We’ve been studying the book of Numbers for a number of weeks now. I’ve explained before that it’s called ‘Numbers’ because it contains a lot of numbers. Right at the beginning of the book, the Lord commanded Moses to take a census of all the men — apart from the Levites — who were over the age of 20 and who were able to serve in the army. And so, Moses counted them all and recorded the total number. And then in chapter 3, the Lord commanded Moses to count the Levites who were to serve, not in the army, but in the Tabernacle. And again, he counted them all and recorded the total number. And then in chapter 26, the Lord commanded Moses to take another census of the people. And so, Moses counted them once again and recorded the total number. The book of Numbers contains lots of numbers.
But this book has another title, which was used among the Jews. They knew it by the title ‘In the Wilderness’. And that’s perhaps a better title for the book, because the book of Numbers tells the story of the things that happened once the Israelites left Mt Sinai and began their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. So, if you look at the beginning of the book, you’ll see that Moses was at Sinai; and if you look at the end of the book, you’ll see that the Israelites have reached the plains of Moab by the River Jordan, across from the city of Jericho. So, the book begins at Mt Sinai; it ends near Jericho; and in between, it tells the story of what happened in the wilderness as the people made their way to the Promised Land. So, ‘In the Wilderness’ is a fitting title for this book.
And we’re seen that the book mixes history and law: historical narrative and legal instructions. In fact, these two genres alternate throughout the book. So, chapters 1 to 4 contain narrative: the account of how the Lord commanded Moses to count the people; and how they were to arrange their tents when they were camped; and it also described the work of the Levites and what they were called to do. And that’s followed by chapters 5 and 6 which contains laws about maintaining the purity of the camp; and how the people were to compensate anyone they had offended; and how to test whether a wife had been unfaithful or not; and there were special laws for the Nazirites who had taken a special vow of separation to the Lord.
Chapters 7 to 9 contain narrative: the account of how each tribe brought their gifts and offerings to the Lord whenever the Tabernacle was set up; and then it tells us how the lamp-stand was set up in the Tabernacle; and there’s the ceremony which took place to set apart the Levites for their work; and then there’s the account of the Passover Feast which they celebrated together in the first month of the second year after leaving Egypt; and how the Lord’s glory-cloud covered the Tabernacle to signify that the Lord was willing to dwell there among his people. And that’s followed by the first part of chapter 10 which contains laws about the requirement to make and use silver trumpets.
The rest of chapter 10 until the end of chapter 14 contains narrative: the account of how they left Mount Sinai, and how the people complained about their hardships and about their food; and how the Lord responded; and then how Miriam and Aaron rose up in opposition to Moses; and how the Lord responded; and then how the people refused to enter the Promised Land of Canaan because of their unbelief; and how the Lord responded. And that was followed by chapter 15 which contains laws about how they were to atone for their sins by offering sacrifices to the Lord.
And then chapters 16 and 17 contain narrative: the account of the rebellion by Korah and others who rose up in opposition to Moses and Aaron. And those chapters are followed by chapters 18 and 19 which contain laws about the priests and Levites and the water for cleansing.
So, all through the book, it alternates between history and law, historical narrative and legal instructions. And very often the legal instructions are related in some way to the historical narrative which preceded it. So, after telling us how the camp was set up, there are laws about maintaining the purity of the camp. After telling us how the Lord came and dwelt among them, there are laws about making trumpets by which the Lord summoned his people to come before him. After telling us about the rebellion of the people, there are laws about how to make atonement for their sins. After telling us about Korah’s rebellion, there are laws about the duties and rights of the priests and Levites. The legal instructions are related to the historical narrative that precedes them.
And, of course, it all points to Christ and to the good news of the gospel and to the great hope God gives to all who trust in his Son. The priests and Levites point us to the person and work of Christ who is our great High Priest. The sacrifices and offerings point us to Christ who offered himself as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins. The Tabernacle was an earthly replica of heaven, where Christ our Great High Priest now intercedes for us. The Israelite camp — arranged in a square around the Tabernacle — points us to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, which is the church in glory, enjoying the presence of the Lord. The times when the people rebelled warn us about the danger of possessing an evil, unbelieving heart; and they remind us how we must always believe God’s word and trust in Christ the Saviour. In one way or another, the whole of this book points us to Christ and to the good news of the gospel.
And so, let’s turn now to chapter 18 which can be divided into two main sections: verses 1 to 7 are about the duties of the priests and Levites; and verses 8 to 32 are about their sustenance or how they were paid. And, of course, the background to these laws is what happened in chapters 16 and 17 when Korah the Levite wanted to take on the duties of the priesthood and to appear before the Lord in the Tabernacle. But the Lord caused the ground to open up under him and his family so that they all went down alive to the grave and perished. And fire came from the Lord and consumed others who had rebelled against the Lord at that time. And as a result of all that had happened, the people said to Moses at the end of chapter 17:
We shall die! We are lost, we are all lost! Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all going to die?
After what happened to Korah and the others, the people were afraid to come near the Lord in his Tabernacle. And so, the Lord responded by teaching them in chapter 18 that he had appointed priests and Levites to serve in his Tabernacle; they alone could approach his dwelling-place; and if they were careful to guard the Tabernacle, the Lord’s anger would not break out against them.
Verses 1 to 8
In verse 1, the Lord spoke to Aaron. That’s actually unusual, because normally the Lord addressed Moses, and not Aaron. But on this occasion, he addressed Aaron the High Priest, because he was talking about the work of the priests and the Levites. And the Lord refers in verse 1 to Aaron himself and to his sons and to his father’s family. Aaron, of course, was the High Priest; his sons were also priests; and the phrase ‘father’s family’ in verse 1 probably refers to the Levites, because Aaron and the Levites were from the same tribe of Israel. And so, according to the Lord in verse 1, all of them — Aaron, his sons, and the Levites — were to bear responsibility for offences against the sanctuary. In other words, they were responsible for preserving the purity of the Tabernacle.
The Tabernacle was God’s dwelling place among the Israelites; it was an earthly replica of heaven; and it was therefore a holy place which must not be profaned in any way. And Aaron, his sons, and the Levites were responsible for guarding the Tabernacle and keeping it pure and undefiled. So, they were to ensure that no unclean person should come into the holy sanctuary, as Korah wanted to do.
Aaron, his sons and the Levites were responsible for the sanctuary, the Tabernacle. However, according to the Lord in the rest of verse 1, Aaron and his sons, but not the Levites, were to bear responsibility for offences against the priesthood. So, they were to guard the priesthood which had been entrusted to them. Presumably that meant they were to ensure that the priests on duty followed all the laws of the Lord about ritual purity.
So, Aaron, his sons and the Levites were responsible for the Tabernacle and its purity; Aaron and his sons alone were responsible for the priesthood and its purity. And that meant they would suffer the wrath of God if the sanctuary or priesthood was defiled. Now, back in chapter 16, God’s wrath broke out against all the people because of the sin of a few of them. That’s why the people were so afraid at the end of chapter 17. Now, however, the Lord reassured them that his wrath would not break out against all of them, but only against the priests and Levites.
Being a priest or a Levite was a privileged position; but it was also a deadly position, because they and they alone would bear the punishment if God’s holy dwelling place was defiled.
Let’s move on now to verses 2 and 3 and 4 which concern the Levites. According to verse 2 they were to join Aaron and his sons to assist them in the work. In other words, the Levites were under the authority of the priests; and were appointed by God to help the priests. Furthermore, while Aaron and his sons served the Lord in the Tent of the Testimony, the Levites were to serve before it. That is, they were to serve, not in the Holy Place, but outside it. Only the priests could enter the Holy Place. This is repeated in verse 3, where it says that the Levites must not go near the furnishings of the sanctuary or the altar, otherwise both they — the Levites — and you — the priests — will die.
The NIV says in verse 3 that the Levites were to be responsible to the priests and perform all the duties of the Tent. A better translation is that they were to ‘keep guard’ for the priest and the Tent. And a better translation of verse 4 is that they were to join the priest and ‘keep guard’ over the Tent of Meeting. This was their role: they were to guard the Tent of Meeting so that nothing unclean entered it. So, back in chapter 16, Korah believed he could appear before the Lord and offer incense. But the Levites were now charged with making sure that no one tried to do what Korah wanted to do. They had to guard the sanctuary so that only the priests could enter it.
Having referring to the work of the Levites in verses 2 and 3 and 4, the Lord refers in verse 5 to the work of the priests. They were to guard the sanctuary and the altar. So, they were responsible for what happening in the Tent of Meeting and at the altar.
But then the Lord goes back in verse 6 to talking about the the Levites. And he mentions the work of the Tent of Meeting which they were to perform. What was the work of the Tent of Meeting? Well, that’s what chapter 4 of Numbers was about, because that chapter described how the Levites were responsible for taking down the Tabernacle when it was time to break camp; and for transporting the Tabernacle as they moved from place to place; and for erecting the Tabernacle when it was time to set up camp again. And, according to verse 6, the Lord had given the Levites to Aaron and his sons as a gift to help them with this work. But verse 7 makes clear one more time that only Aaron and his sons could serve as priests. The Lord had given the priesthood to them and to them alone. So, it was a privileged position and calling, given only to them; and anyone else who tried to come near the sanctuary — as Korah wanted to do — must be put to death.
Verses 8 to 20
The Levites were to help the priests to guard the Tabernacle so that it was not defiled; and they were to do the work of the sanctuary: taking down and putting up the Tabernacle and transporting if from place to place. In verses 8 to 32 the Lord explained how the priests and Levites were to be supported by the people. And it’s clear from what we read, that the Lord made generous provision for the priests and Levites.
So, according to verses 8 to 20, the priests were to live off the sacrificial offerings which the people brought to the Lord as part of their worship. In verse 9 he refers to the grain, sin and guilt offerings. If you remember, only a portion of the such offerings was burned. The rest of the meat was to be given to the priests for food. Since these were ‘most holy offerings’, only the priests themselves could eat them. However, everyone in their household — including their daughters and presumably their wives — could eat what was offered as a wave offering. That’s in verse 11. Look at verse 12 now: they were to receive the finest oil and the finest new wine and the finest grain which were given to the Lord by the people as firstfruits. They weren’t to survive on leftovers, but they were allowed to live on the best of the produce.
According to verse 14, devoted things were to be given to the priests. These were special offerings which the people devoted to the Lord from time to time by a special oath. Furthermore firstborn sons belonged to the Lord, but had to be redeemed on payment of a price. Well, the price of redemption was given to the priests. Firstborn unclean animnals belonged to the Lord; these also had to be redeemed on payment of a price, because unclean animals could not be offered on the altar. But again, the price of redemption was given to the priests. Firstborn clean animals belonged to the Lord; most of the meat from these were given to the priests for food.
According to verse 20, the priests were not to possess any land. So, whereas the land of Israel was to be divided between the tribes of Israel, the priests were not to receive any of it. However, it didn’t matter, because in many ways, the priests and their families lived like kings, enjoying the best of the land: because of these rules, they had plenty of meat and oil and wine and grain and money to live on. All of this was to be given to them from out of the offerings made to the Lord. This arrangement — according to verse 19 — was to be an everlasting covenant. So long as there were priests, this is what they were to receive.
Verses 21 to 32
In verses 21 to 24, the Lord refers to the Levites and to the way they were to be supported. Like the priests, they weren’t to possess any land. But instead of land, their inheritance was the right to receive the tithes which the people brought to the Lord. Now, according to Leviticus 27 verse 30, a tithe or a tenth of everything the people produced belonged to the Lord. In today’s passage, we learn that all of those tithes — so a tenth of their crops and of their animals — was to be given to the Levites.
According to verses 25 to 32, the Levites themselves are to offer to the priests a tithe of the tithes given to them. In that way, the Levites were able to support the priests. And, of course, they were to give the best part.
In this chapter the Lord gave instructions about the work of the priests and the Levites; and he have instructions about how the priests and the Levites were to be supported. Though they did not possess any land, they lived as kings, receiving an abundance of good things from the people for the work they did on their behalf.
It should be noted that while we often talk about tithing today, the tithe was part of the old covenant which God made with his people in the days of Moses and which was connected with the Tabernacle and the priesthood and Old Testament sacrifices. But now that Christ has come, all those old rules and regulations concerning the Tabernacle and priesthood and sacrifices and tithing have been brought to an end. The tithe was connected to Old Testament worship and to supporting the work of the Levites and priests in the Tabernacle. But we no longer have Levites and priests; and we no longer worship God at the Tabernacle. And so, the New Testament does not command believers to tithe. Instead the New Testament commands believers to give generously according to our means to help those in need, remembering that the Lord loves a cheerful giver. The New Testament does not command us to tithe; but it commands us to be generous.
Nevertheless, in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul refers to the way the people in the Old Testament supported the priests and Levites; and he uses that as the basis for appealing to believers to support the work of those who preach the gospel. He says in 1 Corinthians 9:
Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
In other words, just as the priests and Levites were entitled to receive a living for their work, so those who preach the gospel are entitled to receive a living for their work. And so, though you’re no longer commanded to give a tithe or tenth of your income to the Lord, you’re commanded to give generously to those in need and to provide for those who preach the gospel to you.
However, notice as well what it says here about the work of the priests and Levites. They were to guard the Tabernacle and keep it from become defiled. And the verb used here of the work of the priest and Levites is the same verb which the Lord used to describe the work of Adam in Genesis 2. The Lord placed Adam in the temple-garden of Eden and commanded him to ‘guard’ it. He was to guard it from anything that defiles.
Adam, of course, failed in his duty, because he let the serpent enter the garden and defile it. Adam should have driven the serpent away, but instead he stood back and let the serpent tempt Eve to sin against the Lord. And in Numbers 18, the Lord commanded the priests and Levites to do what Adam failed to do, and to guard the Tabernacle.
And, of course, the work of the priests and Levites in the Tabernacle points forward to the way things will be in the new heaven and earth. In Revelation 21 we read about the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars. Instead of being admitted to the new heaven and earth where God dwells, they will be thrown into the lake of burning sulphur.
Furthermore, though there are gates all around the walls of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, there are angels at every gate to guard the way into the Holy City. And we’re told as well that nothing impure will ever enter the Holy City. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful. So, just as the priests and Levites were to guard the Tabernacle in the days of Moses, so the Lord will ensure that the Holy City to come is guarded so that nothing impure will ever enter it.
But, of course, if we think about ourselves and our lives, every one of us has to admit that we are impure, because we’re sinners who sin against the Lord continually. We have broken every one of God’s holy commandments; and we would only defile the Lord’s holy dwelling place if we entered it by ourselves. When we look at our own lives, when we examine our thoughts and words and deeds, we know that none of us is fit to come into the presence of a holy God. We’re sinners who — like Adam and Eve — deserve to be sent out of the presence of the Lord and banished from his presence for ever. We’re sinners who — like Korah — have rebelled against the Lord and we deserve to suffer the wrath of God. We’re sinners — like all the Israelites — who ought to be kept away from the presence of the Lord.
But the good news of the gospel is that Christ our Great High Priest has done what Aaron and his sons could not do. Though they offered sacrifices on behalf of the people, the people still had to be kept away from God’s dwelling place. But Christ our Great High Priest offered himself as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for sins to bring us to God. He gave himself as the atoning sacrifice to ransom us from the condemnation we deserve; and to cleanse us from all our unrighteousness.
And so, in his name, and under the cover of his perfect righteousness which becomes ours through faith, we can look forward to coming into God’s presence in the life to come to be with him for ever and ever in glory. We’ll be able to come into presence of the Lord in the new heaven and earth, because Christ our Great High priest offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to bring us to God. Because of Christ, we’re no longer kept out of God’s presence, but we’re invited to come to God. And we can come to him now, in this life, to pray to him and to worship him. And we can look forward to the life to come when we will come before him to dwell in his holy presence forever.
And in anticipation of that day, the Lord has given us the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to be for us a preview of what will happen when Christ comes again; and we will be invited to sit and to enjoy the wedding supper of the Lamb. In anticipation of that day, we’re able to gather around the Lord’s Table on Sunday and eat and drink and celebrate how Christ died for us to bring us to God.
And in the meantime, while we wait for that day to come, we’re to make it our aim to lead holy lives. Instead of being defiled by sin, we’re to obey the Lord our God in our we do and say. When we do sin, we’re to ask the Lord to pardon us. And we’re to give thanks to the Lord continually, for Christ our Great High Priest who died to bring us to God.