Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Imagine if you were told by God that your job was to carry stuff. You were set apart by him specifically to perform a lowly, donkey-like job. Well, that’s exactly what happened to the Levites of Moses’ time. The Levites were one of the tribes of Israel, and God decided to specifically set them apart from everyone else. He explains his reasoning like this,
After you have purified the Levites and presented them as a wave offering, they are to come to do their work at the Tent of Meeting. They are the Israelites who are to be given wholly to me. I have taken them as my own in place of the firstborn, the first male offspring from every Israelite woman (Numbers 8:15-16).
According to the Law, the first-born of every womb belongs to the Lord as first fruits. This can be found in Exodus 34:19-20,
The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons.
No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
Every firstborn belongs to the Lord, whether animal or person. Generally speaking, most of these firstborns would get sacrificed (that’s why if you can’t substitute the donkey you have to break its neck). The Lord, however, does not believe in human sacrifice, so he developed a system to catch the Israelites up on their need to redeem their firstborn sons and provide further redemption in the future. So, the Levites from a young age were set apart exclusively to work for God. And what were they set apart to do? Let’s check it out,
The Lord said to Moses, “Take a census also of the Gershonites by their families and clans. Count all the men from thirty to fifty years of age who come to serve in the work at the Tent of Meeting.
“This is the service of the Gershonite clans as they work and carry burdens…” (Numbers 4:21-24)
What follows is a list of everything the Gershonites were supposed to carry in the desert. That’s right, set apart for the work of the Lord, not allowed to work until the age of thirty because the job is so special; and its…carrying stuff. But they’re not alone; the Kohathites are blessed by being able to work with the things in the Tent of Meeting. For we read, “This is the work of the Kohathites in the Tent of Meeting: the care of the most holy things” (Numbers 4:4). Now this sounds like a cool job, but there’s a catch:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “See that the Kohathite tribal clans are not cut off from the Levites. So that they may live and not die when they come near the most holy things, do this for them: Aaron and his sons are to go into the sanctuary and assign each man to his work and what he is to carry. But the Kohathites must not go in to look at the holy things, even for a moment, or they will die (Numbers 4:17-20).
Oh yeah, called apart by God to care for the things of the Lord…which you can’t actually look at. Well if they can’t really, y’know, look at the most holy things then what are they supposed to do with them? They carried them. But it’s worse than that; check out Numbers 7:6-9,
So Moses took the carts and oxen and gave them to the Levites. He gave two carts and four oxen to the Gershonites, as their work required, and he gave four carts and eight oxen to the Merarites, as their work required. They were all under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron, the priest. But Moses did not give any to the Kohathites, because they were to carry on their shoulders the holy things, for which they were responsible.
Not only were the Kohathites not allowed to look at the stuff they were supposedly in charge of, but they had to carry said holy things by hand across the desert- for forty years. And you thought being a Gershonite was frustrating. Well what were the Merarites doing that required so many carts and oxen? We read,
Count the Merarites by their clans and families. Count all the men from thirty to fifty years of age who come to serve in the work at the Tent of Meeting. This is their duty as they perform services at the Tent of Meeting: to carry the frames of the tabernacle, its crossbars, posts and bases, as well as the posts of the surrounding courtyard with their bases, tent pegs, ropes, all their equipment and everything related to their use. Assign to each man the specific things he is to carry (Numbers 4:29-32).
The Merarites were the hardcore blue-collar workers of the desert-dwelling Israelites. I suspect most people don’t think “holy to the Lord” when they think of construction workers. But indeed, God called the Merarites and separated them from the people to carry the heavy parts of the Tent of Meeting (and probably to help set it up too).
Ok, let’s look at our lives. Say you’ve heard the Gospel and of Jesus’ saving grace. And you’ve come to Christ after hearing how much your life will change after receiving him into your heart. Not only that, but since you really believe that Jesus’ death on a cross saved you from your sins, you’ve gotten the Holy Spirit and have discovered the gifts he’s given you. For a quick reference, check out 1 Corinthians 12:7-11,
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and still to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
Alright, so you’ve got the Spirit in you and whatever gift he’s given you, maybe prophecy, teaching, healing, or whatever. And you’re in Bible every day and are pretty tight with the Lord; and your job is…something normal? “Whoa whoa, hold on here, what about that rich TV pastor!? I’m just as close with God as that dude probably is why is he there and I’m still doing my daily grind just barely making it!?” Don’t worry, I hear you, and you’re not alone. In fact, the Levites were not real keen on being set apart by God to be beasts of burden either; Scripture records in Numbers 16:3,
They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”
Now if you’re feeling like you got the short end of the “set apart by God from birth” stick and want to complain about it, you probably don’t want to know the ending of the story (*spoiler*a whole bunch of dead Levites*spoiler*). But just so you know, the Levites, like many Christians today, didn’t really understand why they were called special when they didn’t feel special at all.
Ah, but that was in the wilderness… You see, once the Israelites reached the Promised Land and the Temple was eventually built, everything changed. In the Promised Land, the Levites took on new jobs. We can learn about this in 1 Chronicles 23:25-26,
For David said, “Since the Lord, the God of Israel, has granted rest to his people and has come to dwell in Jerusalem forever, the Levites no longer need to carry the tabernacle or any of the articles used in its service.”
Before the Temple was even built by his son, King David assigned new tasks to the Levites, more honorable jobs than they had in the desert. The Word of God tells us,
When David was old and full of years, he made his son Solomon king over Israel.
He also gathered together all the leaders of Israel, as well as the priests and the Levites. The Levites thirty years old or more were counted, and the total number of men was thirty-eight thousand. David said, “Of these, twenty-four thousand are to supervise the work of the temple of the Lord and six thousand are to be officials and judges. Four thousand are to be gatekeepers and four thousand are to praise the Lord with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose (1 Chronicles 23:1-5).
No longer were the Levites just outside the tabernacle looking in (or I guess not looking in under penalty of death), after reaching the Promised Land, they became a part of the Temple of the Lord, God’s house. The Bible continues,
According to the last instructions of David, the Levites were counted from those twenty years old or more.
The duty of the Levites was to help Aaron’s descendants in the service of the temple of the Lord: to be in charge of the courtyards, the side rooms, the purification of all sacred things and the performance of other duties at the house of God. They were in charge of the bread set out on the table, the flour for the grain offerings, the unleavened wafers, the baking and the mixing, and all measurements of quantity and size. They were also to stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord. They were to do the same in the evening and whenever burnt offerings were presented to the Lord on Sabbaths and at New Moon festivals and at appointed feasts. They were to serve before the Lord regularly in the proper number and in the way prescribed for them.
And so the Levites carried out their responsibilities for the Tent of Meeting, for the Holy Place and, under their brothers the descendants of Aaron, for the service of the temple of the Lord (1 Chronicles 23:27-32).
Instead of being human oxen, the Levites had become very prestigious members of the temple. Not only that, but during the days of Hezekiah, the Levites were further promoted. When Hezekiah tried to purify the temple, he found out that the priests had been lax on keeping themselves ceremonially pure. However, the Levites had been faithful to the Lord in their services and were already clean. Therefore, we read,
The animals consecrated as sacrifices amounted to six hundred bulls and three thousand sheep and goats. The priests, however, were too few to skin all the burnt offerings; so their kinsmen the Levites helped them until the task was finished and until other priests had been consecrated, for the Levites had been more conscientious in consecrating themselves than the priests had been (2 Chronicles 29:33-34).
In the Old Testament, the burnt offering was considered one of the most holy acts at the tent and temple, only priests were allowed to do such things. But, because they were patient and loyal to God, the Levites were rewarded with this high honor of taking part in the burnt offering sacrifices.
Maybe today you’re doing something that you feel is below your place in God, or maybe not matching up with your gifts and skills from the Holy Spirit. But remember this, for everyone called by God; he has given a special purpose. For Paul writes,
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:29-30).
Right now it might seem like God has put you somewhere you don’t belong (or certainly don’t want to be). But God has a plan for you. For forty years in the desert the Levites carried stuff like pack animals, but in the Promised Land they were raised up and given great honor. If you have been called by Christ (and all who have received salvation are) then never forget that God has a plan for you. Maybe you have to be a pack animal for a while as you’re being conformed into Jesus’ image of a servant, but you will be raised up; and even if you’re not raised up while on this earth, you will receive a crown when you enter into heaven. So don’t feel down even though your job may suck now, not only does God know your future, but he has a specific plan for you that’s gonna rock!