The initial three chapters of the Book of Numbers showcase that the whole people belongs to God, the Tabernacle has a central place amidst the people, and that the Levites have a unique and extremely important duties. Throughout this time of encampment, the Levites punctiliously guard and maintain the Tabernacle, guard people against the wrath of God, and are continuously pastoring the people.
Then God commands Moses to number the all the Levites that are at least one month old. This is the first of a number of preparations God commands His people to make in order that they might survive the journey He has for them. These preparations establish norms for dealing with such issues as the unclean, suspected adulteresses and even Nazirites, those who take solemn vows of dedication to the Lord and abstain from all strong drink and fruits of the vine.
As they sojourn, the people begin to complain. Chapter 11 describes how God reacts to this obstinacy by sending the fire of the Lord to burn among them and consume the outskirts of the camp. We can see both an obvious and subtle lesson from verses 16-30. God distributes gifts to seventy elders, extending Moses’ authority on those Godly men who are able to orchestrate, instruct and build the community. One man cannot build a community; the people themselves must all put their hands to the plow and make a community their own.
Although God provided for His people with a wind that "drove in quail from the sea and brought them down over the camp site," the people become greedy (11:31-34). Their ingratitude causes the Lord’s wrath to flare up against the people and He strikes them with a very great plague. Throughout the 40 years in the desert the people take God’s continuous miracles for granted and are punished for their actions.
Jealous of the seventy elders, the Lord reprimands Aaron and Miriam for murmuring against the Lord’s anointed. Miriam herself is struck white with leprosy and banished from the camp for seven days.
Prerequisite in the formation of a community of God, the people must tremble before their Lord. Because the people will not reverence God, He expresses His justice through a form of severe mercy, cutting out that which is cancerous from among them.
Modern Christians may marvel at the responsibilities God placed on His people, but the Book of Hebrews relates that God has raised the bar even higher for the people under His new covenant. God is merciful, but when we refuse to accept God the way He is, we remove ourselves from this mercy. God is patient with us, but He requires us to prepare for the pilgrimage He has for us.
Music: Mozart’s “Sonata No. 14 In C Minor” performed by Vadim Chaimovich. www.musopen.com