The modern Christian may be somewhat unfamiliar with the specifics of Israel’s 40-year desert experience. Their sojourn begins in Exodus and the early sections of the Book of Numbers, ever guided by the teachings of Leviticus.
Although the Israelites gained physical freedom after crossing the Red Sea, they ceaselessly complained and rebelled throughout their journey despite witnessing many miracles. These texts clearly affirm that miracles do not create believers. Throughout the Book of Exodus, Moses is a Christ-like mediator between God and his people, who is unceasingly devoted to their welfare. The problems Moses has leading and uniting his community mirror the problems of the Catholic Church in America; we would do well to follow Moses’ example and unite as many capable volunteers as possible in one mission for the glory of God.
Although God intended their journey to be a period of preparation for the people of His Kingdom, Israel, a slave mentality of dependence and passivity mark these 40 years (actually 38 years and 10 months). The people are not gracious for His gifts and repeatedly allow the trivial pleasures of slavery (leeks, onions, melons, etc.) to trump their new life of freedom and the bread from heaven; they are simply unwilling to undergo the suffering that following God brings upon them. To illustrate, this appetitive people would rather have died in Egypt with full stomachs than have received their freedom (Ex 16:3).
Though all Israel is a holy nation of priests, the tribe of the Levites are particularly chosen to offer the sacrifice of the altar. God’s favor is not exclusive to any one tribe, however, for Joshua the Ephraimite succeeds Moses and later David of Judah becomes Israel’s great king. Throughout the Book of Leviticus, the overarching principle is a call to be holy as God is holy. This does not apply only to the Levites, but to all of Israel.
The idolatrous worshiping of the Golden Calf directly follows the revelation at Sinai and prompts Moses’ shattering of the first set of the tablets. Because of the weakness of their character, the people need strong, hero-like leaders and a visible tabernacle in order that they will not turn to idolatry.
In the first chapter of the Book of Numbers, we see a military census enrolling all capable men over the age of 20 (excluding the Levites), totaling over 600,000. The census prepares the people for the battles that God will have them fight, knowing that they can only gain victory by His hand. The military formation of Israel places the Levites in charge of the tabernacle so they might be a bridge to God but also a barrier between God’s wrath and the people.
God’s special plan for the Levites is a great gift that comes with great responsibility. The official mediators between God and Israel, those Levites who do not adhere to their duties (like Aaron’s two sons) receive great punishment. In the Book of Malachi, God expounds on the responsibilities of priests and his great wrath ("I will strew dung in your faces…") toward those priests who are not faithful (2:1 ff). As the responsibilities of our Catholic priests are even greater, God’s just anger will fall even more upon unholy priests of His new covenant.