As to the purification of the Levites, it took place in three acts, a) First they were sprinkled with “water of sin”—water mixed with ashes of the red heifer—and purified. Then the hair of their body was sheared in token of their putting off the flesh that they might be new creature. And as the garment shares in the uncleanness of the body, they were also commanded to wash their clothes, b) These transactions are followed by the consecration sacrifices. Two bullocks were led to the altar. Then Moses brought the Levites before the Lord and the children of Israel put their hands upon them, for they were to represent the congregation in executing the service of the Lord. Thereupon by a symbolical act called waving and which in all likelihood consisted in this particular case in Aaron’s pointing to the Levites and then in his waving his hands to and fro in the direction of the burnt offering, the Levites were separated from among the children of Israel and consecrated to the Lord. Then followed the sacrificial act. The Levites laid their hands on the heads of the bullocks in token of transference of sin, and the victims were slain, the one for a sin-offering and the other for a burnt-offering. After that the Levites were set before Aaron and (his sons as a staff of servants and again waved unto the Lord. Thereupon they went in to do the service of the tabernacle.
The text clearly distinguishes between two purposes of the giving of the Levites as a gift to Aaron. They were given that they might do the service of the children of Israel in the tabernacle and that they might be a covering for the Israelites, that the latter die not when they come near to the sanctuary.
The term of service of the Levites is limited thus: From Twenty-five years of age to fifty they “shall go to war the warfare in the service of the tent of meeting” (Num. 8:24). By the service of the tabernacle is to be understood carrying water and wood for the altar and sacrificial service, carrying the tabernacle and the sacred vessels, preparing the sacrifices, taking away the ashes and other refuse from the altar. Upon attaining the age of fifty, the Levites were exempted from this service. The reason is obvious. At this age the tasks that belonged to this service commenced being too heavy. However, as freed from them, the Levites were not permitted to spend the rest of their days in idleness. With their brethren they continued “to keep the charge” of the tabernacle (Num. 8:26). The primary meaning of the Hebrew word translated charge is watch, guard. Its secondary meaning is instruction, command. The original word translated by charge in the phrase “to keep the charge” has this secondary meaning, so that to keep the charge was to keep the command, instruction given by the Lord to the Levites respecting the tabernacle. What this command was is clearly stated at chapter 3:8, “And they shall keep all the instruments of the tabernacle of the congregation. . . .” As the Levites were forbidden to come near the vessels of the sanctuary and the altar (of incense), that is, to come so near them that they would find themselves in the tabernacle proper, (18:3) this “keeping the instruments. . . .” consisted in their guarding the tabernacle and its contents, that is, in their seeing to it that no common Israelite entered the tabernacle proper. But it implied still more, did this “keeping the charge,” namely, remaining pitched, together with their younger brethren, “round about the tabernacle of the testimony, that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel” (1:53). The reason that the congregation dwelt safely in the vicinity of the tabernacle with the Levites (pitched round about it, is that, as was shown (8:19), the latter were to the congregation a covering in respect to its sins. Such then continued to be the tasks of the Levites from fifty years old and upward.
Even the common Levites, It is clear, were persons of no small importance. Their responsibilities were truly great; likewise their significance for the congregation.
The fourth recorded occurrence at Mount Sinai is that of the keeping of the Passover. The word of the Lord was to the effect that the children of Israel also keep the Passover at the appointed time, which time was in the fourteenth day of the first month of Israel’s calendar. It need not be supposed that, now that the day was at hand for the second keeping of the Pass- over, the children of Israel had to be driven by the command on account of their lack of real interest in the ordinances of God. To suppose this is to cast aspersion on Moses. For, he, too, had to be told. If he had clearly discerned the will of the Lord from the ordinance of the passover as first revealed to him on the eve of the departure from Egypt, he would not now have to be commanded to act. There is ground for saying that he, too, was thinking of the passover as a feast that was not again to be kept until he and his people had taken up their abode in Canaan. In charging the people on the eve of the departure respecting this feast he had said to them, “And it shall come to pass, when ye come in the land which the Lord shall give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service” (Ex. 12:25). Moses did not then know that, on account of unbelief, the promise was not to go into fulfillment for a space of forty years.
The command is to the effect that the passover be kept in the very day—“between the two evenings”— originally fixed by the Lord, according to all the rites of it, and according to all the ceremonies thereof.” Not one of these might be omitted. For to do so, would be to corrupt the speech of God uttered by the institution as a whole. For, like our sacraments, the passover was a sign. With the light of God’s Word shining upon it, it set forth the truth about Christ’s sacrifice and the redemption of the church, so that either to diminish or increase its ceremonies would have been identical to taking away from or adding to the revelation of God. The children of Israel, at this time, did not commit this sin. They kept the passover, “according to all that the Lord commanded Moses. . . .” So are they (praised for their obedience.
There were men who could not keep the passover in the appointed day on account of their being defiled by the ‘dead body of a man. They may have been Midhael and Elzaphan, nephews of Moses. For these two had buried, within a week of this passover, their cousins, Nadab and Abihu, who, on account of their having offered strange fire before the Lord, had been burned by fire issuing from the holiest place of the sanctuary.
Whoever these men may halve been, they found themselves in a grave predicament. For the failure to keep the passover feast was an offense punishable by death. On the other hand, one defiled by the dead and approaching this sacred feast before the days of his purification had passed, had likewise to be put to death (Num. 19:13). What were these men then to do? They appeal their case to Moses. They say to him, “Why are we withheld, so that we may not offer an offering to the Lord in his appointed season in the midst of the children of Israel?” The meaning of their Query evidently is, “Must our being defiled by the dead stand in the way of our keeping the passover in the appointed day?” Judging from their manner of speech, they asked for the suspension of the law that bore on their case. Moses laid their case before the Lord. And it is well that he did so. For the difficulty could be removed only through the amplification of one or the other of the ordinances implicated. So, whereas these ordinances were the Lord’s and not Moses’, if there was any amplifying to be done, the Lord only could do it. So Moses said to these men, “Stand still, and I will hear what the Lord will command concerning you”. The situation was relieved through the Lord’s commanding the defiled one and every one of the Israelites and of their posterity, unclean by reason of a dead body or in a journey afar off,” to keep the passover in the fourteenth day of the second month, thus precisely one month later. Of course, if the journey was for pleasure and was thus not necessary, or if, though necessary, it could have been postponed, or if it was known that the time was too short, a man’s being on a journey afar off, would render him culpable. Only then did he go out blameless, if, through no fault of his own, the journey had occupied more time than he had calculated. Because, if nothing more was said, the carnally minded would add to the two ground or, against better knowledge, would conclude that it mattered little whether or no the passover was kept in the day originally fixed, the Lord was careful to add that “the man that is clean, and is not in a journey, and forbeareth to keep the passover, even the same soul shall be cut off from among his people; because he brought not the offering of the Lord in his appointed season, that man shall bear his sin” (9:13). Further, if the passover was postponed, it had still to be kept according to all its ordinances and ceremonies (9:11, 12). So, too, if kept by the stranger that sojourned among the children of Israel (9:14). By the stranger is to be understood a non-Israelite, thus a pagan, whom the Lord had transported out of the darkness of heathendom into the light of His kingdom.
Another occurrence that took place shortly before the departure from Sinai was that of the purifying of the camp. Moses was instructed to command the children of Israel “that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead” (5:2). The laws for lepers appear already in Lev. 11-15. They had to be excluded from the camp permanently; and those defiled by the dead for a period of seven days. The period of exclusion for persons momentarily unclean was indefinite, according to the continuance of the malady. The reason of the exclusion of these persons was not sanitary but religious, that is, it was done not in the first place to safeguard the health of the people of Israel but to impress upon their minds that, being the peculiar possession of the Holy One, they were to be holy, undefiled, separated from the morally defiled and consecrated in love to God. The physical defilement resulting from bodily disease was the symbol of the moral pollution of sin. And there is connection. In general physical disease is the fruit and evidence of sin.
As to the resting and journeying of the children of Israel, at the commandment of the Lord they rested in the tents, and at His commandment they journeyed (9:23). The Lord made known his will in respect to their resting and journeying through the action of the cloud that covered the tabernacle.
The sacred narrator gives a remarkably lengthy and detailed description of the behavior of the cloud. And what the narrator wishes and also does establish through this description is that in their resting and marching the children of Israel were controlled, directed, solely by the command (original, mouth) of the Lord, that is, by His word. The narrator sets out with the assertion that on the day the tabernacle was reared up the cloud covered the tabernacle. The statement reads, “and at even there was upon the tabernacle as the appearance of fire until the morning. So it was continually: the cloud covered it (her); and the appearance of fire by night.” So read the original text. A distinction is here made between the cloud and that which had “the appearance of fire.” At Ex. 13:21 and 40:38 the distinction is even sharper, “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud. . . . and by night in a pillar of fire.” “For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night.” These statements could be taken to mean that during the day the host was led by a pillar of cloud as unassociated with fire, and that at even there appeared the pillar of fire in the room of the cloud. But these statements must be interpreted in the light of Isaiah 4:5, “And the Lord will create upon every dwelling place of Mount Zion. . . .a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night. . . .” The text in the original reads, “. . . . a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night.” Now the smoke and the cloud were one and the same. This is plain from the language employed by Moses in the 9th chapter of the book of Numbers, “And so it was when the cloud abode from even until the morning. . . .whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed” (9:21). If what abode from men unto the morning was the cloud, then it follows that the cloud and the smoke were one, so that the phenomenon was a cloud which enclosed fire. Thus that cloud was visible also during the night on account of its being filled with the radiance of its fiery core. Now Jehovah was in this cloud, “The Lord went before them by day in the cloud. . . .” Thus it formed, did this cloud, the earthy appearance of Christ during the ages of the Old Testament dispensation. As illuminated by the fire that flamed within it, it was the type of His human nature radiant with the glory of His Father, the Triune God.
But the tabernacle, too, was the type of Christ, and of His body the church. Therefore the cloud, in which was Jehovah, rested, that is, abided upon it. The tabernacle and the cloud were inseparable. What a remarkable type was this structure, of the indwelling of the Triune Jehovah in Christ and of Christ in His body, the church.
The cloud then, was visible also by night, and therefore the Lord as in it, could lead, command, His people by night as well as by day. Having made this plain, the sacred narrator goes on to tell how that the Lord did actually take full and complete command of His army,—the army of God—day and night. “When the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then, after that the children of Israel journeyed: and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel pitched their tents.” As long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they rested in their tents.” And when the cloud tarried long upon the tabernacle many days, than the children of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and journeyed not. And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle. . . . they abode in their tents. . . .” “And so it was, when the cloud abode from even unto the morning, that the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they journeyed: whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed. Or whether it was two days or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, remaining thereon, the children of Israel abode in their tents, and journeyed not: but when it was taken up they journeyed” (9:15-22).
The whole substance of this report is that when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the children of Israel journeyed; and that as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle, they rested in their tents. The narrative here is actually repetitious. It shows that the narrator would have it thoroughly understood that this army was under the sole command of God.
In the above narrative the statement occurs more than once, “At the commandment of the Lord (the text in the original reads by the mouth of the Lord) the children of Israel journeyed. It may be asked whether the expression by the mouth of the Lord denotes the revelation of His will solely through the movement of the cloud. The text does not make this plain. It is certain that the Lord must also have spoken, as the symbol has meaning for man only when explained by the word. It is thus not unlikely that the departure took place also according to the word of the Lord to Moses and that what the Lord said to Moses was illustrated and confirmed by His action with the cloud. If so, no one could with fairness accuse Moses of coming with a command that had originated with him. The view that God did so speak in no wise militates against the notice that the children of Israel journeyed when the cloud was taken up. The word of the Lord to Moses was acted upon when the cloud was taken up and not before. Some interpreters deny that Israel was actually and literally led by the pillar of cloud. This is held to be impossible on account of the circumstance that when the children of Israel began their march the banner of Judah took position in the van and joined to Judah were Issachar and Zebulon and that not until after these did the Levites come with the tabernacle. Thus the cloud, it is said, could not be the guiding head of the expedition. It must certainly be maintained however, that the expedition was led by the cloud. This is stated in language that is too plain, “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud. . . .” (Ex. 13:21). The cloud was taken up from the tabernacle and made to take the lead.
With Moses was also Hobab, the son of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law (Num. 10:29). Moses beseeches Hobab to come with (him and the children of Israel to Canaan. The best explanation of Hobab’s presence in the camp at this time is that he had been left behind by Jethro, his father, who, (having heard of all that God had done for His people Israel, had come to Moses in the wilderness and after a few days had returned again to his home. Having arrived with his father in the camp shortly after the arrival of the people of Israel at Sinai, Hobab had now been absent from his home and people for nearly two years. He decided therefore to return to his own place. But Moses strongly advises him not to leave. He urges him to attach himself permanently to God’s people. He says to Hobab, “We are journeying to the place of which the Lord hath said, I will give to you; come with us, and we will do thee good: for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel.” But Hobab was determined. Says he to Moses, “I will not go, but I will depart to my own land and kindred.” But Moses is persistent, “Leave us not I pray thee,” is his reply. It may be asked why Moses so strongly desired that Hobab should remain. According to the prevalent view, his reason was that Hobab could be of great service to him and the children of Israel as a guide in the wilderness. The cloud led the march, but, so it is said, it was very well to have a man that knew all about the oases and the wells, the situation of which was known only to the desert-born tribes, and who could teach the helpless slaves from Goshen the secrets of camp-life.
This view has a firm foundation not in the original text but in the English version which reads, “For as much as thou knowest how we are to encamp5 in the wilderness, and that thou mayest be to us instead of eyes” (10:30). The reasoning of Moses then is this, “Do not forsake us, but abide with us in order that thou mayest be of service to us as a guide in this wilderness.” Such was indeed the reasoning of Moses, if the text in the original reads as it does in the translation. Rut the text in the original reads thus, “For as much as thou has known or knewest our encamping in the wilderness and wert to us instead of eyes. . . .” Thus the reasoning of Moses may also have been this, “Inasmuch as thou, Hobab, knewest our encamping, that is, the region where we have been encamped for the past two years now, and inasmuch as thou did shew thyself to be our friend by placing constantly all thy knowledge of this wilderness at our disposal, do not forsake us now; but come with us to Canaan and enjoy with us the blessing of our rest.” Thus the reason why Moses besought Hobab not to forsake him is not that he in the first place wanted his services but that he wanted him to persevere to the end in order that he might enter with God’s people into the rest of Canaan.
Rut the language of Moses may have also this meaning, “Forasmuch as thou knewest our encamping, that is, wert thoroughly acquainted with the region where we these two years have been pitching our tents, and inasmuch as thou hast rendered us invaluable service by thy placing all thy knowledge of this region at our disposal, do not now forsake us, I pray. Abide with us. March with us to Canaan and continue being of use to us as in the past. We surely need thee still. For t/he regions through which we are still to pass are as little known to us as the district which we have just abandoned. If thou consentest, we will do thee good, when we come to the promised land of our abode.” This presentation agrees with the first of the two presented above. So there are really only two interpretations between which we must choose. The one according to which Moses besought Hobab to attach himself to the people of Israel permanently and so to continue functioning as their eyes in the unknown regions through which they were still to pass, and according to which Moses promises to do Hobab good in his effort to induce him to yield is weighed down by the following objections. It would be strange if Moses with Jehovah as leader of his expedition would feel himself so utterly dependent upon a man.
Then it may be asked whether it was like Moses to try and induce a man to march with him and the people of Israel simply because the man could be of further use to him. On the other hand, Moses was certainly not despising the service that Hobab had rendered him and was still able to render him as guide. So the truth of this matter we must then take to be this: Hobab was a truly good man, one who loved Jehovah and His people Israel. His tarrying with Moses during all the time that the people of Israel was encamped before Sinai, his finally consenting to go with Israel to Canaan ,must be taken as evidence of this. Moses also loved Hobab and desired therefore to promote his true well-being. This being his desire, he urged Hobab to join himself to God’s people and to march with them to Canaan that he, too, might enjoy the blessing of their rest. This must be held to have been Moses’ principal reason for pressing Hobab to change his position. And then it need not be denied that Moses also had before his mind the service that Hobab would still be rendering. Rut this entered in as a secondary consideration.
It is not stated in the narrative of the book of Numbers that Hobab, agreed to do as Moses had asked. This is told us in the book of Judges. Here we find evidence of the presence of Hobab’s descendants as incorporated among the people of Israel. Jael, who struck the tent-peg through the temples of the sleeping Sisera, was one of these descendants, for she is called the wife of Heber the Kenite.