47 But the Levites were not listed along with them by their ancestral tribe. 48 For the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 49 “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel. 50 But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle. 51 When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death. 52 The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, each man in his own camp and each man by his own standard. 53 But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” 54 Thus did the people of Israel; they did according to all that the Lord commanded Moses. – Numbers 1:47-54 ESV
In the census taken to determine the number of men eligible for military service, Moses had ordered that every tribe be counted, except that of Levi. God had expressly excluded the Levites from military service because they had already been given the responsibility of serving as priests and caretakers of the tabernacle. They had been consecrated by God for His service and, therefore, were exempt from military duty. But why did this one tribe receive the special designation as God’s priests? What had they done to deserve such an important and prominent role?
The rise of the tribe of Levi is a remarkable story that begins in the book of Genesis. In chapter 34, Moses records the dark story of the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, by Shechem, the son of the Hivite king. When Jacob received news of the defilement of his daughter, he did nothing about it. His inaction engaged his sons.
They were shocked and furious that their sister had been raped. Shechem had done a disgraceful thing against Jacob’s family, something that should never be done. – Genesis 34:7 NLT
Shechem’s father, Hamor, begged Jacob and his sons to overlook his son’s indiscretion and allow him to marry Dinah. He even suggested that their two nations make an alliance that would allow their sons and daughters to intermarry. But the sons of Jacob had other plans. They agreed to the alliance on the condition that all the Hivite men undergo the rite of circumcision. Sensing an opportunity to take advantage of the Israelites and confiscate their livestock and possessions, the Hivite men were summarily circumcised.
…three days later, when their wounds were still sore, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, who were Dinah’s full brothers, took their swords and entered the town without opposition. Then they slaughtered every male there, including Hamor and his son Shechem. They killed them with their swords, then took Dinah from Shechem’s house and returned to their camp. – Genesis 34:25-26 NLT
When Jacob received word of what his two sons had done, he was appalled and angered because he feared reprisals from the other nations in the region.
“You have ruined me! You’ve made me stink among all the people of this land—among all the Canaanites and Perizzites. We are so few that they will join forces and crush us. I will be ruined, and my entire household will be wiped out!” – Genesis 34:30 NLT
Years later, while on his deathbed, Jacob revealed that he had never forgiven Simeon and Levi for their deceitful treatment of the Hivites. When it was their turn to receive a blessing from their father, what they heard sounded more like a curse.
“Simeon and Levi are two of a kind;
their weapons are instruments of violence.
May I never join in their meetings;
may I never be a party to their plans.
For in their anger they murdered men,
and they crippled oxen just for sport.
A curse on their anger, for it is fierce;
a curse on their wrath, for it is cruel.
I will scatter them among the descendants of Jacob;
I will disperse them throughout Israel.” – Genesis 49:5-7 NLT
Fast forward to the time when Moses was leading the people of Israel through the wilderness on their way to Canaan. It just so happens that Moses and his brother, Aaron, were of the tribe of Levi. So, when God ordered Moses to set apart Aaron and his sons to serve as priests, He was bringing about the fulfillment of Jacob’s “blessing.”
“Call for your brother, Aaron, and his sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. Set them apart from the rest of the people of Israel so they may minister to me and be my priests.” – Exodus 28:1 NLT
It’s important to note that when God was preparing to deliver the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, He ordered Moses to set apart or consecrate the firstborn from among the Israelites as His possession.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.” – Exodus 13:1 NLT
God had just graciously spared the firstborn among the Israelites when His death angel had gone throughout the land destroying all the firstborn of the Egyptians, including Pharoah’s son and heir (Exodus 12:29-32). God demanded that the firstborn among the Israelites be dedicated to His service as an offering of thanksgiving. But, sometime later, when God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, He declared that all Israelites were to consider themselves as His priests.
“‘Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT
But God later determined to set apart the Levites to serve as His priests. These descendants of Levi, who had been cursed by his own father, were destined to play a vital role in the spiritual well-being of the nation of Israel. God later declared to Aaron His intent to dedicate this one tribe for His glory and the good of the people.
“You yourselves must perform the sacred duties inside the sanctuary and at the altar. If you follow these instructions, the Lord’s anger will never again blaze against the people of Israel. I myself have chosen your fellow Levites from among the Israelites to be your special assistants. They are a gift to you, dedicated to the Lord for service in the Tabernacle.” – Numbers 18:5-6 NLT
Not all Levites were priests, but the entire tribe was dedicated to the service of God’s tabernacle. While some served in the priestly function, others were assigned the task of caring for the tabernacle itself. Many were responsible for the tear-down and set-up of the tabernacle so it could be transported from one place to another. Others were responsible for its protection. And while the Levites would not receive an allotment of land in Canaan, God promised to take care of their every need.
“You priests will receive no allotment of land or share of property among the people of Israel. I am your share and your allotment. As for the tribe of Levi, your relatives, I will compensate them for their service in the Tabernacle. Instead of an allotment of land, I will give them the tithes from the entire land of Israel.” – Numbers 18:20-21 NLT
Interestingly enough, God even fulfilled Jacob’s promise that the descendants of Levi would be scattered among the rest of the tribes. When the time came for the Israelites to enter the land of Canaan, God had Moses divide up the land between the tribes, but the Levites received no allotment. Instead, they were given possession of 48 cities spread through the tribes of Israel.
“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, where a person who has accidentally killed someone can flee for safety. In addition, give them forty-two other towns. In all, forty-eight towns with the surrounding pastureland will be given to the Levites. These towns will come from the property of the people of Israel. The larger tribes will give more towns to the Levites, while the smaller tribes will give fewer. Each tribe will give property in proportion to the size of its land.” – Numbers 35:6-8 NLT
Six of the cities were to be set apart as cities of refuge, where any Israelite could seek asylum if they were guilty of unintentionally murdering someone. As long as they remained within the walls of one of these cities, they were protected. It’s fascinating to consider that Jacob cursed his son Levi for having murdered the Hivites, now God was using the descendants of Levi to provide protection for those who committed involuntary manslaughter.
These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community. Designate six cities of refuge for yourselves, three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west in the land of Canaan. These cities are for the protection of Israelites, foreigners living among you, and traveling merchants. Anyone who accidentally kills someone may flee there for safety. – Numbers 35:12-15 NLT
Just as Jacob predicted, the Levites ended up scattered throughout the land of Canaan. Other than the allotted cities, they never owned any property within the borders of the promised land. Yet, they were given the right and responsibility to serve as God’s priests. And when the rest of the illegible men were conscripted into Israel’s army, the Levites were excluded so that they could preserve the presence of God among the people.
“Do not include the tribe of Levi in the registration; do not count them with the rest of the Israelites. Put the Levites in charge of the Tabernacle of the Covenant, along with all its furnishings and equipment. They must carry the Tabernacle and all its furnishings as you travel, and they must take care of it and camp around it. Whenever it is time for the Tabernacle to move, the Levites will take it down. And when it is time to stop, they will set it up again. But any unauthorized person who goes too near the Tabernacle must be put to death.” – Numbers 1:50-51 NLT
God had a plan for His people and it included their physical and spiritual well-being. Some would fight the enemy using swords and spears. Others would do battle with incense and offerings, protecting the name of God and preserving the spiritual health of the people of God.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.