Yesterday, we concluded by saying that the census in chapter 1 numbered the fighting men, and did not include the Levities because they didn’t fight. But when the Levites get counted, everyone is included who is one month old and upward.
Another thing to remember is that the number in the third chapter is compared to the total of the firstborn males in Israel. When the people were brought out of Egypt, God had killed the firstborn of all the Egyptians when the angel of death passed through the land. The firstborn of all the Israelites were spared who had put the blood upon the doorposts of their houses. God said that those firstborn children nevertheless belonged to Him. They were saved by the blood. If it wasn’t for the blood they would have died as well. They were sinners just like everybody else, and salvation was by the blood that pointed forward to Jesus Christ.
Now, the Levites are not numbered like the rest of the people. These priests and those who served with them are set aside for God’s work. Instead of taking the firstborn from all the different families, God took the Levites in their place. They are going to represent the people, and they are going to be the firstborn to God. But when everyone was numbered, there were twenty-two thousand Levites and 22,273 firstborn males in Israel. What were they going to do about the 273 extra? They had to be redeemed, too. So instructions were given to pay five shekels for each one. It doesn’t tell us who paid it or where it was paid, but that’s a vivid way of showing that they belonged to the Lord.
All this seems so distant to us. It’s another culture and another time and another people. But one principle can be taken and carried over into the Church of Jesus Christ: every single believer is separated unto God. We don’t have to be redeemed by five shekels, or ten, or a hundred, or a thousand shekels. We have been redeemed from our sin and set free by the blood of Jesus Christ. Peter said that we were redeemed, not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish and without spot (see 1 Pet. 1:18-19). When you begin to think about those things and see them in the whole scope of the Word of God, you understand every single one of these chapters in Numbers points to a spiritual truth.
Numbers 5 introduces a section that deals in one way or another with purification. Once the people are numbered, they know who they are, and then they have to be set apart to God. This happened in a number of ways. First, there is the expulsion from the camp of those who were ritually defiled (see vv. 1-4). There is a command for restitution for outstanding offenses against other people within the camp (see vv. 5-10). And then there is a procedure for resolving problems of marital distrust or jealousy (see vv. 11-31). This suggests that we have to be right with both God and one another. John says at the beginning of his first epistle that if we have fellowship with God, we will be in fellowship with one another (see 1 John 1:7). Only when there are both levels of fellowship are we able to do what God would have us do.
Numbers 6 talks about the Nazirites. This English word “Nazirite” comes from the Hebrew word nazar, which means “to be set apart.” All the people were set apart by belonging to God. But it was possible through the taking of a special vow for a person to set himself apart in a special way for a special purpose for a set length of time. As far as we know, the Nazirites were able to do that for any length of time they wanted. For example, they could have taken a special vow that they would give the next ten years of their lives to God’s service. Their function in Israel was like a monk’s or a nun’s in the Catholic system, only it had nothing to do with celibacy. They could be married. But they had to let their hair grow, they had to abstain from alcohol, and they couldn’t touch a dead body. This is spelled out in chapter 6. But the significant thing is that they set themselves apart to God.
Sometimes people read that and wonder whether Christians should take vows today. I think it’s a very dangerous thing to take vows, for this simple reason: we take vows, but we don’t or can’t keep them. Some years ago, I was in London at a minsters’ conference that the Rev. Dick Lucas was leading. We got to the end and there was a time when you would naturally call for dedication and commitment from the people. I was somewhat startled to hear Dick say, “Now, don’t make vows to God that you won’t keep.” We need to remember that.
One significant thing in this chapter is that there are provisions for people to get out of a vow if the situation changes. It’s a serious business, having made a vow to God, to get out of it. There are provisions there for how you can do it. It involves sacrifices and expense, but it could be done. God was saying, “I know your frame, I know you’re weak. I know you can’t always do the things you promised to do.”
Right at the very heart of these instructions that may seem strange to us, we come to something that is at once clear, relevant and beautiful. At the very end of chapter 6 we have the Aaronic blessing: “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.”
That comes in a very suitable place in these early chapters. The section before the blessing is dealing with the Nazirites, a special people who set themselves apart to God in a special way. We might think that they would receive a special blessing. And maybe they did. But at the end of the chapter you find a blessing which is for all the people of God. You don’t have to be a Nazirite and you don’t have to take a special vow to be blessed by God. This blessing is for all of us.