By The Numbers, 1

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Most Christians have a vague idea of the book of Numbers. They know it’s someplace in the Old Testament. Beyond that, they’re not too sure about it. The book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch, or the fourth of the first five books of the Bible. They were written by Moses and are referred to by the Jews as “the books of the Law.”

In Genesis we learn about the origins of man, and other origins: the origin of sin, the origin of the family, and the origin of the nation of Israel. In Exodus we find Israel, little more than a family, becoming a nation within the nation of Egypt. We see them becoming slaves in Egypt and we are witness to God’s mighty deliverance of Israel from their bondage. We watch Moses leading his people across the trackless desert to the foot of Mount Sinai. In Leviticus we see Israel killing time at Mount Sinai while God gives them His Law and the Tabernacle. And in Numbers, we watch as Israel leaves Mount Sinai, destined for Kadesh-barnea, where they massively fail the Lord, resulting in their 40 year exile in the desert. Yet, it wasn’t so much an exile as it was a time of discipline. God was teaching His people a great lesson.

We could call the Book of Numbers “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” but that title was taken by Bunyan. It’s an apt theme for this fourth book of Moses, though. And we, like these ancient Israelites, are on a journey. They were heading toward their Promised Land, and we toward ours. Numbers shows us how they traveled. In this book, we learn what works and what doesn’t work on a journey of faith. There are a lot of lessons to be learned. Paul knew this:

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. (Romans 15:4 NIV)

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:11 – 13 NIV)

Indeed. Regardless of what you may be going through, somebody else already went through it. The trials of the Israelites were not unique to them. Your trials aren’t unique to you, either. There’s plenty to learn about living the Christian life from looking at these ancient texts.

So, let’s get in the Wayback Machine and head back to an ancient time so that we live God-pleasing lives today.

What was numbered?

Why do we call this book of the Old Testament “Numbers?” It’s because in the first chapter there is a census and in the twenty-sixth chapter there is another census. The people were numbered. That’s why we call this book Numbers. We get some vital information about early Israel from the numbers in Numbers. We can actually determine how many Israelites left Egypt by looking at the numbers. There were some 600,000 fighting men and around 400,000 women. It is estimated that there were in the neighborhood 200,000 senior citizens and almost 800,000 young people. Don’t forget, there was the infamous “mixed multitude” that left Egypt with Israel, and those people numbered upwards of 100,000. That’s a total of 2,100,000 people, not counting the tribe of Levi. If we were to add in the Levites, then we could safely estimate that between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 Israelites left Egypt, destined for the Promised Land.

The uncounted Levites

Our God is a God of order, and the first order of the day in terms of getting the people from where they were to where they needed to be was an inventory of all men of fighting age.

Take a census of all the men twenty years old and older who are able to go to war, indicating their tribe and family. (Numbers 1:3 TLB)

Can you imagine that? The Israelites had never fought in any conflict, and God told Moses to get the troops ready! It’s to Moses’ credit that he never debated with God. He never raised any doubts he may have had about either the forthcoming war or the outcome of the journey. And he never complained about the laborious task of having to take this census.

As the Lord commanded Moses, so he numbered them in the Wilderness of Sinai. (Numbers 1:19 NKJV)

Moses just did what God told him to. It’s too bad that in the days and weeks to come, Moses would let the circumstances dictate his level of obedience. But for now, we have to admire this man’s dedication to doing precisely what God expected of him.

The Lord also gave this command to Moses:

This total does not include the Levites, for the Lord had said to Moses, “Exempt the entire tribe of Levi from the draft, and do not include their number in the census.” (Numbers 1:47 TLB)

Why not? Why not count members of the tribe of Levi? What was wrong with them? What did they do – or not do – to get themselves excluded from the census? Truth be told, the Levites were excluded, not because of who they were or what they did, but because of what God wanted.

For the Levites are assigned for the work connected with the Tabernacle and its transportation. They are to live near the Tabernacle… (Numbers 1:50 TLB)

Not everybody was called to fight. Somebody had to take care of the tabernacle and its furniture and to act as ministers and priests. In God’s eyes, work, war, and worship were all part of His plan for His people. Each part was in His will and indispensable to the successful completion of the Israelite’s journey from bondage to freedom.

Qualifications

The Levites were, therefore, different from the rest of the population. Consider –

* They were separate.

The Levites were not counted with the rest of the tribes. God treated them differently than the other tribes. God had a special relationship with the Levites. Why? It was because they were to be completely devoted and consecrated to Him. They were closer to Him than any of the other Israelites were. God always treats those who are whose hearts are completely His differently than He treats believers who are mildly interested in Him. He hears and He answers their prayers, for example.

The earnest prayer of a righteous man has great power and wonderful results. (James 5:16b TLB)

Not only that, God promises to keep watch over those who are completely sold out to Him:

For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him. (2 Chronicles 16:9 NKJV)

Today, you don’t have to be a Levite to enjoy these kinds of blessings. You just have to serve God, holding nothing back.

* They were chosen by God

God took the Levites instead of the firstborn of Israel:

And the Lord said to Moses, “I have accepted the Levites in substitution for all the oldest sons of the people of Israel. The Levites are mine.” (Numbers 3:12 TLB)

The Levites were God’s personal property. This is the earliest recorded example of the consecration of people to the Lord. It was special in Old Testament times, but expected of Christians today:

And so, dear brothers, I plead with you to give your bodies to God. Let them be a living sacrifice, holy—the kind he can accept. When you think of what he has done for you, is this too much to ask? Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but be a new and different person with a fresh newness in all you do and think. Then you will learn from your own experience how his ways will really satisfy you. (Romans 12:1, 2 TLB)

The Levites belonged to God; He had full-claim on their time. They were to serve Him full-time. Here are the seeds God’s devotion to the Christian and the Christian’s devotion to God:

He is the Spirit who reveals the truth about God. The world cannot receive him, because it cannot see him or know him. But you know him, because he remains with you and is in you. (John 14:17 GNB)

* They were given to Aaron

And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons… (Numbers 3:9 NKJV)

And so are we given to Jesus:

I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. (John 17:6 ESV)

This really is a most remarkable verse, and a terrifying one. It’s part of the real Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus prayed before His Crucifixion. This was a deeply personal prayer between Son and Father.

The disciples had been given to Jesus by God. They were His gift to His Son and that gift was irrevocable. Jesus was talking to God about the doctrine of election. He refers to it several times in this lengthy prayer:

…you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. (John 17:2 ESV)

Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. (John 17:11 ESV)

While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.(John 17:12 ESV)

It’s a difficult thing to understand, but we have been given to Christ by God the Father. We, like the Levites before us, have been chosen from out of the world to serve God though a relationship with Jesus Christ. We belong to Him. He watches over us. He takes care of us. He holds onto us.

There’s a mystical union between our Lord and ourselves. It’s hard to understand and even harder to explain. Our finite minds can’t grasp the infinite, but looking at the Levites gives us a clue. They were one tribe out many, called and set apart by God to serve Him. You as a Christian have been called by God and set apart by Him to serve Him. Do you take your calling seriously as the Levites took theirs? If you think it was easy being a Levite, think again. It wasn’t. And it’s not particularly easy being a Christian. But you have something a Levite didn’t have and could never contemplate: the abiding presence of God in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

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