I Am Your Portion

20 And the Lord said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.

21 “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, 22 so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. 23 But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. 24 For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.”

25 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 26 “Moreover, you shall speak and say to the Levites, ‘When you take from the people of Israel the tithe that I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present a contribution from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe. 27 And your contribution shall be counted to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the winepress. 28 So you shall also present a contribution to the Lord from all your tithes, which you receive from the people of Israel. And from it you shall give the Lord‘s contribution to Aaron the priest. 29 Out of all the gifts to you, you shall present every contribution due to the Lord; from each its best part is to be dedicated.’ 30 Therefore you shall say to them, ‘When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be counted to the Levites as produce of the threshing floor, and as produce of the winepress. 31 And you may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward in return for your service in the tent of meeting. 32 And you shall bear no sin by reason of it, when you have contributed the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, lest you die.’” Numbers 18:20-32 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been set apart by God and assigned responsibility for caring for the tabernacle and overseeing the elaborate sacrificial system He had ordained for the nation of Israel. Of the 12 tribes of Israel, they were the only one that would not be given an allotment of land in Canaan. Rather than inheriting a designated area within the land of promise, they would be given 48 cities located within the territorial boundaries of the other tribes.

“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

This meant that members of the tribe of Levi would be distributed among the other tribes of Israel. In a sense, as God’s “holy ”ones, they were to permeate the rest of God’s people and provide a positive spiritual influence on the nation as a whole. In return for their faithful service as priests and caretakers of the tabernacle, the Levites would enjoy the provision of God.

“You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.

“To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting – Numbers 18:20-21 ESV

God promised to meet all their needs. But their compensation would not come in the form of agricultural commodities or livestock. They would grow no crops of their own. They would own no flocks or herds. Yet, God would provide for them through means of the sacrificial system. God would graciously share with the Levitical priests the gifts given to Him by the people.

“These are the parts the priests may claim as their share from the cattle, sheep, and goats that the people bring as offerings: the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach. You must also give to the priests the first share of the grain, the new wine, the olive oil, and the wool at shearing time. For the Lord your God chose the tribe of Levi out of all your tribes to minister in the Lord’s name forever.” – Deuteronomy 18:3-5 NLT

“God was the unique inheritance to the Levites. He was the focus of their service, the source of their sustenance, and the significance of their calling. Their inheritance included cities, daily food, and a constant vocation, but it did not include the same type of land inheritance given to the other tribes of Israel.” – http://www.gotquestions.org

In their position as God’s mediators, the Levites played a vital role in protecting the spiritual and physcial well-being of the people. They served as guardians of the tabernacle with the responsibility of preventing any unauthorized individual from attempting to enter the holy place or come in contact with the consecrated items contained within it.

“From now on, no Israelites except priests or Levites may approach the Tabernacle. If they come too near, they will be judged guilty and will die. Only the Levites may serve at the Tabernacle, and they will be held responsible for any offenses against it. – Numbers 18:22-23 NLT

Failure to do their job would have dire consequences for all involved. So, God stressed to Aaron the serious nature of their role. Holiness was a high priority for God and the Levites were to help the nation of Israel maintain their set-apart status by requiring obedience to His commands

In return, God would provide for all their needs. Yet, the Levites were still expected to contribute a tithe on the basis of His gracious gifts to them. In other words, they were to offer a tithe on the tithe. When the people gave their tithes to God, the Levites would receive a portion as a gracious gift from God. But God expected them to a tithe in return, as a token of their gratitude toward and complete reliance upon Him.

“You must present one-tenth of the tithe received from the Israelites as a sacred offering to the Lord. This is the Lord’s sacred portion, and you must present it to Aaron the priest. Be sure to give to the Lord the best portions of the gifts given to you.” – Numbers 18:28-29 NLT

They were instructed to treat the tithes of the people as if they were the produce they had grown, the flocks they had raised, and the fruits they had cultivated.

When you present the best part as your offering, it will be considered as though it came from your own threshing floor or winepress. – Numbers 18:30 NLT

This was intended to create a sense of total dependence upon God. He was to be their sole source of provision and by giving a tenth of what they received back to Him, they would be demonstrating their complete reliance upon His grace and mercy. But God warned them to take this command seriously and obey it religiously. There was no room for debate or differences of opinion.

You Levites and your families may eat this food anywhere you wish, for it is your compensation for serving in the Tabernacle. You will not be considered guilty for accepting the Lord’s tithes if you give the best portion to the priests. But be careful not to treat the holy gifts of the people of Israel as though they were common. If you do, you will die.” – Numbers 18:31-32 NLT

Disobedience would result in God’s disapproval and, ultimately, the death of the guilty party. If they treated the tithes of the people with disrespect, they would pay with their lives. Those gifts and offerings had been dedicated to God and were to be revered as His possessions. He was graciously sharing with them what was rightfully His. And what He really wanted them to understand was that He was to be their portion. The Hebrew word is חֵלֶק (ḥēleq), and it can be translated as “portion,” “part,” or “territory.”

While they would receive no land as their inheritance, God would serve as their territory. The benefits they would normally expect to receive from land ownership would be provided by God Himself, and He would prove to be a more than sufficient source of sustenance. Yet, His goodness would be directly tied to their obedience.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

A Shadow of Things to Come

So the Lord said to Aaron, “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood. And with you bring your brothers also, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, that they may join you and minister to you while you and your sons with you are before the tent of the testimony. They shall keep guard over you and over the whole tent, but shall not come near to the vessels of the sanctuary or to the altar lest they, and you, die. They shall join you and keep guard over the tent of meeting for all the service of the tent, and no outsider shall come near you. And you shall keep guard over the sanctuary and over the altar, that there may never again be wrath on the people of Israel. And behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to the Lord, to do the service of the tent of meeting. And you and your sons with you shall guard your priesthood for all that concerns the altar and that is within the veil; and you shall serve. I give your priesthood as a gift, and any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.” Numbers 18:1-7 ESV

As a result of the rebellion of Korah, God brought a plague among the people of Israel. It was only Aaron’s quick action, as he atoned for their sins, that prevented the complete destruction of the people of Israel at the hands of God. He intervened and interceded on their behalf, and God spared them. As a result, God reconfirmed His selection of Aaron and his sons to serve as His priests.

The budding of the rod of Aaron was a divine sign of God’s choosing of Aaron and the tribe of Levi as His servants. They would belong to Him. Only the Levites could serve as caretakers of the tabernacle and only Aaron and his sons could serve as intercessors with God on behalf of the people. With their jobs came great responsibilities and great blessings. They were to remain holy and set apart to God. They received no inheritance in the land, but God provided for them from the gifts that were given to Him as a part of the sacrifices of the people. The Levites received from God that which was holy. They ate well but they had to be very careful not to profane or desecrate the things of God through unholy conduct. God warned Aaron, “You, your sons, and your relatives from the tribe of Levi will be held responsible for any offenses related to the sanctuary. But you and your sons alone will be held responsible for violations connected with the priesthood” (Numbers 18:1 NLT).

These were ordinary men who had been given an extraordinary responsibility. They were the literal keepers of the spiritual flame of Israel. They were to maintain God’s house and everything in it. They protected it and transported it. Aaron and his sons, as the priests, were responsible for offering sacrifices on behalf of the people, atoning for their sins, and providing a means for them to remain in right standing with God. But their work could never fully remove guilt or provide full atonement for the sins of the people. But the priesthood and the sacrificial system as outlined in the Old Testament was a foreshadowing of something greater to come.

They serve in a system of worship that is only a copy, a shadow of the real one in heaven. For when Moses was getting ready to build the Tabernacle, God gave him this warning: “Be sure that you make everything according to the pattern I have shown you here on the mountain.” But now Jesus, our High Priest, has been given a ministry that is far superior to the old priesthood, for he is the one who mediates for us a far better covenant with God, based on better promises. – Hebrews 8:5-6 NLT

God’s plan for the tabernacle, the sacrificial system, and the priesthood was a temporary system that represented a far greater future reality. It was imperfect because it involved sinful men. Aaron and his sons were flawed and far from perfect, just like every other Israelite. For them to perform their duties as priests, they had to undergo rigorous purification rites for the atonement of their own sins. And, according to the book of Hebrews, their humanity made them susceptible to death just like everyone else and required that there be constant replacements available.

The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office. – Hebrews 7:23 ESV

But God’s plan was far greater than that of the tabernacle and the earthly priesthood. He had already determined a better means of atoning for the sins of man. And it would involve His own Son. This had been God’s plan all along. After His resurrection from the dead, Jesus gave His disciples two separate Bible lessons where He “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45 ESV). For the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 ESV). Jesus unpacked all the writings of Moses and the prophets, showing how He had been foreshadowed and predicted. Everything had been pointing to Him. The entire sacrificial system was but a shadow of things to come. The priesthood as practiced in Moses’ day, served as a glimpse of something greater to come.

He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin. He has been set apart from sinners and has been given the highest place of honor in heaven.  Unlike those other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices every day. They did this for their own sins first and then for the sins of the people. But Jesus did this once for all when he offered himself as the sacrifice for the people’s sins.  The law appointed high priests who were limited by human weakness. But after the law was given, God appointed his Son with an oath, and his Son has been made the perfect High Priest forever. – Hebrews 7:26-28 NLT

Man would need a greater High Priest. We would require a greater means of atonement. The sacrificial system, as practiced by the Jews in the days of Moses and even into the days of Jesus, could never fully eradicate the sins of men. Because man’s capacity for sin was endless, so was the need for constant sacrifice. There was never a point at which they were totally forgiven and completely free from the guilt of their sin. If nothing else, the law and the sacrificial system were a daily reminder of the ever-present reality of sin and guilt. No one could keep the law perfectly so, therefore, no one was truly sinless. And the constant capacity to sin required the constant need to sacrifice in order to atone for those sins.

But Jesus came to put an end to the madness. He was the High Priest who came to deal with sin once and for all.

He did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again, like the high priest here on earth who enters the Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice. And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. – Hebrews 9:25-28 NLT

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, our sins have been paid for. Our atonement has been accomplished once and for all. We can now stand before God as righteous in His eyes. All because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross on our behalf. We have been set free and are no longer slaves to sin. We have the capacity to live differently and distinctively, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. And our righteousness is not of our own making but has been provided for us by Christ Himself. He bore our sins and transferred His righteousness to us. He died so that we might live.

When reading the Old Testament, we must look for Christ and understand that it all foreshadows His ultimate arrival on the scene. The Old Testament is as much about Christ as the four Gospels. Prior to His ascension, Jesus took time to teach His disciples and point out all that the Old Testament Scriptures revealed about Himself. The story of the Bible is the story of God’s ultimate redemption of mankind through the saving work of Jesus. Like any story, it has a beginning and an end. In the story recorded in Luke, we see Jesus departing from His disciples, ascending up into heaven. But we know that’s not the end of the story.

This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven. – Acts 1:11 ESV

He has gone, but He will someday return. His work as High Priest is complete but His job as King is not yet finished. And we look forward to the day when God closes the final chapter in His great book of redemption.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

The Danger With Discontentment

1 Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men. And they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all his company; put fire in them and put incense on them before the Lord tomorrow, and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” And Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and they said, “We will not come up. 13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? 14 Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” Numbers 16:1-14 ESV

The story of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness is a fascinating one, filled with plenty of twists and turns, plot changes and story lines. It is easy to read this chronicle of the lives of the people of God and wonder how they could be so slow to learn. How could they refuse to obey God after all He had done for them? Why would they continue to whine, complain, and moan about their lot in life when the God of the universe was leading them, providing for them, and revealing Himself to them day after day? But the truth is, as believers, we have the Spirit of God living within us and the Word of God made available to us and yet we still struggle with obedience and belief. So, we probably shouldn’t be too quick to harshly judge the Israelites.

Yet in today’s story from chapter 16 we have another occurrence of jealousy and rebellion. It seems that Korah, a grandson of Kohath, and a member of the tribe of Levi, decided that he wanted to be free to take part in the priestly responsibilities. As a Kohathite, he was part of the clan responsible for the transportation and care of all the vessels and utensils of the Tabernacle. They had been assigned that role by God.

“The duties of the Kohathites at the Tabernacle will relate to the most sacred objects.” – Numbers 4:4 NLT

According to God’s instructions, the Kohathites had a very specific role to play. And in order for them to do that job, Aaron, the high priest, and his sons had to prepare all the sacred objects for transport.

“When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.” – Numbers 4:5-6 NLT

Every item had to be carefully prepared according to God’s painstaking instructions. If Aaron and his sons failed to do everything just as God had commanded, it would have devastating consequences for Korah and the rest of his clan.

“The camp will be ready to move when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the sacred articles. The Kohathites will come and carry these things to the next destination. But they must not touch the sacred objects, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:15 NLT

“Do not let the Kohathite clans be destroyed from among the Levites! This is what you must do so they will live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects. Aaron and his sons must always go in with them and assign a specific duty or load to each person. The Kohathites must never enter the sanctuary to look at the sacred objects for even a moment, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:18-20 NLT

All the holy objects were to be covered with cloths to prevent the Kohathites from inadvertently touching them. And the larger items had poles inserted into the specially crafted rings that allowed them to be carried safely and securely without risk of death. It should have been considered an honor to carry these priceless objects that were essential for the worship of Yahweh. Yet, we learn that Korah was not content with the God-ordained role he and his clan had been assigned. He wanted more.

Driven by jealousy and a desire for greater prominence, he enlisted the support of others and, together, they incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly” (Numbers 4:2 NLT). It was a coup.

Korah appealed to other men in the camp to join him in his rebellion. He stirred up men from the tribe of Reuben by getting them to see that Moses had taken away the right of the firstborn of every tribe to serve God by replacing them with the sons of Levi. His argument was that every single Israelite was holy; not just Moses, Aaron, and the Levites.

He accused Moses of exalting himself above everyone else. He and his compatriots went to Moses and said, “You have gone too far! Everyone in Israel has been set apart by the LORD, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than anyone else among all these people of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:3 NLT).

Although Korah was from the tribe of Levi, he and his clan were not allowed to serve as priests, and he found this slight to be unacceptable. He viewed their role as “moving men” to be less-than-acceptable and more than a bit demeaning.

In his defense, Korah was basing his argument on a statement given by God when the people of Israel were still in Egypt.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

But what Korah failed to remember was that the entire nation had done irreparable damage to their holy status when they had been encamped at Mount Sinai. While Moses had been up on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had decided to turn their back on God and worship a newly constructed golden calf (Exodus 32). And as punishment for their sin, God had given Moses orders to execute all those who had taken part in the idolatrous festivities.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day. – Exodus 32:26-28 NLT

It had been the Levites who stood by Moses’ side and carried out God’s orders. As a result, Moses rewarded them for their show of faithfulness and obedience.

“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:29 NLT

But Korah wasn’t satisfied with God’s will. He demanded that a new plan be put in place. Yet, Moses attempted to reason with his disgruntled kinsman.

“Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near him so you can serve in the Lord’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? Korah, he has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well?” – Numbers 16:9-10 NLT

Moses couldn’t understand why Korah considered himself and his clansmen as second-class citizens. Why was he unable to view their God-ordained role as vital and worthy of their best efforts? And Moses tried to warn them that their complaint was really with God, not himself or Aaron.

The Lord is the one you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?” – Numbers 16:11 NLT

Korah was walking on thin ice. He was venturing into uncharted waters that would not bring him to a far-from-pleasant destination. And Moses attempted to reason with Korah’s compatriots, but they refused to listen to what he had to say.

“We refuse to come before you! Isn’t it enough that you brought us out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us here in this wilderness, and that you now treat us like your subjects? What’s more, you haven’t brought us into another land flowing with milk and honey. You haven’t given us a new homeland with fields and vineyards. Are you trying to fool these men? We will not come.” – Numbers 16:12-14 NLT

The stage was set. The lines were drawn. Korah and his disenchanted companions stood their ground and refused to heed the warnings of Moses. They were done taking orders from Moses and Aaron. As far as they were concerned, it was their time to shine and they would not be satisfied until they were the ones calling the shots.

But they failed to recognize that their complaints had reached the ears of God. He had been listening to their arrogant demands and knew that their discontentment was ultimately directed at Him. And it’s interesting to note that the very people who were responsible for transporting the holy objects from the tabernacle were carrying resentment for the very one for whom the tabernacle had been constructed.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

 

Lamps, Levites, and Leadership

Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.” And Aaron did so: he set up its lamps in front of the lampstand, as the Lord commanded Moses. And this was the workmanship of the lampstand, hammered work of gold. From its base to its flowers, it was hammered work; according to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the Levites from among the people of Israel and cleanse them. 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. Then let them take a bull from the herd and its grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, and you shall take another bull from the herd for a sin offering. And you shall bring the Levites before the tent of meeting and assemble the whole congregation of the people of Israel. 10 When you bring the Levites before the Lord, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites, 11 and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the Lord. 12 Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, and you shall offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the Lord to make atonement for the Levites. 13 And you shall set the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and shall offer them as a wave offering to the Lord.

14 “Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the people of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine. 15 And after that the Levites shall go in to serve at the tent of meeting, when you have cleansed them and offered them as a wave offering. 16 For they are wholly given to me from among the people of Israel. Instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the people of Israel, I have taken them for myself. 17 For all the firstborn among the people of Israel are mine, both of man and of beast. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I consecrated them for myself, 18 and I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel. 19 And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.”

20 Thus did Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the people of Israel to the Levites. According to all that the Lord commanded Moses concerning the Levites, the people of Israel did to them. 21 And the Levites purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes, and Aaron offered them as a wave offering before the Lord, and Aaron made atonement for them to cleanse them. 22 And after that the Levites went in to do their service in the tent of meeting before Aaron and his sons; as the Lord had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did to them.

23 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. 25 And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. 26 They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties.” Numbers 8:1-26 ESV

Chapter seven recorded the joy and generosity of the people of Israel at the dedication of the tabernacle. The entire chapter is a list of all the gifts the various tribes brought to the dedication. And Moses painstakingly records the exact nature of each tribe’s contribution, revealing that they all gave equally. This occasion was spread out over 12 days, with the various sacrifices for each tribe taking up the better part of the day on which they made their presentation. So, for almost two solid weeks, there was the giving of gifts, the burning of sacrifices, and the atonement for the sins of the people. This would have been a remarkable celebration. And it ended with Moses going into the tabernacle to meet with God, where “he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim” (Numbers 7:59 ESV).

This was a joyful celebration because God had accepted their gifts and was in their midst.  And it was followed by the dedication of the Levites. These men were the literal “stand-ins” for the people. God had chosen them to serve Him in place of the firstborn males of the people. At one point, God had commanded that all the firstborn males were to be dedicated to His service. This was due to the fact that He had spared all the firstborn Hebrew sons on the night the Death Angel passed through the land of Egypt.

But later, God chose to use the Levites as substitutes for the firstborns of Israel. The male descendants of Levi would serve in their place. So on this day, the people were commanded by God to lay their hands on the heads of the Levites, transferring the sole responsibility of serving God onto the members of this one tribe. In essence, the Levites became living sacrifices, dedicated to God’s service.

But this chapter opens with a brief, yet important command from God concerning the golden lampstand. At first glance, these verses appear out of place. They don’t seem to fit the context. But upon closer examination, they begin to make sense.

God commands Moses to have Aaron light the golden lampstand within the tabernacle. The design for this vital tabernacle fixture was given much earlier and provides important details that will help explain the inclusion of verses 1-4. God had been very specific about the lampstand’s construction.

“Make a lampstand of pure, hammered gold. Make the entire lampstand and its decorations of one piece—the base, center stem, lamp cups, buds, and petals. Make it with six branches going out from the center stem, three on each side. Each of the six branches will have three lamp cups shaped like almond blossoms, complete with buds and petals.  Craft the center stem of the lampstand with four lamp cups shaped like almond blossoms, complete with buds and petals. There will also be an almond bud beneath each pair of branches where the six branches extend from the center stem. 36 The almond buds and branches must all be of one piece with the center stem, and they must be hammered from pure gold. Then make the seven lamps for the lampstand, and set them so they reflect their light forward. – Exodus 25:31-37 NLT

Notice the emphasis on the almond buds, blossoms, and petals. There are four separate references to this particular flower. The lampstand was to resemble a budding almond tree, which was the first tree to blossom and bear fruit in the spring. So, the lampstand was to be a visual symbol of life and fruitfulness, but also of light.

With the lampstand having been lit, God then instructed Moses to set apart the Levites. An elaborate ceremony was conducted to consecrate the Levites and to remind the Israelites that this one tribe had been chosen by God to serve as their substitutes.

“Of all the people of Israel, the Levites are reserved for me. I have claimed them for myself in place of all the firstborn sons of the Israelites; I have taken the Levites as their substitutes. – Numbers 8:16 NLT

God wanted to make it perfectly clear that the Levites had been given the sole responsibility of mediating before God on behalf of the people of Israel.

“I have claimed the Levites in place of all the firstborn sons of Israel. And of all the Israelites, I have assigned the Levites to Aaron and his sons. They will serve in the Tabernacle on behalf of the Israelites and make sacrifices to purify the people so no plague will strike them when they approach the sanctuary.” – Numbers 8:18-19 NLT

As part of the ceremony of consecration, the Levites “purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes” (Numbers 8:21 NLT).

After that the Levites went into the Tabernacle to perform their duties, assisting Aaron and his sons. So they carried out all the commands that the Lord gave Moses concerning the Levites. – Numbers 8:22 NLT

The lampstand was lit, the Levites were cleansed, and their ministry in the tabernacle on behalf of the people began. But fast-forward to chapter 16 and there you will find recorded a rather dark moment in Israel’s history. It took place as they continued their journey from Egypt to Canaan and it involved a significant rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. A small group of individuals, jealous of the power wielded by Moses and his brother, decided to stage a coup. Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On “incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly” (Numbers 16:3 NLT).

Their argument was that Moses and Aaron were nothing special because the whole nation had been set apart by God.

“You have gone too far! The whole community of Israel has been set apart by the Lord, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than the rest of the Lord’s people?” – Numbers 16:3 NLT

Moses responded to their demand for equality and equity with a challenge.

“Tomorrow morning the Lord will show us who belongs to him and who is holy. The Lord will allow only those whom he selects to enter his own presence. – Numbers 16:5 NLT

Korah and his companions were declaring themselves to be on equal standing with Moses and Aaron. They felt like they were being slighted and treated like second-class citizens. But their complaints were ill-founded and unwise. They were actually questioning the will of God. And what makes this scene so fascinating is that Korah was a Levite. In fact, Moses points out this very fact when he states, “Korah, you and all your followers must prepare your incense burners. Light fires in them tomorrow, and burn incense before the Lord. Then we will see whom the Lord chooses as his holy one. You Levites are the ones who have gone too far!” (Numbers 16:6-7 NLT).

It seems that Korah and his cohorts were dissatisfied with their God-ordained role as servants in the tabernacle. They wanted power. They were looking for something more prestigious and worthy of honor. In fact, they wanted to be priests, just like Aaron and his sons. So, Moses confronted them for the insubordination that had led them to stage an attempted insurrection.

“Now listen, you Levites! Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near him so you can serve in the Lord’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? Korah, he has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well? The Lord is the one you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?” – Numbers 16:8-11 NLT

But despite Moses’ words, Korah and his companions remained unrepentant. They “stirred up the entire community against Moses and Aaron, and they all gathered at the Tabernacle entrance” (Numbers 16:19 NLT).

At this point in the story, the glory of God appeared before the people and the Almighty declared His intent to destroy the entire nation for its rebellion.

“Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” – Numbers 16:21 NLT

But Moses and Aaron interceded on behalf of the people and begged God to spare them.

“O God,” they pleaded, “you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Must you be angry with all the people when only one man sins?” – Numbers 16:22 NLT

As a result, God determined to wipe out the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel. – Numbers 16:32-33 NLT

But the story doesn’t end there. Even after this tragic event, the people continued to rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

But the very next morning the whole community of Israel began muttering again against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the Lord’s people!” – Numbers 16:41 NLT

In response to their continued insolence and rebellion, God sent a plague that left 14,700 people dead. Had not Aaron interceded, purifying the people with incense, even more people would have died.

The next thing God commanded Moses to do was to have each tribe bring a staff with the name of their tribe inscribed on it. They were to place these staffs inside the tabernacle in front of the Ark of the Covenant. God ordained this to be a final affirmation of leadership.

“Buds will sprout on the staff belonging to the man I choose. Then I will finally put an end to the people’s murmuring and complaining against you.” – Numbers 17:5 NLT

The next day, when Moses entered the tabernacle, “he found that Aaron’s staff, representing the tribe of Levi, had sprouted, budded, blossomed, and produced ripe almonds!” (Numbers 17:8 NLT).

God had settled the debate once and for all. He had reconfirmed the priestly role of Aaron and his sons. He had dramatically reminded the Levites of their status as His servants. And He had warned all the people of their need to submit to His divine will. Everyone had a part to play. No one was to covet the role of another. There was to be no disunity or jealousy. Every priest, Levite, Nazirite, and citizen of the nation of Israel was expected to live in submission to the will of God – no questions asked, no complaints registered.

And even the Levites were informed that the length of their service would only last 25 years. Once their service was complete, they were to relinquish their duties to another. God’s will and the holiness of God’s people was to be the highest priority of all involved.

“Chapter 8 deals with two issues: lamps and Levites. Both the proper setting of the lamps and the distinction of the Levites from the community are further elements in the purification of the nation in preparation for the holy task God had prepared for her. . . . May one suggest that as the lamps were to be properly focused on the bread of the Presence, so the Levites were to have their proper stance within the community as well?” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

A Team Effort

1 On the day when Moses had finished setting up the tabernacle and had anointed and consecrated it with all its furnishings and had anointed and consecrated the altar with all its utensils, the chiefs of Israel, heads of their fathers’ houses, who were the chiefs of the tribes, who were over those who were listed, approached and brought their offerings before the Lord, six wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two of the chiefs, and for each one an ox. They brought them before the tabernacle. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Accept these from them, that they may be used in the service of the tent of meeting, and give them to the Levites, to each man according to his service.” So Moses took the wagons and the oxen and gave them to the Levites. Two wagons and four oxen he gave to the sons of Gershon, according to their service. And four wagons and eight oxen he gave to the sons of Merari, according to their service, under the direction of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest. But to the sons of Kohath he gave none, because they were charged with the service of the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulder. 10 And the chiefs offered offerings for the dedication of the altar on the day it was anointed; and the chiefs offered their offering before the altar. 11 And the Lord said to Moses, “They shall offer their offerings, one chief each day, for the dedication of the altar.”

12 He who offered his offering the first day was Nahshon the son of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah. 13 And his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 14 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 15 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 16 one male goat for a sin offering; 17 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Nahshon the son of Amminadab.

18 On the second day Nethanel the son of Zuar, the chief of Issachar, made an offering. 19 He offered for his offering one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 20 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 21 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 22 one male goat for a sin offering; 23 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Nethanel the son of Zuar.

24 On the third day Eliab the son of Helon, the chief of the people of Zebulun: 25 his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 26 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 27 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 28 one male goat for a sin offering; 29 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Eliab the son of Helon.

30 On the fourth day Elizur the son of Shedeur, the chief of the people of Reuben: 31 his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 32 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 33 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 34 one male goat for a sin offering; 35 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Elizur the son of Shedeur.

36 On the fifth day Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai, the chief of the people of Simeon: 37 his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 38 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 39 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 40 one male goat for a sin offering; 41 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai.

42 On the sixth day Eliasaph the son of Deuel, the chief of the people of Gad: 43 his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 44 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 45 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 46 one male goat for a sin offering; 47 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Eliasaph the son of Deuel.

48 On the seventh day Elishama the son of Ammihud, the chief of the people of Ephraim: 49 his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 50 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 51 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 52 one male goat for a sin offering; 53 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Elishama the son of Ammihud.

54 On the eighth day Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur, the chief of the people of Manasseh: 55 his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 56 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 57 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 58 one male goat for a sin offering; 59 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur.

60 On the ninth day Abidan the son of Gideoni, the chief of the people of Benjamin: 61 his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 62 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 63 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 64 one male goat for a sin offering; 65 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Abidan the son of Gideoni.

66 On the tenth day Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai, the chief of the people of Dan: 67 his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 68 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 69 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 70 one male goat for a sin offering; 71 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai.

72 On the eleventh day Pagiel the son of Ochran, the chief of the people of Asher: 73 his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 74 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 75 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 76 one male goat for a sin offering; 77 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Pagiel the son of Ochran.

78 On the twelfth day Ahira the son of Enan, the chief of the people of Naphtali: 79 his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; 80 one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; 81 one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; 82 one male goat for a sin offering; 83 and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Ahira the son of Enan.

84 This was the dedication offering for the altar on the day when it was anointed, from the chiefs of Israel: twelve silver plates, twelve silver basins, twelve golden dishes, 85 each silver plate weighing 130 shekels and each basin 70, all the silver of the vessels 2,400 shekels according to the shekel of the sanctuary, 86 the twelve golden dishes, full of incense, weighing 10 shekels apiece according to the shekel of the sanctuary, all the gold of the dishes being 120 shekels; 87 all the cattle for the burnt offering twelve bulls, twelve rams, twelve male lambs a year old, with their grain offering; and twelve male goats for a sin offering; 88 and all the cattle for the sacrifice of peace offerings twenty-four bulls, the rams sixty, the male goats sixty, the male lambs a year old sixty. This was the dedication offering for the altar after it was anointed.

89 And when Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and it spoke to him. Numbers 7:1-89 ESV

This chapter seems to be a look back at a month earlier in the lives of the Israelites when they had just finished the construction of the Tabernacle. At that point, the various tribal leaders brought to Moses what appears to have been an unsolicited, spontaneous gift of six wagons and 12 oxen. The twelve tribes gave these gifts in order to assist the Levites with the transport of the Tabernacle and all its contents from the wilderness to the Promised Land.

While it seems that God did not prescribe or demand these gifts, it was obviously prompted by God’s Spirit. The six wagons and 12 oxen would prove highly beneficial when transporting the large quantities of material associated with the tabernacle.  The gifts were distributed by Moses to the Levites, but none were given to the Kohathites, because they were commanded by God to carry the sacred objects on their shoulders.

In addition to the oxen and carts, each of the tribes presented a variety of offerings that included silver dishes, rams, goats, lambs, and grain. These gifts were offered one tribe at a time over a 12-day period. The extent of the offerings seems to suggest that they were a collective gift given by the people of each tribe. In a sense, the community was joining together to give collectively. Each tribe gave the same gifts. None was greater than the other. But the most significant gift was the very practical one of the oxen and carts.

While care of the tabernacle was to be the sole responsibility of the Levites, the other tribes showed their desire to honor God and His house through their contributions. Their gifts showed forethought and a commitment to solidarity. They were all in this together. As a community, they were all dependent upon the care of the tabernacle because it served as a guarantee of God’s abiding presence.

In much the same way, we can help support those who have been called by God to serve as ministers or missionaries, by giving them the practical support that will make their task more tolerable. In the book of Ephesians, Paul tells us that God, “is the one who gave these gifts to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NLT).

There are those whom God has called to serve the body of Christ in specific roles that come with heavy responsibilities. It is up to the rest of the faith community to support them and to stand beside them as they carry out their duties. Paul wrote to Timothy and gave him the following instructions regarding those men who are appointed as elders of the church.

Elders who do their work well should be paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not keep an ox from eating as it treads out the grain.’ And in another place, ‘Those who work deserve their pay!” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18 NLT

The unique nature of the gifts given by the 12 tribes provides a powerful lesson in the collective nature of the ministry. It reminds us that God’s people need to see to it that God’s work is always fully funded and supported – for the good of the ministry and the glory of God. The Israelites’ gift was practical and highly utilitarian, but it was an offering to God as much as any other sacrifice associated with the tabernacle. Sometimes our practical gifts get overlooked and overshadowed by the more impressive “spiritual” gifts of teaching and preaching. But just imagine how difficult it would have been for the Levites to transport all the contents of the tabernacle had the tribes not been sensitive to God’s leading and given those six carts and 12 oxen.

The family of God is designed to work together in a unified effort to accomplish His divine will. The priests, Levites, Nazirites, and the individual members of each tribe were each to do their part in ensuring that God’s work was accomplished. God’s people should give and serve for the collective good and for God’s glory. Practical, powerful, and life-transformational.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

Sin the the Camp

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.” And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the Lord said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong. But if the man has no next of kin to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for him. And every contribution, all the holy donations of the people of Israel, which they bring to the priest, shall be his. 10 Each one shall keep his holy donations: whatever anyone gives to the priest shall be his.” Numbers 5:1-10 ESV

God puts a high priority on holiness and because He set apart the people of Israel as His own possession, He expected them to live up to His exacting standards.

For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure. – Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT

Having dealt with the Levitical responsibility for the care of the tabernacle, God now turns His attention to the rest of the tribes of Israel. And in the next two chapters, He provides Moses with some rather strange instructions that deal with a wide range of topics – from the seemingly harsh treatment of lepers and those individuals suffering from potentially contagious diseases to the trial of a wife accused of adultery and the strange regulations concerning the Nazirite vow.

But the underlying point seems to be fairly simple: God is highly concerned about the moral purity of His people. He takes the vows of His people seriously. He expects them to maintain moral and ethical standards that are superior to those of other nations. He holds His chosen people to a higher standard than the rest of the nations.

It’s interesting to note that these two chapters talk a lot about moral failure, uncleanliness, and defilement. Yet in the end, there is a beautiful statement regarding God’s desire to bless and protect His people. God wanted to show His people favor and grace. He wanted to shine the light of His glory on them. But He couldn’t do it if there was sin in the camp. He couldn’t dwell in the midst of uncleanness and defilement. He would not make His home in a place surrounded by sin.

So God takes special care to maintain external cleanliness in His people. In verses 1-4 of chapter 5, God commands that those who carry potentially deadly diseases be removed from the camp. This seems like harsh and unloving treatment of the disadvantaged, but its intent was protective and not punitive. They were placed outside the camp so that their disease would not spread, bringing disaster and death to the entire nation.

This rather startling command was meant to provide a not-so-subtle picture of how God’s people were to deal with sin found in their midst. They were to view it as dangerous and potentially deadly and remove it. Like a communicable disease, sin posed a real threat, threatening to spread throughout the camp if left unchecked. The risk of contamination was real and needed to be dealt with decisively. But God’s people always find it much easier to allow sin to exist. We are reluctant to judge, lest we be judged. Yet God seems to be reminding us that the regulations made for ensuring cleanliness in the camp of Israel suggest the adoption of similar means for maintaining purity in the church.

“And although, in large communities of Christians, it may be often difficult or delicate to do this, the suspension or, in flagrant cases of sin, the total excommunication of the offender from the privileges and communion of the church is an imperative duty, as necessary to the moral purity of the Christian as the exclusion of the leper from the camp was to physical health and ceremonial purity in the Jewish church.” – Matthew Henry, The Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible

God wanted to bless His people. He wanted to shower them with His favor, but He expected them to take seriously those things that might defile them and diminish their holiness. And He had given Moses very detailed instructions regarding those physical conditions that would render a person impure and, therefore, unholy.

“If anyone has a swelling or a rash or discolored skin that might develop into a serious skin disease, that person must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons. The priest will examine the affected area of the skin. If the hair in the affected area has turned white and the problem appears to be more than skin-deep, it is a serious skin disease, and the priest who examines it must pronounce the person ceremonially unclean.” – Leviticus 13:2-3 NLT

“If anyone has suffered a burn on the skin and the burned area changes color, becoming either reddish white or shiny white, the priest must examine it. If he finds that the hair in the affected area has turned white and the problem appears to be more than skin-deep, a skin disease has broken out in the burn. The priest must then pronounce the person ceremonially unclean, for it is clearly a serious skin disease. – Leviticus 13:24-25 NLT

These instructions go on for several chapters and make for a far-from-pleasant read. But the point behind them is clear. God viewed these skin conditions as potentially contagious and, therefore, dangerous to the well-being of the nation. The one inflicted with them was to be declared ceremonially unclean and separated from the rest of the camp until healed.

Anyone who had come into contact with a dead body was also to be considered ceremonially unclean and placed in isolation for a period of seven days (Numbers 19:11). And God provides the reasoning behind this command and the others that demanded removal from the camp.

“Remove them so they will not defile the camp in which I live among them…” – Numbers 5:3 NLT

God’s presence demanded the purity of His people, both physically and spiritually. The Levites had been charged with keeping the tabernacle holy and consecrated to the Lord. Now, God was letting the rest of the tribes know that His tabernacle must dwell in the midst of a holy people.

These chapters reveal that the purity of God’s people was a high priority to Him. Why? Because He wanted to bless them and dwell among them. He desired to show them His favor. But sin separates. Sin brings God’s anger instead of His favor. Sin destroys. And God made sure the people made the connection between physical defilement and moral uncleanness by declaring the danger of sinful behavior among His people.

“Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: If any of the people—men or women—betray the Lord by doing wrong to another person, they are guilty. They must confess their sin and make full restitution for what they have done, adding an additional 20 percent and returning it to the person who was wronged.” – Numbers 5:6-7 NLT

Sin was not to be tolerated or treated lightly. It was to be dealt with decisively and immediately. And God clarifies that sin is ultimately an affront to Him. It is a betrayal of the Lord. The Hebrew word is מַעַל (maʿal), and it refers to an act of treachery or betrayal. In committing any sin, the guilty party has displayed their unfaithfulness to the Lord. While their sin harmed another human being, it was done in violation of the will of God. So, God required that restitution be made. Their sin came at a cost. Restoration to God was not possible until payment was made to the innocent party. But if restitution was not possible, the guilty party was obligated to make things right with God.

But if the person who was wronged is dead, and there are no near relatives to whom restitution can be made, the payment belongs to the Lord and must be given to the priest. Those who are guilty must also bring a ram as a sacrifice, and they will be purified and made right with the Lord. – Numbers 5:8 NLT

While God was concerned about the interpersonal relationships between His people, He was even more concerned about their status with Him. Sins committed against others were ultimately an affront to God because He had provided strict laws concerning the interactions between His people. They were prohibited from committing murder, practicing adultery, lying, stealing, dishonoring their parents, coveting, and speaking falsely about one another.

But God knew that they would have a hard time adhering to these commands. That’s why He provided them with the sacrificial system that provided a means of atonement. Even when they committed unintentional sins, they would need a means of restoring their broken relationship with God.

“Suppose you sin by violating one of the Lord’s commands. Even if you are unaware of what you have done, you are guilty and will be punished for your sin. For a guilt offering, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process the priest will purify you from your unintentional sin, making you right with the Lord, and you will be forgiven. This is a guilt offering, for you have been guilty of an offense against the Lord.” – Leviticus 5:17-19 NLT

God made provision for sin. And for the people of Israel, it involved the sacrificial system. But the author of Hebrews reminds us that the sacrificial system was never intended to be a permanent solution to man’s sin problem.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.

But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world… – Hebrews 10:1-5 NLT

God has given His Son as payment for our sins – past, present, and future. We no longer have to pay the penalty that sin requires – which is death and separation from God. But we still must take sin seriously. Paul asks this powerful and probing question: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1 NIV). Then he provides the answer: “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2 NIV).

Paul goes on to tell us: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7 NIV). We no longer have to sin. We have been set free from its power and its penalty. Yet we find that we still have a propensity to sin. And God expects us to treat sin with the same soberness and seriousness that He demanded of the people of Israel. So He can bless us with His favor.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

Redeemed!

40 And the Lord said to Moses, “List all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking the number of their names. 41 And you shall take the Levites for me—I am the Lord—instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the people of Israel.” 42 So Moses listed all the firstborn among the people of Israel, as the Lord commanded him. 43 And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names, from a month old and upward as listed were 22,273.

44 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “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. 46 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, 47 you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over.” 49 So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those redeemed by the Levites. 50 From the firstborn of the people of Israel he took the money, 1,365 shekels, by the shekel of the sanctuary. 51 And Moses gave the redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses. Numbers 3:40-51 ESV

It is easy to view the Levites as nothing more than the priestly order, the one tribe whose sole responsibility was to care for the tabernacle and serve as priests on behalf of the people of God. But there is a much deeper theological significance to their role as the spiritual mediators of Israel.

As has been stated before, God had spared the firstborn sons of Israel when He sent the death angel to punish the nation of Egypt. As a result of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to release the descendants of Jacob from their captivity, God gave Moses instructions concerning the final plague He would bring upon the Egyptians.

So Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.” – Exodus 11:4-6 ESV

Then God instructed the Israelites to prepare for the coming judgment by selecting an unblemished lamb for every household.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household…. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” – Exodus 12:1-3, 5-6 ESV

Each household was to sacrifice their lamb at the same time and follow God’s exacting instructions.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord‘s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 12:7-13 ESV

When the death angel passed through the land, he would “pass over” those homes on which the blood had been sprinkled on the doorposts and lintels. The sacrifice of the unblemished lambs would redeem any firstborn residing in that home.

“For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.” – Exodus 12:23 ESV

On the fateful night when the death angel passed over the city, “the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:29 ESV). But because of the sacrifice of the unblemished lambs, the homes of the Israelites were protected and their firstborn sons were spared. But “there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead” (Exodus 12:30 ESV).

As a result of this miraculous redemption of Israel’s firstborn sons, God commanded Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Exodus 13:1 ESV).

God had spared the firstborn of Israel, and He commanded that they be dedicated to His service. But as the Israelites were making their way to the land of Canaan, God ordered the tribe of Levi to serve as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel. The males of this one tribe would act as stand-ins for all those firstborn sons of the 11 other tribes who rightfully belonged to God. The Levites would redeem or ransom their brothers and serve on their behalf.

God ordered Moses to make a list of all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward. It would appear that these were the sons who had been born since the Israelites left Egypt. According to verse 43, that number amounted to 22,273 firstborn male sons from the 11 tribes of Israel. Verse 39 reveals that there were 22,000 firstborn male sons from the tribe of Levi.

“The Levites, amounting to twenty-two thousand, were given in exchange for an equal number of the first-born from the other tribes, leaving an excess of two hundred seventy-three; and as there were no substitutes for these, they were redeemed at the rate of five shekels for each (Nu 18:15, 16). Every Israelite would naturally wish that his son might be redeemed by a Levite without the payment of this tax, and yet some would have to incur the expense, for there were not Levites enough to make an equal exchange. Jewish writers say the matter was determined by lot, in this manner: Moses put into an urn twenty-two thousand pieces of parchment, on each of which he wrote “a son of Levi,” and two hundred seventy-three more, containing the words, “five shekels.” These being shaken, he ordered each of the first-born to put in his hand and take out a slip. If it contained the first inscription, the boy was redeemed by a Levite; if the latter, the parent had to pay. The ransom-money…was appropriated to the use of the sanctuary.” – Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary

The Levites were more than just priests, they served as God-ordained substitutes whose lives were used to redeem or ransom those who rightfully belonged to God. They served in place of and on behalf of all those whom God had redeemed from death at the original Passover. And when the number of Levites didn’t match that of the firstborn males from the other 11 tribes, 273 families had to pay a sizeable tax of five shekels. The lack of a substitute came at a high price.

And this cost was meant to convey the value of each Levite’s life. No firstborn male was to take his freedom from service lightly or to treat the life of his Levite counterpart flippantly. This passage should serve as a reminder of the tremendous price God paid on behalf of every sinner whom He redeemed from death through the sacrifice of His Son.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:18-20 ESV

The author of Hebrews refers to the church as “the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23 NLT). Each has been “ransomed with the precious blood of the Son of God. All men are the Lord’s by creation, and all true Christians are his by redemption” (Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary).

According to Paul, Jesus is “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29 NLT). He was the firstborn Son of God who served as the sinless substitute for sinful men and women. His death made possible the gift of eternal life for those who at one time stood condemned before God. And had Jesus not offered His life as our substitute, none of us could have afforded to pay the debt we owed to God.

For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world… – Hebrews 10:4-5 NLT

For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:10 NLT

Numbers chapter 3 should remind us of the lines of that great old hymn, “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It.”

Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed through His infinite mercy,
His child, and forever, I am.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

Service as Substitutes

14 And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, 15 “List the sons of Levi, by fathers’ houses and by clans; every male from a month old and upward you shall list.” 16 So Moses listed them according to the word of the Lord, as he was commanded. 17 And these were the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon and Kohath and Merari. 18 And these are the names of the sons of Gershon by their clans: Libni and Shimei. 19 And the sons of Kohath by their clans: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. 20 And the sons of Merari by their clans: Mahli and Mushi. These are the clans of the Levites, by their fathers’ houses.

21 To Gershon belonged the clan of the Libnites and the clan of the Shimeites; these were the clans of the Gershonites. 22 Their listing according to the number of all the males from a month old and upward was 7,500. 23 The clans of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle on the west, 24 with Eliasaph, the son of Lael as chief of the fathers’ house of the Gershonites. 25 And the guard duty of the sons of Gershon in the tent of meeting involved the tabernacle, the tent with its covering, the screen for the entrance of the tent of meeting, 26 the hangings of the court, the screen for the door of the court that is around the tabernacle and the altar, and its cords—all the service connected with these.

27 To Kohath belonged the clan of the Amramites and the clan of the Izharites and the clan of the Hebronites and the clan of the Uzzielites; these are the clans of the Kohathites. 28 According to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, there were 8,600, keeping guard over the sanctuary. 29 The clans of the sons of Kohath were to camp on the south side of the tabernacle, 30 with Elizaphan the son of Uzziel as chief of the fathers’ house of the clans of the Kohathites. 31 And their guard duty involved the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister, and the screen; all the service connected with these. 32 And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest was to be chief over the chiefs of the Levites, and to have oversight of those who kept guard over the sanctuary.

33 To Merari belonged the clan of the Mahlites and the clan of the Mushites: these are the clans of Merari. 34 Their listing according to the number of all the males from a month old and upward was 6,200. 35 And the chief of the fathers’ house of the clans of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail. They were to camp on the north side of the tabernacle. 36 And the appointed guard duty of the sons of Merari involved the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories; all the service connected with these; 37 also the pillars around the court, with their bases and pegs and cords.

38 Those who were to camp before the tabernacle on the east, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, were Moses and Aaron and his sons, guarding the sanctuary itself, to protect the people of Israel. And any outsider who came near was to be put to death. 39 All those listed among the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron listed at the commandment of the Lord, by clans, all the males from a month old and upward, were 22,000. Numbers 3:14-39 ESV

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 later, God revealed to Moses another plan. He 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 NL)

The Levites had become His servants. Now, they were to become the peoples’ substitutes. 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 Levite males from one month and older was 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 demanded that the firstborn males of all the tribes perform the service required to maintain and move His Tabernacle. He could have pressed them into service as His ministers and priests but instead, He set aside the tribe of Levi for this important duty. And in doing so, the Levites became substitutes for the people.

The Levites were not to be included in the census of fighting men but were made responsible for the care and transportation of the tabernacle. It was their task to take down and set up the tabernacle whenever God commanded them to move. And when they arrived at their God-appointed destination, they reassembled the tabernacle and then set up their own camps around it.

In this passage, God provides Moses with detailed instructions to divide the tribe of Levi into its clans or family groups.

So Moses listed them, just as the Lord had commanded.

Levi had three sons, whose names were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

The clans descended from Gershon were named after two of his descendants, Libni and Shimei.

The clans descended from Kohath were named after four of his descendants, Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel.

The clans descended from Merari were named after two of his descendants, Mahli and Mushi.

These were the Levite clans, listed according to their family groups. – Numbers 3:16-20 NLT

Each of these clans was to set up their camp on a particular perimeter of the tabernacle. One to the east, one to the west, another to the north, and the last one to the south. In doing so, they would be protecting the sons of Israel from coming near the tabernacle in an unclean state and facing certain death (Numbers 1:47-54).

The Levites had been given a huge responsibility. Not only were they to care for all the things related to the tabernacle, but they were to maintain its holiness. The tabernacle was God’s dwelling place and was to be treated with reverence. 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 were given the unenviable task of keeping everything associated with the tabernacle pure and holy, including themselves and the people they served.

God had set apart the entire nation of Israel as a kingdom of 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

And God had claimed the right to require the service of every firstborn among the Israelites because He had spared them from death during the final plague in Exodus. But He had chosen the Levites to serve as their substitutes. They served in the place of those who were rightfully obligated to serve God. Not every Israelite was required to serve as a priest. Their place was taken by the Levites. Not every firstborn was required to dedicate their life to the service of God and His tabernacle. Their place was taken by the Levites.

Which is a picture of Christ’s substitutionary death for each of us. He became our sin substitute. He paid the debt we owed. He took our place. He served in our stead. He satisfied the demands of a holy God and did what none of us could on our own. 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 did for us.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

The Will and the Word of God

10 Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,

“‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
    and Israel must go into exile
    away from his land.’”

12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

14 Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. 15 But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16 Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.

“You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
    and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’

17 Therefore thus says the Lord:

“‘Your wife shall be a prostitute in the city,
    and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
    and your land shall be divided up with a measuring line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
    and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’” Amos 7:10-17 ESV

Back during the days when God split Solomon’s kingdom in two, He placed Jeroboam I as the king over the ten northern tribes. They retained the name of Israel, while the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin became the kingdom of Judah, under the reign of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon. One of the first things Jeroboam I did was to establish his own religion, complete with golden idols. He set up temples in Bethel and Dan, and established a set of annual feasts to discourage the people from making pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

Jeroboam also erected buildings at the pagan shrines and ordained priests from the common people—those who were not from the priestly tribe of Levi. – 1 Kings 12:31 NLT

Now, hundreds of years later, another king of Israel, who was also called Jeroboam, proved that he and his predecessor had far more in common than a shared name.

He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight. He refused to turn from the sins that Jeroboam son of Nebat had led Israel to commit. – 2 Kings 14:24 NLT

Jeroboam II had followed the ways of every king of Israel who had preceded him. He propagated the practice of idolatry begun by his namesake. And he continued to lead the people away from their worship of Yahweh. That’s why God had provided Amos with the visions of Israel’s pending destruction. He was not going to tolerate the continued apostasy of His chosen people, and He had specifically decreed the end of Jeroboam II’s reign.

“I will test my people with this plumb line. I will no longer ignore all their sins. The pagan shrines of your ancestors will be ruined, and the temples of Israel will be destroyed; I will bring the dynasty of King Jeroboam to a sudden end.” – Amos 7:9-10 NLT

It didn’t take long for this fateful news to reach the ears of the king, and it came through one of his false priests, a man named Amaziah. He served at the temple in Bethel, where Jeroboam I had placed one of his golden calves. Amaziah was no more qualified to be a priest than the idol he worshiped was qualified to be considered a god. According to God’s law, only members of the tribe of Levi could serve in the priesthood. God had set them apart for that very purpose. But Amaziah was not a Levite and, therefore, not really a priest at all. He was just a man who pretended to be a priest for a god that didn’t really exist. But in the apostate land of Israel, that was more than enough for him to have the respect of the people and the ear of the king.

So, when Amaziah got wind of Amos’ doomsday visions, he immediately reported it to the king.

“Amos is hatching a plot against you right here on your very doorstep! What he is saying is intolerable. He is saying, ‘Jeroboam will soon be killed, and the people of Israel will be sent away into exile.’” – Amos 7:10-11 NLT

The so-called priest rejected the word of God’s appointed prophet. He placed no stock in Amos’ words and simply viewed him as a potential threat to the kingdom and his own way of life. In Amaziah’s mind, Amos was nothing more than an insurrectionist who had threatened the life of the king. He needed to take his prophetic show somewhere else.

“Get out of here, you prophet! Go on back to the land of Judah, and earn your living by prophesying there! Don’t bother us with your prophecies here in Bethel. This is the king’s sanctuary and the national place of worship!” – Amos 7:12-13 NLT

According to the opening verses of this book, Amos was from the city of Tekoa, which was located in the southern kingdom of Judah. Yet God had called him to prophesy to the northern kingdom of Israel. So, Amaziah viewed Amos as an outsider and strongly encouraged him to go back where he came from, because he was no longer welcome in Israel. But Amos was anything but a professional prophet and he wasn’t in it for the money. He had been minding his own business as a sheepherder when God called him and sent him to prophesy to the northern kingdom. He had not chosen this less-than-enjoyable assignment, but had been divinely appointed for it. And as long as God continued to speak, Amos was going to repeat what he heard.

So, rather than take Amaziah’s advice and return home to Tekoa, Amos gave his nemesis a prophetic word from God.

Now then, listen to this message from the Lord:

“You say,
‘Don’t prophesy against Israel.
    Stop preaching against my people.’
But this is what the Lord says…” – Amos 7:16-17 NLT

Amaziah was in no position to dictate demands. He had no authority to order around a prophet of Yahweh. And while he thought he could ban the prophet of God, he couldn’t stifle the word of God. And the news that Amos had to share was anything but encouraging.

Your wife will become a prostitute in this city,
    and your sons and daughters will be killed.
Your land will be divided up,
    and you yourself will die in a foreign land.
And the people of Israel will certainly become captives in exile,
    far from their homeland.’” – Amos 7:17 NLT

It was as if God had placed His plumb line next to the life of this false priest and found him to be way out of alignment. He failed to measure up to God’s righteous standard. Amaziah had failed on all accounts. He was not a Levite. That means he was unqualified to be a priest. On top of that, he worshiped a god that didn’t even exist. He was a fake priest who promoted the worship of a false god. And he served a king who “did what was evil in the Lord’s sight” (2 Kings 14:24 NLT). Amaziah was nothing more than a poorly constructed wall that leaned precariously and dangerously in the wrong direction. And his fall was imminent and unavoidable.

Amaziah’s tenure as a well-respected priest in Israel would come to an abrupt end. As a member of the royal retinue, he would end up being taken captive when Israel fell to the Assyrians. That would leave his wife as little more than a widow, forced to sell her body in order to make ends meet. His children would be murdered by the Assyrians and his land holdings would be confiscated and divided among others. Amaziah would end up losing everything. This man who thought he could stifle the word of God would have his life destroyed according to the sovereign will of God. And there was nothing he could about it.

But because Amaziah was not a priest of Yahweh, he couldn’t recognize God’s voice or accept God’s prophet. He had long ago sold out to the false gods of Jeroboam I. He had grown rich and influential by promoting the worship of gods that didn’t even exist. But now, Amaziah was about to find out the hard way, that not only did Yahweh exist, His will was unavoidable and His word was always reliable. God had spoken and it would happen – just as Amos had said.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The God Behind the Blessings

“Let Reuben live, and not die,
    but let his men be few.”

And this he said of Judah:

“Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah,
    and bring him in to his people.
With your hands contend for him,
    and be a help against his adversaries.”

And of Levi he said,

“Give to Levi your Thummim,
    and your Urim to your godly one,
whom you tested at Massah,
    with whom you quarreled at the waters of Meribah;
who said of his father and mother,
    ‘I regard them not’;
he disowned his brothers
    and ignored his children.
For they observed your word
    and kept your covenant.
10 They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
11 Bless, O Lord, his substance,
    and accept the work of his hands;
crush the loins of his adversaries,
    of those who hate him, that they rise not again.” Deuteronomy 33:6-11 ESV

Moses begins his pronouncement of blessings on the 12 tribes with Reuben. This is in keeping with Reuben’s position as the first-born son of Jacob. And Moses seems to echo the sentiments of Jacob when he bestowed the following blessing on Reuben hundreds of years earlier:

“Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength,
    the child of my vigorous youth.
    You are first in rank and first in power.
But you are as unruly as a flood,
    and you will be first no longer.
For you went to bed with my wife;
    you defiled my marriage couch.” – Genesis 49:3-4 NLT

Reuben had sinned against his father and against God, having slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah. This was a crime punishable by death, and yet, Reuben was allowed to live. But as the words of Jacob reveal, Reuben and his descendants would pay for dearly for his sin. The Reubenites would be one of three tribes who asked for and receive land on the east side of the Jordan, choosing to settle outside the land of promise. In time, they would lose their prestige, fading in prominence and number. It is interesting to note that the tribe of Reuben produced no judges, prophets, or rulers. In spite of his sin, Reuben was allowed to live, but his descendants would never enjoy fulness of life.

Moses deviates from Jacob’s order of blessings by skipping over the tribes of Simeon and Levi and focusing on Judah. And Moses’ blessing, while shorter in length, contains some of the same thoughts as those expressed by Jacob. Both men saw Judah as the preeminent tribe among the 12. Jacob had predicted Judah’s rise to prominence, describing his son as a young lion that grabs its enemies by the neck. Jacob mentions the king’s scepter and the ruler’s staff, symbols of power and authority, and states that from this tribe will come one to whom these things rightfully belong.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you.
    You will grasp your enemies by the neck.
    All your relatives will bow before you.
Judah, my son, is a young lion
    that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
    like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.
He ties his foal to a grapevine,
    the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
    his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine,
    and his teeth are whiter than milk.” – Genesis 49:8-12 NLT

This prophetic statement concerns the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus was born of the tribe of Judah and was a descendant of King David. The scepter and the ruler’s staff belong to Him. And in John’s vision of Jesus recorded in the book of Revelation, he describes Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5 ESV). Obviously, the tribe of Judah would play a significant role in God’s plan of redemption for the world. It would be through this tribe that the Savior would come. And Moses, seeming to understand the future significance of this tribe, pronounces a blessing, asking God to protect and provide for them.

The great king David would come from the tribe of Judah. And it would be he who elevated the nation of Israel to greatness, establishing them as a major political and military force in that region of the world. And after God eventually divided the kingdom of Israel in half, the southern portion would take on the name of Judah, further enhancing this tribe’s prominence among the 12.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Levi, and he has much more to say about this tribe than Jacob did. Not only that, his words concerning Levi are much more positive than those of Jacob.

“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

Jacob had a reason to be upset with these two sons. They had brought shame to the house of Jacob by their deceitful treatment of the Hivites. The story is a complicated one, but involves the rape of their sister, Dinah, by “Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land” (Genesis 34:2 ESV). Rather than seeking revenge for the rape of his daughter, Jacob determined to make a treaty with the Hivites, agreeing to allow intermarriage between their two nations, in direct violation of God’s command. Jacob’s sons demanded that Jacob require the circumcision of all the males among the Hivites as part of the agreement. When the Hivites had agreed and followed through on their commitment to be circumcised, Levi and Simeon “took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males” (Genesis 34:25 ESV). And rather than bless them, Jacob had issued a curse, predicting their ultimate dispersal among the rest of the tribes of Israel. And little did he know, that is exactly what would happen. But not as he suspected.

The book of Exodus records a seminal event in the history of Israel. Moses had been on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God when he received the news from God that things were not going well back in the camp of Israel. Moses descended the mountain only to find the people of Israel reveling before the golden calf they had constructed in his absence. While he had been on Sinai receiving God’s law, the people had been in the valley worshiping a false god they had made with their own hands. After destroying the idol they had made, Moses turned his anger against the people of Israel.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day.

Then Moses told the Levites, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:26-29 NLT

The tribe of Levi stepped up and used their swords to defend the integrity of God’s name and mete out His justice and judgment against all those who had participated in the idolatry and spiritual adultery. And as a result of their efforts, the Levites were set apart for the service of the Lord. They would become the priestly order, tasked with representing the rest of the tribes before the Lord and for the care and transport of the tabernacle. And when the nation of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, the Levites would not be given land as an inheritance but would be given cities scattered throughout the tribes of Israel, in fulfillment of Jacob’s words.

The Levites had used treachery and deceit to repay the Hivites for the rape of their sister, but they had been motivated by a desire to avenge her mistreatment. They had also stood opposed to the treaty their father had made with the Hivites, knowing that it was improper for them to intermarry with these uncircumcised pagans. But while their hearts had been in the right place, they had taken matters into their own hands and violated the treaty their father had made. Yet, hundreds of years later, God would redeem the Levites, raising them up and using them to serve as His agents of judgment against their own brothers and sisters.

And Moses blesses them for their role as God’s intercessors. They had been used by God to avenge His holy name and mete out His judgment against the wicked at Sinai. And they had been set apart as priests, teaching Israel God’s laws, and offering sacrifices on their behalf so that they might remain in a right standing with God. At Sinai, the Levites had shed the blood of their brothers and sisters in order to assuage the righteous anger of God. But in the tabernacle, they would spill the blood of innocent bulls and goats, pouring it out as a sacrifice to God on behalf of the sins of the people.

From the days of Jacob to the time of Moses, God was working behind the scenes,  orchestrating events in such as a way that every blessing bestowed by each man would be fulfilled. But these blessings were not the words of men. They were the Spirit-inspired will of God. Neither Moses or Jacob fully understood the full import of their words or the exact nature of their outcome. But God did. He was and is sovereign over all. And while the tribe of Reuben would settle outside the land of promise, they would assist the rest of the tribes in conquering and possessing their inheritance. And God would raise up the tribe of Judah, allowing them to produce the future Messiah, the Savior of the world. The Levites, while cursed by their father for their deceit, would be redeemed by God and used to carry His tabernacle, communicate His law, and care for the spiritual needs of His people.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson