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Numbers 4:29-37 Serve without compulsion

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Census of the Levites

34 Moses, Aaron, and the tribal chiefs of the community registered the descendants of the Kohathites according to their clans and their fathers’ houses, 35 from thirty years old to fifty years old, everyone eligible for service, for work at the Tent of Meeting. 36 The ones registered according to their clans were 2,750. 37 These were the ones registered from the clans of the Kohathites, all those who worked at the Tent of Meeting. Moses and Aaron registered them according to the Lord’s command through Moses.

Earlier we mentioned the way that these counts were made. The men being counted were actually called forward by name when a whole tribe or clan was assembled. To us, it might have resembled school children picking sides for kickball. The calling of names continued as long as there were people to be counted. This action was known as a paqad or “muster.” In other contexts, the word paqad means to seek or visit, and older readers may recall this translation of a familiar passage: “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” (Exodus 20:5, King James Version). Such “visiting” was to punish, but here it was simply to count. The muster of the clan of Kohath was small: 2,750. They were nearly as few as the Gershonites who carried the curtains. But for the carrying of the holiest items, even in shifts of a few hours each day per man, it was enough.

38 The descendants of Gershon were registered according to their clans and according to their fathers’ houses, 39 from thirty years old to fifty years old, everyone eligible for service, for work at the Tent of Meeting. 40 The ones registered according to their clans, according to their fathers’ houses, were 2,630. 41 These were the ones registered from the clans of the descendants of Gershon, all those who worked at the Tent of Meeting. Moses and Aaron registered them according to the Lord’s command.

Read the last phrase in verse 37 above, and the last phrase in verse 45 below. Now compare those with the end of verse 41 here. The words “through Moses” appear to be missing, but this isn’t a quirk of a few manuscripts, the way that “in Ephesus” is missing from some copies of Ephesians 1:1. Moses was obviously aware that the command to count the Gershonites had also come about by the Lord’s command through himself, but he was comfortable omitting the phrase here for the sake of slight brevity and variation. It is just the type of variation that tells us that a forger was not at work in the composition of this or any other part of the Bible. A forger would be more mechanical and far less likely to sneak a little variation in his wording such as this. But since the words “through Moses” appear in the census of Kohath and that of Merari, we don’t need to be troubled in the least that they are not here in Gershon. The meaning is not changed at all.

42 The clans of the descendants of Merari were registered according to their clans, according to their fathers’ houses, 43 from thirty years old to fifty years old, everyone eligible for service, for work at the Tent of Meeting. 44 Those registered by their clans were 3,200. 45 These were the ones registered from the clans of the descendants of Merari. Moses and Aaron registered them according to the Lord’s command through Moses.

Notice that in all three clans of Levites, the primary work that is described in the census is not the work of taking down, carrying, or setting up the tabernacle that was so painstakingly described earlier in the chapter. Rather, it is simply that they were eligible “for service, for work at the Tent of Meeting.” In fact, the Hebrew phrase is “for sabah, for ‘abodah in the Tent of Meeting.” The first word, sabah, is also part of the word sabaoth, “army” or “warfare.” Remember that the census of Israel was primarily for the sake of counting the soldiers. Even though the Levites were not to be used in battle, they had their own sabah or warfare. It was ‘abodah, service in the tabernacle. They served in whatever way was necessary within the Tent. Their service might be maintenance, or giving assistance to a priest or a family making a sacrifice. They might fetch and carry wood or water, or dispose of ashes, or any number of other duties. But the primary duty that is always mentioned was security. The Levites made certain that no one entered the Court of the Lord who was not authorized to do so. Any Israelite could enter the big outer courtyard in order to bring an offering. We saw in Leviticus that various illnesses (especially leprosy) would require an inspection by a priest, and therefore someone had to go and get the priest, or a place needed to be provided for an afflicted person to come (this was set up in the later Temple as the Court of Lepers). The Levites also may have been involved in watching the Holy Place to be certain that only priests who were supposed to enter did in fact enter. And if the entire city-camp of Israel was attacked, such as when the Amalekites attacked them at Rephedim before they arrived at Sinai (Exodus 17:8-13), the Levites would have been responsible as a kind of honor guard to defend the tabernacle from being desecrated or anything being plundered by soldiers breaking away from the main battle. This was known in battles throughout history, as we see in this brief exchange from Henry the Fifth:

  Fluellen: (To) kill the boys with the luggage! ‘Tis expressly against the law of arms.

  Gower: ‘Tis certain there’s not a boy left alive, and the cowardly rascals that ran from the battle ha’done this slaughter. Besides, they have burned and carried away all that was in the king’s tent. (Henry V, Act IV, sc. 7).

This duty of the Levites was different than the duties most of us fulfill today, since Israel was under a special kind of government, a theocracy, by which they answered directly to God through his prophet Moses. Consider the difference between that service and this one, quoted from our Catechism’s Table of Duties:

“Servants, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does” (based on Ephesians 6:5-8).

They obeyed the Lord directly, but partly out of compulsion. We obey the Lord out of love and thanks, from the heart, without any compulsion at all. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Give, live, and serve Christ freely, “and gain even more” (Proverbs 11:24). This is the joy of being a forgiven child of God.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

 

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