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The Censuses

The book of Numbers derived its name due to the fact that it starts off with a series of censuses, which of course give us various numbers. But this only constitutes the first part of the book, so it is a bit of a misnomer to call the entire book “Numbers.” There is so much more that we can glean from reading the book.

Still, since it starts with the censuses, we will go over them before getting into the rest of the book. The first census was to find out how many Israelites there were. This census found that there were 603,550 men at least twenty years old in Israel (Numbers 1:46). However, the Levites were exempt from the census due to their status as priests. This essentially gives us the upper value of the army that Israel could wield in battle.

The second chapter of Numbers gives us the arrangement of the camp, which we won’t go over here. In the third, we begin with the genealogy of the Levites. Of importance here is the fact that Levites were set apart for a specific reason:
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. 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 consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the LORD” (Numbers 3:11-13).
This echoes some of what we read before in Exodus about the importance of the firstborn, and also obviously references the original Passover. We also note here that the tribe of Levi as a whole functions as the representative of “every firstborn” throughout all of Israel. In other words, at Passover God claimed the firstborn of all who dwelt there for Himself. If we remember, those who were not covered by the blood on their doors (i.e., the Egyptians) lost their firstborn through death. But here we see that the firstborn Israelites who had been saved from death were, nevertheless, still considered consecrated to God. Instead of taking each of those firstborn, however, God took the entire tribe of Levi.

Therefore, God had Moses conduct a second census, this time just of the tribe of Levi, and it was discovered there were 22,000 males a month or older (Numbers 3:39). This is one instance where you might suspect there was some rounding, but it turns out that 22,000 was the exact count since God also had the firstborn of Israel counted and it came out to be 22,273 (verse 43). As a result of this difference in totals God said:
“Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle. The Levites shall be mine: I am the LORD. And as the redemption price for the 273 of the firstborn of the people of Israel, over and above the number of the male Levites, you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over” (Numbers 3:45-48).
In other words, there were not quite enough Levites to cover all the people, so God essentially imposed a tax of 1,365 shekels (5 shekels for each of the 273 “extra” firstborn in Israel). Now this can seem confusing, but I think that this provides us an insight into the way that atonement works.

First, in having the Levites stand in for the rest of the firstborn of Israel, God is showing that He works through the use of substitutions. We already saw a bit of this in the fact that animal sacrifices substituted for the punishment that sinners deserved. And here we see God make an even more obvious substitution by setting apart the Levites in place of all the other firstborn. But why would God do such a thing? Ultimately, I believe this is to give us a picture of how Christ will substitute Himself for us, but of course our hypothetical time traveler would have no insight about this yet.

Secondly, the fact that there was a 1:1 correlation meant that every single firstborn needed to be substituted by a single, specific Levite. And when the numbers didn’t match, God permitted payment instead of requiring more Levites to be born, or simply ignoring the 273 left over. In this manner, He was showing that the Levites, although being priests, were not somehow “worth more” than the every-day Israelite. Each Hebrew was equivalent in value, even if they had different roles to play.

This is an aspect that can be quite difficult for people to grasp especially given today’s philosophy that emphasizes equality in role rather than equality in value. This is seen most clearly in the feminist movement, which insists that anything that a man can do should also be open to woman, and that if women are not fit for a specific role in the same way that men are this is proof of the bias of the patriarchy and such a role must be destroyed. Ultimately, the reason for the reaction is the idea that if a woman cannot do the same role that a man can do then the woman is perceived as being less valuable.

The Bible does not teach this view of roles, however. Rather, throughout the Bible there’s a constant reminder that a difference in role does not imply a difference in value. This is true not only of the different roles a man and a women play in marriage or the Levites here, but it even extends to the different roles that the individual persons of the Trinity perform (e.g., the Son is not of less value since He only does what the Father commands, nor is the Spirit of less value since He is spoken of so infrequently compared to the other persons of the Godhead). We will discuss this in more detail as we continue through the Bible.

As we move on to the next chapter of Numbers we see a census taken of families within the tribe of Levi. This was to discover how many people would be available for specific service within the tabernacle. For instance, we begin with the tribe of Kohath, who would be assigned to “the most holy things” (Numbers 4:4). This included the various utensils used in the tabernacle, and even the removal of the ashes from the altar (verse 13).

Even though they were responsible for the care of these items, we read:
The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Let not the tribe of the clans of the Kohathites be destroyed from among the Levites, but deal thus with them, that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint them each to his task and to his burden, but they shall not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment, lest they die” (Numbers 4:17-20).
I personally find it interesting that if the Kohathites “look[ed] on the holy things even for a moment” they would die. This reminds me of when Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized, strange fire to the LORD and were struck dead. The obvious implication is that it is very important to get the holy things right.

But also of importance is the fact that God did not want the Kohathites to be destroyed, and therefore warned them in advance. In other words, God was proactive. He didn’t sit back and hide that the Kohathites were not even supposed to look at the holy things, only to reveal that truth by killing them when they did so. He does not seek the lives of people, but rather wishes that they would live. Thus, He warns them of the consequences.

Chapter five of Numbers begins with a command to expel from the camp anyone who is unclean due to leprosy. As mentioned before, leprosy was not just what we know today as the specific disease of leprosy, but included a wide number of skin diseases. While this seems cruel, it served two purposes. First, it would help contain pathogens by isolating those who had communicable diseases. But secondly, it would serve to keep the people of Israel set apart from the world. This second aspect is what the Bible is most concerned about, given that it is the only reason specifically stated in Scripture for why leprosy made someone unclean.

The chapter then deals with someone who realizes he has committed sin against another. As we’ve already seen from Leviticus, the man is to ask forgiveness, “[a]nd he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong” (Numbers 5:7b). Once again, the standard is to add 20% value to what you have wronged someone. Additionally, Numbers stipulates that if the one who was wronged is no longer alive and has no living relatives, then the restitution is to go to the tribe of Levi, as the priests.

The chapter then ends with a test for adultery. This section can definitely seem a little odd. Essentially, if a man suspected his wife had committed adultery, but there was no proof since no one witnessed it, he could bring her to the priest along with the “grain offering of jealousy” (verse 15). The priest would take bitter water that carried a curse (verse 18) and make the woman drink it. If she had been faithful to her husband, nothing would happen, but if she had been unfaithful then she would become barren and no longer able to have children. What I find most interesting is that we read: “This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, though under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife” (verse 29-30a).

Specifically, I find interesting this mention of the “spirit of jealousy” which might come over a man. Now, from the context this jealousy is in reference to his belief that his wife has committed adultery. He is jealous of something that cannot be independently proven, and God provides a means by which he can tell if his fears are unfounded or genuine.

Of course, this section still seems rather odd to us today, especially since we generally hold to the Scientific Method and this, frankly, comes across more as magic than science. Nonetheless, because this has come from the Word of God, we know that He did work in this way for Israel during the time of the tabernacle. Does that mean it would work today? No, for we do not live in a theocracy under priests, nor do they even exist anywhere else given that there is no temple or tabernacle today.

It is also possible that this test was designed purely for the psychological effect. That is, if the people involved all have faith in God and thought that this would work, then a woman who had committed adultery might fear the bitter water would actually curse her and make her barren, and that very terror could be sufficient to disrupt her normal biological cycles and render her infertile in a form of psychosomatic illness. On the other hand, if she was innocent and she truly believed that God was working through this system, she would have no fear of the water. In such a way, this method would protect innocent women while also addressing those with genuine guilt.

The next chapter of Numbers is one that we will become important again when looking through Judges (foreshadow alert!) because it deals with the nature of the Nazirite vow. The basics of the vow are as follows. A Hebrew could make a special vow to the LORD during which time he would “separate himself to the LORD” (Numbers 6:2). In so doing, he would avoid all alcohol, and indeed would not even eat grapes (verse 3-4), he would let his hair grow without cutting it (verse 5), and he would not be allowed to go near a dead body—not even those of his father or mother (verse 6-7). So important was this restriction that if someone “dies very suddenly beside him” (verse 9), he must consecrate himself again:
On the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering, and make atonement for him, because he sinned by reason of the dead body (Numbers 6:10-11a).
Did you catch that? Even though this is something that he had no control over, since it was someone who died suddenly beside him, “he sinned by reason of the dead body”. Furthermore, we see in verse 12 that the time of the vow he has so far fulfilled “shall be void, because his separation was defiled.” He is thus required to restart his vow.

Before we consider this to be unfair, it is worth noting that the vow was a separation to the LORD, and thus the one making the vow would know that he is taking a risk if he’s around people in general. Of course, it’s not much of a risk given that most healthy-looking individuals do not just suddenly die out of nowhere, but it’s still possible and thus the one making the vow would need to take that into account before making the vow.

It is also of interest to note that the Nazirite vow was set up to be temporary. The rules relating to it imply that it will end at some point, and indeed verses 13-21 detail the sacrifice he should give when the period of the vow ends. Hold this in mind when we get to the book of Judges.

This chapter ends with a blessing Aaron was to give to Israel. It’s one of the most well-known passages from the Old Testament and it’s found in Numbers 6:24-26. Namely:
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
This blessing is frequently spoken even in churches today as the closing benediction, but entire sermons could be preached on the content of this blessing. I shall not get too lengthy with it here, but to say nothing would be remiss.

The first aspect of the blessing is the concept of being kept by the LORD. This keeping is closely tied to the ending where God is asked to “give you peace.” Being kept by God implies that peace, both through the safety of being in His presence and through the bounty of His care. This is further extrapolated when the LORD is asked to “make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.”

The shining face may be influenced in some manner by Moses’s glowing face, from when he saw the glory of the LORD. Even if not, having the LORD’s face “shine upon you” indicates that the LORD is looking at you and paying attention to you, for it cannot shine upon you if He is looking elsewhere. Thus, the petition is that God take note of you, and furthermore that He do so in a manner that is “gracious.”

The petition then asks that God “lift up his countenance upon you.” This seems to be very similar to having His face shine upon you, in that this is asking that the LORD again pay attention to His people. The word “countenance” refers first to a facial expression, but also typically refers to a supporting expression. Thus, the request is not just that God look at you, but also that He do so in a favorable manner.

Finally, the blessing petitions God to “give you peace.” Peace is not simply the absence of warfare, but is the active rest (if I can be forgiven for putting those two words together) of one who is safe and secure without any threat at all.

Numbers 7 lists the offerings that were given for the tabernacle when it was consecrated. Each of the twelve tribes of Israel brought their gifts and the offerings God specified, and despite the fact that each tribe brought identical gifts the chapter spells it out in detail. Given the concern we’ve seen God has for how He is to be worshipped, this redundancy is to be expected. God wants to be clear without any room for ambiguity.

Chapter 8 then begins with instructions on how the seven lamps were to be set up in the tabernacle. Those who are familiar with the Scriptures may wonder if these seven lamps hold some kind of reference to the lamps in the book of Revelation, a topic we will look into in more detail when we get to that section of the Bible.

After the lamps, the chapter goes over how the Levites were cleansed. Of interest in our survey is how Levites were cleansed in a manner that was almost the reverse of the Nazirites. While the Nazirites were told that no razor should touch them, for the Levites we read: “Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them go with a razor over all their body, and wash their clothes and cleanse themselves” (Numbers 8:7). Of course, we shouldn’t make too much of this as the Levites were to shave their bodies and not necessarily their heads. But it is still interesting, to me at least, how God has different methods of purification and cleansing for different roles.

Ultimately, this serves as the final way in which the Levites were separated to God, as the replacement for the firstborn of Israel (verse 16). But God also gave one final instruction at the end of the chapter, which is that Levites were only to serve until they were fifty years old. At that point, “they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more” (verse 25). They were still allowed to keep guard in the tent of meeting, but were no longer allowed to do the rest of the Levitical duties. In such a manner, God provided rest for the elders of the Levites.

In chapter 9, God commands the Passover be celebrated, as we have already seen in other passages. The unique aspect of this chapter is that “there were certain men who were unclean through touching a dead body, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day” (Numbers 9:6). These men asked Moses why they weren’t allowed to keep the Passover, and Moses inquired of God. We read:
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If any one of you or of your descendants is unclean through touching a dead body, or is on a long journey, he shall still keep the Passover to the LORD…. But if anyone who is clean and is not on a journey fails to keep the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people because he did not bring the LORD’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin. And if a stranger sojourns among you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, according to the statute of the Passover and according to its rule, so shall he do. You shall have one statute, both for the sojourner and for the native” (Numbers 9:9-10, 13-14).
This shows us the way that God views the Passover, in that it is important enough that even one who was ceremonially unclean through touching dead bodies or on a distant journey was still required to keep it. Indeed, those who failed to keep it were to be cut off, and God indicates such disobedience is sinful. Finally, God also allowed the “strangers” who were present with the Jews the option to keep the Passover, stating that there would be no difference between the non-Hebrew visitor and the Hebrews in the observance of the Passover. This shows us once more God opening up the ceremonial festivals to both Jew and Gentile alike.

After this, the cloud covered the Tabernacle by day, and a pillar of fire by night. These two signs lead the Israelites through the wilderness. “As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp” (verse 18b). The end result was: “At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out” (verse 23a).

In that manner, by chapter ten we read of Israel finally leaving Sinai “in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month” (Numbers 10:11) and they started their way toward the Promised Land.

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