In previous blog posts we began studying Numbers Chapter one by discussing the census of the Israelites that the Lord ordered Moses to take. The thing we noticed was that the Levite tribe was left out of the count and up to now we haven’t been told why.
But we also find that NOT INCLUDING the tribe of Levi the number of Israelite men aged 20 and up was an astonishing 603,550; an enormous number that, if accurate, means the population of the nation of Israel as it left Egypt, and as it camped in the plains under Mt. Sinai, must have been somewhere between 2 and 3 million people.
Now that’s all well and good but we also know that a large portion of the folks who left Egypt with Israel were not Hebrews; they were Egyptians and various groups of Semites and who knows what other combination of nationalities that had been in Egypt for one reason or another at the time of the plagues God had poured out on Egypt.
And these various people had been so impressed with the power of the God of Israel that they wanted to join up with Israel, enjoy the benefits of worshipping such a god, and participate in the Exodus from Egypt to a Promised Land.
So the question is, where and how do these non-Hebrews fit in the mix?
Were they counted in the census as being part of one tribe or another?
The short answer is that we don’t know. For sure it was a mixed bag, though. Some of these foreigners had married Israelite men or women and so were easily associated with one or the other of the 12 tribes and thus would have figured into the final census totals.
But the foreigners who were not genealogically connected with Israel, nor had they married into Israel, would have had to make a choice: declare allegiance to one or the other of the 12 tribes or tag along as non-members of Israel.
As non-members of Israel they would NOT have been counted in the census. And they would NOT have been allowed to live within the camp of Israel; rather they would have had to set up their tents beyond the Israelite camp limits.
We have no way of knowing how many would have fallen into that category. But, understand: these foreigners were welcomed to tag along and they were not considered enemies. Without doubt these same foreigners helped to contribute to the delinquency of Israel as it pertained to idol worship (not that Israel needed much help in that area!)
The Levites, however, were not numbered among them by their fathers’ tribe. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor shall you take their census among the sons of Israel [since they are unavailable to go to war]. But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle (sanctuary) of the Testimony, and over all its furnishings and all things that belong to it. They shall carry the tabernacle [when traveling] and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and camp around it. When the tabernacle is to go forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to [be set up for] camp, the Levites shall set it up. But the layman (non-Levite) who approaches the tabernacle shall be put to death. The Israelites shall camp according to their armies, every man by his own camp and every man by his own [tribal] standard (banner). But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the Testimony, so that there will be no wrath against the congregation of the Israelites. The Levites shall be in charge of the tabernacle of the Testimony.” Thus the sons of Israel did these things; according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did.
Numbers 1:47-54 (AMP)
Here it states specifically that the Levites were not to be counted for the purpose of a MILITARY conscription. We’ll find later that indeed the Levites were counted, but it had nothing to do with being part of the war effort, and that is the gist of what is being said here.
Further from this time forward (which is essentially indefinitely) the Levites are NOT to be counted as a regular part of Israel. Instead they are being put in charge of the newly constructed Wilderness Tabernacle…that glorious tent shrine that would be central to the worship and lives of Israel for the next several centuries.
Further it is the Levites who are to disassemble it when it is time to move on and carry it during the journey and re-assemble it when they arrive at their next destination.
The Levites are in charge of everything that pertains to the Tabernacle including its furnishings and such things as the Bronze Altar for burnt offerings. But they also have another important duty: they are to guard the sanctuary from those who would encroach upon it.
So starting in verse 52 and moving on into Chapter 2 we find a very specific order that each of the 12 tribes is to camp around the Tabernacle; further, the Levites are to camp BETWEEN the 12 tribes and the Sanctuary… acting as a defensive barrier…in order to fulfill their new roll as guardians of God’s earthly dwelling place.
And just WHY are the Levites set apart to guard to the Sanctuary?
Verse 53 says this was so “that there will be no wrath against the congregation of the Israelites”.
Now this all sounds rather straightforward, but we need to fully grasp what a momentous thing has happened here, both historically and spiritually. And we’ll explore that in future blog posts.