NUMBERS 3 and 4
Every powerful and effective community needs a group of people who are committed full-time to the service and work of that community. They cannot have normal ‘day jobs’ and cannot have the distractions of ownership that others are permitted. In the church there are full-time leaders, administrators, and gift ministries; in Israel at that time, there were the Levites. They were not permitted to own land in the way that the other clans were, and their food came from the tithes that the other clans provided. Their very lives had been set apart by the Lord for serving in the tabernacle and its courtyard – although not in the very close proximity in which the priests ministered. God had a head-count done of all the Levite males, subdivided into the family branches of Gershon, Kohath and Merari; total = 22,000. Then he had counted the number of firstborn males from the rest of Israel; total = 22,273. The agreement (well, basically, God SAID it!) was that all the Levites were taken by the Lord as substitutes for all the firstborn of Israel (who had been dedicated to him previously). God, being a sharp accountant (!), noted that the 273 extra Israelite firstborn had not been ‘paid’ for and so asked for silver from each to make up the shortfall.
The position of the twelve land-owning clans’ encampments had already been defined (in the previous chapter) and now the Levite groupings of Gershon, Kohath and Merari were similarly positioned to the North, South, and West of the tabernacle. The place of honour, East, in the direction of the rising sun, was reserved for the priests and for Moses – who all happened to be descended from Kohath.
Then these three branches of Levites were counted again – this time for all the men between thirty to fifty years old, who would serve at the tabernacle. These men would never fight but would dedicate themselves to serving God. Kohathites would carry and care for the holy things from within the tabernacle – once the priests had covered them up. Gershonites would be responsible for all the curtains of the tabernacle, the courtyard, the entrances and all the waterproof coverings of those curtains. What a lot of folding they would have to do! Merarites had to carry all the structural metal and wood, the bases, pegs, posts, and similar heavy materials. They must have had the biggest muscles!
The organisation of the work for the tabernacle, and the people set aside to do this, was precise and personal; every man knew his role and his responsibility. Just as in the church, where every gift and ministry is specific and indispensable, these men must have had a genuine sense of amazement that they had been chosen for these vital tasks, and had been drawn so near to the presence of their Lord. And as we learn to serve more effectively, we also draw closer to him and experience his glory more intimately. Is there ever a better life than this?