Numbers 2-3

The Substitutes

“I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites are mine because all the firstborn sons are mine. From the day I killed all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel of both men and animals. They are mine; I am the LORD. Numbers 3:12-13 NLT

Back when God brought the final plague of the death of the firstborn on the Egyptians, He claimed all the firstborn males of the Israelites as His own. “Dedicate to me all the firstborn sons of Israel and every firstborn male animal. They are mine” (Exodus 13:2 NLT). God had spared the firstborn of the Israelites and, in return, the people were to set apart those individuals to His service. They belonged to Him. But things were about to change. God had another plan. He had appointed the tribe of Levi to serve as ministers to the priests and the Tabernacle. They were the smallest of the tribes and seemed to hold special favor with God because of their role in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle.

“All of you who are on the LORD’s side, come over here and join me.” And all the Levites came. He told them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Strap on your swords! Go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other, killing even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses, and about three thousand people died that day. Then Moses told the Levites, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Because of this, he will now give you a great blessing.” (Exodus 32:26-29 NLT)

The Levites had become His servants. Now, they were to become the peoples’ substitute. God still claimed the firstborn as His own. They belonged to Him because He had spared their lives the night the death angel had passed over their homes in the land of Egypt. When Moses numbered all the firstborn males of the tribes of Israel they totaled 22,273. These were probably the number of firstborn males who had been born since they had left Egypt. The total number of the Levite males from one month and older were 22,000. God was going to allow the Levites to become substitutes for the firstborn of all the Israelites. “The Levites will be reserved for me as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel; I am the LORD. And the Levites’ livestock are mine as substitutes for the firstborn livestock of the whole nation of Israel” (Number 3:41 NLT). God could have required the service required to maintain and move His Tabernacle to be done by the firstborn males of all the tribes. He could have demanded that they serve as His ministers and priests, but instead He set aside the tribe of Levi for this important duty. And in doing so, He made the Levites the substitutes for the people.

The Levites were not to be included in the census of fighting men, but were to care for the tabernacle and all that belongs to it camping around it, being responsible to take it down when they set out and to set it up when they encamped. In doing so, they would be protecting the sons of Israel from death for coming near to it (Numbers 1:47-54). The Levites had a huge responsibility. They were to care for all the things related to the Tabernacle, maintaining them and moving them whenever the Israelites broke camp and relocated. It was a huge task and, because the Tabernacle was God’s holy dwelling place, it was a serious task. It could not be taken lightly. God seemed to know that if it was left up to the people, they would drop the ball. The Tabernacle would probably fall into disrepair as they became distracted with their own cares and concerns. So He appointed this task to the Levites. They served as substitutes. They satisfied God’s requirement that the firstborn belong to Him. They served in the place of those who were rightfully obligated to serve God. Their place was taken by someone else.

Which is a picture of Christ’s substitutionary death for each of us. He became my sin substitute. He paid the debt I owed. He took my place. He served in my stead. He satisfied the demands of a holy God and did what I could not do. He made the ultimate sacrifice. And that is what the Levites did. They became a sacrifice for the people of Israel. They served and satisfied the demands of God by maintaining and caring for His Tabernacle. They kept the people of Israel from experiencing death by keeping the Tabernacle holy and set apart for God. Their role was vital to the spiritual life of the people of God. They gave so that others might live. Just as Jesus has done for us.

Father, what a wonderful reminder of Your plan of substitution. You love us so much that You came up with a plan by which we could be made right with You. You knew we couldn’t do what was required to satisfy Your holy requirements, so You gave us a substitute – Your own Son. He took our place. You could have required us to pay. But instead, You gave Your Son as our substitute. Thank You for reminding me once again that I owe my life to You. I am alive because of You and I have eternal life because of You. Amen

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men