Last Friday, I wrote about the grave sin David committed in taking his unauthorized census, a sin which rests in part on the way that the Israelites were each charged a certain sum of money in order to be counted among the people of God. Today, I wanted to share another census story. This one is a very clear statement about how God keeps the books.
In the opening chapters of the book of Number, Israel takes a census in the wilderness. They're already setting the stage for dividing up the Promised Land when they reach it, and in the meantime, this census will serve as a set of foundational numbers as they start to organize camp life around the newly-constructed Tent of Meeting.
The tribe of Levi is not counted.
Levi was the tribe set apart by the Lord for service to Him. These are the men who were responsible for the work of the Tent of Meeting - setting it up, tearing it down, toting this Tabernacle all around the wilderness. (I wrote a piece or two about Toting the Tabernacle a while back. Those key words should get you there.) They were not a part of the fighting men of Israel, so they were not counted in this initial census.
But by Numbers 3, the Levites are counted, as well. And after the tribe of Levi is counted, the nation of Israel is counted again. Here's why:
The Lord said to Moses, 'Register every firstborn male of the Israelites who is at least one month old, and make a list of their names. I am the Lord. Take the Levites for me to be substitutes for all firstborn Israelites. Also take the animals of the Levites to be substitutes for all firstborn animals of the Israelites.
What God is doing here goes back to the Passover event, the miraculous deliverance of His people out of Egypt. When God killed all the firstborn in Egypt, He set apart the firstborn of Israel as His own. There was an elaborate economical system by which Israel was required to buy back all of the firstborn, and here, we get our first glimpse of that - the Levites take their place.
Most of us would say that this idea of group for group is pretty fair. The Levites, as a group, represent the firstborn, as a group, and God is satisfied with this arrangement. One group for another group. God releases the firstborn back to Israel and takes the Levites as His own. Simple enough, right?
Except the math doesn't work out.
When all the counting is done, still in Numbers 3, there's a bit of a discrepancy. There are 22,000 Levites...and 22,273 firstborns. There are 273 individual firstborn males who don't have a counterpart in the tribe of Levi.
Again, this wouldn't bother most of us. It's metaphorical, right? Close enough? If God were into accounting by groups, there's certainly no cause for alarm.
But God doesn't account by group. He's a one-for-one kind of God.
So when it's discovered that 273 firstborn males have not been ransomed by the exchange of Levites, God requires two ounces of silver per person to buy them back. That's right - those without a Levite substitute must pay in silver in order to be ransomed to the Lord. This results in about 34 pounds of silver being collected to complete the ransom of the firstborn.
What does it matter? So God is exacting...so what? Oh, but this matters deeply. Because in several hundred years, God's going to make another ransom of His people.
We're often told in our churches, by our Sunday School teachers, by our preachers that Jesus died for us. Just for us. And if we were the only one, He still would have died for us. And I think sometimes, we're tempted to think of this in terms of groups: one holy sacrifice for one unholy people. One ransom for one collective people who needed to be ransomed. It's hard for us to grasp this one-for-one concept as an individual idea.
But reading Numbers, we have to. Because that's how God keeps His books. He's not content with the group exchange rate. He wants each and every single individual accounted for. Each and every one. By the one. So when we talk about the sacrifice of Jesus, we're not talking about some ransom for "all men." We're literally talking about a ransom for this man. For me. For you. For each and every one of us. Whole Jesus for whole me. That's the deal. Our God is a one-for-one kind of God. We don't get a portion of Him, and He doesn't get a portion of us. It's the whole deal, all or nothing.
And God has chosen all.
Were that not the case, we'd be weighing out measures of silver to balance the books. (Interesting, isn't it, that at the initial counting of Levites and firstborns, Israel collects about 34 pounds of silver and just before the atoning ransom of Jesus, which would one-for-one account for all of us, Judas receives about 30 pieces of silver back from the leading priests. It's God-math. Gotta love it.)