The scroll of Numbers can be difficult to make sense of without context, and there’s a reason for that. The scroll was never meant to be understood on its own. Numbers picks up where Leviticus leaves off and mirrors the scroll on the other side of Leviticus (Exodus). To fully understand all of these scrolls, we need to read them together. Join Tim and Jon as they dive into Numbers, trace the theme of the temple, and discuss the unique role of the tribe of Levi.
Being the firstborn is about being uniquely responsible, an extra layer of responsibility and representation of the Father. The Levites as a clan are put into that place. This is all mapping back onto Eden. Out of the dust of the land, God forms one unique, priestly representative pair in the garden of Eden. They get to be closer to the presence of Yahweh than anybody else! But it's dangerous. That’s what Leviticus taught us many times over. Yahweh’s presence is good—it sustains our lives—and it’s dangerous and can end our lives. The Levites live in close proximity to the tent, acting as facilities and maintenance. This puts this clan at a unique level of responsibility and privilege and also a unique place of danger.
In part one (00:00-22:02), Tim and Jon begin discussing the scroll of Numbers. The English name “Numbers” comes from its name in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, and it refers to two censuses of the Israelites taken during the events of the scroll. The Hebrew name for Numbers is Bemidbar, meaning “in the wilderness.” The events of the entire scroll take place in the wilderness between Mount Sinai and the promised land.
Numbers can be confusing when read on its own. But that’s because Numbers and Exodus act as bookends to Leviticus, the scroll at the center of the Torah. To understand Numbers, we have to keep in mind that the literary structure of the scroll is meant to pick up themes from Leviticus and mirror events and themes from Exodus.
In this series, we will look at Numbers in three movements and trace the themes of temple, testing, and land.
In part two (22:02-40:55), the guys start exploring the first movement of Numbers, which opens with the first of two censuses taken throughout the scroll. Notably, only the male heads of houses are numbered, so the census is not a full list of Israel’s population.
Scholars debate whether the census numbers are literal or exaggerated for some other purpose. The biblical authors may have utilized larger-than-life numbers to communicate theological truths. Tim encourages us as readers—whether the numbers are literal or figurative—to read sympathetically. We’re reading the records of ancient people and trying to understand what they intended to communicate.
Notably, the tribe of Levi is not counted in the census because they will never fight in Israel’s army or own land. They’re set apart from the other brothers and instructed to live in the area directly surrounding the tabernacle so that they can act as “facilities and maintenance,” taking care of God’s dwelling place. In other words, the Levites are set up as new Adam-and-Eve representatives—God’s chosen ones who will represent God’s blessing and presence to the other tribes.
In part three (40:55-58:55), Tim and Jon discuss the Levites’ separate census in Numbers 3-4 and another special designation God assigns the Levites.
Numbers 3:12 I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be mine. 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 Yahweh.
In the Exodus story, when God is delivering the Israelites from Egypt, he brings a flood of justice upon the firstborn sons of Egypt, Israel, and even their livestock. In ancient Near Eastern culture, firstborn sons were seen as the unique image bearers of their fathers and, therefore, uniquely responsible for the family in a way the other siblings weren’t.
Here, Yahweh is saying that all the firstborn belong to him (just like at the first Passover). But in this case, the Levites will stand in for the firstborns. The Levites belong to Yahweh in a unique way, and their primary job is to take up the special and dangerous role of serving before Yahweh in the tabernacle and temple.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by MacKenzie Buxman.
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