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B'Midbar/Numbers 3:7 And they are to keep his charge and the charge of all the assembly before the Tent of Meeting to serve the service of the Tabernacle.
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Here is another verse in which repeated biblical Hebrew roots predominate. Starting the verse is , a ubiquitous Qal 3mp affix form of the root . David Clines offers a range of root meanings, from "keep, guard, retain, watch" to "observe, perform, restrain, protect,"1 is a noun derived from the same root meaning "a watching, guarding, observance, charge or performance" (Davidson), while is the same word with a 3ms 'his' possessive pronoun ending. and , "the assembly" and 'meeting' respectively, both come from the root , "to appoint, meet, agree" (Davidson). Lastly, , the Qal infinitive, and , a fs noun, both come from the root , "to work, labour, serve, worship" (Davidson).
Who are all the people being referred to in the verse? The 'they' subjects of the verb (and sentence) are the Levites, of whom Moshe has just been told byHaShem, "place them in attendance upon Aharon the priest to serve him" (B'Midbar 3:6, NJPS). The 'his' therefore points to Aharon and "the whole assembly" must be the entire Israelite community: all the Children of Israel. Rashi tells us that "any appointment to which a person is appointed and which it is his duty to carry out is called , 'charge' or 'assignment' throughout Scripture and in the language of the Mishnah." The Levites have been appointed to act on behalf of Aharon and his sons, helping them with their tasks, and to act on behalf of the people, carrying out their tasks. What tasks might these be?
TheSforno reports that the Levites were to "to minister to the needs of the Divine service, which would have been the privilege of the members of the Sanhedrin, were it not for the sin of the Golden Calf." That starts us off in the right direction, but is still rather vague. Just exactly what did the Levites do? Ibn Ezra offers the somewhat laconic comment "with regard to the sacrifices", which Drazin and Wagner expound to mean, "that the Levites helped the priests watch over the animals brought to them for offerings and assisted them in preparing the animals for sacrifice." The Ralbag offers the traditional explanation that "they shall perform guarding for [Aharon] and for the whole community", adding that "prominent buildings have guards and gatekeepers." Jacob Milgrom confirms this, pointing out that "the Levitical cordon around the Tabernacle both guards it from incursion by the laity and protects the latter from suffering the consequent wrath of G-d (B'Midbar 1:53)." This protects and so serves both the priests - who are told not to allow the laity any access to the Holy Places - and the people. Gordon Wenham writes that "the primary task of the Levites was the service of G-d: all the men in the tribe of Levi took the place of all the firstborn men of Israel."2 All of the Temple service performed by the Levites is essentially the service of all the Children of Israel; the Levites are their representatives.
RabbiHirsch explains that "the guard which [the Levites] have to keep they are to do as an office transferred to them from the priesthood but also as the charge of all the assembly. The priesthood itself is only the representative of the national community in the Sanctuary. For the Torah is not given to the priests and Levites, it is given to the whole nation who are responsible for it. It was not priests and Levites who had to build a holy place for it and who did build it. 'They shall build Me a holy place and I will dwell among them' (Shemot 25:8) was said to the whole nation, who were to build for G-d a holy place for His Torah so that G-d should be present amongst them." Everyone was involved; the charge rested on all the people.
Pulling back and trying to summarise, Thomas Dozeman answers the question "What tasks?" with: "the tasks of the Levites are two-fold. One of the tasks is to guard the outer court of the tabernacle from encroachers; the second task is the hard labour of maintaining and transporting the tabernacle, to be described later in the chapter." He seems to have missed the matter of assisting with the sacrifices, which makes the number of task categories up to three, but makes another interesting point based on the repeated vocabulary in the verse: "The use of suggests this language has overtones of slavery; they are claimed by G-d as slaves to the divine."3 We can surely hear Rav Sha'ul using the same metaphor when he tells the congregations in Rome that "having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness" (Romans 6:18, NASB). Just as you used to be slaves to sin, he adds, "now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification" (v. 19, NASB).
So if we are to be considered slaves to righteousness, what are our tasks today? How do we serve both God and man? The apostle Peter's first letter was originally written to "the chosen ones, sojourning in a strange place: the diaspora" (1 Peter 1:1), but has been appropriated by the Spirit and applied to the church as a whole, both Jewish and Gentile followers of Yeshua. It echoes Shemot 19:6, telling its readers that "you are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (2:9, ESV) who are "to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to G-d through Yeshua the Messiah" (2:5, ESV). How do we carry that out? To whom and for whom are we priests? To answer those questions we need to think of an onion; an onion has layers which can be peeled away to show the layer underneath and slicing through the onion instead shows all the layers as rings. The first onion has the high priest at at the center; he acts as a priest for the whole nation, but particularly on behalf of the priesthood. The priests, in their turn serve as priests for all of Israel, including each other: they offer sacrifices, mediate atonement and declare clean or unclean. The outer layer here is the nation of Israel who serve as priests for the nations, bringing sacrifices on behalf of the nations and interceding for them as part of the standard liturgy.
In the second onion, Yeshua is at the centre: the high priest of Israel and the world. In that role He mediates both the prayers of Israel - even if they don't believe in Him - and the prayers of His disciples before the Father. Israel still serves as priests for the nations, while the disciples from the nations serve as priests to those around them who do not yet know Yeshua. Importantly, Israel and the disciples group serve as priests for each other: interceding and crying out to G-d for the coming of His kingdom; for His name to be recognised and exalted; and for every knee to bow before Him. Messianic Jews, of course, serve in both groups, operating at one and the same time as part of Israel and as Yeshua's disciples.
The Torah lists the functions of the priests: to perform the service of the cult, facilitating those who want to "draw near"; to teach the people the difference between clean and unclean (and the Torah in general); and to guard the Sanctuary against incursion. Believers are called to exactly those same tasks. We pray for and encourage each other; we explain and pronounce G-d's forgiveness for those who repent; we teach those who do not know about G-d and His ways; we introduce and facilitate those who want to connect with G-d and draw near to Him; and we fight to preserve His holiness, name and reputation. These thing happen, for example, when groups go out to pray for healing on the streets, when people visit in their neighbourhood or do door-to-door evangelism. They happen when we explain "the reason for the hope that is in [us]" (1 Peter 3:15), when we comfort and cry with the dying and those who have lost loved ones, and when we write to newspapers, radio and television stations to protest about their reporting or program content.
In doing all of these things - guided by the Ruach and working as fellow workers with Yeshua - we serve G-d, and we serve the people and each other. As Rav Sha'ul wrote, "we are G-d's fellow workers. You are G-d's field, G-d's building" (1 Corinthians 3:9, ESV) - doing the sometimes backbreaking work of maintaining the Sanctuary, helping and accompanying people through the process of seeking and finding atonement and relationship with G-d. We weep, laugh and cry; we hug and encourage, cajole and comfort, sharing G-d's words of love and encouragement, discipline and chastisement. Like the ancient priests, who stood with one foot in eternity, offering service and ritual that never changed, our lives are "hidden with Messiah in G-d" (Colossians 3:3, ESV), preaching G-d's unchanging message of the cross: repent and be forgiven. As the priests were set apart and anointed for their service in the Tabernacle, G-d has "raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Messiah Yeshua" (Ephesians 2:6, ESV) so that we might do the "good works, which G-d prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (v. 10, ESV).
Being a priest is hard work; it requires stamina and determination; it requires great personal sacrifice to maintain purity or ritual cleanness and to carry out the instructions of the High Priest. But we are empowered by the Spirit in us who enables us to do more than we would have imagined possible - but G-d knew all along could be done - as we learn to hear and recognise His voice and allow Him to speak and move through us to accomplish His purposes. It isn't about rights, status and standing; it is about consistent, faithful and humble service. Yeshua modelled it perfectly for us and called us to follow Him. Even allowing for human frailty, it can be done by those who are prepared to lay down their lives and follow Him. That's the invitation that is on the table before each of us in this life.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 470-471.
2. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 78.
3. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 694.
Further Study: Isaiah 29:22-24; Malachi 1:11; Colossians 4:5-6
Application: How can you improve your service as a priest among G-d's people and in the world today? Check in with the Great High Priest and ask Him what might be lacking and then work with Him to set that right so that you can serve Him and your circle of influence as He would do Himself.
Comment - 23:00 14May21 Di Stanfield: "An inspirational teaching
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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