As noted above, we are told on 80 occasions in Numbers that God spoke to Moses ‘face to face’. This was unique: others would receive God’s Word through visions when they were awake or dreams when they were asleep. The people would consult the priests’ urim (the equivalent of ‘drawing lots’) when they wished to discern God’s mind on a situation.
Moses first met with God on Mount Sinai, some distance from the rest of Israel, but now that the tabernacle was constructed God was dwelling with the people. The big danger now that God was ‘with them’, however, was that they might become overfamiliar, lose their sense of awe and respect, and forget his holiness. The laws in Numbers are not moral or social laws, but laws given to prevent the people from losing their reverence for God. The laws can be classified under three headings: carefulness, cleanliness and costliness.
They had to be very careful to camp in the right place Chapter 2). Each tribe was allotted a specific place in relation to the other tribes and the tabernacle in the center. The camp looked like a ‘hollow rectangle’ from above (see the chart below). The only other nation known to camp in this manner were the Egyptians – this was the preferred arrangement of Rameses II (the Pharaoh who may have been on the throne at the time).
The tabernacle in the center was surrounded by a fence and there was only one entrance. Two people camped outside the entrance – Moses and Aaron. The Levites camped around the other three sides, and their three clans had special responsibility – Merari, Gershon and Kohath. No one else could even touch the fence and there were orders to kill anyone who approached. God was holy and could not be approached lightly.
The other tribes were arranged around the tabernacle, each tribe with its own specific, allotted place in relation to God’s tent and the entrance to it. The most important place was right in front of the entrance, and this was occupied by the tribe of Judah. It was from the tribe of Judah that Jesus would later come.
When the camp set out on a journey, everyone moved according to a fascinating pattern. There were specific instructions for the dismantling and transporting of the tabernacle. The priests would wrap up the holy furniture, then the Levites would pick it up. Everyone knew who had to carry which piece of furniture from the tabernacle, who had to carry the curtains, and what order they had to be carried in. Some tribes had to leave before the tabernacle pieces were carried. When the other tribes moved they ‘unpeeled’ like an orange. They marched in the same order every time, so that when they got to the next camp it was simple for each tribe to find their place and put their tents up. The whole thing is carefully detailed. The silver trumpets would sound to announce the departure from the camp, and the tribe of Judah would lead the procession with praise.
They always knew when it was time to move because the pillar of cloud (or fire at night) above the tabernacle would move on. The picture is clear: when God moves, his people move.
Why is God so fussy about all these details? Not only was it a very efficient way to move such a vast quantity of people, but it was also a very efficient way of camping. He was saying, ‘Be careful!’ A careless attitude does not have a place in God’s camp: carelessness is a dangerous thing. A modern word for this would be ‘casualness’, the ‘any old thing will do for God’ attitude.
In these detailed directions God is telling his people to be careful, for he is in the camp with them. He also outlines other areas where they would need to be careful. There are some sins mentioned in Numbers which are sins of ‘carelessness’. Carelessness on the Sabbath was punishable by death. They were to have tassels on their clothes to remind them to pray. Vows had to be taken very seriously. If a vow was made to God it must be kept. (In Judges we have the story of a man who vowed to sacrifice to God the first living thing that he met when he came out, and he met his daughter!) If a wife makes avow to God, then her husband has 24 hours to agree or disagree with it.
As well as being carefully arranged, the camp had to be spotlessly clean, for these were ‘God’s people’. Even such things as the sewage arrangements were carefully detailed. They were told to take a spade when emptying their bowels so that they could keep the camp clean for the Lord. He was not just concerned with germs. God was interested in a ‘clean’ camp because he is a ‘clean’ God. The principle still holds today. A dirty, uncared-for church building is an insult to God.
Not only was the camp to be clean, we are also told of the cleansing of the people before they left Sinai.
There are further details of purification rites in Chapter 19. Death is an unclean thing. God is a God of life, so there was to be no taint of death in the camp. There was even a ‘jealousy test’ for adulterous wives. Even if there were no witnesses, God sees what happens and will punish the evildoer. This is his camp.
The expression ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ has some considerable support from the book of Numbers!
SACRIFICES AND OFFERINGS
It is costly for a sinful person to live close to a holy God. Sacrifices were offered on behalf of the people on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. There were literally hundreds. Each sacrifice had to be costly – only the best animals were offered.
The daily sacrifice, weekly sacrifice and a special monthly sacrifice made it clear it was a costly matter to receive forgiveness from God. Blood had to be shed.
Furthermore, the priesthood had to be supported by means of offerings. The Levites were consecrated for service before they left Sinai. Some 8,580 served (out of the 22,000 in the tribe) and both priests and Levites were dependent on the other tribes for their financial support.
The upkeep of the priesthood, plus the regular sacrifices, therefore made up a considerable ‘cost’ to the people.
This teaches us that we still need to be very careful today about how we approach God. I may not need to bring a ram, pigeon or dove to be sacrificed when I come to God, but that does not mean I do not have to bring a sacrifice at all. There is as much sacrifice in the New Testament as in the Old. We read of the sacrifice of praise and the sacrifice of thanksgiving, for example. We need to ask ourselves whether we do make sacrifices to God. We too should prepare for worship.
Numbers also tells us about the Nazirite vow, a voluntary vow of dedication and devotion to God, although not part of the priesthood. The Nazirites vowed not cut their hair, not to touch alcohol (both were contrary to the social custom of the day) and not to touch a dead body. Some of these vows were temporary, others were for life. Samuel and Samson are the best-known Nazirites in Scripture. By the time of Amos the practice was ridiculed.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?
Today there is a tendency towards an anti-ritual, casual approach to worship, forgetting that God is exactly the same today as he was then. We too are to approach him with awe and dignity. Hebrews reminds us that he is a consuming fire.
In the New Testament we read of how those gathered for worship may bring a song, a word, a prophecy, a tongue, an interpretation. This is the New Testament equivalent of preparing, approaching God in the right frame of mind.
Numbers also reminds us that we must worship God according to his taste and not ours. Modern worship tends to focus on the preferences of individuals, whether this be in favor of hymns or choruses, for example. We can forget that our preferences are quite irrelevant compared to the importance of making sure that our worship matches what God wants.
Our sacrifices of praise and giving are also mentioned in the New Testament: ‘They [your gifts] are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.’ In Leviticus and Numbers God loved the smell of roast lamb. In the same way, our sacrifice of praise can also be pleasing to God today.