Numbers: Introduction and Chapters 1-4

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The aim of this present series is not to provide a detailed exposition of this book (for this the reader will need to refer to a more exhaustive commentary) but to indicate from “things … written aforetime” some of the permanent principles in the purpose of God for His people, and their privileges and responsibilities in walk, warfare, work and worship.

The English title is a translation of that given to it in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. It is called Numbers because it gives two numberings of the Israelites, one near the beginning and the other near the end of the sojourn in the wilderness, chs. 1 and 26. A better title was given by the Jews who called it In the Wilderness, from the opening verse in the Hebrew Bible. This more aptly describes the contents of the book, being a brief summary of the forty years of wilderness experience of the children of Israel from the encampment in Sinai to the arrival at the border of Canaan.

There are three main divisions:

  • Chapters 1 to 10. 10: At Sinai, and Preparations for Departure.
  • Chapters 10. 11 to 22. 1: From Sinai to the Plains of Moab, and Progress through the Desert.
  • Chapters 22. 2 to 36. 13: In the Plains of Moab, and Prospects and Division of the Land.

The essential theme of the book is Jehovah’s relationship to His people in their walk, warfare, work and worship. His presence, provision, protection, patience and promises are demonstrated throughout. There is a nation of warriors, a tribe of workers, and a family of worshippers. Its language is one of war, armies, standards, camps, trumpets and alarms. It has been stated that “in Genesis the seed of Israel was in the loins of their father Abraham; in Exodus they were in the brick-kilns of Egypt; in Leviticus they were gathered round the tabernacle of the congregation, whilst in Numbers they are seen in the wilderness”.

We shall now consider

The Plan of the Camp, chs. 1-4

Chapters 1 and 2 describe the enrolment of the warriors and the arrangement of the camp. It was essential that all males of twenty years and upward should be able to declare their ancestry “after their families, by the house of their fathers”, 1. 18. It was not enough to be a true-born Israelite; a man must be able to declare his descent. It is a happy experience when we can declare with assurance that “now are we the sons of God”, 1 John 3. 2, and that being Christ’s we are “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”, Gal. 3. 29.

In the arrangement of the camp it was essential that there was the distinct recognition of the standard, “every man … shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father’s house”, Num. 2. 2. God is ever a God of order, and to ensure order and discipline in the camp, whether at rest or on the march, it was essential that each man should know his place and keep to it. At the centre of the camp was the tent of meeting surrounded by the priests, Levites and tribes, all in divinely arranged order. All faced the ark of the covenant from the position God had given them, so that all could witness the first movement of the cloud. As it was in the camp of Israel, so it must be in the church whose Head is Christ. For God has “set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him”, 1 Cor. 12. 18, and given the gifts “dividing to every man severally as he will”, v. 11. There is, therefore, no room for odious comparisons or petty jealousies as to one’s place and function in the church. Some Israelites faced the bleak north while others looked towards the warm south; some looked towards the sunrise, others to the sunset, but all were in their place by divine decree. With our eyes upon the cloud of “the presence” we shall know unmistakably the indication of His will for us, whether to rest or move.

Not only was the camp to be prepared for warfare but for the work of carrying the tabernacle on the march. Chapters 3 and 4 are concerned with this work, and describe:

The Separation and Service of the Levites

God said, “I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn”, 3. 12. Every firstborn son belonged to God, and as such must be consecrated to the service of the priesthood. However, in their place, God accepted the whole tribe of Levi, and for those above the number of Levites available He accepted redemption money of five shekels each, this being devoted to the service of the sanctuary. Thus each firstborn son was represented either by a substitute or money payment. As the “firstborn”, the Lord Jesus was Himself a Priest by divine order, and all who have been redeemed by His precious blood are priests by virtue of their birthright in Christ. No priestly order is now required to represent men to God, for the order of Levitical priesthood has been done away in Christ.

Chapter 4 describes the service of the Levites; “According to the commandment of the Lord, they were numbered by the hand of Moses, every one according to his service, and according to his burden”, 4. 49. The furniture of the tabernacle was carried by the Kohathites, and included the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels and the veil. However, Aaron and his sons first entered the holy place and covered each sacred piece, putting in the staves which were to rest upon the shoulders of the Levites. The oversight of this work was the responsibility of Eleazar, to whom also pertained the anointing oil and sweet incense, 4. 16. The curtains and the coverings which constituted the tabernacle were carried by the Gershonites under the charge of Ithamar, 4. 24-28, while the responsibility for the boards, bars, pillars, sockets, pins and cords was that of the Merarites, also under the supervision of Ithamar, 4. 29-33. It is clear that all were submissive to the divine will, and consequently it was not thought less important a task to care for the unattractive badger-skins and apparently insignificant pins and cords, than to be one of the Kohathites who carried the sacred furniture of the sanctuary.

As in the human body every member is necessary for its harmonious working, so also in the body of Christ each member has its special part, “for the body is not one member, but many”, 1 Cor. 12. 14; the less prominent members are of no less value than those which are obviously the more active; feet and hands have no more significance than eyes and ears. In the local assembly of God’s people there is room for both active and meditative members. When we are prepared to accept the Lord’s will, we shall be content with the work that He has allocated to us, and all will profit thereby.

The final coverings visible to the human eye were those of the badger-skins, the ark only being finally covered with a cloth of blue, Num. 4. 6. Here is clearly depicted the heavenly character of the Lord Jesus who was the complete and final revelation of God to man, the Lord from heaven. The laver, which was used for cleansing and originally made from the mirrors of the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle, Exod. 38. 8, finds no mention here, for the Lord Jesus needed neither human adornment nor human cleansing being “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners”, Heb. 7. 26.

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