The Holy Spirit illuminated verses 44-46 to us in Numbers chapter 3. Let’s look at those three verses.
3:44 (NIV) The Lord also said to Moses,
3:45 (NIV) “Take the Levites in place of all the firstborn of Israel, and the livestock of the Levites in place of their livestock. The Levites are to be mine. I am the Lord.
3:46 (NIV) To redeem the 273 firstborn Israelites who exceed the number of the Levites,
One of the questions raised at the meeting was, “Why were the firstborn male Levites who were a month old or more to replace all the firstborn Israelite males?” According to this chapter’s record, the total number of Levites, including every male a month old or more, was 22,000, while the total number of firstborn Israelite males was 22,273. One male Levite (a month old or more) redeems one firstborn Israelite male, which accounts for 22,000 people. But they had to spend money to redeem the additional 273 people who exceeded the number of Levites. The price of each person was 5 shekels. Does the number 273 have any special significance?
We know that the numbers in the Bible aren’t meaningless. Many numbers have meaning behind them. Unfortunately, we tend to be limited by our lack of understanding of the Hebrew language and our shallow knowledge of the Bible, which can hinder our ability to discern the meaning of Biblical numbers. While reading these scriptures, I was inspired by the Spirit to share and give some practical help for our Christian walk today.
To fully comprehend this story, we need to understand why the Levites were used to replace the firstborn Israelites.
In Exodus, the last plague sent by Jehovah in Egypt was the killing of the firstborn of all Egyptians. The Jews were obedient and ate the Passover lamb and smeared blood on the lintels, so the angel of death passed over the Israelites. In other words, because of the lamb’s shed blood, the Israelites were forgiven. Almost all Christians acknowledge that this picture is a representation of New Testament believers. Through the redemption by the blood of Jesus Christ, those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ can experience what the Israelites experienced. We die with Him in Christ, and we will also be raised to life as He was. This is general knowledge for Christians; however, we won’t focus on that topic here.
The focus of our discussion is why did the Book of Numbers (the book right after Exodus) record that Jehovah let Moses substitute all the firstborn Israelite males with the Levite males who were a month old or more? Many of us know that the experience recorded in Exodus is like a picture. It represents Christians transferring from Satan’s kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the light of God’s beloved Son. The book of Numbers tells the story of Israelites wandering in the wilderness, and the book of Joshua tells the story of Israel entering the Promised Land.
Egypt, the wilderness, and the Promised Land represent three stages of our Christian spiritual growth. Egypt represents the world. So, leaving Egypt represents we can break away from the world’s power. The wilderness represents our soul. Thus, the wilderness experience is to experience the change and salvation of our souls. The Promised Land represents our spirit. The experience of entering the Promised Land represents a spiritual stage wherein we can defeat our enemy.
It’s like the journey of the Israelites – they left Egypt, experienced the wilderness, and in the end, reached the Promised Land. Our Christian experience should be salvation in the spirit, transformation in the soul, and redemption of the body. This is the salvation of our spirit, soul, and body. It’s a complete salvation.
First, the firstborn sons of the Israelites in Egypt were covered by the blood in order to survive. The firstborn Israelite males born in the wilderness also needed this redemption. Second, this is not just a simple repetition, but an act of deeper spiritual significance.
There is a subtle point here that I didn’t notice before when I read the Bible. The firstborn Israelite males had 273 more males than the male Levites, who were a month old or more. Does this mean that 273 people had no way of using the Levites to redeem their firstborn sons? What kind of family did these 273 people have? There are no more male Levites older than one month left, leaving them no choice but to pay money to redeem their firstborn sons.
Let me share my own experience to explain this. Chinese people place great emphasis on Guanxi, which means relationships or connections. In Chinese society, one person may not get anything done without Guanxi. But another person with Guanxi can do it. In China, people who have a lot of friends and who spend more time socializing will get things done easier and more conveniently.
When college students are looking for good jobs after graduation, in addition to having an excellent education, they need Guanxi. I came from a rural family in China and didn’t have a lot of social connections, so I had no Guanxi. After graduating from college, some of my classmates stayed and worked in Beijing through Guanxi. I knew that since I had no Guanxi and wasn’t the best student, that my chance of finding a job in Beijing was minimal. I decided to go to graduate school in Beijing but didn’t pass the entrance exam. Most of the other students had already found jobs, but I still didn’t have one and figured there was no chance of me getting one in Beijing.
Although I didn’t know the Lord at that time, He was in the process of leading me to experience “Egypt.” God’s will was for me to come to the United States to study, come into contact with the gospel, and accept the Lord in this process. But at that time, I didn’t know that this was God’s plan for me. When I was studying at college, God inspired me to prepare to study abroad, but I let go of the opportunity. I told myself that I was going to graduate school in China. If I passed the entrance exam, I would not study abroad. If I didn’t, I would consider studying abroad. I worked very hard to prepare for the postgraduate exam in China. My total score was very high, but when I took the politics exam, I had a headache, and I ended up failing. I was only 2 points away from passing this subject. I never have headaches, and I was good at this subject. Years later, after I was saved, I realized that God had intervened. He wanted me to study in the United States, but I didn’t know at that time.
I didn’t find a job, nor did I get into graduate school. Emotionally, I sank into a very dark and painful place. Then something very unexpected happened. A department of my university was planning on hiring a student who had been an intern in this department for a long time. Unfortunately, they found out that his province had just sent him there to be trained and then return home to work. The concept is a little confusing. But this is like the J-1 visa requirements in the US. J-1 visa holders in the US must return to his or her country of origin to work for two years or more. Because of this, one of my teachers recommended me because I didn’t have a job at that time. The head of the department interviewed me and agreed to accept me, so I stayed in Beijing and worked at the university.
It may be difficult for people who don’t understand China to understand what I’m saying. This is most likely true for Americans because the United States is based more on equality, and situations like this more than likely don’t exist. This doesn’t mean that Guanxi isn’t needed or doesn’t work in the United States. For example, the President’s son may be financially independent and not need to rely on his father for money; however, as the President’s son, he would have a lot more Guanxi than an ordinary citizen just because of his connections.
I don’t have any Guanxi. I don’t have any relatives in Beijing. I come from a rural area, and my family doesn’t have money to bribe people. I’m not exceptionally smart either, so it was tough to stay and find a good job in Beijing. Once I was sure I was staying in school, I met another teacher who didn’t like me. But I knew that one of my classmates had a Guanxi with her. She tried her best to help him stay in another department of the school. I met her one day, and she asked me if I had a job yet. I said that I might work at the school. Immediately, she said scornfully, “That’s impossible. Stop dreaming.” “I put a lot of effort into helping your classmate get a job in school, and I’m not even sure if he can get one so you should stop dreaming.”
From this story, you can see the importance of Guanxi in China. Without Guanxi, it’s difficult to get things done. Thinking back, this was God’s sovereign arrangement allowing me to stay in Beijing and continue to prepare to study abroad. He made a way for me to continue my education in the United States, come to know the Lord and get trained. Looking at it from the outside, I have no Guanxi. But from a spiritual perspective, I have a “Guanxi ” with God who created the universe and is the ruler of all things. The God of the universe ordained me to be saved and to come to America, so my Guanxi is huge. I was able to stay in Beijing because of my Guanxi with God. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, as I look back at my life and experiences, it now makes sense. God is omniscient. Not a sparrow will fall to the ground outside of His care (NIV, Matthew 29:19), so I can say that it’s because of my “Guanxi” with God that I stayed in Beijing. God also used many people to help me. There were other teachers who didn’t think I was an exceptional student and discouraged me from working at the college. They strongly recommended another student to work there. They belittled me and even argued with the teacher who hired me. In the end, the teacher who hired me was enraged, saying she wanted no one else but me. Many others applied for the job later, hoping to take this job position, but none of them succeeded. I remember another classmate in my class also expected to get this position, and he also failed. He was so angry about it that he smashed a table in the dormitory.
Similarly, the story in the Bible is also like that. God also looks at “Guanxi” or “relationship” with his people. He actually desires an intimate relationship with them. Your “Guanxi” with God is important. Though God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:11), it doesn’t mean that we all have the same intimacy with God. For example, Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, complained, saying, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Doesn’t He speak through us also?” And Jehovah heard what they said and got angry, saying that he spoke to the prophets through dreams or visions, but he would talk to Moses face to face (NIV, Exodus 33:11). The Guanxi between Moses and God was different from the Guanxi between Miriam and God. This doesn’t mean God despised Aaron or Miriam, but it states the need for us to develop an intimate relationship with God like Moses.
So what was God’s purpose for the Levites to replace the firstborn Israelite males? It was to build a close relationship with people, but this relationship would be established through the Levites (including the priests). The Levites would be building this relationship. If an Israelite approached the Levites often to offer sacrifices, he would establish a good relationship with the Levites as well as with the Lord. When the time came to ransom, why wasn’t he able to find a Levite to redeem his firstborn son?
Many of the Levites at this time were only about a month old, but if the parents of these children had a good relationship or Guanxi with the Israelites, why couldn’t they find a Levite to replace their firstborn sons? I would imagine that if a person regularly offered sacrifices to God through the Levites, the Levites would fight to become a ransom for them.
The Bible does not record how Moses determined which Israelites had no Levites to redeem them. It just says that there were 273 Israelites who had no Levites to redeem them, and they had to pay for the redemption. What I mentioned above is only a guess, and may not be correct. Regardless of this, there were more firstborn Israelite males than there were Levite males who were one year old or more. Where there is competition, there will be choices. With choices, Guanxi becomes very important.
Only a Levite male who was one month old could redeem one firstborn Israelite male, so there may have been a degree of competition. Any competition involves choices, and this is where Guanxi becomes essential.
In the Old Testament, the Levites (and some as priests) were the mediators between God and mankind. This is a type or symbol which represents Jesus Christ, who is the only mediator between God and mankind in the New Testament (NIV, 1 Timothy 2:5). To become a Christian, we come to God the Father through His son Jesus Christ our priest and mediator, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (NIV, Ephesians 2:18). Jesus Christ develops our Guanxi with God. Without Him, we have no relationship or Guanxi with God. Even though God is our creator, we still have to come to Him through Jesus.
Christians should always draw near to Christ and experience His life-giving change in our souls. Let’s continually be transformed into the image of the Son of God, with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (NIV, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18), just like the Israelites continuously came near the priests and Levites.
Perhaps the 273 Israelite families were negligent and didn’t come near to the priests often enough. Maybe that’s why they have to pay the price by giving redemption money. “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (NIV, Galatians 6:7-8).
Perhaps the parents of these 273 Jews neglected to come near to the priests, or they didn’t worship and offer sacrifices every year according to Jehovah’s rules, so, in the end, no Levites could ransom them. Perhaps they were at the bottom of the Levite’s list of favorites and didn’t get chosen in the shortage. God is merciful and still gives them a chance by allowing them to pay redemption money to make things right.
One of the biggest problems in the church today is Christians who are saved but live in the world like those who aren’t saved. They lack a holy life and a close relationship with God. This is wrong. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction (NIV, Galatians 6:8). We must “make the most of every opportunity because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (NIV, Ephesians 5:16-20)
It’s time to put neglectfulness behind and press into the transforming power of God because one day, we will face God’s judgment. Complacency in the church is a big problem, especially in an affluent country like the United States. Many Christians aren’t in the habit of developing a close relationship with God. We need to realize that if we are diligently praying for our loved ones and friends, they will get saved. If every Christian in the United States were to take this seriously and appeal to God daily, revival would come.
And don’t assume that God’s discipline isonlyin thefuture; rather, He also disciplines us now. Remember the story of the Israelites in the Book of Judges? When the Israelites rebelled against God, God put them into the hands of their enemies. It’s the same today whether it is the difficulties faced by the United States as a country, or some of the problems we face in our personal lives, which could be the Holy Spirit’s discipline. ‘ Is it possible that God has allowed us to be put into the hands of our enemies as He did to the Israelites in the Book of Judges?
The Israelites called on God for help in the book of Judges, and He raised judges to help and save them. In the same manner, when we call on God through His son Jesus for help and focus on building a closer relationship or Guanxi with Him, God will save us from our enemies’ oppression.
This isn’t just a historical story, nor does it only apply to the Israelites. We experience the same thing today. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (NIV, Hebrews 13:8). Let’s make the most of every opportunity we have to develop Guanxi with Him so that when we meet Him, he won’t tell us, “I never knew you” as we try to convince him that we prophesied and cast out demons in His name (Matthew 7:22). Jesus is our high priest and mediator between God and man. The Levites in this chapter represent or are a type of Christ. Developing an intimate relationship with Jesus is the most important thing we can do in our lives to experience the transformation of our soul and the redemption of our body. As we lay our lives down and allow Jesus to live through us daily, we become transformed and our lives redeemed.
Jesus died for us, and the Levites’ redemption of the firstborn is a perfect picture of Jesus’ substitutional death for us.
I believe that the redemption of the firstborn Israelite males by the Levite males who are one month old is not a simple repetition of what God did in Egypt for the first generation. God generally doesn’t repeat Himself unless there is a new meaning to it. I believe the new meaning is that the first generation must come closer to God through the Levites to have the redemption of their future generations. Or, in other words, they must become more sanctified to have their son redeemed. This principle applies to the church today. The degree of holiness the church can obtain will determine the degree of her transforming power to the world.
If the Levites represent the church and the male Israelites are the unsaved, the picture is clear. The more the church becomes light, the more power it will carry to bring salvation to the world. God alone saves us, but He chose to use us, the church to shine His light to a lost world just as He chose the Levites to redeem the male Israelites. If individual Christians lived sanctified lives before the Lord, can you imagine the power that we can release to the world? If the church as a whole sanctified itself unto the Lord, imagine how many people could be saved and redeemed.