Obligation before Privilege: Numbers 18
As we continue through the whole Bible, we return to the Old Testament. Carrying on in the book of Numbers and reaching Numbers 18, we find Aaron, the Levites, and the priests addressed in this chapter. It is important to note that there is a distinction between Aaron and the Levites, and between the Levites and the priests. Though all of these served at the sanctuary, they are not entirely interchangeable.
The chapter opens with a summation of the responsibilities shared by all three of these groups: Aaron and his sons; the Levites; the priests. Fundamentally, the obligations expressed here about protecting the worship space of Israel. The religious leadership in these people was responsible to make sure the Tabernacle was taken care of, the rules were followed, and the guilt of Israel atoned for through sacrifices.
This was a heavy responsibility. It was one that could not be handed off: Numbers 18:7 speaks of the hereditary nature of being a leading priest. Outsiders could not come in. I would suggest that this is more about preventing hiring out the work than it is about preventing others from joining. That is not abundantly clear in Scripture, though. A good research project on that subject would need to explore the practices outside of Israel and remember that much of the Mosaic Religious Law was about separating Israel’s practices from their neighbor’s habits.
This responsibility was great enough that the nation depended on the work of these few. There was no substitute for Levites, the priests, or the Aaronic line.
After the obligations are spelled out, then the privileges are listed. Much of the rest of the chapter details how the Levites, priests, and Aaronic line are compensated for their work. Many of them will eat from the everyday labor of their fellow Israelites. While the priests are mending fabrics or arranging lampstands, their countrymen will be herding sheep or growing crops.
In all honesty, theirs is a call to a life of privilege. Even though there will be daily tasks and a level of monotony, the everyday work of a priest was not nearly the challenge of the life of the people. The Levite spent his time close to the holy, so that he could then be part of the visible reminder of God’s presence to the people.
Yet the privilege follows the obligations. It is not for the Levites or Aaron or the priests to gain the compensation first. They are to fulfill the responsibilities of the office. They do the work, and because they do the work, the privileges follow. It cannot come in the reverse order.
The chapter closes with a verse that reminds us why not. The last phrase of Numbers 18:32 warns the religious leadership that if they profane the gifts of the sons of Israel, they will die.
Not, they will be replaced or they will be shamed. They will die. As in, door-knocker dead. This should keep them reminded of their purpose. This should keep them focused on what matters, serving YHWH, God of Israel and serving His people.
Because anything else is death.
We don’t quite take things that seriously, do we? Perhaps we should. Integrity in religious leadership is a matter of life and death. Failing to hold leadership to the proper standards is dangerous for the spiritual life and well-being of everyone. Take the obligations of leadership seriously. God does.
Today’s Nerd Note: Nerd note is slow because Logos Bible Software is misbehaving on my PC. Oh, there it is: There is a reference here to the idea of a “covenant of salt” in the priesthood. There is no real description of what that means, and people have made varied guesses of late to explain it.
The best I can find is the idea of salt as preservative and flavor-developer, as well as medicinal and life-sustaining. The priests are given to the people for those purposes.
Kind of like another group of people…Matthew 5:13, perhaps?