4.2.2 Levites: Set Apart for God's Use
Volume 4: The Human Condition—Chapter 2.2
Levites: Set Apart for God’s Use
The first three chapters in this unit—Groups, Classes, and Institutions—will serve as a comparative case study in how Yahweh uses symbols. Our first chapter (Israel: God’s Family) explored how one family—the physical offspring of one man—were called out of the world to demonstrate what it’s like to have a relationship with God. It doesn’t mean that someone is automatically “saved” if he or she is biologically descended from Jacob/Israel; nor does it mean that people who aren’t “Jewish” can’t have a personal, familial relationship with their Maker. It simply means that Yahweh chose this one family to exemplify what being part of God’s household might be like: what has happened to Israel can, in a more general sense, happen to anyone who is called of God. Both blessings and cursings are possible, for with great privilege comes great responsibility.
It is just as Yahshua told the church at Laodicea, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” (Revelation 3:19-21) God’s “rebuking and chastening” was certainly Israel’s experience: the Messiah is still standing outside knocking on their door after all this time. Being part of God’s family offers the prospect and possibility of great blessing, joy, contentment, and fulfillment. But it also means our loving Father cares enough to discipline us if we go astray. Our welfare depends upon our obedience to His omniscient voice.
The Levites were a sub-set of Israel: one of its twelve tribes, the descendants of Jacob’s third son, named Levi (meaning “joined” or “attached”). As we shall see, the Levites were set apart from Israel (as Israel was from the world) to be joined to Yahweh in a very special way. This being “set apart” for God’s purpose is the basic meaning of what it means to be holy (Hebrew: qadosh)—sacred, separate, or consecrated. In our next chapter, we shall explore a further division or compartmentalization—that of the priests from the Levites, the setting apart of the sons of Aaron from their brothers, the Levites. It’s worth noting at the outset that an Israelite couldn’t choose to be a Levite, nor could a Levite choose to be a priest. Yahweh alone assigned those roles within Israel.
The point is that God is using symbols—metaphors, parables, or illustrations—not making value judgments. He’s not saying that Levites are actually “holier” than other Israelites, nor is He intimating that priests are superior in some way to the general Levite population. Rather, He is pointing out that within His greater family, some are assigned one task or function, and others are given a different job to do, equipped with different tools. Being the eye or the right hand in the body of Christ is all very nice, but somebody needs to be the liver or the kidneys. If these jobs are left undone, the body will suffer.
It’s exactly the same thing Paul noted about our various places within the body of Christ: “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:3-8) Levites are set apart for God’s use, but they are also part of Israel. All twelve tribes are necessary for God’s plan to function as it was designed to do.
For one thing, the Levites were not supposed to fight in Israel’s battles. So they were not included in the census Yahweh took to determine Israel’s military manpower. The summary statement reads, “These are the ones who were numbered of the children of Israel by their fathers’ houses. All who were numbered according to their armies of the forces were six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty. But the Levites were not numbered among the children of Israel, just as Yahweh commanded Moses.” (Numbers 2:32-33)
The Book of Numbers begins with a listing of the tribal chiefs and the numerical strengths of the twelve individual tribal armies. “These are the ones who were numbered, whom Moses and Aaron numbered, with the leaders of Israel, twelve men, each one representing his father’s house. So all who were numbered of the children of Israel, by their fathers’ houses, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war in Israel—all who were numbered were six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty….” These twelve tribal heads included two from the tribe of Joseph, for Yahweh had doubled his inheritance, splitting Joseph into Manasseh and Ephraim. Not only had Joseph’s service and sacrifice earned him the firstborn’s traditional double portion, but the biological firstborn, Reuben, had forfeited the blessing when he had slept with his father Jacob’s concubine (Rachel’s maid), Bilhah, the mother of his half-brothers Dan and Naphtali. So in the end, Israel consisted of twelve tribes plus Levi—a total of thirteen.
“But the Levites were not numbered among them by their fathers’ tribe; for Yahweh had spoken to Moses, saying: ‘Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor take a census of them among the children of Israel, but you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the Testimony, over all its furnishings, and over all things that belong to it.” As we shall see, the Levites were numbered, but not as part of the military census. They had a different job to do: “They shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings; they shall attend to it and camp around the tabernacle. And when the tabernacle is to go forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be set up, the Levites shall set it up….” Israel’s “military” role would (for the most part) commence only after they had entered the Promised Land. But the Levites’ job began immediately—though the tabernacle would be moved very rarely once they entered the Land. It therefore behooves us to look at their respective roles less literally, and more symbolically—not at what they are, but what they mean.
“Fighting battles in the Promised Land” (Israel’s job) is a thinly veiled euphemism for engaging in the spiritual struggles a believer encounters in his daily walk. Whether facing temptation to compromise or commit evil, or merely becoming settled, unfocused, and distracted from the things of God, we are all called to remain alert, watchful, and ready to defend the truth. Levites are Israelites too, of course, but their job is couched in far more specific and exclusive terms: they were to “attend to the tabernacle.”
What, then, does the tabernacle signify? It is (in symbolic language) the very plan of God for the salvation of mankind. Every architectural feature, furnishing, material, dimension, position, and rite specified for the tabernacle revealed something new about Yahweh’s strategy for our reconciliation—and it was all the purview of the Levites. So in practical terms, anyone who has been called by God to present, clarify, or administer Yahweh’s plan of salvation—making it accessible and comprehensible to the people fighting spiritual struggles in the world—should pay close attention to God’s instructions concerning Levites.
Yahweh is quite serious about the exclusivity of the Levites’ role. “The outsider who comes near shall be put to death….” That is, don’t presume to be an arbiter or gatekeeper of the plan of God unless He Himself has assigned you to the task. Being a “Levite” is not a career choice, but a calling. It is not designed to be a path toward honor, wealth, influence, or the respect of one’s peers. Frankly (on paper anyway), it is nothing but a lot of hard work, rewarded only by sweet proximity to the heart of Yahweh. The Levites didn’t even receive a tribal land inheritance: Yahweh Himself was to be their inheritance. Only a Levite could understand.
In the wilderness encampment, the tabernacle was set up in the center, hedged about on all four sides by the camp of the Levites: “The children of Israel shall pitch their tents, everyone by his own camp, everyone by his own standard, according to their armies; but the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the Testimony, that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the children of Israel; and the Levites shall keep charge of the tabernacle of the Testimony.’” (Numbers 1:44-53) It wasn’t that only the Levites had access to the tabernacle and what it represented. All of Israel could approach with their sacrifices and offerings. But there was but one entrance to the sanctuary’s courtyard. The Levites made sure that the tabernacle was kept holy, separate from the mundane (or profane) doings within the camp.
Their encampment formed a physical barrier between the other tribes and the sanctuary. The twelve other tribes, in turn, surrounded and protected the Levites from whatever was “outside the camp.” Three tribes each were stationed on the four sides of the tabernacle: east (Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun), south (Reuben, Simeon, and Gad), west (Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin), and north (Dan, Asher, and Naphtali). Some have perceived the shape of the cross in this arrangement, but (besides the fact that the outer tribes would surely have spread out to the right and left) the “cross” in Greek (stauros) actually means an upright stake or pole, not a “+” shaped implement.
Even when the nation was on the move (at the instigation of the pillar of cloud and fire), the Levites, bearing the tabernacle components, were positioned in the center: “And the tabernacle of meeting shall move out with the camp of the Levites in the middle of the camps; as they camp, so they shall move out, everyone in his place, by their standards.” (Numbers 2:17) The lesson is clear: the things of God were always to be at the heart of Yahweh’s family—the focal point of our thoughts and aspirations, and hedged about (defended, if you will) by the lives of ordinary believers.
I find it fascinating that God went out of His way to keep the tribes separated from one other. He said, “Everyone of the children of Israel shall camp by his own standard, beside the emblems of his father’s house; they shall camp some distance from the tabernacle of meeting.” (Numbers 2:2) While extoling unity and insisting on mutual love and respect among all of His people, He nevertheless maintained a distinction—punctuated by physical separation—between one tribe and the others, and especially the Levites. This division was not based on belief or doctrine, but on divinely assigned roles and prophetic destiny.
The general character of each tribe had been prophesied by Jacob/Israel in Egypt before his death, as recorded in Genesis 49. We’re all familiar, I’m sure, of the royal destiny outlined for Judah (the tribe of David and Yahshua), but Levi’s future was to be somewhat more checkered. He was grouped with his brother Simeon because of the “Dinah” incident in Genesis 34, in which they wildly overreacted to what might be characterized as the “statutory rape” of their sister. Levi and Simeon were told, “Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” (Genesis 49:7) He didn’t curse the tribes, you understand, but rather condemned their violent anger and cruelty, even though it was fully justified in their own minds. Vengeance belongs to Yahweh alone.
Simeon is never heard from again except as a component of lists and genealogies. (It’s worth noting that they suffered a net loss of 37,100 warriors between the first and second military censuses of Israel—far more than any other tribe.) But how did Yahweh “scatter Levi within Israel”? He did this: “The priests, the Levites—all the tribe of Levi—shall have no part nor inheritance with Israel; they shall eat the offerings of Yahweh made by fire, and His portion. Therefore they shall have no [territorial] inheritance among their brethren; Yahweh is their inheritance, as He said to them.” (Deuteronomy 18:1-2) There was to be no cohesive “Levite” territory per se. Rather, they were to be given forty-eight cities distributed throughout Israel. “And Yahweh spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho, [i.e., before they entered the Promised Land] saying: ‘Command the children of Israel that they give the Levites cities to dwell in from the inheritance of their possession, and you shall also give the Levites common-land around the cities. They shall have the cities to dwell in; and their common-land shall be for their cattle, for their herds, and for all their animals….” This should not be construed as an unfair burden upon the twelve tribes, because their lands (apportioned by relative population) actually included what would have been Levite territory. In other words, there were thirteen shares, divided twelve ways: on average, each tribe received an 8.3 percent land bonus.
These cities were defined as the walled-in portions (where the houses were) plus a specific buffer zone outside: “The common-land of the cities which you will give the Levites shall extend from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around. And you shall measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits, on the south side two thousand cubits, on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits. The city shall be in the middle. This shall belong to them as common-land for the cities….’” Many commentators take this to mean that the thousand cubit and two-thousand cubit “suburbs” were used for different purposes. Benson, for example, writes, “There were three thousand cubits allowed them from the wall of the city; the first thousand, properly called the suburbs, probably for outhouses, gardens, vineyards, and olive-yards; and the other two for pasturage, which are therefore called the field of the suburbs (Leviticus 25:34) by way of distinction from the suburbs themselves.” Three thousand cubits is about seven-eighths of a mile.
Most of the forty-eight Levitical cities were simply their dwelling places, but six of them were designated as “cities of refuge.” “Now among the cities which you will give to the Levites you shall appoint six cities of refuge, to which a manslayer may flee. And to these you shall add forty-two cities. So all the cities you will give to the Levites shall be forty-eight; these you shall give with their common-land….” I plan to cover “cities of refuge” in a future volume of this work, but basically, they were places to which one could flee for safety if he had killed someone unintentionally. Murder was illegal, punishable by death at the hands of a relative of the deceased, but here, the manslayer could be assured of a fair trial. If found guilty of accidental manslaughter but not of deliberate murder, he could stay safely in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest, at which time he would be pardoned. This wasn’t a prison; it was a safe-house. Note that the common-land outside the city of refuge was designated part of its safe zone. That is, it wasn’t the manmade wall that kept the manslayer safe, but the word of God.
The whole arrangement is a transparent metaphor for our salvation: we sinners are safe from God’s wrath as long as we are in Christ, and it is His death (i.e., the death of our High Priest) that indemnifies us. The city of refuge is symbolic, then, of the mortal life of a believer. Since we are all guilty of “Son-of-Man-slaughter” (i.e., the death of Christ) we dare not leave the city (this life) without being “covered” by Yahshua’s atoning blood.
“And the cities which you will give shall be from the possession of the children of Israel; from the larger tribe you shall give many, from the smaller you shall give few. Each shall give some of its cities to the Levites, in proportion to the inheritance that each receives.” (Numbers 35:1-8) It was only fair and fitting that larger, more populous and well-endowed tribes like Judah and Dan would contribute more cities to the Levites than smaller tribes like Manasseh and Benjamin. Bear in mind that all of the cities were in Canaan (with the exception of those few east of the Jordan, in lands settled by Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh): they would have to be “liberated” from the inhabitants of the Land by the twelve tribes authorized to make war (i.e., not by Levi). On average, each tribe contributed only four Levite cities. These weren't large: the average population of each was only about 460 families.
The rules for Jubilee were adjusted to accommodate the special circumstances of the landless Levites: “The cities of the Levites, and the houses in the cities of their possession, the Levites may redeem at any time. And if a man purchases a house from the Levites, then the house that was sold in the city of his possession shall be released in the Jubilee; for the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the children of Israel. But the field of the common-land [that is, the “suburbs” outside the walls] of their cities may not be sold, for it is their perpetual possession.” (Leviticus 25:32-34) The houses the Levites owned in their cities served the same Jubilee function as the farm and pasture lands of the other tribes. They could be leased to others if the need arose, but everything reverted to its original owner every fifty years. Jubilee, of course, is a practical, once-in-a-lifetime demonstration of redemption—of God “buying back” for us what we lost through our sin: innocence.
In Numbers 1, we saw that a military census was taken of all the tribes of Israel except for Levi, who would be asked to serve Israel in a different capacity. But in Numbers 3, we learn that God did take a census of the Levites—not as warriors, but as administrators of the tabernacle and its service. The surprising thing is how God “accounted for” the Levites. He didn’t just give them a pass from military service. He used them as the foundation of an elaborate symbol revealing the process of redemption.
Yahweh had already established that all of Israel’s firstborn males—both man and beast—were dedicated to Him. The principle had been introduced with the tenth plague of the exodus, when all of the firstborn males were slain by the angel of death except for those protected by the blood of the innocent lamb applied to the doorposts of the house. So under the Torah, all of the clean firstborn male animals were to be sacrificed and eaten, while the unclean were to be redeemed—bought back, ransomed. Fallen man (being the ultimate “unclean animal”) would have to be redeemed—he could not atone for his own sins, under any circumstances. Here is where we learn of Yahweh’s plan to solve that problem.
The heart of God’s strategy is the principle of substitution: “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Now behold, I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine, because all the firstborn are Mine. On the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They shall be Mine: I am Yahweh.’” (Numbers 3:11-13) The idea was that although all the firstborn of Israel belonged to Yahweh, they couldn’t be redeemed with a mere lamb or goat, any more than you could purchase a Rolls Royce by exchanging a box of Cracker Jacks for it. There had to be some semblance of equivalence. So Yahweh declared that He was taking the Levites in exchange for the firstborn of Israel—a man for a man, a life for a life.
The fact that He was willing to accept a substitute (the Levites) instead of the actual firstborn males of Israel scattered throughout their tribes should tell us that there was nothing intrinsically magical about being the firstborn. Rather, the whole thing was an obvious symbol pointing toward some crucial truth. That ultimate truth, of course, was that He intended to sacrifice His own “firstborn Son,” Yahshua the Messiah, to atone for the sin of all mankind. But that wouldn’t be made clear for another millennium and a half.
For now, the Israelites and Levites were merely asked to play their roles, with no hint as to what sort of fulfillment (if any) God had in mind. It’s a parent’s prerogative to tell their children to do something without explaining why: small children are told to wash up before supper—they aren’t lectured on the dangers of bacterial infections if they fail to comply. So the only “explanation” God offered was that “I am Yahweh.” It was as multitudes of parents have said to their children when asked “Why?” Because I said so (or in this case, because I AM said so).
Ordinarily, the firstborn clean animal (a sheep, goat, or cow) would be ceremonially slain and eaten by the family who had brought it. It was an act of worship and demonstration of trust in God—a joyous celebration, even though the animal would not be available for further service or resources (wool, milk, offspring, etc.). An unclean animal—like a donkey or camel, typically used as a beast of burden—was to be substituted with a clean animal—and the replacement was sacrificed and eaten.
But what about firstborn people? The Levites (the substitutes Yahweh had accepted for the firstborn of Israel) were given in service to the priests. “And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are given entirely to him from among the children of Israel.” (Numbers 3:9) They were to serve as labor—as “staff,” if you will—for their far-less-numerous brothers. We shall review some of their duties as we proceed. They wouldn’t be farmers and herdsmen (or warriors) like ordinary Israelites, for they didn’t have enough land for it, nor were they anointed for the task of war. But they weren’t left without a source of remuneration, either: God always provides for those engaged in His service. More on this in a bit.
It would have been an amazing coincidence if there had been exactly the same number of Levites as there were firstborn males in Israel. As it turned out, the numbers were very close: “All who were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of Yahweh, by their families, all the males from a month old and above, were twenty-two thousand….” This sounds suspiciously like a rounded number, and it may be, for Yahweh had another symbolic point to make, as we shall see.
The next step was to find out how many firstborn males there were in Israel. “Then Yahweh said to Moses: ‘Number all the firstborn males of the children of Israel from a month old and above, and take the number of their names. And you shall take the Levites for Me—I am Yahweh—instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the livestock of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the livestock of the children of Israel.’ So Moses numbered all the firstborn among the children of Israel, as Yahweh commanded him. And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names from a month old and above, of those who were numbered of them, were twenty-two thousand two hundred and seventy-three….” That is, there were 273 more firstborn males in Israel than there were Levites to redeem them.
The note about livestock is interesting. The “firstborn-belongs-to-Yahweh” precept had just been introduced. From this point forward, all of the firstborn would be sacrificed as per the Torah. But there were already firstborn animals in everybody’s flock and herd, and at this late date, tracking them would have been impossible. So the sheep, goats, and cattle owned by the Levites were reckoned as substitutes for the firstborn livestock of Israel. The picture of substitution and redemption was thus reinforced. (And now we know for sure what the 2,000 cubit outer greenbelt around each Levite city was used for.)
“Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the livestock of the Levites instead of their livestock. The Levites shall be Mine: I am Yahweh.” This we have already established. But what about the remainder? “And for the redemption of the two hundred and seventy-three of the firstborn of the children of Israel, who are more than the number of the Levites, you shall take five shekels for each one individually; you shall take them in the currency of the shekel of the sanctuary, the shekel of twenty gerahs. And you shall give the money, with which the excess number of them is redeemed, to Aaron and his sons….’”
There are two symbols in play here. The first is the number five. Every time we see five (and it comes up all the time in tabernacle rites and architecture) we should immediately think of “grace,” unmerited favor, and specifically, the indemnification of our sins via a gift from God, not our own works.
The second symbol (which is “flying under the radar” here) is silver—which is what the “shekel of the sanctuary” was made out of. (Though not specified here in Numbers 3, see Leviticus 23.) Silver in scripture is a picture of ransom, of money paid for blood. The thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot for the betrayal of Yahshua come readily to mind. The 100 foundation bases of the tabernacle, which were each made of a talent of silver (i.e., 3,000 shekels). The lesson is clear: the entire plan of God for our redemption rested upon (and was upheld by) the blood-ransom of Christ for our sins.
A silver shekel weighed about .364 troy ounces, so the five-shekel ransom for the Israelite firstborn was a nominal sum—about $30 at today’s prices. What’s important here is the symbolism: ransom multiplied by grace, paid by the Firstborn—ultimately, Yahshua the Messiah.
Moses, as usual, did exactly as he was instructed: “So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those who were redeemed by the Levites. From the firstborn of the children of Israel he took the money, one thousand three hundred and sixty-five shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. And Moses gave their redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of Yahweh, as Yahweh commanded Moses.” (Numbers 3:39-51) The money thus raised—maybe $8,000 in today’s terms—would be used for the upkeep of the sanctuary and the expenses of the priests in the performance of their duties. This wasn’t a get-rich-quick scheme on the part of the priesthood.
Of far more value to the priests was the labor and support of the Levites themselves. After all, there were only five priests to begin with—two of whom, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, promptly got themselves killed by profaning the sanctuary with their manmade religious ritual. So for all practical purposes, Yahweh set apart the Levites to be the “right hand” of the priests, their staff, their trusted and invaluable “employees.” This required that they be on the same spiritual page as the priests, dedicated to Yahweh’s agenda.
So the entire tribe participated in a ritual of cleansing and dedication: “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Take the Levites from among the children of Israel and cleanse them ceremonially. Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purification on them, and let them shave all their body, and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean….” In some ways, this procedure is reminiscent of the dedication ceremony of the priests (Leviticus 8), but some features, like the complete shaving of the body, remind me of the cleansing ceremony prescribed for cured lepers (Leviticus 14), as well as the taking of the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6). As always, the symbols tell the tale, revealing what Yahweh wanted us to know about “being a Levite”—he must be clean. Many commentators equate the shaving of the whole body with the “cutting off their inordinate desire of earthly things,” (Benson) but I (being more of a literalist) see hair as “that which grows of its own accord if left untended.” Thus for a fallen man it indicates such things like ignorance, falsehood, or apathy. A Levite must remain diligent, focused, and vigilant where God’s word is concerned.
“Then let them take a young bull with its grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, and you shall take another young bull as a sin offering….” Bulls are indicative of the endeavors of man—the methods being symbolically forsaken by the Levites, who would subsequently operate in the power of God instead, relying upon Him for provision (the grain offering) and the leading of the Holy Spirit (the olive oil).
The ceremony was to take place in the context of the tabernacle—indicative of the plan of God—and the whole congregation (Israel at large, symbolic of the family of Yahweh) was to participate. “And you shall bring the Levites before the tabernacle of meeting, and you shall gather together the whole congregation of the children of Israel. So you shall bring the Levites before Yahweh, and the children of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites….” The laying on of hands signified transference: in this case, the role of the firstborn sons of Israel (“God’s family”) was being placed upon the Levites. If I may quote from a previous chapter on The Firstborn: Preeminence, “In Yahweh’s program, the firstborn was indeed ‘special,’ but not merely as a leader or special recipient of temporal blessing. Because Yahweh’s idea of ‘leadership’ is service (if Yahshua’s life, or even that of Moses, may be taken as a clue), then the preeminence resulting from firstborn status defines it as less of a personal blessing and more of a responsibility. Taken to its logical symbolic end, the firstborn’s birthright defines him to be as much a servant or sacrifice as it does an exalted leader.” And this is precisely what we find to be true of the “designated firstborn” of Israel, the tribe of Levi.
“And Aaron shall offer the Levites before Yahweh like a wave offering from the children of Israel, that they may perform the work of Yahweh….” “Doing God’s work” is something we should all be doing, one way or another. But the Levites—what they represent—are hereby put in a class by themselves: they are specifically set apart for this work. At the same time they are precluded from earning a living in the ordinary way, but rather are made totally and directly reliant upon God.
“Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the young bulls, and you shall offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering to Yahweh, to make atonement for the Levites….’” One bull was a burnt offering, an olah—a voluntary sacrifice made for atonement, homage to Yahweh, and celebration before Him. Total dedication is implied, for the offering was to be completely consumed by fire. The other bull was a sin offering (Hebrew: chata’t). The purpose was atonement for sin, for the life is in the blood. Ultimately, Christ’s sacrifice is in view, but the specific animals are instructive of how our position in this world (in this case, being a Levite) relates to our sin and its consequences. Bulls (normally brought by the priests or by the congregation at large) indicate the intention that manmade strategies and false doctrines leading to sin and death are being forsaken.
“And you shall stand the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and then offer them like a wave offering to Yahweh.” A wave (or “heave”) offering presented something or someone to Yahweh, saying, in so many words, “This belongs to You; whatever usefulness or benefit your people derive from it is understood to be the result of Your bounty, and for that we give thanks.” “Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the children of Israel, and the Levites shall be Mine. After that the Levites shall go in to service the tabernacle of meeting. So you shall cleanse them and offer them like a wave offering. For they are wholly given to Me from among the children of Israel; I have taken them for Myself instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the children of Israel….” This is basically a restatement and summary of God’s intentions for the sons of Levi. It bears repeating that “the service of the tabernacle of meeting” symbolically represents the administration and dissemination of the God’s Plan for our redemption. In broad terms then, Levites symbolize those whose whole life is dedicated to and focused upon the furtherance of the Kingdom of Heaven.
In case we may have missed it, Yahweh now reiterates the connection between the Passover and the concept that the firstborn belong to Him: “For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine, both man and beast; on the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them to Myself. I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.” While this tells us the what, it does not explain the why. We would have to wait for the advent of Yahshua the Messiah to receive that divine epiphany: the firstborn of Israel here symbolically represent The Firstborn. Yahshua, the Son of God, being preeminent among men, humbled Himself to become a servant, and more—a sacrifice: the perfect sacrifice, uniquely sufficient to atone for the sins of all mankind.
So in assigning the Levites to stand in for the firstborn of Israel, Yahweh was connecting them, metaphorically at least, to the Messiah’s service—and to His suffering. To the uninitiated (or unbelieving), it looks like a terribly risky proposition. You Levites will receive no territory (to speak of) in the Promised Land, for I am your inheritance. Instead, you will live on the tithes of Israel (who, being human, may or may not comply), and you will get to work in obscurity as you assist the priests, who will get all the glory. Such a deal.
But just when the Levites might have been thinking their role was no more significant than that of an ignominious worker bee, Yahweh says this: “And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the work for the children of Israel in the tabernacle of meeting, and to make atonement for the children of Israel, that there be no plague among the children of Israel when the children of Israel come near the sanctuary….” What? Making atonement? Warding off plagues? That doesn’t sound insignificant at all—it sounds downright crucial. And it is. The Levites were to be a living picture of “the attainment of holiness” in Israel. That is, though the sanctuary stood in the midst of the camp, the Levites were stationed as a physical barrier between it and the people. They were to function as God’s appointed gatekeepers, not so much restricting access to the tabernacle as managing it. They occupied and guarded the middle ground between ordinary Israelites (symbolic of God’s family, you’ll recall) and the priests—those whose job it was to intercede for them directly with Yahweh.
The mention of “atonement” here sort of sounds as if the Levites might be playing the role of priests (who were, after all, a subset of the Levites). But I think the idea here hearkens back to what atonement means—covering. The Levites’ function was to cover, guard, and protect the people from the temptation to engage in frivolous do-it-yourself religion—the sort of thing that got Nadab and Abihu killed. If one wishes to approach Yahweh, he must be consecrated and reverential; and it was the Levites’ job to ensure that proper reverence was maintained.
This function necessitated spiritual purity on the part of the Levites, of course. This was symbolized by the washing of their bodies and clothes, and the shaving of their entire bodies. “Thus Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the children of Israel did to the Levites; according to all that Yahweh commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so the children of Israel did to them. And the Levites purified themselves and washed their clothes; then Aaron presented them like a wave offering before Yahweh, and Aaron made atonement for them to cleanse them. After that the Levites went in to do their work in the tabernacle of meeting before Aaron and his sons; as Yahweh commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did to them.” (Numbers 8:5-22) The process of their consecration and the performance of their duties (though symbolic in nature) were spelled out by God. All the Levites had to do was follow their instructions—and they did, for a while, anyway.
It’s not quite such a straightforward process with those who fulfill the role of modern-day “Levites” (i.e., those whom God has set apart for His use, regardless of their biological lineage). For us, there are no specific written instructions, and no Shekinah manifestation of Yahweh telling Moses what to tell us. Today, we have the whole of scripture to pore over, and the Holy Spirit dwelling within us to guide our steps. But the Spirit doesn’t lead all of us in the same direction. Some are called (often dragged kicking and screaming) into the ministry; some to the mission field, etc. We as individuals are given gifts, then experiences (whether painful or pleasant) to fine-tune our journeys. The long, strange trip of the Apostle Paul is described in the Book of Acts and in his epistles to give us a feel for how God steers His “neo-Levites” in the church age.
If you’ll indulge me, I’ll tell you a bit of my own story (and that of my wife), hoping to shed some light on how it can work. With my parents’ guidance, I became a believer at a very young age. I married a sweet, compassionate woman when we were in our early twenties, and we lived a “normal” life as part of God’s family (symbolically, “Israelites”) for some time. Although I loved God, I never felt called to enter the ministry, and something happened in my mid-twenties that to this day makes it hard for me to initiate a conversation with anyone, especially on the telephone (a traumatic job experience—let’s just leave it at that). Eventually, I settled into a career in my chosen field (graphic design), and ran the art department for a prosperous folding carton manufacturer for sixteen years.
Somewhere along the way, my wife (a stay-at-home mom of our two boys) and I began adopting children. By that time, through God’s bounty, we had more house than we really needed, so we set about filling it: one adopted infant daughter, then another. Korean orphanage kids. We had the perfect family—two fine sons and two precious little girls. Any rational couple would have stopped at this point, but not us. God was calling us to become “Levites,” so to speak. We began adopting hard-to-place kids, damaged souls who had been kicked around by life. So far, so good. Then we began adopting severely handicapped children. Seemed like the next logical step. We had outgrown our big house by this time, so we added a new two-story wing. Our parents, both hers and mine, grew alarmed—and according to conventional wisdom they had a point: the whole thing blew up in our faces a couple of times (I’ll spare you the gory details). But somehow we survived. We adopted our last child, an abused, neglected, failure-to-thrive three-year-old boy, when we were in our late forties. He is now a youth pastor.
We ended up with eleven children, two biological and nine adopted. Of the nine, seven were of the “unwanted” variety (too old, too damaged, etc.), and four were profoundly physically and/or mentally handicapped. Oh, and there was one more: my mom, in her late sixties, came down with a degenerative nerve disease (akin to Parkinson’s) so she and my father moved in with us (at my wife’s invitation and insistence) during the last year of her life. And my wife set about teaching my father what Christian compassion really looked like. You want to know what strange forms “service” can take? We recently did the math, and calculated that during her mom-life, my wife changed 104,000 diapers.
It will probably come as no surprise that the math never really worked. I made a decent though modest salary, but we didn’t have a dime set aside for emergencies, college tuition, or retirement. And yet, Yahweh saw to it that we never missed a house payment or a meal, and we always had a running vehicle or two. Yes, I worked two jobs for about a decade, my regular gig and a side business (with my employer’s blessing) doing design work that didn’t compete with their in-house art department. But after working for the company for sixteen years, they decided to close my department, leaving us high and dry. With God’s blessing, I was able to parlay my little side business into a prosperous full-service graphic design agency. Along the way, I was forced to develop peripheral skills, like writing ads and scripts for radio commercials—anything I could do to keep the profits “in-house.”
I ran my little company for nine years, finally taking a job as V.P. of Marketing with a start-up Internet store on the other side of the country. In three wonderful, terrifying years, my new employer basically invented the sort of Internet commerce we all take for granted today, went public, and then imploded in flames, leaving me with a ton of rapidly falling stock—which I sold just before they became altogether worthless (months after my wife told me to). This left us with just enough resources for me to retire at the age of 54. All my professional skills had by this time become hopelessly obsolete—with the exception being able to research a subject and write about it. The rise and fall of the company was the subject of my first book, In the Company of Good and Evil, co-authored with Craig Winn. Then a second book with the same co-author, a novel entitled Tea with Terrorists, grew out of the 9-11 disaster of 2001.
It was at this point that I finally realized that God had been preparing me for my present task for the previous thirty years. I began work on the books you’ll find on this website The End of the Beginning (a four-volume, 1,700 page comprehensive study of Biblical prophecy), The Owner’s Manual (three volumes exploring what every Christian should know about the Law of Moses), and The Torah Code (the book you’re reading now, projected to be a seven-volume work examining the extensive symbol lexicon used by Yahweh in His written word). In short, I find that I have taken on the role of a Levite—one set-apart by God exclusively for His own purposes. It has been my privilege to do this for the past fifteen years now, and it is my sincere hope that you are finding it of some value.
It was never Yahweh’s intention to work His Levites to death, although I, for one, would be perfectly happy to “die in the saddle.” Rather, He arranged a limited “tour of duty” for Levites. “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, ‘This is what pertains to the Levites: From twenty-five years old and above one may enter to perform service in the work of the tabernacle of meeting; and at the age of fifty years they must cease performing this work, and shall work no more. They may minister with their brethren in the tabernacle of meeting, to attend to needs, but they themselves shall do no work. Thus you shall do to the Levites regarding their duties.’” (Numbers 8:23-26) Although the Levites began working at the age of twenty-five, they were not “numbered” among the official Levite census until they were thirty (see Numbers 4:46-48). This is mirrored in the life of Christ, who began His “official” ministry when He was “about thirty” (Luke 3:23).
As it turns out, there is another facet of my life that demonstrates this principle (though of course, I didn’t understand it as I was living through it). For about a quarter of a century, it was my privilege to be the worship leader at whatever church we were attending, either working alone or leading a team. (I admittedly got started a bit late, in my early thirties, and ended in my fifties.) The interesting thing is what the post-retirement “ministering to one’s brethren” and “attending to needs” turned out to look like. For ten years after leaving my last position as a leader, I found myself singing harmonies and playing supporting-role electric guitar parts on a new worship team. No more “heavy lifting” (planning, arrangements, etc.); I got to just show up and play. And now (in my seventies) I sing in a choir, write a little music, teach a little guitar, and do the occasional solo or accompaniment gig. In other words, I still get to contribute, but the pressure’s off—I can happily leave the big week-in-and-week-out worship-music tasks to the younger folks—the “Levites” between twenty-five and fifty.
In short, I’ve found being a modern-day “Levite” (whether with worship music or writing or adopting forgotten kids) to be a great way to spend one’s life. Like millions of other believers, I can attest to the truthfulness of David’s words: “Trust in Yahweh, and do good. Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in Yahweh, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:3-4) The “trick” is realizing that when your delight is in Yahweh, the “desires of your heart” no longer resemble anything the world has to offer. All you end up wanting is an ever-closer relationship with Him. All you desire is to hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
We’ve all heard the maxim, “Where God guides, God provides.” This is particularly true of Levites—whether under the Torah or in the symbolic sense. The “test case” concerned the duties of the Levites during the wilderness wanderings: they were to break down, transport, and reassemble the tabernacle whenever the Shekinah-cloud moved the camp of Israel. Yahweh saw to it that they were equipped for the service they had been assigned: “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Accept these [six carts and twelve oxen] from them [the leaders of Israel’s twelve tribes], that they may be used in doing the work of the tabernacle of meeting; and you shall give them to the Levites, to every man according to his service….’”
In Numbers 4, the duties of each of the three clans of Levi were enumerated. “So Moses took the carts and the oxen, and gave them to the Levites. Two carts and four oxen he gave to the sons of Gershon, according to their service.” It was Gershon’s job to carry the “software,” so to speak—the ceiling curtains, partitions, and linen panels surrounding the tabernacle courtyard. “And four carts and eight oxen he gave to the sons of Merari, according to their service, under the authority of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest….” The clan of Merari was to transport the “hardware,” the boards, bars, pillars, and foundation sockets (weighing in at a talent each—up to 90 pounds).
“But to the sons of Kohath he gave none, because theirs was the service of the holy things, which they carried on their shoulders.” (Numbers 7:4-9) The Kohathites (the clan of Moses and Aaron) were to carry the sanctuary’s furnishings—the Ark of the Covenant, the altar of incense, the table of the bread of the presence, the main altar (all of which were fitted with carrying beams for the purpose), plus the golden menorah and the bronze laver. These were all to be borne on their shoulders rather than being transported on carts, because they were “holy things.” That is, they symbolized the core of the message of redemption and reconciliation that the tabernacle was designed to communicate. From God’s point of view, there was nothing “easy” about the salvation process. If Yahshua could carry the cross to Golgotha upon His bleeding shoulders, then the Kohathites could team up and heft the holy articles from place to place as Yahweh’s Shekinah directed. Once again, we see that everything Yahweh directed Israel to do was a preview of what He was going to do on behalf of mankind.
Note that the nearer one got to the heart of the redemption story, the closer he worked with the priests—the ones who actually performed the dress-rehearsal rituals so fraught with symbolic portent. As we shall see in our next chapter, the priests were those who interceded between God and man—ultimately symbolic of Christ Himself. So as the function of the Levites was to support the priests, the function of those among us who are set-apart for God’s work is to glorify and exalt Yahshua. Thus we read, “Also bring with you [Aaron] your brethren of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, that they may be joined with you and serve you while you and your sons are with you before the tabernacle of witness. They shall attend to your needs and all the needs of the tabernacle….”
That being said, a clear distinction was made between the Levites and the priests: “But they [the Levites] shall not come near the articles of the sanctuary and the altar, lest they die—they and you also. They shall be joined with you and attend to the needs of the tabernacle of meeting, for all the work of the tabernacle; but an outsider shall not come near you….” Once again we see that Yahweh specified separate roles for priests, Levites, and “outsiders” (that is, ordinary Israelites). In theocratic Israel, these three groups were strictly the product of genetic serendipity, but if we pay attention to what they symbolize, we come to understand that it is God’s prerogative to define our roles—to call us as individuals according to His purpose.
Yahweh is quite serious about this “division of labor.” Ordinary Israelites (read: God’s family—believers) were not to take upon themselves the roles or responsibilities of Levites (read: those specifically called by God, gifted for specific tasks). The Bible is replete with warnings against false teachers—outsiders who have on their own authority usurped the symbolic role of “Levites” (e.g., II Peter 2-3; II Timothy 3:1-9; I John 4:1-3; Matthew 7:15-20, etc.). Someone truly called by God might make mistakes (as Moses and David did on occasion), but they will never purposely lead His flock astray.
Similarly, Levites were not to usurp the divinely appointed role of priests. They were to support the intercessors (ultimately symbolic of Yahweh’s Messiah)—not try to become them. In the Olivet Discourse, Yahshua specifically warns us that “false christs” will appear in the Last Days, performing signs and wonders designed to deceive the very elect of God. Already, we have become familiar with the phenomenon of “religious leaders” reveling in the worship (okay, adoration) of their congregations. It will only get worse as the Day approaches. This is all the rough symbolic equivalent of “coming near the articles of the sanctuary and the altar,” the penalty for which is death.
Moses concludes, “And you [priests] shall attend to the duties of the sanctuary and the duties of the altar, that there may be no more wrath on the children of Israel. Behold, I Myself have taken your brethren the Levites from among the children of Israel; they are a gift to you, given by Yahweh, to do the work of the tabernacle of meeting.” (Numbers 18:2-6) If you find yourself called of God to perform a specific task, remember, you are “a gift.” That is, you are there for the benefit of the recipient—not for your own profit, pleasure, or pride.
It may come as a surprise, but God has no problem with His people gaining wealth in this world (as long as it is done honestly, and it is the result of His blessing, not our greed or covetousness). Such passages as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 make it abundantly clear that as long as Israel heeded His commandments, they would prosper and thrive. Since it was an agrarian society, the foundation of this wealth was to be the land each family owned. It was on the land that cattle and sheep would graze, that wheat and barley would grow, and vineyards and orchards would bear their fruit.
But (as we have seen) the tribe of Levi was to receive no inheritance of land, just forty-eight cities spread throughout Israel, each including a 3,000 cubit greenbelt of common land surrounding each walled village—enough to grow a few crops or graze a few sheep, but not nearly enough to run any large-scale “agribusiness” on. Did Yahweh want the Levites to be poor? No. From the beginning of the conquest of Canaan, an alternate source of Levite revenue was to be in place. It was called the tithe—called the masser in Hebrew, literally, the tenth part, one tenth (from eser or asarah, meaning ten).
With the doubled tribe of Joseph, there were thirteen tribes in Israel, though the Land was to be divided up only twelve ways. So each of the twelve was to receive 108.3% of its “fair share,” the 8.3% bonus representing what would have been the Levites’ portion. Then, in compensation, Yahweh commanded that the landowners pay the Levites ten percent (the tithe) of the annual increase of their crops—grain, wine, olive oil, etc. and every tenth animal born in their flocks or herds. This sounds like the Levites were getting a 1.7% bonus themselves, but that’s an illusion: out of “their” ten percent, they were also to take care of the poor in Israel.
This wasn’t welfare, a gift, or subsidy to the Levites from the other twelve tribes. It was simple remuneration. They had a job to do, assigned by Yahweh. The tithe allowed them to perform the work of the tabernacle, in support of the priests, without the burden of having to earn a living in the fields. Yahweh says, “Behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance in return for the work which they perform, the work of the tabernacle of meeting….” The other tribes each received an inheritance of land, and they were expected to work it in order to materially prosper. The only difference with the Levites was the nature of their labor. No land meant no agriculture; their “work” concerned the tabernacle.
Part of that “work” entailed keeping the sanctuary physically set apart from the people, except for the specific purposes for which it was designed—basically, making sacrifices and offerings. “Hereafter the children of Israel shall not come near the tabernacle of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall perform the work of the tabernacle of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity….” What does it mean to bear iniquity? In this context, it was unlawful for the ordinary Israelites to intrude into the priests’ office (as, for example, Korah and his company had done, recorded just two chapters previously). The Levites’ job was to assist and support the priests. Since the priests’ role ultimately symbolizes that of Christ—making atonement for the people—it was important that no one got the idea that he could take that role upon himself. If you try to carry your own sin, you’ll die, for it is a burden impossible for a fallen man to bear. The Levites can’t carry their own sin either, but they are strategically placed by God as a liaison between the Israelites and the priests—that is, between believers and Christ.
Doing so, however, is a full-time job, so Yahweh provided the tithe to allow the Levites to perform their duties. “It shall be a statute forever, throughout your generations, that among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer up as a heave offering to Yahweh, I have given to the Levites as an inheritance; therefore I have said to them, ‘Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance….’” Note that the tithes were to be offered up to Yahweh as a heave offering. This establishes the principle that the tithes actually belong to God Himself, and that He uses them to compensate the Levites for their service. Yahweh is thus justified in accusing Israel (in Malachi 3:8-10) of “robbing Him” by withholding or curtailing the tithe which was due to the tribe of Levi “forever, throughout their generations.”
This all sheds light on a contemporary conundrum. Since (in the wake of the two-thousand year curse upon Israel precipitated by their rejection of the Messiah—see Hosea 6:1-2) no Israelite today can say with certainty that he is of the tribe of Levi, to whom, precisely, is one to render the tithe today? Yes, during the Millennial Reign of Christ, tribal links will once again be established; but at the moment, we can’t even be certain who all the Israelites are, never mind which tribe they belong to. For that matter, gentiles were not required (or even asked) to keep the Torah’s precepts, so what are we goyim to do about this?
The standard answer within “Churchianity” today is, “Yes, by all means, tithe—give ten percent of your income to the church. The Bible says so.” In this one isolated instance then, most clergy would apply the Torah to their own situations. But what about the rest of it? Are they in favor of stoning adulterers? Do they keep the ashes of a red heifer handy, in case somebody dies? Do they believe that someone who strikes his father or his mother should be put to death? Do they keep the Sabbath? (I realize that the Sabbath law does not specify a day of gathering for worship, and I’ve got no real problem with Sunday services, or any other day for that matter. But most of the pastors I know take Monday off as their day of rest, not Saturday.) All of these things are required in the Torah, along with the tithe. God’s word is not a smorgasbord. You can’t just take the bits you like, and leave the rest.
That’s why it is so important to pay attention to the symbols. Israel as a compact theocratic society was instructed to literally keep all of these rules, and the rest of us are advised to observe them—that is, heed the foundational truths underlying them. Adultery? Sexual sin is a euphemism for idolatry—the giving of worship to something or someone who is not actually your God. The ordinance of the red heifer is a complex pantomime of our purification from sin and death through the sacrifice of Yahshua. Honoring one’s father and mother is symbolic of reverence for Yahweh and His Holy Spirit. And the Sabbath teaches us that in the end, we cannot work for our own salvation—we must rest in Yahshua’s finished work, something that will be celebrated during His earthly reign during the seventh millennium of fallen man’s tenure upon the earth. In short, the precepts of the Torah illuminate the path to Yahweh, even if we can’t actually perform most of them for lack of a priesthood and sanctuary. The Torah is not a doorway into heaven, but rather a window into the very mind of God.
The tithe, then, indicates that God’s family—we partakers in His grace and goodness—are to materially support those among us who have been specifically set apart for God’s service: “Levites,” in His symbolic parlance. This service, you’ll note, precludes their earning a living in the ordinary way. The tithe was used to support Levites so they could minister to the priests and provide for the poor—it was not to be used for building the tabernacle or for other causes, no matter how worthy. I’ll leave it to you to figure out who the “Levites” in your world are. They might be pastors or missionaries, the folks who run the homeless shelter, the battered women’s refuge, or the local soup kitchen. But a word of caution: not all clergy or charity administrators are actually called of God. It is up to us to be discerning. Not everybody in “ministry” is working for Yahweh.
The Levites too were to render the tithe—a tenth of their tenth, to support the priests materially. “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, speak thus to the Levites, and say to them: ‘When you take from the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them as your inheritance, then you shall offer up a heave offering of it to Yahweh, a tenth of the tithe. And your heave offering shall be reckoned to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor and as the fullness of the winepress. Thus you shall also offer a heave offering to Yahweh from all your tithes which you receive from the children of Israel, and you shall give Yahweh’s heave offering from it to Aaron the priest….” In theory, ten Israelites would support one Levite, and ten Levites would support one priest. Based, as it was, on the agriculture increase gained through Yahweh’s bounty upon the land and His blessing upon the labors of the Israelites, the tithe rightly belonged to God—who (not needing it) distributed it as He saw fit.
I should point out that I find myself in adamant disagreement with the Talmud, Jewish interpreters, and the majority of commentators about the nature of the tithe. They will tell you that there were two separate tithes (totaling 20%)—a “first tithe” made to the Levites, and a then “second tithe” rendered to the priests. But the actual record suggests no such thing, clearly calling the priests’ portion a tithe of the tithe, a tenth of the tenth that the Levites received: that is, one percent. The confusion seems to stem from ignoring who Moses was addressing in any given passage—the nation as a whole, or the tribe of Levi. (Or—call me cynical—it could be simply be another religious money-making scheme foisted upon the people by second-temple-era priests out to make a quick buck.)
“Of all your gifts you shall offer up every heave offering due to Yahweh, from all the best of them, the consecrated part of them.’ Therefore you shall say to them: ‘When you have lifted up the best of it, then the rest shall be accounted to the Levites as the produce of the threshing floor and as the produce of the winepress….” We’re used to thinking in terms of units of currency—money—and one dollar is pretty much like any other. But in Israel’s agrarian society, there was also the issue of quality to consider. The best of one’s crop was to be rendered as the tithe, because after all, it belonged to Yahweh Himself. In the case of the increase in flocks and herds, however, Leviticus 27 makes it clear that the newborn animals were to be run through a chute, “passing under the rod.” That is, every tenth animal was to be counted off and separated from the others for the tithe—without regard to relative quality. The tenth lamb or calf down the line was to go to the Levites—good, bad, or indifferent. It was counted, not selected.
The tithe wasn’t one of the seven sacrifices specified by Yahweh (the burnt offering, peace offering, sin offering, trespass offering, grain offering, drink offering, or firstborn offering). It was simply payment for services rendered. So unlike the offerings, it didn’t have to be brought to the tabernacle. The Levitical cities were spread out all over Israel. “You may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward for your work in the tabernacle of meeting. And you shall bear no sin because of it, when you have lifted up the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy gifts of the children of Israel, lest you die.’” (Numbers 18:21-32) I should note that the word “gifts” isn’t actually in the text—and the tithe wasn’t a gift, any more that your paycheck or tax refund is. The tithe was owed to the Levites. The word is qodesh—sacredness or holiness. To profane the holiness of the children of Israel, in this context, would have been for a Levite to fail to “lift up” the tithe in thanks to God.
This is where it gets confusing. In a different passage, Moses seems to give exactly the opposite instructions: “You may not eat within your gates the tithe of your grain or your new wine or your oil, of the firstborn of your herd or your flock, of any of your offerings which you vow, of your freewill offerings, or of the heave offering of your hand. But you must eat them before Yahweh your God in the place which Yahweh your God chooses, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before Yahweh your God in all to which you put your hands. Take heed to yourself that you do not forsake the Levite as long as you live in your land.” (Deuteronomy 12:17-19) We must pay careful attention to whom Moses was addressing. In the Numbers 18 passage, he was talking to the Levites; but here in Deuteronomy 12, he was instructing ordinary Israelites.
What’s going on here? The bottom line is that the tithe was not to be considered an onerous burden imposed upon Israel, begrudgingly given to the Levites because a stern and judgmental God insisted upon it. Rather, it was to be seen as a joyous celebration of the blessings that Yahweh had already showered upon the people—past tense. It was an acknowledgement that the source of this bounty was Yahweh Himself.
The only real epiphany here is that the people were to participate in enjoying the tithe. Not all of it, of course, but a representative portion, brought to wherever the tabernacle or temple was (i.e., in “the place which Yahweh chooses,” eventually settling at Jerusalem), shared in a joyous feast with the Levites and priests. This would logically take place at one of the three annual Feasts of Yahweh in which every Israelite male was required to gather—Passover/Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, or the Feast of Tabernacles. This is where a representative portion of the tithe (along with the other sacrifices and offerings mentioned by Moses) would be lifted up in thanks to Yahweh, and then eaten in a meal shared with the Levites and priests. The bulk of the tithe would already have been delivered to where the Levites lived—in one of the forty-eight cities scattered throughout the land of Israel.
Not all of the tithes were to be brought to the tabernacle, as if they were an offering or sacrifice. Only a small representative portion was to be brought. The point, rather, was that the ritual of the “heave offering” and the subsequent thanksgiving feast were not to be done just anywhere, but only where Yahweh’s symbolic Shekinah presence abided: at the sanctuary. The whole idea was to identify without question who was getting credit for having provided the increase: it was Yahweh, not the farmer, not dumb luck, and not some faux pagan deity like Ba’al or Astarte.
“You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat before Yahweh your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear Yahweh your God always….” Again, this reference is to the representative portion of the land’s bounty to be offered as a wave offering before Yahweh, not the entire tithe.
The Land was a couple of hundred miles north to south—making it a hardship for some living on the fringes to physically transport even a symbolic portion of the tithe to the centrally located tabernacle. So God provided a practical solution: “But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where Yahweh your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when Yahweh your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which Yahweh your God chooses. And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before Yahweh your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household….” The whole point of going to the tabernacle with the representative portion of your tithe was to celebrate Yahweh’s blessing. It is no coincidence that the Feast of Tabernacles—a weeklong party for the whole nation commemorating God’s provision—was scheduled at the end of the annual harvest season, in late summer or early autumn.
In the midst of all this celebration, God was adamant about remembering to reimburse the Levites, upon whose land (in practical reality) the tithe was produced in the first place. “You shall not forsake the Levite who is within your gates, for he has no part nor inheritance with you.” As Malachi pointed out, forsaking the Levites by withholding the tithe was tantamount to robbing God. And forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but there are still “Levites” among us—people fulfilling their role—who rely on God’s family to sustain them as they go about their sacred duties. We are not to forsake them.
Another point of confusion swirls around when the tithe was to be set apart. Above, we read, “You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year.” But now, Moses writes, “At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that Yahweh your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” (Deuteronomy14:22-29) It made perfect sense to set aside a tenth of what your land produced at the end of each growing season. That was the only time you could accurately gauge what your “increase” was. However, the tithe wasn’t distributed to the Levites year by year, but in every third year.
A bit later, Moses clarifies the issue, sort of. “You shall set [the tithe] before Yahweh your God, and worship before Yahweh your God. So you shall rejoice in every good thing which Yahweh your God has given to you and your house, you and the Levite and the stranger who is among you. When you have finished laying aside all the tithe of your increase in the third year—the year of tithing—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your gates and be filled, then you shall say before Yahweh your God: ‘I have removed the holy tithe from my house, and also have given them to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments, nor have I forgotten them.’” (Deuteronomy 26:10-13) Since bearing false witness was prohibited in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:16), you could not make this statement before God or man if it were not true. So basically, this is a reminder and an encouragement to tithe as directed—supporting the Levites, and through them, the poor, the widows, orphans, and sojourners dwelling in the Land.
The “third-year” rule may simply be a matter of practicality, of distributing and shipping in bulk to the Levite cities the products being tithed. There may also be a tie-in to the Sabbath year, in which nothing was to be sown or harvested during the seventh year of the cycle. That would mean that everything recognized as “increase” would happen during the first six years. Thus the “year of the tithe” would be the third and sixth years of each Sabbatical cycle. Landowner and Levite alike would live on what grew during that period.
You may be wondering, as I did, how it worked “getting paid” in agricultural products only once every three years. Visions of moldy produce and rotten fruit flashed before my eyes. But Moses explains that what was tithed was the end product, not the raw material. “The firstfruits of your grain and your new wine and your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give [the Levite].” You wouldn’t just throw your harvested olives in a tub and hang onto them until the year of the tithe. Rather, you’d go ahead and press them (just as you’d do for your own use) and deliver the oil—which would keep pretty much forever. Bread was the dietary staple, so grain would be winnowed and the chaff-free wheat or barley would be used for both making bread and tithing to the Levites. Sheep were sheared, and a tenth of the fleece would be set aside for the Levites. If you grew figs or dates, they would be dried, as was the custom, so they’d keep for extended periods of time. In short, what was tithed wasn’t just the raw crop, but also the landowner’s time and labor in producing a “finished product” that anyone could use. Furthermore, what comprised the tithe wasn’t the “left-overs” or the dregs, but the premium quality goods (called the “firstfruits” here). Why? “For Yahweh your God has chosen him out of all your tribes to stand to minister in the name of Yahweh, him and his sons forever….” Again, it was because the tithe actually belonged to God.
“So if a Levite comes from any of your gates, from where he dwells among all Israel, and comes with all the desire of his mind to the place which Yahweh chooses, then he may serve in the name of Yahweh his God as all his brethren the Levites do, who stand there before Yahweh. They shall have equal portions to eat, besides what comes from the sale of his inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 18:4-8) Finally, Levites who chose to live among the other tribes (i.e., having leased—until Jubilee—their homes within the forty-eight cities designated for their use) were not to be penalized for this, as long as they sincerely served Yahweh as their brethren did. The Levite cities were gifts, after all—not prisons.
We’ve been exploring the nature of the tithe in theocratic Israel, but it behooves us to examine how that might translate in terms applicable to symbolic Levites in today’s world. The obvious cases would include pastors or missionaries, who according to these principles we read in the Torah are owed a living wage commensurate with that of those who support them. As Paul, quoting Moses, reminds us, we are not to muzzle the ox that treads out the grain. If he’s doing God’s work, he should be paid for his time and effort. This, however, precludes two contrasting scenarios:
(1) Pastors of established churches who must hold down jobs in the world just to put food on the table. My youngest son is a youth pastor, and at the moment he kind of falls through the cracks here. His salary is barely adequate, though his church (partially due to his efforts) is thriving—so he coaches volleyball on the side to earn a little extra money. (Truth be told, he loves coaching: he’d probably do it for free if he could afford to.) But he’s still barely making ends meet so we, his parents, have been helping out—robbing Peter, as it were, to pay Paul.
(2) Pastors who build megachurches and draw million-dollar salaries by tickling the ears of gullible sheep—telling them that if they “give generously” to their “ministry,” God will bless them materially. It’s an iffy premise at best, especially when they should be preaching Christ, and Him crucified—not appealing to the greed or desperation of congregants enduring hard times. This prosperity gospel is a cruel hoax.
As a practical matter, it seems to me that as a general rule, pastors should be paid roughly what their average parishioners are earning. That way, they know from personal experience what struggles (or blessings) their congregations are feeling. Financial parity breeds empathy. Being paid much less than the average worshiper can lead to frustration, desperation, and covetousness; but being paid a lot more invites arrogance and isolation. Monastic “vows of poverty” are man’s idea—not God’s. That being said, our God knows how to accomplish great things in this world using only our willingness to do His work. Mother Teresa once famously said, “We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, with so little, for so long, we are now qualified to do anything, with nothing.”
If you’ll recall, not only did Israel tithe to the Levites, but the Levites were to tithe to the priests. Applied to the church, the modern equivalent might look like what the assembly I attend does: a tithe (actually, our number is 15%) of everything that is contributed goes directly to missions and benevolence. Makes sense to me: the Torah’s principle is being followed without a hint of “legalism.”
And perhaps another anecdote from my family’s “Levite” phase might lend further insight into the principle of tithing. For the longest time, my wife and I couldn’t figure out why we were having such a hard time scraping together enough money to tithe to our local church. After adding up our bills (and we lived quite frugally back then) there just wasn’t anything much left in the budget. Then it hit us: our ministry was sabotaging our ministry. When we first began adopting kids, I was earning about $35,000 a year—in an era when an adoption (even of a special-needs child) cost something in the neighborhood of eight or ten thousand dollars—never mind the cost of caring for them. But somehow, we adopted nine kids over a fifteen year period. Our adoption ministry was our tithe—several times over. Looking back on it now, it’s no wonder God got me “downsized” from my job nine or ten years into our crazy adoption life. He knew we were going to need a whole lot more money in the long run, so He provided a better income. Where God guides, God provides.
As I said, you can’t choose to be a latter-day “Levite.” It’s a matter of being called and equipped by God. But there’s no reason you can’t ask to be called. I suspect it’s usually a case of mutual attraction between Yahweh and a willing soul. We are reminded of Isaiah’s call into the prophetic office: “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’” (Isaiah 6:9) Isaiah was eager to answer the call. But we tend to forget that he was already experiencing a prophetic vision when this encounter took place: “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke….” Step one: recognize and honor Yahweh.
“So I said: ‘Woe is me, for I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. For my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of hosts.’” Step two: realize that we are utterly unqualified to serve God in our own strength. “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips. Your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.’” (Isaiah 6:1-7) Step three: submit to atonement and cleansing at the hand of God, for He alone who is perfectly worthy can make us worthy to serve Him. Only then will we be in a position to “perform the work of Yahweh.”
(First published 2019)