Strength for the Journey: "Making the Tough Choices" – Numbers 3-5

She meant well, she truly did. She brought home the wounded animal, and tried to nurse it to health. Well beyond her limited veterinary knowledge – she brought in the door a potential pet – but she had no idea what she was doing. You see, the animal she brought in the door was very sick, and the disease spread to all the other pets in the house. Her good heart indirectly caused the death of all of her other beloved pets. As one after another died of the same illness, she saw the problem: Good intentions aren’t enough – they need to be accompanied by right actions. Wanting to do good doesn’t mean DOING GOOD. The difference is found in the actual choices – not simply the INTENT.

I mention this because it helps to frame the chief lesson of our text. For God’s people to move forward in the heat of the wilderness THEY NEED MORE THAN GOOD HEARTS – they need His Word, and leaders that will offer His direction and discernment of His will. That is the reason why God specified the qualities and work of leaders before they left Sinai. There are many traps God’s people would unwittingly face, and leaders that followed His Word closely would soon be essential to success on the arduous path to the Promised Land. The problem is that God’s people can be moved from God’s path with simple emotional appeals to their warm-heartedness of the hurting, along with their desire to forgive and unify – even when that is NOT what God desires in a specific case.

On the face of it, unrestricted forgiveness always sounds Christian, but it is not. Leaders know that. They know that some people will say they are sorry to gain the advantages of restoration, but not truly believe what they are saying. Others bring danger to the community if too easily offered unconditional acceptance. God gave many commands about caring for one another, but He also gave commands to put distance between us and some, and to have fences around us to protect the community.

Key Principle: God placed specific barriers and fences to protect the people, and wants believers to pay close attention to follow the Word He has given concerning contacts and divisions among people.

Our story begins all the way back in Numbers 3, where we learned some principles about God’s establishment of the leadership before the tough standards of Numbers 5 were revealed. We five important truths about God’s selection process:

1: God chose the leaders He wanted for His people (3:1). Numbers 3:1 “…the LORD spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.” Leadership is CHOSEN and GIFTED BY GOD.

2: God didn’t give enough leaders to do the work – but made them look to others. (3:2-5), They were named from the sons of Aaron. Numbers 3:2 These then are the names of the sons of Aaron… Leadership is TEAM DEPENDENT.

3: God appointed a third group to be brought into the practical maintaining of the ministry (3:6-9). We named them as the men of the tribe Levi. Numbers 3:6 “Bring the tribe of Levi near and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve himLeadership is PRACTICAL.

4: The work was both profoundly serious and extraordinarily unique (3:10). Numbers 3:10 “So you shall appoint Aaron and his sons that they may keep their priesthood, but the layman who comes near shall be put to death.” Leadership is a DISTINCT CALLING.

5: God said His servants were His personal property in a unique way (3:11-13). He replaced the Levites with the need to have a firstborn redemption from among the people of that time and said: “… So the Levites shall be Mine. 13 “For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the LORD.” Leadership is at God’s BECK and CALL.

If you read carefully the rest of Numbers 3 and 4, it becomes clear that God wanted to organize the leaders in each of the groups with specific tasks:

First, God told Moses to COUNT all those males who were from the specified families: Numbers 3:14 Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, 15 “Number the sons of Levi by their fathers’ households...

Next, Moses was told to divide the work four ways – 1) Aaronic family priests; 2) Kohathite Levites; 3) Gershonite Levites and 4) Merarite Levites.

AARONIC FAMILY PRIESTS: There were commands of priestly work to Aaron’s sons. When all was said and done, they lived for the work of the worship center and cared for every aspect of its operations on behalf of the people. There were four ways this was clear:

They were to watch over the daily work in the Worship Center (3:32). Numbers 3:32 and Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest was the chief of the leaders of Levi, and had the oversight of those who perform the duties of the sanctuary. This included even the menial tasks related to the work (3:28). Numbers 3:28 “This is the service of the families of the sons of the Gershonites in the tent of meeting, and their duties shall be under the direction of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest…

They were to prepare the most holy things for proper transport (4:15). Numbers 4:15 “When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects … the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they will not touch the holy objects and die. .

They were to handle the oil and grain of the offerings that were necessary to the operation of the worship place (4:16). Numbers 4:16 “The responsibility of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest is the oil for the light and the fragrant incense and the continual grain offering and the anointing oil—the responsibility of all the tabernacle and of all that is in it, with the sanctuary and its furnishings.

They were to live ever watching over the worship center (live at the door) and keep their focus on worship, instruction and intercession for the rest of the nation (3:38). Numbers 3:38 Now those who were to camp before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, are Moses and Aaron and his sons, performing the duties of the sanctuary for the obligation of the sons of Israel; but the layman coming near was to be put to death…

LEVITES OF KOHATH FAMILY: There was the Levitical work of Kohath’s sons, who worked beside the priests: Those of the sons of Kohath that were NOT from Aaron were not priests, but they had a special call from God as ELDERS among the people. They focused on the worship center and worked beside the priests, but had some limitations the priests did not have. They stayed close to the priests and took their cue from the priests. They were there as godly men who would be ever ready to assist the priestly corps. They cared for the holy implements of the Tabernacle.

They were to live near the worship center and make its care their primary focus (3:27-31). 3:27 Of Kohath … 29 The families of the sons of Kohath were to camp on the southward side of the tabernacle, … 31 Now their duties involved the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, and the utensils of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all the service concerning them;

They were to be tested and trained men, with enough experience to know how and not too much to be able to practically serve (4:1-2). Numbers 4:3 from thirty years and upward, even to fifty years old, all who enter the service to do the work in the tent of meeting.

Their specific work was to take their cue from the priests, and when things were properly prepared, to move the objects of the Tabernacle, handling them with great care (4:4-15). Numbers 4:4 “This is the work of the descendants of Kohath in the tent of meeting, concerning the most holy things. 5 “When the camp sets out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and they shall take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it; …15 “When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they will not touch the holy objects and die. .. They were to stay closely tied to both the priests and the other servants, and not to become too distant from either of them (4:17-20). Numbers 4:17 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 18 “Do not let the tribe of the families of the Kohathites be cut off from among the Levites. 19 “But do this to them that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy objects: Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each of them to his work and to his load; 20 but they shall not go in to see the holy objects even for a moment, or they will die.”…

LEVITES OF GERSHON’S FAMILY: The men of Gershon were the “fabric masters” of the Tabernacle. They transported, maintained and washed the fabrics of the Tabernacle. These were men aged between 30 and 50, camping to the west of the Tabernacle, caring for the fabric needs of the Tabernacle.

They took special care of the fabric coverings, camping behind the Tabernacle. Numbers 3:21 Of Gershon … 23 The families of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle westward…25 Now the duties of the sons of Gershon in the tent of meeting involved the tabernacle and the tent, its covering, and the screen for the doorway of the tent of meeting, 26 and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the doorway of the court which is around the tabernacle and the altar, and its cords, according to all the service concerning them….This was repeated in 4:24 “This is the service of the families of the Gershonites, in serving and in carrying: 25 they shall carry the curtains of the tabernacle and the tent of meeting with its covering and the covering of porpoise skin that is on top of it, and the screen for the doorway of the tent of meeting, 26 and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the doorway of the gate of the court which is around the tabernacle and the altar, and their cords and all the equipment for their service; and all that is to be done, they shall perform. 27 “All the service of the sons of the Gershonites, in all their loads and in all their work, shall be performed at the command of Aaron and his sons; and you shall assign to them as a duty all their loads. 28 “This is the service of the families of the sons of the Gershonites in the tent of meeting, and their duties shall be under the direction of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest

LEVITES OF MERARI’S FAMILY: These men were given charge over the metal and wood work of the Tabernacle. These were men between 30 and 50, commanded to encamp north of the Tabernacle and care for wood, metal and rope.

They lived on the north side of the Tabernacle, and were told to service the wood and metal equipment, along with the ropes. 4:33 Of Merari … 35 … They were to camp on the northward side of the tabernacle. 36 Now the appointed duties of the sons of Merari involved the frames of the tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its sockets, all its equipment, and the service concerning them, 37 and the pillars around the court with their sockets and their pegs and their cords….

They also were active from thirty to fifty years old. 4:29 “As for the sons of Merari, you shall number them by their families, by their fathers’ households; 30 from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, you shall number them, everyone who enters the service to do the work of the tent of meeting.

Now counted and ordered, God again revealed truth to the people, but it was painful for them to hear.

God placed specific barriers and fences to protect the people, and wanted the people to pay close attention to follow the Word He has given concerning contacts and divisions among people.

Look at three kinds of people in the commands of Numbers 5. Today’s lesson will include two of them, the third will have a lesson of its own – because of the specific nature and length of the text:

  • People who needed to get out of the camp.

  • People who needed to get right with God.

  • People who needed to get straight with one another.

Each of these should be handled carefully, and separately…

First, there were people who were defiled by contact with the dead or by manifestations of bodily discharges. They needed separation.

Numbers 5:1 “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Command the sons of Israel that they send away from the camp every leper and everyone having a discharge and everyone who is unclean because of a dead person. 3 “You shall send away both male and female; you shall send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp where I dwell in their midst.” 4 The sons of Israel did so and sent them outside the camp; just as the LORD had spoken to Moses, thus the sons of Israel did.

Passages like this can easily be dismissed as only pertaining to the health conditions of the ancient desert. Although I believe there is a connection to health, certainly, I would caution Bible students to look more broadly to the principle behind the separation barrier. Let me explain:

In the Bible the term defilement isn’t necessarily about specific sin in the life of the person who is defiled. Sometimes, God separated out people from ministry and even from dwelling together for a time for purposes that were not related to their specific behavior at all. The term “taw-may” translated defile can be used in a variety of ways. Sometimes it carries with it the sense of pollution of sin, as in sexual or idolatrous sin that “polluted the children of Israel”. In other cases, though, it was a marker of ineligibility for a specific service or use by God – not because of specific sin, but for other reasons. Levites that slept with their wives were not suited for eligibility of service for the next twenty-four hours (Lev. 22). If a Levite has a son that dies, he may bury him, but he may not immediately serve in his position (Lev. 21). The point of such commands included some health and cleanliness concerns, but they were focused also on the servant’s ability to concentrate on their work appropriately.

Defilement may mean that you aren’t bad, but because of something happening in your life, you aren’t ready to serve God in your function at that moment.

We don’t have such a standard today. We keep going, even when we should stop. I don’t know how many times I have counseled men in ministry that were in trouble in their life, and much of it stemmed from the same thing – the expectation that no matter what happened to them, they needed to be ready to keep going. Look at the three specific conditions of ineligibility:

People with a communicable disease. When we are sick, it is related to the fall and sin in general, but not necessarily related to a specific sin we are engaged in. Sickness may remove someone from active service for a time, particularly if it is a sickness that can be spread by them. An usher with the flu on Sunday morning can thin out a Sunday night crowd! We seem to have this exception fairly well imbedded in our day, so we will move on.

People with an active blood seepage. Under the Law, women were defiled during their monthly cycle as part of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. The accompanying pain and discomfort is a testament that mutiny against God has its price in everyday life – just as the experience of the man who breaks his body to plant in an unyielding field experienced. No woman is specifically SINFUL because of this ineligibility to be among her people – it is because she is a SINNER. Sickness, discharges and defilements are because we are all SINNERS, not because we have specifically SINNED in some area. It is a status problem, not necessarily a participation problem. Having said that, God did make the point elsewhere in Scripture that He may use sickness as a discipline to His people. Some people are held out of participation by a discharge or lesion that God intended to keep them from further contaminating the ministry with sinful practices. I have in mind the specifics of 1 Corinthians 11.

People who are handling the burial of their loved ones. No place is the “Fall of Man” so powerfully recalled as at the burial site. Physical death is an illustration of separation from God – spiritual death – that took place when the mutiny of the Garden occurred. In the Bible, the dead were handled by their family and prepared for burial. The caring for the body, with all its health dangers, removed people from the camp for a time. At the same time, I would suggest there was another reason. Perhaps those involved in the process of burial were NOT READY to be back into the flow of their life, and the time away allowed them to put some time into healing from the loss – even though it would take much longer to truly heal. The first stages of grief, in this view, would eliminate someone from service. I believe there is a Biblical case to be made for suspension of service by ministry people who have lost their spouse. I think it is both unwise and in my view unbiblical for them to continue right away. A time of grief should be granted and enforced by those involved in leadership.

The point of all this is that we aren’t always ready to keep going – even if we think we NEED to for the sake of others. We can WANT to do the right thing, but that isn’t the same as DOING the right thing.

God may be introducing a condition to get you to slow down and look at life differently. If you are not well, you should take the time, away from others, to get well – particularly if what you have can be spread to them. If you are suffering from a loss or facing some condition that is messing with your body and emotional life – you may need to set aside some time for recovery – and get off the firing line. It is unwise to push past events and trauma of body.

God commanded the leper to be removed from the camp. That doesn’t SOUND very understanding! Why was He being so MEAN? What if, because we have compassion on the leper, we decide to keep him in the camp? What would happen? In short, the malady would spread and others would be hurt. Here is the point: We are not more compassionate than God. He made rules so that REAL compassion could thrive.

I constantly hear people in our day that for the sake of compassion re-draw God’s stated lines. We want to have compassion on the brutalized and victimized woman who was raped, so we make the exception in our stand on life – because we think compassion is defined by OUR WAY of looking at things – it isn’t. God introduced a baby on the planet through a vicious and despicable act – but the baby isn’t a disease to be destroyed or a monster to be slain – it is God’s answer to man’s sin sickness. That baby has the mark of blessing that can only be understood by one like Joseph of old who said “what another meant for evil, God meant for good.” Compassion misplaced is injustice allowed.

Second, there were people that were caught up in sin. They needed repentance, restoration and in some cases to pay restitution.

In direct contrast to some people who were told to go away from others because of defilement, others were told that their actions had separated them from others and they needed to be restored. Numbers 5:5: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 6 “Speak to the sons of Israel, ‘When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the LORD, and that person is guilty, 7 then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged. 8 ‘But if the man has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution which is made for the wrong must go to the LORD for the priest, besides the ram of atonement, by which atonement is made for him.

God made specific conditions of restoration for those who deliberately acted in a way that hurt another. When either a man or woman acted unfaithfully – meaning a deliberate act that broke the relationship, and when they were found to be guilty of that act – they were to ADMIT THEY WERE WRONG. Next, they were to give back what they took away (implying the primary sin in view here was one of theft). They were to add a 20% “markup” on the restoration and give that to the wounded party, or their estate. They were reconciled to the wounded one through this, but STILL NEEDED to be reconciled to God. That happened when they offered a RAM, a valuable asset that would have helped them secure themselves in the future.

Here is the point: People who take from others what they have not rightfully earned need to be dealt with openly, with a view toward restoring them. We are all sinners, and we all want things we shouldn’t want. We rationalize and justify in our own minds that we should have what others have. We covet another person’s good fortune, and we can easily rationalize taking. No one is exempt from the desire, but most don’t give into it. If you did – make it right. Don’t just give back what you took, go the extra mile and give back MORE. If you have taken too many breaks at work, do extra work and make it up – then do even more make sure you have repaid the full debt plus.

If you have wronged another, Jesus said it was more important that you make it right then you offer your gift to God at the altar. Don’t steal money and put it in the offering plate. It doesn’t belong there! Don’t cheat customers and think that by being CLEVER you will honor God and grow your business. For every gift to mission you make from stolen money, you wound someone’s ability to hear the Gospel right here at home.

Be the honest worker you would want in someone YOU hire to work for you. We have no right to complain about a mechanic doing a poor job on our car if we are doing a poor job in our office or factory. It is time for Christians to show their loyalty to Jesus Christ by becoming the BEST WORKERS on the job! We need men and women who will show up on time, work hard even when not watched, and give their best every day. Work is not the refuge of rest for the overactive recreation of your busy weekend. Go to bed earlier and get ready to be your best at work. Your testimony will increase, and God will use your faithfulness as a platform to reach others.

** NOTE: Numbers 5:5-8 relate to the sinner corrected, but Numbers 5:9-10 do not. It is a clarification of the ownership of gifts given to those in the priesthood. It says: 5:9 ‘Also every contribution pertaining to all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they offer to the priest, shall be his. 10 ‘So every man’s holy gifts shall be his; whatever any man gives to the priest, it becomes his.’” This was a simple clarification brought up in light of the previous comments, and sought to make clear that all gifts passed to a priest became the property of that priest.

Third, there were couples divided by jealous suspicion. They needed inspection, counsel and in cases without foundation – restoration. That is our subject for the next lesson! (Numbers 5:11-31).

When God placed specific barriers and fences – they were to protect the people and heal divisions among us. We dare not re-write the rules.