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the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 1

Hole's Old and New Testament CommentaryHole's Commentary

Verses 1-51

Numbers 1 Num_3:51 .

As we pass to the consideration of the Book of Numbers we note that there is no real division between it and Leviticus, as indicated by the fact that the first word is, "And."

In a little over a year from the Exodus there had to be a numbering of the people. When we come to Numbers 26.0 we find there had to be another numbering just before they entered the land; and from these two occasions the book gets its name. It is the Book however in which we get details of the journeyings of the people in the wilderness. If it opens at the end of the first year in the wilderness after the law had been given, it closes with the people on the border of the promised land at the end of the forty years.

As a prelude to their journeys several things had to take place. The first of these we find in Numbers 1.0 . God would take an account of His people, and more particularly of the men from twenty years old and upward, who were "able to go forth to war." We must remember that God's plan was to carry them straight into the land of promise, though "not through the way of the land of the Philistines although that was near" ( Exo_13:17 ). The people who from their very beginning had seen no war were not to face it within a few days of their deliverance; yet they had to be prepared for it. Indeed Amalek attacked them within a couple of months and came under God's undying curse for so doing. As yet the sin recorded in Numbers 13.0 and Numbers 14.0 had not taken place, and had God's original plan not been set aside the conflict in the land would soon have been upon them.

Our chapter records that as a preliminary a "head" or prince of each tribe was selected. The choice was not left to the people, or even to Moses. The word to him was, "These are the names of the men that shall stand with you ...." God chose His own leader for each tribe, and this may usefully remind us that God today chooses His own servants and leaders, and does not submit the matter to a popular vote.

These men, expressed by name, then assisted in the census. All had to be enrolled, when "they declared their pedigrees after their families," so that every man counted was without a doubt a genuine child of Israel. A present-day application of this lies on the surface. The test today is not that of natural descent but of spiritual. Even a Nicodemus whose natural pedigree could not be impeached, had to discover that the necessary spiritual pedigree would only be his as he was "born of the Spirit." In Philippians 3.0 , we see that Paul, who was "an Hebrew of the Hebrews," not a drop of Gentile blood having come into his pedigree, counted all to be loss that he might have Christ as his gain and be "found in Him." To be "in Christ" is the pedigree of supreme value.

The total that were numbered amounted to 603,550, as we are told in verse 46. We were told in Exo_12:37 , Exo_12:38 , that about 600,000 men beside children left Egypt, and also a "mixed multitude" went with them. In this census the mixed multitude were eliminated and we have more detailed and accurate figures. Since all males under twenty and all females were omitted, we are safe in assuming that the host must have numbered over two millions.

Also the tribe of Levi was wholly excluded from this numbering. In Numbers 3.0 we get the reason for this. As a tribe they were to be set apart wholly for the service of God, and out of their midst came the family chosen for the priesthood. This fact indeed comes out in the closing verses of the first chapter. They were to serve the tabernacle, while the children of Israel were to pitch their tents in relation to it, at a certain distance; the Levites pitching theirs more closely round about it, as keeping it in charge.

We may say therefore that God not only called the warriors who were to take possession of the land but also the workers who were to take charge of His sanctuary, and the Aaronic family, who were to be the worshippers. But though the three callings were separate in Israel, the Christian of today finds them coalesced in himself, though the occasions of their exercise be separate. The Apostle Paul was called to be the pattern saint, and we certainly see in him the worshipper, the worker, and the warrior, as the occasion suited.

The people having been numbered, we learn in Numbers 2.0 that each tribe had its appointed place, when there were stationary periods and they pitched their tents. We notice in the first place that the tabernacle, where was to be seen the cloud indicating the presence of God, was at the centre of everything. So much so that it could be truly said that when Israel was gathered together in a state of repose there was the token of the presence of God in the midst of them. It was visible as befitted that dispensation. It was not so manifest to them, as it is to us today, that "the things which are seen are temporal." Our attention is to be fixed on the unseen things which are eternal. The presence of God amongst His people today is not visible; nevertheless if the church of God be convoked, and the indwelling Holy Spirit acting unhinderedly in power, an unbeliever coming in would be constrained to confess, "that God is in you of a truth" ( 1Co_14:25 ). We have also that great word of our Lord "Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them" ( Mat_18:20 ).

In verse Num_1:2 the words, "far off," must be noted. It is true of course that in Ephesians we read of Gentiles being "far off" in contrast to Jews, who were "nigh." But Israel's nearness was relative only in contrast to the distance in which Gentiles dwelt. Priests and Levites pitched their tents round about the tabernacle and the people had to remain on the fringe of things, for there was always fear of wrath coming upon them, as stated in verse Num_1:53 of Numbers 1.0 . The whole system was evidently designed to show that, "the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest" ( Heb_9:8 ).

Though the tribe of Levi had been severed from the rest, the division of the tribe of Joseph into two maintained twelve as their number so that on each side of the tabernacle three tribes pitched their tents. The group under Judah faced toward the entrance into the court. That under Ephraim was on the west side, and therefore nearest to the holy place with the cloud of the Divine Presence. This explains the reference in Psalms 80.0 , to God shining forth "before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh." We notice that the order in which the tribes were to march, when they set forth on their journeys, was commanded by God, equally with the order of their tents, when they rested. Arrangements were not left to their discretion or desires. Had they disobeyed, under the mistaken notion that they knew of some better order, they would simply have produced disorder.

In this we see a typical lesson for us. In 1Co 14.0 , we have the Apostle Paul instructing as to order in the Christian assembly, and saying that what he has written "are the commandments of the Lord." Much disorder has been produced by the setting aside or ignoring of these commandments.

In Numbers 3.0 we get details of God's order as to the tribe of Levi. This tribe was taken by God for the service of His house, under the hand of the priests, instead of all the firstborn throughout the tribes, which He had claimed for Himself. Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kohath and Merari, and each of them became the head of a section of the tribe. To each section was allotted a special service in connection with the tabernacle, and each had their tents in a specified position round the tabernacle. Nothing was left to their own devising.

Out of Kohath came Aaron and the priestly family, and the sons of Kohath had special charge of the ark and the other vessels of the sanctuary. Kohath was to pitch tent on the south side of the sanctuary, and Aaron and the priests together with Moses had to dwell on the east side, facing the entrance to the court, keeping charge there, with strangers excluded under the penalty of death.

One thing more we notice in Numbers 3.0 . When the census was taken, the number of the firstborn in Israel exceeded the number of the Levites by 273. These God claimed equally with the 22,000 for whom a Levite was found as a substitute, and hence five shekels apiece had to be paid for these as redemption money. According to Exodus 13.0 the firstborn were to be redeemed at their birth. In our chapter the principle of redemption as the preliminary to the service of God is again emphasized. Whether the Levites during Israel's history realized that it was only as redeemed people that they were brought into the service of God, may perhaps be open to question, but we should not miss this fact, which is typically set forth here.

The redemption money was handed to Aaron for the service of God, showing that it met His claims upon the redeemed. Let us never forget that as redeemed we belong to God, and that upon this fact is based the life of service to His Name, to which we are committed.

Bibliographical Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Numbers 1". "Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/fbh/numbers-1.html. 1947.
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