Friday, March 5, 2010

Protection from God, but Not in That Way

This is the first study in the book of Numbers. At the conclusion of the previous book, Leviticus, the Israelites were informed by God that there would be blessings or curses which came to them, depending on how well they obeyed God's laws. That, and God defined the value of a man.

The book of Numbers begins appropriately with numbers in a census of the Israelites. The odd twist at the end of the counting is the highlight of this study.

Protection from God, but Not in That Way
It is not unusual to hear a prayer request seeking protection from God. Whether the protection is from the ravages of cancer for a mother or from the horrors of war for a son, the faithful solicit God's mercy and divine benevolence. However, the Christian message of Salvation reminds us of what should be paramount in prayer requests: protection from the wrath of God Himself. This same lesson could be learned many, many times over from studying the Old Testament, such as we see in this study.

The book of Numbers starts off with numbers. Go figure! God tells Moses to take a census of the Israelite men who are suitable for the army and provides Moses with a list of clan leaders who should assist him with the census (Numbers 1:1-16).

You may think that it is a bit strange for God, who knows the number of hairs on your head (Matthew 10:30), would tell Moses to count the Israelites. Why would not God simply tell Moses how many there were and save the hassle of manual counting? It is not like you need to know your military strength when God is on your side (Romans 8:31).

There are two implied reasons for this census. First is that the counting was done by clan, and clan identification would play an important role later. The second is that taking a census meant collecting money!

In Numbers 1:17-46, the clan-by-clan census totals are revealed. Miraculously, all twelve of the clan counts end in a zero. Also miraculously, the total count is 603,550 men who were 20 years old or older! (At the census tax rate given in Exodus 30:13, this census would have collected about 3.75 tons [3.4 metric tons] of silver!) Adding on women and children, you could conservatively estimate that around 1.5 million Israelites were supposedly wandering in the desert.

Wait, that 603,550 number sounds familiar... Oh ya, that was the same number from the census taken in Exodus 38:25-28. The Exodus census was taken sometime between the third month (Exodus 19:1) and the first month of the second year (Exodus 40:17) after leaving Egypt. This second census of Numbers was taken in the second month of the second year (Numbers 1:1). Given the same net result, this seems to make the Numbers census senseless, except for gathering money. We all know God needs money.

What makes these double counts double odd is that the Numbers census did not include the tribe of Levi, because God said not to count them (Numbers 1:47-49). So did the Exodus census include the Levites, but the Numbers census did not, meaning that miraculously the exact count of the Levites were covered by children who were born between the times of the two countings? Or did the Exodus census exclude the Levites as well, and it was miraculous that despite having 1.5 million people, the net count remained steady? Or maybe this census in Numbers is actually a retelling of the same one in Exodus, despite the different dates.

The real twist comes in Numbers 1:50-53, where you learn why the Levites are not counted. It is because the Levites are God's body guards. They move and care for the big tent where God lives, known as the Tabernacle. If anyone else who comes near the Tabernacle while in transit, the Levites are to kill them (Numbers 1:51). Furthermore, the Levites are to camp around the Tabernacle, because otherwise the Israelites will face the wrath of God (Numbers 1:53)!

Rightly to end where I had begun, here we see another example of how people need protection from the wrath of God. How could they warrant God's wrath? Their sin could be as trivial as literally getting closer to God. Salvation from God's wrath is a consistent message from the Old Testament to the New Testament. However, as we have seen in this study, the great openness of the loving invitation from God which is portrayed in the New Testament is severely lacking in the Old Testament. Instead, the Old Testament God would rather keep people away.

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