It is the book of Numbers. It is, at times, laborious.
Yet at the same moment, we can see within this where God’s word and God’s work are glorious as well. Numbers 3 begins with the wordy details of the Levites and their duties. They are to serve the priests, beginning with Aaron, and accomplish the basic grunt-work of the operation of the Tabernacle. Including the setting-up and taking-down of the whole thing.
Since Numbers is particularly interested in the census of Israel, the other references to the Levites in this chapter focuses on taking the count of their number. This includes recording the names of the family leaders, and is subject to some of the same discussions regarding the size of the numbers as the census of the fighting men. I do find the separation of the Levites from the fighting men curious, especially in historical context. I think this comes from an assumption that God would provide safety for Israel, because the Levites would be free to serve the worship center without fear of attack.
Of course, the Old Testament demonstrates that the people of Israel did not uphold the obedience to the covenant, and the end result was that God honored the promise to bring judgment. This judgment stemmed from the people not listening to God, not honoring the obligations they had. If you do not listen to the Word of God, no size army will be enough to hold back His judgment. Fidelity to the covenant is the bedrock of security.
I want us to look at something a tad further down, though. There is another reason for the population counts in these opening chapters of Numbers. The people of Israel are counting up to validate the redemption of the firstborn of the land. If you look back at Exodus 22:29-30, you find that the firstborn sons of all Israel were to be set apart to God.
Instead, though, God takes the Levites as a whole tribe as substitutes for the firstborn of every tribe. The count, then, is taken to make sure it comes out even. And it does….not. The people are slightly more numerous than the Levites. There are 273 too many people. This means that 273 firstborn remain to be redeemed.
And redeemed they are, for 5 shekels apiece. One thing that I am curious about is this: did they average that out across all the firstborn, or did Moses pick 273 who had to pay? The text gives no answer, and it probably does not really matter, but I am curious.
If you look at the cost of redemption, though, per person it is this: the same as the cost of freeing a slave at the time. The other typical option for a slave becoming free was to provide someone to be a slave in their place.
These are the two options given here. A life for a life, or an appropriate price for that life. These are the costs of deliverance from slavery. For Israel, it was slavery to Egypt.
For us, it is slavery to sin. (John 8:34)
The bad news is that only one not enslaved to sin can substitute for a slave to sin.
The even worse news is that slavery to sin is hereditary, so no one is going to have a chance to be that substitute.
The only good news in this situation is a connected string of realities. The first is that God has no shadow of sin within Him, and so is not enslaved. And He is the one who came to be our substitute, to provide for our redemption.
That is a very good thing.
Added into the good is this: while the Levites were one-to-one, and the excess Israelites needed cash, this is not the case for us. Because the infinite God is the one who is the substitute, there can be no over application of Him. He is enough.
We, like Israel, were slaves. There was nothing we could do about it, but there was something God could do. And He did.
Today’s Nerd Note: There is possibly something to the idea of Levites given to Aaron, to free the priesthood up for its proper functions and the New Testament giving of deacons to the Church so the Apostles could focus on teaching and prayer. Take a look at Acts 6 and consider those possibilities.