The Levites and the Work of God (Numbers 3-8)
Numbers 3 through 8 focuses on the work of the priests and Levites. (The Levites are the tribe whose men serve as priests—to a large degree the terms are interchangeable in Numbers.) They have the essential role of mediating God’s redemption to all the people (Num. 3:40-51). Like other workers, they are enumerated and organized into work units, although they are exempted from military service (Num. 4:2-3; 22-23). It may seem that their work is singled out as higher than the work of others, as it “concerns the most holy things” (Num. 4:4). It’s true that the uniquely detailed attention given to the tent of meeting and its utensils seems to elevate the priests’ role above those of the rest of the people. But the text actually portrays how intricately their work is related to the work of all Israelites. The Levites assist all people in bringing their life and work into line with God’s law and purposes. Moreover, the work performed by the Levites in the tent is quite similar to the work of most Israelites—breaking, moving and setting up camp, kindling fire, washing linens, butchering animals, and processing grain. The emphasis, then, is on the integration of the Levites’ work with everyone else’s. Numbers pays careful attention to the priests’ work of mediating God’s presence, not because religious work is the most important occupation, but because God is the center point of every occupation.