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Time to Quit: Numbers 8

I have a retirement fund. At my current rate of saving, I can expect to draw approximately 1/3 of my current income when I turn 67. For those of you who are good with math, you know what that means: I will not likely ever retire. Which is fine in my opinion: while there are times that the work I do can be strenuous, if I keep doing it another thirty years I’ll likely be able to ask for help for those parts.

Being a Levite was another matter. Levites are given their term of service in Numbers 8:23-26. This passage gives a hard number:  a Levite starts service at the worship center at 25, and rotates out at 50. End of story.

What facts need to go with this reality?

1. Consider the “age of responsibility” in the culture of the time. The reality is that before a Levite undertook duties at the sanctuary, he had a good decade of being responsible for various adult activities, like work. Or relationships—depending on what source you pick, he likely had been married for some time, or was approaching marriageable age. I happen to think that era married earlier rather than later.

Now, amidst the personal responsibility of the era, keep the community aspect in mind. We’re not talking about a 15-year-old Levite out managing 1,000 acre farm with no help. If I read the Old Testament books, both canonical and explanatory, right, then he’s got his plot, right beside another Levite’s plot. So there is backup for his youth and inexperience, but he’s still responsible for himself.

2. Lifespan in peacetime easily exceeded 50 years for the Israelites. This is not a matter of “well, if he gets to 50, he can kick back.” If they were living at peace, it would not have been unheard of to reach that age. There would have been some medical issues with aging: hearing and vision challenges come to mind, but there was not a certainty of death at an early age.

3. There was a physicality to the labor at the sanctuary. Heavy stuff to move, animals to wrangle, water to haul. There was more at hand than just teaching and singing.

4. The Levites were primarily responsible for their own provisions by the land given them among the Israelites, though they did receive a share in the offerings. That share was divided among all of the Levites. There was no retirement savings—life was provisioned by the ongoing gifts of the people.

Now that we have that in view, where do we go next?

First, we need to address this principle: while there was retirement from active service at the sanctuary, being a Levite was not just a job. It was who you were. As believers in Jesus, being active disciples that share the Word of God is not a job, either. It is who we are. There is no retirement from that aspect of existence.

Second, we need to consider this principle: there does come a point when the body cannot keep up with the needs of some work. However, that does not mean the end of our usefulness. Note that the Levites were told that they could assist, but not carry the heavy load. There is no quit. There is a shift in responsibility.

Third, we need to understand this principle: because a shift in responsibility was coming, it was necessary to prepare the next generation of workers. A Levite knew he would be out of the role he filled within a set period of time. I have no evidence for this, but I think it a safe assumption that there was a constant rotation of duties to ensure people could step up to the task. Anything that needs doing now will need doing in the years to come. Train multiple people to fill those needs.

Finally, we need to grab this principle: eventually, we will need to be cared for by others. The best preparation for that is to provide care for others now. Why? It helps us understand. It also frees those who have gone before to impart wisdom rather than spend all their time hauling water. Freely give to those who have preceded you, so that they may freely impart wisdom to you.

These are some principles from the retirement plan of Numbers 9. Note that there is nothing here about how to survive or save for retirement—only about being allowed to continue helping afterwards!

So, what is your retirement plan?

Today’s Nerd Note: The remainder of the chapter speaks to the ceremonial worship of YHWH and the institution of the sanctuary worship system. Ritual purity was established, and the people obeyed fully.

What should strike us the most is that this was not done in secret, but in full view and with full participation of the people. Any system that installs worship leaders without the people’s involvement is flawed.

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