In our current sermon series “The Wandering Church” we have been studying the historical narrative of Israel’s exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. Last Sunday we finished the book of Exodus and this morning we’ll begin in Numbers. These books, both written by Moses, tell the entire story of this epic adventure in two parts. In the Biblical sequence however, the book of Leviticus falls in between Exodus and Numbers. We are going to skip over it for the purposes of this series because Leviticus does not emphasize historical content. Rather it is primarily a legal book that lists the numerous laws, ordinances, and statutes that were given to Moses by God while the people were stationed at Mt. Sinai.
In the last chapter of Exodus, the people set up the newly built tabernacle and the glory of God filled it. This took place on “the first day of the first month”. Chapter 1 of Numbers opens a full month later, on “the first day of the second month”. However, the events of chapter 7 take place on the exact same day that the tabernacle was erected. Thus, we can deduce that these first few chapters are not written in chronological order. A a matter of fact, it is likely that some of the details described in the early chapters of Numbers refer back to episodes that actually occurred a few months before.
The message this morning will briefly touch on several topics leading up to and including Israel’s first Passover celebration which took place exactly one year after they departed from Egypt. We will talk about the role of the Levites, touch on a few additional laws, explore the dedication of the tabernacle, and discover how the people observed their first Passover together. This was certainly an anniversary to remember!
I. THE ROLE OF THE LEVITES (Numbers 3-4)
Several months earlier, back when Moses was still meeting with God on top of Mt. Sinai, the LORD had chosen Aaron, his sons, and their descendants to serve as the priesthood. Aaron had 4 sons. The oldest 2 boys, Nadab and Abihu, had been part of a troop that accompanied Moses up Mt. Sinai to see God. Sadly, Nadab and Abihu flippantly violated the commands of God relating to the proper offering of fire and incense (see Leviticus 10). The LORD killed them for their gross misconduct. This left only Aaron’s 2 younger sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, to serve with him as priests.
Just as a pastor needs help running a church, so also these priests would need assistance to operate the tabernacle. Rather than appointing the firstborn sons of every family in every tribe to minister in the tabernacle, God instead selected the entire tribe of Levi (all of their sons) to handle this role. By making this substitution, the LORD redeemed the firstborn in exchange for the Levites. Now that the tabernacle had been completed and set up, Moses numbered these Levites at 22,000 men and called them all into service.
The Levites consisted of 3 major branches, named after Levi’s 3 sons - the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites. Each of the groups was tasked with specific duties relating to the tabernacle and its service. The Kohathites were responsible for the furnishings and holy objects located inside the tabernacle. The Gershonites were responsible for all of the cloth items such as the curtains, veils, coverings, and screens that made up the tabernacle. The Merarites were responsible for all of the solid items such as the boards, columns, pillars, sockets, cords, and pegs which formed the framework of the tabernacle. All of the Levites served under the supervision and direction of the priests.
II. SOME ADDITIONAL LAWS (Numbers 5-6)
Though Leviticus is considered the preeminent book of God’s Law, we do find some of His commands scattered throughout the pages of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In chapters 5 & 6, Moses mentions a few of these. The children of Israel were to send certain categories of unclean people out of the camp so as not to defile it. They were to follow specific instructions regarding guilt and restitution. A procedure was prescribed for dealing with adultery within the marriage relationship. Rules applying to those taking a Nazirite vow were given. Finally, God provided a formal benediction to be recited by the priests when blessing the people.
III. DEDICATING THE TABERNACLE (Numbers 7)
The two preceding points in today’s message flash back to events that had already taken place. They help provide context for what was happening in chapter 7. Once again, we are returned to the day that the tabernacle was first set up - and the story resumes. Moses anointed and consecrated the sanctuary and all of its furnishings, its altar, and its utensils. Then, one by one, the leaders of each of the 12 tribes of Israel brought dedication offerings to the tabernacle. One tribal offering was given each day for 12 consecutive days. The order of these offerings was as follows - Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali.
IV. PREPARING THE LEVITES (Numbers 8)
Aaron, the high priest, entered the tabernacle and placed the lamps on the golden lampstand. These provided light inside the Holy Place. Then he oversaw the cleansing, presentation, and ordination of the Levites. This ceremony formally qualified them to serve as assistants to the priests in the tabernacle. Moses briefly digressed once again to go over the the issue of retirement for the Levites. Here is the summation of it all - now that its construction and assembly were fully complete and all of its workers (the priests and Levites) were in their appointed place, the operation of the tabernacle could finally begin.
V. CELEBRATING THE PASSOVER (Numbers 9)
Only 2 weeks after the tabernacle’s completion, on the fourteenth day of the first month, the people were commanded by God to celebrate the Passover. Exactly one year earlier the death angel had passed through Egypt, sparing only those firstborn sons whose doorposts were covered in blood. This pinnacle event had finally prompted Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go. It was this special date that marked the one year anniversary of the exodus.
There were some men who had been declared unclean according to the laws given back in chapter 5. Though they wanted to celebrate the Passover with the rest of the congregation, the law of cleanliness prevented them from doing so. They were conflicted because either choice (to celebrate or not) would involve disobedience. Moses sympathized with their predicament and approached God on their behalf. The LORD told Moses that these men, along with certain others, should celebrate the Passover on an alternate date one month later.
The joyful celebration of the Passover marked the climax of Israel’s stay at Mt. Sinai. This phase of the exodus adventure was nearing an end. Soon the congregation would be on the move again, leaving the Wilderness of Sinai far behind. God had spent almost a full year preparing His covenant people for the next chapter in their journey - and now they were finally ready (or at least as ready as they could be).
Perhaps one of the best ways to perpetuate and strengthen our faith is to remember all that God has done for us in the past. We tend to forget how faithful the LORD has been to us over the years. As a result, we needlessly worry and fret over the issues of life. Just as the LORD has delivered us in the past, we can trust that He will continue to do so in the future. By celebrating historic events such as the Passover, we acknowledge God’s faithfulness to us.
While Christians do not recognize the Passover per se, we do celebrate the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe that the Messiah was crucified on the day of Passover as our sacrificial lamb. In that sense, we continue the memorial tradition that began at the foot of Mt. Sinai almost 3,500 years ago.