READY FOR PILGRIMAGE Numbers 1–9
“At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out” (Num. 9:18).Pilgrimage demands each believer prepare for warfare and for worship. When God’s people are on the march, they need to be ready for both.
After a year at Mount Sinai, the people spent 50 days preparing to journey on to Canaan. Moses took a census of fighting men (1:1–54), assigned campsites (2:1–34) and the travel tasks of the Levites (3:1–4:49). Three issues of ritual purity were decided (5:1–6:27), the tabernacle and Levites were purified (7:1–8:26), and the people celebrated Passover (9:1–23).
Understanding the Text
“Take a census” Num. 1:1–54. This first census reported in Numbers was to count men “able to serve in the army.” The count included every able-bodied male over 20. Each was “listed by name, one by one.” The census found 603,550 able to serve. It is fascinating to note the emphasis on individuals among the hundreds of thousands. When God’s people are on pilgrimage, every person counts. It’s the same in the church today. No matter how many millions of believers there are, you and I are “listed by name” as members of God’s army. The issue isn’t whether or not we count. It’s whether God can count on us. Years later, after a new generation replaced the men and women now camped at Sinai, another army census was taken. The overall number was about the same, 601,730. But the number contributed by several of the tribes differed greatly.
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What does the decline of Simeon by some 37,000, and the increase of Manasseh by over 20,000, suggest? Simply that if we do not do our share, God’s work will still be done. But someone else will win the blessing that might have been ours. “Camp around the tent of meeting” Num. 2:1–34. In the 13th century G.p. Egyptian armies used the same square formation that the Lord introduced here. The royal tent was placed in the middle of the camp, surrounded by different army corps. The symbolism does not suggest that God is protected by His people; He is the protector. The organization of the camp proclaims to all that the Lord is Israel’s Commander and King, the heart and center of the nation’s life. “I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites” Num. 3:12. The Levites were not counted among the fighting men. They were set aside to guard the tabernacle and to do the “heavy work” (’abad, ’abodah) of taking it down, transporting, and erecting it. These Hebrew words come from a root that means servant, or even slave. In Old Testament times the status of a servant depended on two things: how close he was to his master, and how significant his service was. The structure of the camp put the Levites closer to the Lord’s tabernacle than any other tribe. And their work was to guard and transport the holiest objects in Israel’s faith. Doing God’s “heavy work” is a privilege. It places us close to Him, and in serving Him we build for eternity. The 22,000 Levites between 30 and 50 took the place of 23,273 “firstborn” that belonged to the Lord. God had claimed Israel’s firstborn as His own when He slew the firstborn of Egypt. How could there be only 22,273 firstborn in a community with over 600,000 men of military age? Some suggest that the 22,273 were born after the Exodus began, some 13 months earlier. Why were only men between 30 and 50 counted? Possibly because God’s “heavy work” calls for servants who are both mature and at the height of their strength. “Send them outside . . . so they will not defile their camp” Num. 5:1–4. This is the first of three purity issues God raised in preparing Israel for pilgrimage. The camp was organized to prepare for war. But to journey safely, Israel had to depend on God and remain close to Him. Anyone who was defiled and might interrupt fellowship with God, as those with infectious skin disease, had to be put outside to keep from contaminating the community (see Lev. 11–15). Application to our personal pilgrimage of faith is obvious. We are to cleanse our lives from impurities, as Israel was called to cleanse her camp. “Wrongs another in any way” Num. 5:6–31. Ritual contamination by an infectious skin disease was visible. Moral failures were more difficult to ascertain. First, any person who wronged another “in any way” was guilty and “must” confess the wrong and make full restitution. We are each responsible to maintain a right relationship with God and with others in the faith community. But what if another is unwilling to admit a wrong? The text describes a test to be given a wife whose husband suspects her of unfaithfulness. God promised to act through the rite to clear an innocent wife or to identify a guilty one. The rite reminds us that if we do not deal with sins ourselves, we, like the guilty wife, “will bear the consequences” of our sins. “A special vow” Num. 6:1–21. The person who took a Nazarite vow took on many of the special obligations of Israel’s priests. Priests could not drink wine before offering sacrifices (Lev. 10:9); the Nazarite could not use any product of the vine. The high priest could not mourn for his near relatives (21:2ff), nor could the Nazarite. On completing his vow, the Nazarite even offered the same sacrifices that Aaron did when he was ordained (cf. Lev. 8). The presence of Nazarites reminded Israel that the whole community was holy, layman as well as Levite. Each believer could voluntarily commit himself or herself totally to the Lord. “To bless the Israelites” Num. 6:22–27. With the community organized and purified, Aaron and his sons were able to pronounce one of the most beautiful of benedictions over Israel. The blessings described are ours too when we journey in purity with Jesus and His friends. The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace. Assured of God’s presence and organized into a more disciplined force, Israel was ready for war. But first Israel had to be ready to worship. “He . . . consecrated it and all its furnishings” Num. 7:1–8:26. Just before departing, the tabernacle, its furnishings, and the Levites who were to serve in it were all ritually cleansed by sacrificial blood and dedicated to the service of God. The solemn ceremonies underlined the importance of holiness for anyone ready to set on life’s spiritual pilgrimage.
The Nature of Our Pilgrimage (Num. 9)
Israel’s final act before setting out on the journey to Canaan was to celebrate the Passover. This annual festival of freedom recalled God’s mighty acts in winning freedom for His people. It served to remind Israel of redemption from Egypt, for redemption had laid the foundation of Israel’s existence. Redemption was each individual’s charter deed to personal relationship with the Lord. Even ceremonial uncleanness did not prevent a person from celebrating Passover. In fact, the ceremonially unclean were commanded to keep Passover. Why? Because personal relationship with God depends on the experience of salvation, not on living the good life. But notice what follows this ceremonial reaffirmation of Israel’s salvation. The writer of Numbers looks ahead and sums up the daily experience of Israel on pilgrimage. “Whenever the cloud [which indicated the visible presence of God with His people] lifted from above the tent, the Israelites set out; whenever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped” (v. 17). A redeemed people can to look to the Lord for daily guidance. It’s the same for us today. Conversion is the beginning of our pilgrimage, not the end. There may be warfare ahead. But God can and will guide us safely through life’s trials. If we wish to travel safely, we must remember that God is with us, and look to Him daily for direction and guidance. Personal Application
Organization speaks of discipline, and purity of moral commitment. Without both, our spiritual journey is sure to be marked by breakdowns and delay.