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the LORD.’ Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, ‘Number the sons of Levi by their fathers’ households, by their families; every male from a month old and upward you shall number.’ So Moses numbered them according to the word of the LORD, just as he had been commanded” (Numbers 3:11-16).
Note that the Levites were to be numbered from a month old, rather than the numbering of the rest of the tribes which were counted from the age of twenty and above (Numbers 1:3). This was in accordance with the reestablishment of the redemption of the firstborn, as will be described later (Numbers 18:16). So without a doubt, the Lord had a very unique place for the Levites within the community of Israel. Numbers chs. 3-4 go into great detail about the specific instructions for the various descendants of Aaron, and other leading families among the Levites:
“Now these are the records of the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time when the LORD spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. These then are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to serve as priests. But Nadab and Abihu died before the LORD when they offered strange fire before the LORD in the wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring the tribe of Levi near and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. They shall perform the duties for him and for the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle. They shall also keep all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, along with the duties of the sons of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle. You shall thus give the Levites to Aaron and to his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the sons of Israel. So you shall appoint Aaron and his sons that they may keep their priesthood, but the layman who comes near shall be put to death” (Numbers 3:1-10).
In the Lord’s desire to maintain order in the camp, after designating where the various tribes would encamp around the Tabernacle with their standards (Numbers chs. 2), He assigned specific duties to three different clans chosen from the Levites:
“So Moses numbered them according to the word of the LORD, just as he had been commanded. These then are the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon and Kohath and Merari” (Numbers 3:16-17).
Once again in the Lord’s sovereignty, He chose the Gershonites, Kohathites, and Merarites to perform precise tasks regarding the Tabernacle and sacrificial system. He even assigned the Levites the job of forming a protective cordon around the Tabernacle, rather than positioning them at a further distance like the balance of the tribes:
“Then the tent of meeting shall set out with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps; just as they camp, so they shall set out, every man in his place by their standards” (Numbers 2:17).
Once the encampment locations were assigned, the Lord then specified the respective duties of the chosen Levite clans. The responsibility to handle the Tabernacle and its accoutrements, placed these Levites in close proximity to the holiness of the Lord—with incumbent warnings. First, the Gershonites were to deal with the tent coverings and screens for the Tabernacle:
“Now the duties of the sons of Gershon in the tent of meeting involved the tabernacle and the tent, its covering, and the screen for the doorway of the tent of meeting, and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the doorway of the court which is around the tabernacle and the altar, and its cords, according to all the service concerning them” (Numbers 3:25-26).
Next, the Kohathites were to be responsible for the most holy aspects of the Tabernacle that were located in the inner sanctuary (Numbers 4:4). Notice that Aaron’s living heir Eleazar, next in line for the position of high priest (Numbers 4:16), was given oversight over these items:
“The families of the sons of Kohath were to camp on the southward side of the tabernacle, and the leader of the fathers’ households of the Kohathite families was Elizaphan the son of Uzziel. Now their duties involved the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, and the utensils of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all the service concerning them; and Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest was the chief of the leaders of Levi, and had the oversight of those who perform the duties of the sanctuary” (Numbers 3:29-32).
Finally, the Merarites were given the tasks of handling the parts of the Tabernacle, and ultimately their portage through the desert sojourn, with the attendant caveat that death comes to the normal person who might want to participate in these duties:
“Now the appointed duties of the sons of Merari involved the frames of the tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its sockets, all its equipment, and the service concerning them, and the pillars around the court with their sockets and their pegs and their cords. Now those who were to camp before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, are Moses and Aaron and his sons, performing the duties of the sanctuary for the obligation of the sons of Israel; but the layman [stranger, American Standard Version] coming near was to be put to death” (Numbers 3:36-38).
After these duties were assigned to the Gershonites, Kohathites, and Merarites, the Lord restated that Aaron and his sons were to personally handle the holy objects, and that it was the Kohathites’ job to simply carry them:
“When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they will not touch the holy objects and die. These are the things in the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry. The responsibility of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest is the oil for the light and the fragrant incense and the continual grain offering and the anointing oil—the responsibility of all the tabernacle and of all that is in it, with the sanctuary and its furnishings” (Numbers 4:15-16).
Lamentably, this “transportation only” role, would ultimately result in some jealousy, as described in great detail during Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16). A foreshadowing of this problem is included in the final comments of our Torah reading, as the Lord specifically warned the Kohathites about the consequences of mishandling the holy objects:
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘Do not let the tribe of the families of the Kohathites be cut off from among the Levites. But do this to them that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy objects: Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each of them to his work and to his load; but they shall not go in to see the holy objects even for a moment, or they will die’” (Numbers 4:17-20).
As we can read from this week’s parashah, the Holy One of Israel was very concerned about the various roles that were to be specifically administered by those within the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priesthood had a very distinct service within the community. The Levites were to serve as distinct intermediaries between God and the rest of the people, which means they had to all be specially consecrated.
Eventually, we may consider how the default mode for Israel, upon entering the Promised Land—despite the assigning of lands by tribal designations and maintaining the Levitical priesthood—was to tend toward a degree of selfish ambition (cf. James 3:14-16). Lamentably, as later depicted by Korah’s ilk, conditions common to humanity, such as pride, jealousy, and envy have insidious ways to challenge God’s desired order and camaraderie for His people. Over the millennia, this inherent problem has perhaps manifested itself in the proliferation of various sects within Judaism, and the plethora of denominations within Christianity—each of which often considers itself to have a “corner” on the market of truth.
While the distinctions between the tribes and even the individual families were readily known in Ancient Israel, over the course of time, with not only the intermingling of the tribes, but the absorption of the mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38) and a large number of sojourners—not to mention post-Second Temple history—the specific duties of the priesthood has largely shifted in Judaism and Christianity to rabbis and ministers. Today, we certainly do encounter various people in positions of authority, claiming some sort of “priesthood” status. Some of them handle the Word of God appropriately, and others do not. While they are not Levitical priests, they do function in a priestly sort of capacity. If the consequences of their ministry are creating confusion and division, one might consider whether they are in alignment with God’s intentions, or concocting issues to achieve their own personal agendas. Biblically speaking, the children of God are to be “fruit inspectors” to determine whether the purported “priests” are truly representing the Word of the Lord accurately:
“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).
This weekend, and perhaps coincidentally, the commemoration of the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot, the Day of Pentecost, is going to be remembered on the same day this year (27 May, 2012) by the great majority of followers of the Holy One in both Judaism and Christianity. Perhaps this year, this unusual occurrence connoting the order of God, would be characterized by a unity that pleases Him, when His people can come together around His Word and dwell together with a unified common purpose to glorify Him. For assuredly, as the Psalmist reminds all,
“A Song of Ascents, of David. Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard, Even Aaron’s beard, coming down upon the edge of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion; For there the Lord commanded the blessing—life forever” (Psalm 133:1-3).
May the Lord once again pour out His Spirit and bless each of us, as “fruit inspectors,” so that we might have the wisdom and insight to know the difference between God’s ways and the ways of the world. May we stand firm, in alignment with His Word and will—and stand against any unnecessary confusion and division, which are attempting to thwart the ultimate unified desire of the Most High!