40 And the LORD said to Moses, “List all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking the number of their names. 41 And you shall take the Levites for me—I am the LORD—instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the people of Israel.” 42 So Moses listed all the firstborn among the people of Israel, as the LORD commanded him. 43 And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names, from a month old and upward as listed were 22,273. 44 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle. The Levites shall be mine: I am the LORD. 46 And as the redemption price for the 273 of the firstborn of the people of Israel, over and above the number of the male Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over.” 49 So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those redeemed by the Levites. 50 From the firstborn of the people of Israel he took the money, 1,365 shekels, by the shekel of the sanctuary. 51 And Moses gave the redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the LORD, as the LORD commanded Moses. – Numbers 3:40-51

The Book of Numbers is one that is saturated with deep theology, instruction and application for the Christian today. However, possibly because of its lackluster title, troublesome combinations of law and narrative, and its numerous lists of names and numbers the book itself is one that is often overlooked. If we take the time to study this book we will come away with robust teachings on God’s people, the nature of man, hamartiology (the study of sin), the nature of God and Christology. This should be of no surprise to us – with the Hebrew name for this book being “In the Wilderness,” it should take no time at all for the Christian today to relate in many ways to the Israelites in the wilderness. Like the Israelites, we too are living in an “already, but not yet” scenario. We have been brought out of our slavery to sin through Christ, and are awaiting the fulfillment of a promise on his return. We are a people that has been set aside, redeemed and spoken for in Christ, called out of one reality (the realm of flesh and sin) and placed into another (the realm of Spirit and life).

Indeed, in the Book of Numbers we find a thorough and robust shadow of the person and work of Christ. There may be no clearer picture of this than in the Levitical substitution of Israel’s firstborn in Numbers 3:40-51. Through a detailed study of this particular passage, we will see not only how this passage fits in with the surrounding narrative of Numbers but also how the Levitical Priests are a shadow of the atonement sinners are to find in the work of Christ.

A Brief Background

To get an accurate background on the Numbers narrative, we must first remove ourselves from this particular text and return to the Israelites entrance into the wilderness in the book of Exodus. Having been given the task of leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, Moses knows he cannot accomplish this task without the presence of God guiding and protecting the people of Israel. In Exodus 33:16 Moses asks,

For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” [1]

God graciously granted Moses’ request, and for the duration of the wilderness narrative we find God leading and dwelling among his people. But all is not well, for our God is a holy God who cannot dwell in the presence of sin or disobedience. So while God will guide and protect his people throughout the forty years in the wilderness as their greatest hope, he is also their greatest threat. To provide a buffer for his people and to prevent his wrath from destroying them, God sets up a very specific system for the delineation of tasks for his people.

It is in the first census that we begin to see a specific group of people set aside for a particular task: the Levites (Num. 1:47-54). The Levites are set aside to take care of the tabernacle – the dwelling place of God. This passage is where the purpose of the Levitical Priesthood begins to take shape:

But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel.[2]

A Holy and Just God demands that he be approached in a very particular manner; only those who have been cleansed and purposed for approaching the tabernacle may do so. Were God to dwell amongst his people without any instruction or guard and someone approached the tabernacle without being cleansed, they would instantly be struck dead. In the act of providing the Levitical priesthood as a buffer for the Israelites, we see God’s goodness and grace to his people.

The third chapter of Numbers begins the instruction for the Levites. Broken up by the various sons of Levi, these clans of Levi are given specific instruction as to their placement around the tabernacle and their particular tasks in the assembly and care of the tabernacle. It is in the closing verses of Chapter 3 that we come to the role of the Levites in their provision of atonement of the people of Israel.

Particular Atonement for the People of Israel

The Book of Exodus is key to understanding the book of Numbers. It would be a mistake for any reader to remove any book of the Pentateuch from the surrounding narratives. Such is the case with Numbers 3:40-51. To properly understand what is being said in these verses, we must remember the tragic and final plague that took place before the Exodus: the death of the firstborn of the people of Egypt (Exodus 12:29-32). It is in this passage we not only see the death of the firstborn of Egypt, but also the redemption of the people of Israel. The firstborn of Israel were a symbol and representative of the entirety of Israel. When God passed over the firstborn of Israel, he consecrated them as his own (Exodus 13:1).

Such is the foundation for our understanding of Numbers 3:40-51. Immediately as our passage begins, the LORD makes his plans known to Moses in regards to the Levites,

 “List all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking the number of their names. 41 And you shall take the Levites for me—I am the Lord—instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the people of Israel.”[3]

The Levites are to replace the firstborn sons of Israel. As the firstborn previously bore the weight of the people, the Levites will now take their place. “The Levites shall be mine: I am the LORD” (Number 3:45b). Stopping at this point in the passage, a question should come to mind in regards to what has been read so far: how is this substitution to take place, is it corporate or individual? It is good news to us that God’s Word is clear in this area, and thus he has something to teach us through the Levitical substitution. Previously the Levites had been numbered at a total of 22,000 males. In contrast, the firstborn Israelites are numbered at 22,273 (Numbers 3:43). What God reveals to us next is striking. At this moment in time, God does not simply look at these two numbers and determine they are “close enough,” but rather it is his decree that all of the firstborn of Israel must be individually spoken for:

And as the redemption price for the 273 of the firstborn of the people of Israel, over and above the number of the male Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over.”[4]

Each individual firstborn of Israel was spoken for in the Levitical substitution. Close is not enough in God’s service. This substitution is crucial for us to understand in terms of the role of the Levites and the nature of God’s salvific plans for his people. As God’s chosen substitute they are substituted on an individual basis. Indeed, even the ones who could not be spoken for by an individual had to be spoken for in payment.

God’s Particular Atonement is Necessary for the People of Israel

The people of God are an idolatrous people. As the Bible speaks of God’s people as his bride, it is no wonder then that it speaks of our sin as adultery and whoring. Our default nature is not to approach God the way he says to approach him, but we want to approach God on our own terms. As Pastor, Professor and Scholar Iain Duguid says,

The problem with living sacrifices is that they have a habit of crawling off the altar.[5]

The people of God need mediation, someone to stand in our place and make our presence right before God. This is especially evident in the people of Israel, where time and time again throughout their wilderness journey either Moses or the Levitical priesthood needed to make atonement for the people. A clear example of this is in Numbers 25, when the people of Israel are not only metaphorically but literally whoring themselves with the daughters of Moab. During this time, the Israelites began to bow down and worship Baal, the god of the Moabites. Such an act can only result in the kindling of the great and just anger of the LORD. Such sin is taken seriously in the eyes of the LORD (Num. 5:11-31) and the only result for the people of Israel is death. In order to stop the fury of the LORD against Israel, it took the priestly act of Phinehas the son of Eleazar to put a stop to the sin and thus the fury of the LORD against his people (Num. 25:7-9). Scholar Gordon Wenham articulates this so clearly:

The priest, in his life and acts, must personify, even incarnate, the character of God. This is precisely what Phinehas did: he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. In other words, because Phinehas executed the sinner, expressing so clearly and visibly God’s own anger through his deed, that anger was turned away. He made atonement for the people.[6]

In the plan of God’s redemption, there are two aspects that must take place for redemption and salvation to take place. The first is that a sacrifice must be made – something has to die. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22b). The second is that someone has to pay the price of obedience that Israel owes to God. While previously the firstborn sons of Israel bore the responsibility of living obediently and devoted to God, the Levites now take their place. The firstborn sons could never have fulfilled this role because they were never intended to. In God’s sovereignty he chose the Levitical priesthood before the foundations of the world that they might bear the responsibility for the people. In this salvific act for the atonement of Israel, God not only reveals his plans to us but also adds another pointer to the Messianic hope that is ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Conclusions

The Book of Numbers is filled with profound insights and relevant teaching for the life of the Christian today. While often overlooked, it contains rich insights into the character of God and his work with his people. There is perhaps no passage in this book filled with richer implication to the Numbers narrative and the people of God today than the narrative in Number 3:40-51. I make this claim on a number of grounds.

The first is that we as readers today see the severity of our sin in the Levitical substitution of the firstborn of Israel. Would sin not have to have serious implications if there not only needed to be a special group of people set aside with the specific task of atonement, but also that the weight of Israel’s disobedience had to be carried on the backs of individual Levites? Sin does not moderately mar us in the sight of God such that we can still approach him on our own terms; sin radically corrupts us and defiles every part of our being. The consequence of sin carries significant consequences, and we see that in the need of setting aside the Levitical priesthood for necessary particular atonement for the firstborn of Israel.

Secondly, we see the glory of God displayed in his salvific methods of providing redemption for his people. God does not know us corporately or on a general sense, but he knows us by name. He knows his people individually, before the foundations of the world he knew us and predestined us to be adopted as sons and daughters (Eph 1:4-5). Unlike other pagan religions that say man must work to be able to only know God in a general sense, YHWH knows his people in a very specific and intimate sense.

Third, the particular substitution for the firstborn of Israel is a clear and vivid pointer to the person and work of Jesus Christ our Savior and King. As the book of Hebrews tells us, Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, and yet as a greater priest than Melchizedek he is the guarantor of a better covenant (Hebrews 7:22). Having Melchizedek already known as a greater priest than the priesthood of Aaron (Hebrews 7:4-10) – and Jesus is a greater priest than Melchizedek – how much greater then is the priesthood of Jesus in comparison to that of the Levites? Indeed, if the Levites substituted for the firstborn of Israel on a one to one basis, how much greater is our High Priest who substitutes for his people on a one to many basis (Hebrews 7:27)?

Fourth, in the setting aside of the Levites for particular substitution we see the necessity of God’s people to be obedient. The Levitical priesthood was set aside for a life of obedience, and they were to be exemplary in their holiness and obedience (Leviticus 21). Such is the reality for the Christian today; we are chosen and set aside as a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). Just as the Levites needed to be exemplary in their holiness as priests, so too should the Christian be devoted to a life of holiness and obedience in all walks of life. To the one who is given much, much is to be expected.

Finally, in the particular substitution of the Levitical priesthood we see the assurance of our salvation. Just as the Levites were able to provide assurance to all of Israel that they were interceding and making sacrifices on behalf of the people, we too can find our assurance in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Duguid provides a great exposition of this when he says:

Nor has Christ simply substituted for humanity as a mass, making it possible for some undefined number of human beings potentially to be saved. Like the Levites, who substituted for the firstborn of Israel on a one for one basis, redeeming each particularly, so that those who remained over had to be purchased one by one, so also Christ’s perfect life and death atoned particularly for all of his elect. He did not simply write a blank check that was sufficient for humanity. On the cross he wrote a check that specifically provided the payment for each and every one of his elect people, not just making their salvation potentially possible but actually purchasing them. He therefore now owns each one of us, just as God purchased the Levites, obliging us to live lives that are wholly devoted to him.[7]

God’s salvation is particular, it is purposeful, and it is payment for the sinner. God had a redemptive plan for his people long before the world was formed, and we see that clearly in Numbers 3:40-51. God knew that in order to dwell amongst his people, sacrifice had to be made and a buffer had to be in place. Time and time again throughout Israel’s story in the Old Testament we see the necessary intercession of the priesthood on behalf of the people. Praise be to Christ that this was not a permanent reality, but was merely a shadow of the reality to come in him.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ex 33:15–16.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Nu 1:53.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Nu 3:40–41.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Nu 3:46–48.

[5] Iain M. Duguid, R. Kent Hughes, and general editor, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 104.

[6] Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: an Introduction and Commentary (Nottingham, England.: IVP Academic, 2008), 211.

[7] Iain M. Duguid, R. Kent Hughes, and general editor, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 55-56.



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