Numbers 5: Keep God at the Centre.
Another thing you might find strange about Numbers 2 is why it bothers to record where the different tribes should camp. As well as counting the tribes very specifically, you might wonder why the Bible troubles about this. We’re told that around the Tabernacle the different tribes were to be arranged in set places: Judah, Issachar and Zebulun on the east side (2:3-9); Reuben, Simeon & Gad on the south side (2:10-16); Ephraim, Manasseh & Benjamin on the west side (2:18-24); and Dan, Asher & Naphtali on the north side (2:25-31). Seems like a lot of trouble to go to in order to tell us something that no one cares about any longer.
That’s not it though. We’re also told exactly where the Levites were to camp, around the Tabernacle but separate from the other tribes. The Gershonites were to be on the west side (3:23-26), the Kohathites on the south side (3:28-32), the Merarites on the north side (3:35-37) and Moses, Aaron and his sons on the east side (3:38).
Why does any of this matter? I’d like to suggest three things we can learn from this, which are either relevant to our lives today or helpful for understanding what was going on here. First: keep God at the heart of things. Second: the importance of safe separation. Third: that order is Godly.
Keep God at the Centre
The whole arrangement of the camp revolves around the Tabernacle. The tent of meeting is the centre of gravity for this Israelite community, and the tribes were arranged so as to keep it in the centre. This physically demonstrated the important spiritual truth: that God is at the centre. He is the most important thing in our lives, and relationship with Him should be our priority. In fact, it has been suggested that the arrangement of the tribes might have been in linear arms stretching out in four directions from the centre, which would make a cross-shape. Something like this…
Even if that’s overly precise or fanciful, the idea of the camp being cross-shaped highlights the enduring relevance of this for us: Christ should be at the centre of our lives. Just like God’s tent was at the centre of Israelite life, both physically and figuratively, so Jesus should be at the centre of everything we do. Everything else derives from Him and revolves around Him. Don’t let anything else take this pride of place, or else your life will be out of kilter and off balance.
The description of the Levites makes clear that they were to camp immediately around the tent of meeting. This would place themselves between God’s seat and the other tribes. Thus, they formed a protective barrier, preventing the people coming too close. God was in their midst, but not dangerously close. The Levites were like a firescreen around a fireplace, allowing enjoyment of the warmth and light of the fire but keeping people from being burned by getting too close.
It was an act of great grace and condescension (yes, that word can have a positive sense) for God to dwell in their camp at all, but He was still holy, and the Israelites were not. He is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29) and they were perpetually sinful and defiled. If no safeguards had been in place, they would have all been consumed. But because the Levites were there, they stopped anyone carelessly or casually entering God’s presence or accidentally defiling the sanctuary. Moses and Aaron and his sons, the senior Levites, camped immediately outside the entrance to the tabernacle on the east-side and formed the last line of defence. “Anyone else who approached the sanctuary was to be put to death.” (3:38).
So, you see this isn’t unnecessary detail, but vital to understanding the dynamic in the camp. God was willing to dwell with them, but His holy presence must be respected and kept separate. He would be with them, protect them and guide them, but they couldn’t just waltz up to Him on a whim. The relationship was on His terms and all geared towards demonstrating His holiness and keeping everything unclean away.
What’s wonderful is how this has changed in Jesus. Christ’s death on the cross has so cleansed believers that there is now no longer any danger of us defiling God’s dwelling place, which means He can live within us by His Holy Spirit (John 14:23; Romans 8:9). The barrier has been taken away (Mark 15:38; Ephesians 2:14) and the safeguards of Numbers are no longer necessary. How amazing that we can be this close to Jesus and still utterly safe, not held accountable for any of our sins, for they have all been forgiven and paid for. Reminding ourselves that it was not always so should bring home to us how awesome this privilege is and stop us from taking it for granted.
Order is Godly
Finally, these arrangements in the camp show us that great care is needed in how we organise our lives. For the Israelites a well-ordered camp was essential for the smooth and orderly running of their communal life in the desert. We might live in houses not tents, and our societal life might be organised by secular institutions, but we still need to organise our own lives. If we don’t order our lives, we’ll waste our time and diminish our effectiveness.
There’s still room for spontaneity and fun, of course, but if we plan ahead, impose structure and manage our time well then we’ll be able to do so much more. Instead of being buffeted around by false priorities and worldly distractions from social media and TV, we’ll be able to focus on what’s really important: being with God (Psalm 84) and doing the work God has given us in advance to do (Eph. 2:10). After all, God is a God of order, not disorder (1 Cor. 14:33).
So, you see, behind the Numbers, we see yet more significance. We see how everything was designed to keep God at the centre, which is an encouragement to us to keep Jesus central in our lives. We see how the Levites played a key role in upholding God’s holiness and keeping the community safe, which both helps us to understand them and be grateful for the greater intimacy we now enjoy because of Jesus. And we see the importance of organising our lives so as to be fruitful and effective for God. Numbers has so much to teach us, if only we’ll look beyond the numbers.