NUMBERS 8, 9 and 10
The Holy of Holies (or ‘Most Holy Place’) had no man-made light in it. On the one hand, it wasn’t necessary, since no human was allowed in there; on the other hand, the glory of God filled that tent, since the Light of the World was resident between the Cherubim above the ark. But in the next space, the Holy Place, the priests did minister and required a seven-headed gold lampstand that burned olive oil during all the hours of darkness.
We have seen Wave Offerings before, signifying dedication of something to God, especially the first-fruits of harvest. This time the Levites themselves were the wave offering from the Israelites. This meant that they were completely dedicated to the Lord, not to be killed and burnt in the fire, but to become living sacrifices, constantly serving the will of God for their entire lives. This is a visual aid to New Covenant disciples (i.e. us) that we also should (in the words of Romans 12:1): “…offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship”. This same verse in The Message reads: “Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering”. When (in 1 Samuel 15) the scripture says that “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen teachably is better than the fat of rams”, the Lord is really saying that living sacrifices are preferable to dead ones!
Levites began their term of service at the age of 25 (possibly at 20 with a five year ‘apprenticeship’) and retired at 50. They then became consultants and earned twice their previous salary (I made that last bit up!). But seriously, they could offer advice and training to the full-time Levites after that, but they were not expected to do the actual work themselves (just like consultants, then!).
Israel had been at Sinai for eleven months whilst all this had gone on. The final thing that they needed to do before starting to move on towards the Promised Land was to celebrate the Passover, since it was a whole year since they had ‘exodus-ed’ from Egypt. Since one had to be ceremonially clean to participate, this caused a potential problem for those who were unclean, due to family or business circumstances. God is merciful and practical, as well as holy, and he simply allowed them to wait a full month and then take part in a ‘catch-up’ ceremony on the 14th of the second month. In our western calendar, the Passover would have been in the middle of March or April. Foreign residents (who had been circumcised) were equally welcome to take part.
The cloud covering the tabernacle remained visible to all Israel as a reminder of the presence of God, and it was illuminated as fire by night. By watching the cloud, and following its movements, Israel remained in obedience to the Lord. This is the equivalent in the New Covenant of us walking with the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1; Galatians 5:16-18; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Romans 8:14). Now they were all living sacrifices!
Mobile phone reception was poor in that wilderness in those days (joke!), so silver trumpets were used as signals to gather the people together, to prepare them for battle, to commence the decamp and march routines, to mark the beginnings of festivals, and to call the leaders together for a ‘cabinet’ meeting.
The cloud suddenly lifted from the tabernacle as a signal to move off. The encampment of Judah (three tribes) went first, followed by the Gershonite and Merarite branches of the Levites, with carts full of poles and posts, curtains, and coverings from the tabernacle. Then marched the encampment of Reuben (three tribes), followed by the Kohathite branch of the Levites, carrying the holy things from the tabernacle, including the ark. After them came the encampment of Ephraim (three tribes) and lastly the encampment of Dan (three tribes). Thus, the precious tabernacle holy objects were sandwiched right in the middle of the nation and protected from all directions. The priests, who were all Kohathites, would also have been included in that cohort.
Moses persuaded his father-in-law, Hobab, to accompany them, since he needed the local knowledge of the wilderness – where to camp and where to find water and shelter. The cloud led them on their first structured march for just three days, and then they set up camp again. There is a healthy tension in the Christian life between rest and motion, between meditation and mission, between gathering and going. We are foolish to completely neglect one in favour of the other and it is best to adopt a rhythm or ‘pulse’ between the two states throughout our days, weeks, and lives. Our hearts and lungs operate by this method, and they should be a powerful metaphor of the disciple’s life too.