If I could summarize Number 4-6 in one word it would be “separation.” The words of the LORD from the tabernacle in their midst are directed to God’s people as it relates to the ministry of service; cleanliness, sin and infidelity; and, voluntary separation.
Earlier, we understood how the Levites were separated out from the rest of the people of God. Now there yet another subdivision of the Levitical families: the Kohathites (4:1-15), the Gershonites (4:21-18) and the Merarites (4:29-33). Aaron and his son Elieazar are the general supervisors of the entire tabernacle (4:16-20). I imagine that being a Levite was fearful experience, especially one who was responsible to move the tabernacle furniture. I noticed the Kohathites of all the Levites were forbidden access to these things.
“The term used for their active “service” is a very interesting one. It is used in other passages for other pursuits, e.g. military service (Num. 1:3; it is the word in modern Hebrew for army service too); hard labour (Job 7:1); severe hardship under foreign domination (Isa. 40:2). In short, it was hard work with terrible responsibility. Being a Levite or a priest was not seen as an easy option in life by God. Indeed, he expects more from his chosen servants than from others. The books of Amos and Hosea and early Isaiah are particularly harsh in condemnation of priests (and prophets) who neglect their holy calling and pander either to their own selfish interests or to the easy way of telling people only what they want to hear. It is a difficult and often lonely calling to be a servant of God.”[i]
There is no room for selfish interest or methodology in God’s service. I tell my kids, "look, if you get a job makin' fries, that's what you do--make fries. You don't do anything else unless the boss says so. You do your job and you do it completely." Same way with God--it’s either His way or not at all. Ask Nadab and Abihu. Like they say: “there are only two things in the middle of the road: stripes and dead possum.” There is no middle ground in obedience.
Chapter 6 completes the set moving from the cleansing and separating of the camp to a discussion concerning those who voluntarily set themselves aside for special service. The choice is to separate for a limited period of time and is marked by intentional abstention from grapevine products, physical pleasure and from certain human adornments, by the special keeping of the hair.
The point of these passages is this: though only Aaron and his sons could be priests, the people could be priestly. This is why they must be clean; or, as has been noted several times already, be Holy because He is holy.
The marvelous overriding principle is that each person is a priest before God. The foundation for this goes back to the garden when man walked with God. Later, God would say of His people “you shall be to Me aa kingdom of priests and ba holy nation.” (Ex 19:6).
God is in the middle—the tabernacle is the center of the encampment and each and every person has access to God. If not, a way is provided.
God delivers His people.
God exalts His people.
God takes care of His people.
God provides for His people.
God honors His people.
God forgives His people.
God heals His people.
God lives in His people.
This is what saved people look like: priests, separate, dedicated, holy because He is the LORD.
a 1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10
b Deut 7:6; 14:21; 26:19; Is 62:12
[i]Riggans, Walter. Numbers. The Daily study Bible series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, c1983.