I admire people who are good with numbers, who get excited about balancing a checkbook and counting steps and knowing how many bites are in a bratwurst. I’ve been numbers-challenged all my life, realizing only recently that the bank can reconcile my account without any help on my part.
This is something like the relief I feel when I read this passage in Numbers.
Moses and the Israelites have spent a little over a year camped out at Mount Sinai while God gives them his laws and plans for the tabernacle they build to worship him. They’ve done everything as God’s commanded. Now it’s time to move on to Canaan, the land God’s promised to give them, Nu 2:34.
Before they leave, God gets them organized as a military nation since they’re about to meet up with the Canaanites who they’ll have to fight in order to take their land. It’s always bothered me that God’s people are invaders who come in and take land from the natives. But elsewhere, God says this is his judgment on the locals for being so thoroughly and utterly wicked–they sacrifice their children in idol worship, practice witchcraft and sorcery, and use abhorrent sexual practices, among other things, Deu 18:9-13; Ez 20:30-44, NIV Study Bible notes.
Besides, God makes it clear that anyone who wants to join up with his people is welcomed-in. Egyptians and other “aliens” come with the Israelites when they leave Egypt, and God says aliens are to be treated just like his own people, the Israelites, Ez 47:23; Josh 20:9; Nu 15:14-16.
Rahab the prostitute from Jericho converts when she helps the spies check out her city; Ruth from Moab trusts God as her God and is welcomed in. And both Rahab and Ruth are grafted into Jesus’ family tree as his great-great-great-great…grandmamas, Mt 1:5.
God is both exacting and inviting, holy and loving, and if any enemy wants to become part of his family, they’re in, simply by faith in him. In fact, God’s been wanting all people everywhere to know he is God and to worship him as far back as creation. God hasn’t changed; this is still his ambition, Ps 46:10; Ez 25:11, 30:19; Ac 16:31; Ro 5:10.
In Numbers 1, Moses takes a census and writes down the names of all the men age 20 and older among the Israelites. These are counted as Israel’s fighting men, Nu 1:2-3.
In chapter 2, God gives instructions for how the Israelites are to be organized by tribe when making their camp around the tabernacle. It’s the same order for breaking camp and traveling, and it’s based on the census numbers they’ve just taken and the favor with which certain tribes and individuals have with God, namely Levi and Judah, and Moses and the priests, Nu 2:2-34.
God directs that his tabernacle be the center of the camp with the Levites surrounding it by families. Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons are in the prime location as priests in front of the tabernacle entrance on the east, Nu 2:17.
Outside of the Levites, the 12 tribes are divided into four groups of three and are placed east, south, west and north. It’s interesting to note that when the tribes are set up as God’s directed, they form a cross. This seems to be a preview of God’s plan to save his people by the work of Jesus.
In chapter 3, there’s an explanation for why the Levites weren’t counted as fighting men and were counted to serve in the tabernacle instead. It’s the same reason why they were allowed to camp closest to the tabernacle. The backstory is that when the angel of death passed over Egypt and killed their firstborn sons (in the last of the plagues designed to make Pharaoh let God’s people go), the angel spared all the firstborns of the Israelites who marked their doors with lamb’s blood, Nu 3:5-13.
God said afterwards that all the firstborn sons in Israel belonged to him because he spared them from death, but that he’d substitute the tribe of Levi in their place because the Levites had been zealous for God’s holiness after the incident with the golden calf while Moses was away. The Levites had banded with Moses when he got back to purge the idol worshipers and killed about 3,000 of their kinsmen, some of whom were their own family members. Moses said they’d be set apart for God after that day and they were. Their tribe was taken in place of the firstborn Israelites because of their zeal for God’s holiness. God wants these B. As. to serve near him, Ex 13:1-2, 32:25-29.
God rewards those who are devoted to him by giving them special work to do, which is to care for, transport, and set up God’s house and to be helpers for the priests. Moses is from the tribe of Levi, as are Aaron and his sons, the priests. The Levites’ placement on all sides of the tabernacle was to protect their kinsmen in other tribes who would be killed for approaching it carelessly or in any way other than the way God’s said, Nu 3:5-38.
There are a lot of numbers in these two chapters, enough to show that God is the numbers guy. When it’s time to settle up the substitution of Levites for Israelite firstborn sons, God keeps exact accounts. He tells Moses to count the Levites a month old and up, and the number is 273 short of the number of Israelites age 20 and up. This means that the debt these extra 273 men owe God for sparing their lives isn’t covered by the substitute lives of enough corresponding Levites. [This word problem is taking me dangerously close to the edge of my 7th grade math skills.] Nu 3:40-45.
What to do?
God says these extra 273 men can be redeemed by paying 5 shekels of silver each, which they do. Each man pays the priest, and in this way, all of the firstborn men in Israel are redeemed. It’s a nod to the substitution that Jesus would one day provide, who as the firstborn son of God was sold for 30 pieces of silver to save the lives of all who believe in him, not just firstborn sons, Nu 3:46-51; Mt 26:15; Ac 16:31.
From these chapters in Numbers, I see God’s meticulous, particular side. He wants records kept and exact amounts charged and collected. God’s not laid back about the details; for example, he doesn’t round the number of Israelites. He’s precise. He doesn’t say, “Gimme 5 shekels each for the last, say, 270 fighting men of Israel, and we’ll call it even.” No. He wants their redemption to be covered down to the very last man.
Is God OCD?
He also has commands about camping in an orderly way with leaders from each family in charge and a standard (flag) for them to set their tents beneath. They’re to leave and to march out and to set up again accordingly, wherever they’re going, with the Levites carrying the ark in front of the whole group and the tabernacle and its furnishings in the middle, Nu 2:2; NIV Study Bible chart, p 192.
God’s also particular about the tabernacle. He charges the Levites with the responsibility of its care, down to things as common as ropes and tent pegs. Nothing is beneath his notice, and no job, whether at the tabernacle or in the military, goes unknown and unaccounted for. God wants Moses to keep track of everything–infants and fighting men, ratios of Levites to Israelites, silver shekels and cross bars, sea cow hides and tent pegs, Nu 1:2-4; 3:25-26, 31, 36-38, 40, 44-48.
Numbers is slap-full of a lot of history involving, well, numbers. There’s a detailed (and sometimes tedious) accounting of all the offerings for the dedication of the tabernacle, the second census results, the plunder from the Midianites, a travelogue of their journey, and the geographical boundaries of the promised land once they get there, just to name a few, Nu 7; 26; 31:25-54; 33; 34.
Why does God want such close accounting by the Israelites, and why is it included in the Bible? I don’t know, but I’m guessing it’s because God is an exacting accountant himself. After all, he numbers the stars and calls them each by name. He gives even the flowers of the field beautiful clothes to wear, lets no sparrow fall outside his care and no hair of your head go unaccounted for, Ps 147:4; Mt 6:28-33, 10:29-30.
God’s the One who goes after lost sheep, who gathers up his robe and runs to meet anyone who returns to him, who carries his lambs in his arms “close to his heart,” who gently leads those with young kids. He keeps our tears in his bottles and our names in his book, and he feeds us and clothes us and gives us sleep, Mt 18:12; Lk 15:20; Ps 56:8 NASB, 127:2; Is 40:11; Re 21:27.
We needn’t fear that we’re outside his concern or troubling him for the daily, physical, “little” things. Jesus said to ask for our daily bread and all of the things we need. And if he cares about these, surely he cares about the weightier ones–our health, our relationships, our plans, our peace, Mt 6:8, 11, 31-32; Jn 14:14; Ro 8:32.
And when I think about how he made sure that each firstborn son was redeemed in Israel, I realize that because God doesn’t change, we can be sure he’s still just as concerned that each one of his people is bought and brought into relationship with him by the blood of his Son, Mal 3:6; He 9:12.
God is Forrest Gump going back time after time to bring his fellow soldiers out. He’s Desmond Doss bringing 75 soldiers home from Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa. He’s the Army Rangers Captain and his squad who save Private Ryan. These men tug at our collective heart strings because at our common core, we want someone this devoted who has our back and is coming after us.
It kind of blows my mind and warms my heart all at once that you not only number the stars and sent Jesus to save us, but you keep track of tears and hairs, sparrows and sheep, enemies and little kids. Everything that matters to me, matters to you–and more. Even I don’t save my tears. How can I ever dare to wonder if you still care for me, if you’re willing to listen to what I need, if you’re getting tired of my falling and needing a hand?
Do I get tired of my kids and their relationships with me? No! I delight in them. Surely you love better than I do; surely this is your heart with me, too.
Thank you for who you are and for how you don’t change and for being the obsessed-with-love, careful-with-the-details, pursuing-and-finding Father-God that you’ve always been.
And will always be.
Jesus has several encounters with the religious elite. It’s the day after he’s run the money changers out of the temple, and the chief priests and law teachers basically ask him, “Who gave you permission?” Mk 11:27-28.
Jesus confounds them by asking a question about John the Baptist’s authority, which they won’t answer. He tells a parable about tenants and basically calls them murderers by the end. And he has a run-in with other temple leaders, who pretend to ask him about paying taxes to Rome. He leaves them “amazed,” Mk 11:29-30, 12:1-8, 13-17.
These leaders are continually non-plussed by Jesus and at a loss for how to contain him. In every situation, he slips through their fingers and calls them out as hypocrites, thieves, murderers. No wonder they’re plotting to take him down. They’ll either have to repent or kill him to shut him up, and repentance never seems to occur to them, Mk 11:17-18; 12:3-8, 12, 15. Jesus brings comfort and peace to the humble of heart but rebuke and confrontation to holy-rolling posers.
The thing about walking with Jesus is paying attention to one’s self-righteousness meter. I’m learning to spot a red flag when I’m feeling superior to anyone. If I’m honest, I’m not who I need to be, either.
God, help me to come alongside my people in humility and not talk down. You’re God and you don’t even do that. Give me empathy that goes as deep as the needs I see. Forgive me for making policies and proclamations for my son this week rather than being the one who speaks kindly about what I see.
I wish I couldn’t relate to the Pharisees. Teach me quicker, please.
“Clap your hands, all you nations;
shout to God with cries of joy.
For the Lord Most High is awesome,
the great King over all the earth,”
This psalm gives eleven reasons to clap and cry and shout and sing praise to God, v 1,5-6.
–“the Lord Most High is awesome,”
–he’s “the great King over all the earth,”
–“he subdued nations under us, peoples under our feet,”
–“he chose our inheritance for us,”
–we are his pride and joy, “whom he loved,”
–he has ascended into heaven “amid shouts of joy,”
–he “reigns over the nations,”
–he’s “seated on his holy throne,”
–the nobles of the nations have become “the people of God,”
–“the kings of the earth belong to God,”
–“he is greatly exalted.”
Praise can work from the outside in, as well as from the inside out. I don’t have to feel joyful to praise, but often, once I do it, I feel it.
God’s reign over all nations and nobles and kings and peoples means that no one is outside his rule and power and that heaven will be a wildly wonderful place of people from all cultures and races. [Are we glad about that?]
My take aways today are God’s meticulous care for his people (Numbers), his disdain for the self righteous (Mark), and his glory as “the great King over all the earth” (Psalms).
I take for granted the sun that comes up and the food in the fridge and the floor beneath my feet. But your faithfulness should make me sing and shout and cry out my praises to you from the moment I open my eyes. Thank you, God, for your kindness as reliable as spring, as steady as breathing and water at the sink. Thank you for watching over me with your OCD—obsessive care for details.
Thank you for your Son who reminds me that following him is the way, not trying to prove I don’t need him like the Pharisees do. I can’t be good without you.
I’m glad to believe that you’re the great King over all the earth and that you offer me an inheritance of love and peace–one I don’t have to wait to receive but get to open every time I praise—an all day allelu.