Bible Commentary: Numbers 18

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Numbers 18

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The Levites' Responsibility and Portion

The congregation now seems to have a healthy reverence and respect for the holy things of God. The people are to generally keep their distance from the tabernacle. But as we glimpsed in yesterday's reading, they are apparently very concerned that they could be annihilated for some random mistake or oversight when they were required to approach the tabernacle, such as when bringing offerings. And indeed, God reveals that if mistakes happen at the tabernacle, someone will be called to account. But God lets it be known that the responsibility for ensuring the proper care and appropriate service of the tabernacle belongs to the priests and other Levites, and that they will be held individually accountable if anything goes awry.

The thought is expressed this way: "You and your sons and your father's house with you [i.e., all the Levites] shall bear the iniquity related to the sanctuary, and you and your sons [i.e., just the priests] shall bear the iniquity associated with your priesthood" (verse 1). The word "iniquity" can throw us off a little. The word translated "iniquity" (Hebrew 'avon) means "perverseness" and derives from a root meaning "to be bent or crooked." The English word "wrong," which originally connoted being "wrung out of course," gives us the same word picture (E.W. Bullinger, Companion Bible, appendix 44, sec. 4.) While it can mean deliberate evil, it can also simply mean that something is incorrect or not the way it is supposed to be for whatever reason. And if some aspect is out of kilter in the service of the priesthood or tabernacle due to slackness, incompetence, neglect or any such thing on the part of an individual who is supposed to be keeping watch over this aspect, that individual will be held guilty.

In reading through these passages, we should desire to understand the import they hold for us now. Leadership today, as in ancient Israel, carries great responsibility and accountability. Every consideration must be given to lead in a righteous way, using mature wisdom in following all the laws and principles of God. Those in God's Church are told not to take too much upon themselves. Just as the Levitical priesthood was not for all Israelites, so being ordained as a minister of Jesus Christ or appointed by the ministry to teach is not for all spiritual Israelites, i.e., true Christians. The apostle James wrote to fellow Christians, "Let not many of you become teachers [which was anciently the responsibility of the priests and Levites], knowing that we [teachers, as James was] shall receive a stricter judgment" (James 3:1). Leaders today will "bear the iniquity" if they misuse their offices.

To Aaron and his sons, and their families, belonged all the tabernacle offerings for their sustenance. This required Aaron and his sons to live by faith. Having no worldly jobs or income, they depended entirely on God. Aaron's family had no inheritance in the land and looked to God to be their inheritance. "I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel," God said (verse 20). The Levites would only have small lots of land for the purpose of keeping a few animals to provide their daily needs. So to the Levites went the tithes that were received of all Israel as their inheritance (verse 21). The Levites, in turn, then tithed on their income to Aaron the priest (verses 26-28). And now, as the book of Hebrews explains, God has directed that tithes and offerings go to different recipients—those who represent the Melchizedek priesthood (see Hebrews 7).

Supplementary Reading: "Why Tithe in Today's World?," What Does the Bible Teach About Tithing, pp. 3-5.