Wednesday, December 23, 2015

GUEST POST: "Priests Don't Make War" by Steven Kline, Jr.

I think all of us have read some portion of scripture and wondered why it was in the Bible. It’s usually those passages that seem boring and/or repetitive. Tell someone you are reading through the book of Numbers and you will get some strange looks because it has a lot of those passages thought to be repetitive and boring.

The first four chapters of Numbers detail the census that Moses took of the nation of Israel. It’s easy to skip over this passage of scripture because it seems really boring. What could a numbering of the people wandering around the desert possibly have to do with us? It seems to recount the same information with different numbers thrown in for the different tribes. To the modern reader it seems like the cut and paste function was used by Moses. But, of course, that wasn’t the case. And, because creating a written document was very costly in those days, to have so much repetitive information must serve some purpose.

So, what can we learn from the first four chapters of Numbers?

In Numbers 1, God speaks to Moses in the tabernacle of meeting and tells Moses: 

“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 from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies.” (Numbers 1:2-3) 

So Moses is to count the men of Israel by their families and households. But, he is not to count all the men. God instructs Moses to count “whoever is able to go out to war” and “number them by their armies.” This is important because, while these phrases are repeated many times in the first two chapters of Numbers, the phrases are left out Numbers 3 and 4.

After giving the order to take a census, God appoints a man from each tribe to help Moses with the task. (Numbers 1:4-16) A careful reading of this list of men and tribes reveals that something is missing. The tribe of Levi was left out of this list, indicating that Moses was not going to take a census of this tribe along with all the other tribes of Israel. Why is that?

Having organized his help, Moses does at the Lord commanded him. (Numbers 1:17-19) From verses 20-46 we read Moses numbering of the people. Each tribe, except Levi, is listed with the number counted by Moses. The report is very formulaic. In each report, Moses counted “whoever was able to go out to war.” (Numbers 1:20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42) Finally, verse 44 summarizes that Moses counted “whoever was able to go out to war in Israel.”

So, Moses counted all who could to war in Israel. He counted the men that could war from all the tribes except one – the Levites. The rest of the chapter tells us why God had Moses leave the Levites out of the census.

“The Levites, however, were not numbered among them by their fathers’ tribe. For the Lord had spoken to Moses, saying, ‘Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor shall you take their census among the sons of Israel. But you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings and over all that belongs to it. They shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it; they shall camp around the tabernacle. So when the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle encamps, the Levites shall set it up. But the layman who comes near shall be put to death.’” (Numbers 1:47-51)

According to God’s instructions, Moses did not count the Levites in the census because instead of being men able to go out to war the Levites were to be over the tabernacle and all its furnishings. The Levites were to set it up and to take it down. They were to care for everything inside the tabernacle. The tabernacle represented God’s presence and dwelling place in the earth. So, instead of being able to go out to war, the Levites were to minister and mediate God’s presence amongst the people of the nation of Israel.

Note that Numbers 1:52 draws a distinction between all the men of Israel and the Levites. The Levites were to encamp around the tabernacle, but “the sons of Israel shall camp, each man by his own camp, and each man by his own standard, according to the armies.” 

The Levites would camp around the tabernacle. But, the rest of Israel would camp in their own camps, by their own standards, according to their armies. Again, the men of Israel were men who were identified as men who could go out to war while the Levites were identified as those men that mediated the presence of God. Numbers 1:53 says: 

“But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of testimony, so that there will be no wrath on the congregation of the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall keep charge of the tabernacle of the testimony.” 

The Levites were to minister God’s presence, not to bring God’s wrath, so that God’s wrath would not fall, not on all the other peoples in the Ancient Near East, but on the sons of Israel.

In Numbers 2, we are told how the people of Israel were to camp. Numbers 2:1-2 says: 

“Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘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.’” 

While the Levites would camp around the tabernacle, the other tribes would only camp around the tabernacle “at a distance.” They would camp by their “own” standard and by the banners of “their fathers’” households.

The rest of Numbers 2 details how the tribes of Israel camped around the tabernacle at a distance. And with the recounting of how each tribe camped, there are two key phrases repeated:

·         “according to their armies” – 2:3, 9, 10, 16, 18, 24, 25, 32
·         “his army was numbered,” with “his” referring not to God but to the sons of Jacob – 2:4, 6, 8, 11, 13, 15, 19, 21, 23, 26, 28, 30

So, the children of Israel camped according to the standards of their fathers’ houses and their armies, and they were numbered according to these armies. “The Levites, however, were not numbered among the sons of Israel, just as the Lord commanded Moses.” (Numbers 2:33)

Numbers 3 and 4 recount the census of the Levites and delineate the duties of the Levites. The Levites were God’s and not numbered among the sons of Israel.

“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle…Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine.” (Numbers 3:5-8,12)

The Levites were given completely to ministering at the tabernacle, to ministering God’s presence among the people. And, in this ministering of God’s presence, they would guard the people of Israel. 

We see the importance God places on the ministry of the Levites because their tasks and duties are spelled out in detail over two chapters while the rest of tribes were merely numbered as men able to go out to war.

The distinction of the Levites from the rest of Israel is important because today all of God’s people are priests. 1 Peter 2:9-10 says:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own possession so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 

Revelation 1:6 says that Christ loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, making us priests to God. Other passages in the New Testament make it clear that all God’s people are priests. And, there are a number of passages towards the end of Isaiah that prophesy that God’s people will one day be priests.

Today, all of God’s people are priests. These people are God’s possession. The Lord says these people are His, just like He did of the Levites in Numbers. 

Because God’s people are all priests today, God’s people are not numbered among those able to go out to war. Rather, God’s people proclaim the excellencies of Him who called out us out of darkness into the His marvelous light. 

God’s people do not do violence but minister the very presence of Christ, proclaiming the mystery of the gospel and the power of the cross. God’s people proclaim a suffering servant, Jesus Christ, that defeated fear and death through His own death. God’s people perform the ministry of reconciliation, which is not brought about through war and violence but by loving their enemies. 

This is why the weapons of God’s people are spiritual and not carnal.

by Steven Kline, Jr.

Steve Kline is a follower of Jesus. His passion is to seek Christ in all of the scriptures and share that revelation with others. Steve is married to Samatha (since September 2012) and the father of Trey (he's 15). When his first wife, Dawn, went to be with the Lord in March 2012 after a six-year battle with cancer, Steve had a direct encounter with the Lord. Also, he is one of  the fourth-generation owners of his family's publishing company where he is an economist.


Unknown said...

Really makes me wonder why it was ok for Moses to take a census and not ok for David (1 Chronicles 21, 2 Samuel 24).

Free Spirit said...

Thank you for that background lesson. It gives much room for thought and contemplation, and is worthy of considering in its relation to the average Christian's views on ministering war as compared to the presence of Father. I was unaware of this understanding from Bible history. Do we not have the far greater privilege of tenderly and precisely caring for and presenting to others the awesome and transforming power of Father's presence?