“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘See to it that the tribe of Levi is not numbered, nor take a census of them among the children of Israel, but you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of testimony …’” (OSB)
The Hebrew title for the Book of Numbers, which comes from the first line of the book, is “In the Wilderness,” for it is in the Wilderness that the—mostly tragic—events recounted in this book will transpire. God will test Israel, and Israel will test God (something we see earlier in Exod 15:25; 16:4; 17:2, 5)—Israel will “wrestle with God,” as Jacob did several generations prior, when his name was changed to “Israel” (i.e., “man who strives with God”). It is not clear, however, that Israel as a nation wins this round; quite the opposite, in fact.
Numbers is a peculiar and mysterious book. In it, we find a curious mixture of census numbers, narratives, supplementary regulations for worship, travel itineraries and prophetic oracles (and talking donkeys!). In order to understand how Numbers fits in the Pentateuch, we must return to the Abrahamic promise first given in Genesis 12. There, God promises Abram three things: Land, Descendants, Blessing/Relationship. As we noted in an earlier piece, these three aspects of the promise chart important plot lines across the whole Pentateuch, developing at various stages of the biblical story with particular focus. This development involves some form of endangering of the promise, and then a resolution/restoration.
The promise of descendants (which is endangered by the “sacrifice of Isaac”) is the focus of the Patriarchal stories in Genesis and is largely resolved by the beginning of Exodus. We see that in an even clearer way as we begin Numbers where Israel’s population has swelled to over 600,000 males (not counting women and children). The promise of relationship/blessing (endangered by the “Golden Calf”) is largely developed in Exodus and Leviticus: God reveals, saves, and forgives Israel, bestowing on them the privilege of the divine service of worship as a royal priesthood.
What remains to be fulfilled is the promise of Land, and the Book of Numbers marks the turn to this aspect of the promise. In Numbers, we see the people of Israel organized as a military community, moving toward the Land as God guides them through the leadership of Moses.
The purpose of the census at the beginning of Numbers is to quantify Israel’s military strength. There is irony here in that “numbers” are not the source of Israel’s true strength; God is the Warrior, the primary Fighter in the war into which He is leading Israel. Yet, this census is commanded, and so is a good thing, but later Righteous David will use a census as a demonstration of prideful self-reliance, and he will be severely reprimanded for it (2 Sam 24).
One tribe, Levi, is set aside and not reckoned in the count of the people. They in particular are not to reckoned among the military combatants because of their unique service in the holy things of the divine worship. Nor will they have their own “allotment” of territory in the Promised Land. They will dwell “in the midst” of the people of Israel, in service to the Priests. Perhaps we can see in the Levites an ideal to which we are called, as “priests” and “ministers” in our own homes, in our world. May we attain to and be united with the “Church of the first-born” enrolled in heaven!