In the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, we find Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. The LORD is speaking to Moses instructing him to take a census of Israel and to subsequently divide and arrange the 12 tribes. While these arrangements concerned both the camping and the marching of Israel, it may be properly said that God was forming battalions for war (Numbers 1:3).
As the census of chapter 1 is undertaken, we find the people of Joseph, “namely, of the people of Ephraim,” constituting one tribe, while, “the people of Manassah” constitute another tribe. On the surface, this would create a problem numbering the tribes- creating an additional tribe – recalling the blessing of Jacob from Genesis 48, unless one of the original twelve were not counted. This is precisely the case as God commands Moses not to count the tribe of Levi.
“For the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel.” Numbers 1:48
Following this, we see the role that the Levites were to have in the camp of Israel, namely their oversight of the “tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle. When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” Numbers 1:49-51
The Levites were the only tribe to whom this responsibility of caring for the tabernacle and all of its appurtenances were given. In addition to the tasks of oversight of the tabernacle and its furnishings, care and camping around it, and set up and tear down, the Levites were also the guardians of the tabernacle.
52 The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, each man in his own camp and each man by his own standard. 53 But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” Numbers 1:52-53
The Levites were exempt from day to day military campaigns, but were explicitly charged with guarding the tabernacle. On the one hand, they guarded the tabernacle from outsiders. In other words, the access to God was restricted by the Levites, lest those who encroached were to be put to death. In this light, there is also guardianship to protect the people from the wrath of God. In this respect, the Levites function as two-way guardians to prevent the common from coming into contact with the holy and also providing protection from the holy, namely God, from coming into contact with the common via His wrath.
As to the particularity of their guardianship, this is the same word used in reference to Adam in Garden. Recall that in Adam’s Rest, we looked at Genesis 2:15 and determined that Adam was “rested” in the Garden in order to “tend and keep” it. There we saw that this particularly phrase was priestly and is elsewhere translated in priestly contexts as guard and minister or serve. Our passage under consideration from Numbers is one such example of this priestly context of guardianship. This reinforces our conclusions regarding Adam’s role and function as a priest in the garden-temple of God. For the combination of both terms, see Numbers 3:7-8, where the Levitical guardianship and service are further defined.
Flowing out of a passage that discusses the mediation of God’s holiness by a Levitical Priest, one cannot help but see the parallels with the priestly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, the One Mediator between God and Man 1 Tim. 2:5). However, as Hebrews tells us, His priesthood is after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:10; 6:20; 7:17). Access to God comes only through Christ (John 14:6). It is through Him that we, the common, have access to the holy, namely the Father (Eph. 2:18). But also it is through Christ that God’s wrath has been placated, or propitiated, towards us who have repented and placed our God-given faith in Christ (1 John 2:2; Heb. 2:17). The typological picture painted for us in this Old Testament priestly passage is a picture of Christ.
With this in mind, the imagery of guardianship over God’s dwelling place can be used as an illustration for personal, individual duty of believers to guard God’s dwelling place, though not of a tabernacle made with hands, but the very temple of believer’s bodies in which God’s Spirit indwells (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Our guardianship is likewise against the common, or profane, to keep it from coming into contact with where the holy dwells.
We are to guard against corruptions, those external and internal that would defile the tabernacle of God. We are to guard against the placement of idols, high places if you will, that would attempt to subvert the worship of God in our hearts. We are to guard with a recognition of the fear of God, knowing that the discipline of God is meted out against all unrighteousness.
Through this passage, perhaps somewhat obscure in its details of the Levitical guardianship of the tabernacle, we have opened up for us a gateway into meditation on the High Priestly ministry of Christ. It should draw our hearts and minds unto Christ who stands on guard daily at the right hand of the Father to make intercession for us. This is the direction that the passage points us. But we also have a picture drawn for us, one that shows a priestly duty is still required by God’s priests (1 Peter 2:5-9; Heb. 4:16, 10:19), a duty unto holiness in guarding the temple of God from being profaned by the common and unholy.