Bamidbar — “In the wilderness”

Portion for the week leading up to May 27, 2017

Duties of the Levites

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The book of Numbers derives its name from the fact that the first chapter records the size of each of the tribes of Israel, counting all of the men who are of the age where they would be able to go into battle. The Levites, however, were not included in this census, because their job consisted solely of caring for the things of God, and thus they wouldn't go out into battle like the rest of the nation.

"Then 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, '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 1:1-3). Since the people would have to fight for the promised land, God instructs Moses and Aaron to take a census of all of the men who are of age to go into battle. As we see, for example, in the event of David's census (1 Chronicles 21), God did not want a census to be taken whenever the leader felt inclined to take one. Presumably this is because to take a census is to rely on your own military power instead of trusting in God. In this case recorded in Numbers, however, God specifically commanded the census to be taken: "So all the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their fathers' households, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war in Israel, even all the numbered men were 603,550" (Numbers 1:45-46).

The tribe of Levi, however, was not to be included in this census: "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 also camp around the tabernacle" (verses 49-50). The families of the tribe of Levi would be counted, but this number was not to be included among the number of the fighting men (Numbers 3:14-15).

The Levites had a special relationship with God among the Israelites. There were three different families within the tribe of Levi according to Levi's three sons Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. Each of these families had a different task within the operation of the tabernacle. God specifically chose the tribe of Levi to serve Him in this way: "Now, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be Mine" (Numbers 3:12). Since they were God's chosen, they were not to worry about anything other than the task which they had been called to, and just as they belonged to God, so too God would belong to them (Deuteronomy 18:2).

Maimonides, the well-known Jewish scholar, has some interesting words on this chosenness of the Levites, saying that this also applies spiritually to those who are not descended from Levi: "Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites. And thus David declared [Psalm 16:5]: "God is the lot of my portion; You are my cup, You support my lot.'" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Shemittah and Jubilee Cycles, 13:13, translation from chabad.org).

We too have the opportunity to be Levites in service of our God. When we determine in our lives to seek only Yeshua (Jesus) and His Kingdom, He has told us that the rest will be taken care of. We are not to concern ourselves with the worldly affairs that others are concerned with, but we are to focus on the holy task which God has called us to: "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 6:33). We should not desire to be counted among the rest of the world, but we are blessed with the opportunity to find joy in our place as God's representatives.

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