The book of Numbers picks up the history of Israel just over one year after the exodus. In the initial scene God was yet preparing His people to take the land of Canaan (Num 1:1). Numbers 1-6 is the account of how God organized Israel in such a way as to maximize their awareness of His presence among them while they journeyed toward Canaan.
The opening paragraph of Numbers records the census that arranged the Israelites for travel toward the southern edge of Canaan. Several facets of the commanded census are noteworthy: in breadth, “the entire Israelite community by their clans and their ancestral houses” (Num 1:2); in depth, “the names of every male one by one” (Num 1:2); and in purpose, “You and Aaron are to register those who are 20 years old or more by their military divisions—everyone who can serve in Israel’s army” (Num 1:3). In the midst of the detailed conquest preparations, the text records God’s presence among His people. The Levites were to remind Israel of God’s presence by maintaining the worship functions of the tabernacle. The greatest threat to Israelite success was not a foreign army but an offended God: “The Levites are to camp around the tabernacle of the testimony and watch over it, so that no wrath will fall on the Israelite community” (Num 1:53). The bulk of Numbers 1-6 describes the divisions and employment of the Levites.
Aaron was recognized as the head of all those who would serve as priests (Num 3:1-3, 5-10). The priesthood was to be taken seriously and priestly duties were the privilege of Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar (Num 3:4, 9-10; see Lev 10:1-7). The Levites were designated as the firstborn of Israel, God’s special possession (Num 3:11-12; see Exod 4:21-23, 13:11-16). This theme was emphasized again toward the end of Numbers 3, where the text records that there were 273 more first-born Israelites than Levites—and 1,365 shekels were collected as “redemption money” (Num 3:51) so that all in Israel would be in good standing before the Lord.
The general census of the Levites reveals that there were 22,000 males one month and older (Num 3:14-15, 39). The census of qualified thirty- to fifty-year-olds of the ancestral houses totaled 8,580 men (Num 4:2, 48). All of these were responsible for some aspect of transporting the tent of meeting. The holy things—after the priests had properly cared for the cultic regalia of the tabernacle—were carried by the Kohathites (Num 4:4-15a, 17-20), the physical structures were then moved by the Gershonites (Num 4:25-26) and the Merarites (Num 4:31-32).
Numbers 5-6 stresses that God’s presence among His people was also significant for their activities outside of the tabernacle. Purity was to pervade the camp. Israel was to be pure from skin disease (Num 5:1-4), unresolved offenses (Num 5:3-10), and immorality (Num 5:11-31). Further, the Israelites were also free to take the Nazarite vow of purity. This vow was to be taken seriously and included: abstaining from wine and grape products (Num 6:3-4), keeping oneself from contact with dead bodies (Num 6:6-8), and not cutting one’s hair (Num 6:5).
The initial scene of the book of Numbers records that as Israel sojourned to Canaan, they were to be organized in such a way that they could remember God’s special presence among them. The prayer Aaron and his sons were commanded to perform provides an apt summary of the theme: “The LORD bless you and protect you; the LORD make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the LORD look with favor on you and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26). In this the priests would put God’s name on the Israelites as they set out for Canaan, and He promised to bless them (Num 6:27).
The arrangement of Israel in Numbers 1-6 prefigures a later episode of the storyline of Scripture. Just as God’s presence with Israel was intended for their encouragement as they prepared for the conquest of Canaan, Jesus’ presence has given the church great strength for the offensive of building His kingdom around the world. In the closing words of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commissioned His disciples to go throughout all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that He taught (Matt 28:18-20).