Preparing to Depart

This lesson reviews the instructions God gave the Israelites concerning a census, the order for camps, travel and the responsibilities of both the priests and Levites.
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In our previous chapter we began our study of the Old Testament books of Numbers and Deuteronomy by examining the background, authorship and historical context of both these books written by Moses and set during the time that the Israelites spent in the wilderness after their liberation from Egyptian Captivity.

We also looked at the similarities (both books deal with aspects of the Law and covenant between God and His people, the Israelites) and differences (Numbers is a narrative describing the Israelites journey and actions, Deuteronomy is a compilation of teachings by Moses). Also, Numbers provides instructions, laws and information about the peoples' conduct in the desert while Deuteronomy is more of a monologue by Moses providing instruction to prepare the people for entry into the Promise Land.

Finally, we reviewed the various periods and major events that took place during the Jewish people's 40-year journey in the wilderness from their departure from Mt. Sinai after receiving the 10 Commandments to their arrival at the plains of Moab across the Jordan river opposite from the city of Jericho.

We ended with the key themes found in both these inspired texts:

  1. Obedience – Blessings are linked to obedience.
  2. Faith – The key element necessary to overcome obstacles.
  3. Leadership – The necessity of having Godly leaders to guide God's people.
  4. Covenant – God deals with His people (even today) through a set covenant.

In this second lesson we begin a closer study of the book of Numbers beginning with the first four chapters which you have finished reading.

I. Census # 1 – Numbers 1:1-46

There were two censuses described in the book of Numbers. The first of these is described in chapter 1.

1Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, 2"Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head 3from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies. 4With you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father's household.
- Numbers 1:1-4

The first census of the Israelites, as recorded in the Book of Numbers chapter 1, was conducted in a specific manner and for several important reasons:

1. Organization of the Tribes

The census was conducted to organize the twelve tribes of Israel according to their numbers. Each tribe had its own identity and responsibilities within the community. Knowing the population of each tribe was crucial for assigning them their roles and territories as they journeyed through the wilderness and eventually settled in the Promised Land.

2. Military Preparedness

Another significant reason for the census was to assess the military strength of the Israelites. By counting the number of eligible men who could serve in the army, the leaders of Israel could determine their military capabilities. This information would be vital for defense against potential threats during their journey and conquest of the Promised Land.

3. Inheritance and Distribution of Resources

The census also played a role in the distribution of land and resources among the tribes. The allotment of land in the Promised Land was to be done proportionately according to the size of each tribe. By knowing the population of each tribe, the leaders could ensure a fair distribution of resources, enabling each tribe to sustain itself economically and agriculturally.

The manner in which the census was conducted involved counting only the men who were twenty years old and above, who were eligible for military service and considered adults in Israelite society. Each tribe was counted separately, with a designated leader representing each tribe assisting in the counting process. This meticulous counting ensured accuracy and provided crucial demographic information for the organization and governance of the Israelite community later on.

Someone might ask, "Why count only the men, would this not provide an incomplete number of actual people that comprised the Jewish nation?"

This is a natural question when we consider a census taken today where one primary goal is to determine just how many people there are in a city or country?

The Jewish census, however, was not taken in order to count the total number of people. There were other reasons for the census taken in this particular manner:

In the census taken by Moses in the Book of Numbers, only the men were counted for several reasons beyond just assessing military potential:

1. Cultural and Legal Context

In ancient Israelite society, men held positions of leadership and authority within the family and community structure. The counting of men reflected the patriarchal nature of the society, where men were seen as the heads of households and were responsible for various duties and obligations, including military service, religious rituals, and legal matters.

2. Lineage and Inheritance

The counting of men was also closely tied to the concept of lineage and inheritance. Inheritance laws and property rights were typically passed down through the male line in Jewish culture. Therefore, knowing the number of men in each tribe was essential for determining the distribution of land and resources among the tribes, as well as for preserving family lineage and inheritance rights.

3. Representation in Governance

The census of men helped establish a system of representation and governance within the community. In many ancient societies, including Israel, decision-making and leadership roles were primarily held by men. By counting men, the leadership could accurately assess the demographic makeup of each tribe and allocate responsibilities and representation accordingly.

4. Focus on Household Heads

The census likely focused on men because they were the primary providers for their families. Counting men provided a practical way to gauge the overall population and assess the community's ability to support itself economically and socially.

Overall, the decision to count only men in the census was first and foremost done as a response to God's instructions. Aside from this, the male count also served cultural norms, legal considerations, and practical concerns related to governance and resource distribution within the community and not an effort to simply determine the total number of people.

II. Levites – Numbers 1:47-54

The Levites, however, were not numbered among them by their fathers' tribe.
- Numbers 1:47

The Levites were exempted from the military census conducted among the other tribes of Israel. Instead of being counted for military service, they were dedicated to serving at the tabernacle and assisting the priests in their religious duties.

They were responsible for dismantling, carrying, and setting up the tabernacle whenever the Israelites moved during their journey through the wilderness. The Levites were appointed to guard the tabernacle and its furnishings, and prevent unauthorized access. They were also entrusted with the care of the sanctuary.

Their duties were essential for maintaining the spiritual and ceremonial aspects of Israelite worship and ensuring the proper functioning of the tabernacle as the central place of worship for the nation.

While in the wilderness, the tribe of Levi would camp directly around the Tabernacle and serve as last line of protection in the event of an attack or rebellion.

Later on, we find out that they were not to receive a portion of land when the nation arrived in Canaan but rather, as servants of the Tabernacle, the Lord Himself would be their portion or inheritance. This, then, meant that it would not be necessary to count them in the census for military, inheritance or governance purposes.

1"The Levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel; they shall eat the Lord's offerings by fire and His portion. 2They shall have no inheritance among their countrymen; the Lord is their inheritance, as He promised them.
- Deuteronomy 18:1-2

III. Camp Arrangement – Numbers 2:1-34

1Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 2"The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers' households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance.
- Numbers 2:1-2

In chapter two we read an interesting account of how the Israelites were organized. They may have left Egypt as a single large group hurriedly escaping their Egyptian slave masters but once safely camped at Mt. Sinai, God not only instructs Moses to group and count the adult males in each tribe but also organizes their positions when camped out for periods of time.

Each tribe was to occupy a certain position around the tabernacle and to remain in that position when camped and while traveling as well.

Their encampments were to take the shape of a square, with three tribes residing on each side. All the encampments were to surround the Tabernacle in the middle.

The tents of Moses and Aaron, also located in the center of the encampment with the tabernacle, were placed in front of the eastern entrance. Camping with them were the sons of Aaron who were priests.

This diagram shows the placement of the Tabernacle, Levites, Moses and Aaron as well as the 12 tribes camped around the Tabernacle. Let's review some of the reasons for each group's particular position which they maintained throughout the time that they were in the wilderness whether camped in one place or on the move.

The three sons of Levi who migrated to Egypt along with Jacob and the rest of his family were Gershon, Kohath and Merari (Genesis 46:11). Years later, after God dedicated the tribe of Levi to serve him as priests, he assigned responsibilities to each of these major families in regard to maintaining His Tabernacle. This is why the Kohathites, Gershonites and Merarites were the nearest groups to set up their tents around the Tabernacle (on the south, west and north sides). Note that the priests, Moses and Aaron camped facing east where the camp of Judah was located.

The Eastern Grouping

The first grouping of tribes in the wilderness encampment would face East toward the rising sun (which was the general direction they were traveling in - Numbers 2:3). They would be the first to leave the camp.

Next in line to leave would be the tribes on the South side, then the Levites who serviced the tabernacle, then those on the West and finally those facing north.

The wilderness tents from the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun were placed together on the eastern side of the tabernacle and were collectively under Judah's banner. Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun were the three youngest sons of Jacob's (Israel's) wife Leah.

Judah was chosen to lead this first set of Israelites out of their wilderness camp not only because it was the most numerous tribe of Jacob, but also because it was prophesied that the scepter of rule would never leave them (Genesis 49:10). Christ, in the New Testament, is called "the Lion of the tribe of Judah" (Revelation 5:5). The number of fighting men on this side of the camp totals 186,400.

The Southern Grouping

The tribal camps of Reuben, Simeon and Gad were placed together on the southern side of the tabernacle and were collectively under Reuben's banner. Reuben, born through Leah, was the oldest son of all Jacob's children, with Simeon being the second oldest. Gad was born from Jacob and Leah's handmaid Zilpah. All together, they totaled 151,450 fighting men.

The Western Grouping

The Western side of the wilderness encampment contained the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin. They were collectively under the banner of Ephraim. Benjamin was born of Jacob's favorite wife Rachel. Ephraim and Manasseh were the product of Rachel' son Joseph. They were "adopted" by Jacob as full tribes (see Genesis 48). This group of Israelites contained 108,100 fighting men.

The Northern Grouping

The tribal camps of Dan, Asher and Naphtali, collectively under Dan's banner, were placed together on the northern side of the tabernacle. Dan is the oldest son of Jacob and Bilhah (one of Rachel's slaves). They totaled 157,600 men who could fight and were the last group in the wilderness to leave.

According to the Bible, the total strength of Israel's wilderness camp army was 603,550 men.

What About the Levites?

The tribe of Levi pitched their tents close to the wilderness tabernacle which they served. They left the camp after the southern grouping of the tribes but before the western grouping. They ended up marching in the middle of all the tribes with two divisions in front and two in back as they carried the Tent of Meeting or tabernacle.

Because God dedicated the Levites to serve as priests, He did not have them numbered among Israel's wilderness camp army (Numbers 2:33). That said, some 38 years later a second census was carried out by Moses where the Levites were counted and we'll cover that when we get to chapter 26.

IV. Roles of the Levites and Priests – 3:1- 4:49

In Numbers chapters 3 and 4, the roles of the Levites and priests are described in detail.

In verse 39 of chapter 3, Moses writes that the total number of males a month old and over among the three tribes descended from Levi was 22,000. From this number came the priests and Levites who served at the tabernacle, each according to God's instructions.

Because of time constraints I'd like to briefly summarize the work and responsibilities of these servants of God at the Tabernacle.

1. Priests

  • Performing sacrifices: The priests, descendants of Aaron, were primarily responsible for offering sacrifices and conducting rituals prescribed by God.
  • Intermediaries between God and people: They acted as intermediaries between the people of Israel and God, offering prayers and sacrifices on behalf of the community.
  • Teaching: Priests were responsible for teaching the people the laws and commandments of God.
  • Maintaining ritual purity: They ensured that the rituals were performed with strict adherence to ritual purity laws, maintaining the sanctity of the tabernacle.

2. Levites

  • Assistants to the priests: The Levites were appointed to assist the priests in their duties within the tabernacle.
  • Guardians of the tabernacle: They were responsible for guarding the tabernacle and its furnishings, ensuring its sanctity.
  • Transportation and assembly: Levites were tasked with transporting the various components of the tabernacle during the Israelites' journey and assembling them at each location.
  • Maintenance: They were responsible for the general maintenance and care of the tabernacle and its equipment.
  • The various duties within each of these categories were assigned according to each tribe (Kohathites, Gershonites and Merarites)
  • ·For example, only the Kohathites could carry the objects from the inside of the Holy of Holies; only the Merarites could organize and carry the poles and sockets upon which the drapes surrounding the Tabernacle hung etc.

3. Priestly Lineage

In the Old Testament, priests in Israel were primarily descended from the tribe of Levi, which was divided into three main families: Kohath, Gershon, and Merari. However, within the tribe of Levi, only descendants of Aaron were designated as priests. Aaron was a descendant of Kohath, so priests in Israel were essentially a subset of the Kohathites. Therefore, priests did not come directly from the Gershonites or Merarites but rather from the Kohathite lineage through Aaron.

These chapters provide a detailed enumeration of the specific duties assigned to both the Levites and the priests within the religious structure of ancient Israel, emphasizing their roles in the service of God and the maintenance of the Tabernacle.

V. Lessons for Today

The material we covered today does not lend itself naturally to life lessons since it contains mainly information about the way God organized His people for camping and for travel. However, there is always something to learn from studying God's word. Here are a few lessons for us that we can glean from this section of the book of Numbers.

1. Importance of Organization and Orderliness

The meticulous organization of the Israelite camp and the allocation of specific duties to each tribe and family teach us the value of orderliness in our lives. Just as the Israelites were organized for their journey through the wilderness, we should strive to organize our lives, setting priorities, and allocating time and resources effectively. An organized life helps us to deal with the challenges and chaos that this sinful world often throws at us without warning.

2. An Unbelieving World Requires that Believers Serve and Cooperate With Each Other

The roles assigned to the Levites and priests highlight the importance of service and cooperation within the community of believers. Each individual had a specific role to play in the functioning of the Tabernacle, and their collective efforts assured the smooth operation of worship and rituals.

Similarly, as modern believers, we are called to serve one another and work together for the advancement of God's kingdom. This teaches us the significance of humility, teamwork, and mutual support in our Christian walk. Churches that default to gossip and criticism when times are difficult don't honor God and don't grow either.

3. Faithfulness in Small Tasks Leads to Greater Responsibilities

The Levites were entrusted with various tasks related to the tabernacle, from transporting its components to maintaining its sanctity. This illustrates the principle that faithfulness in small or seemingly insignificant tasks can lead to greater responsibilities and blessings from God. As believers, we should be faithful in whatever God has entrusted to us (whether it's mowing, cleaning, fixing or teaching, preaching or comforting those who are hurting), because He will reward faithfulness and diligence in every task.