Have you ever had a sneaking suspicion that God is some sort of bean counter? That all he does is demand a pound of flesh? That the triple-whammy of his omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence means that he is more like the accountant in the knitted vest and short sleeves shirt, just waiting to pounce on rubber band wastage in the office? Always watching over your shoulder to make sure you fill your time sheet in properly?
I was reading through Numbers a month or so back (as you do – Ed) and discovered many things I have never seen before (also as you do – Ed)in the dozen or so times I must have read the book. An arcane story in Numbers 3 leapt out at me and has had me pondering it for weeks.
In Numbers 3vv38-51, God has Moses and Aaron number the tabernacle workers – the Levites – and they tally 22, 000. A nice rounded figure. No surprises there. God then tells Moses to number the first born males one month old and upwards that have just come out of Egypt and are now at Mt Sinai. These are the first born males of the freed slaves who are the nation of Israel. They tally 22, 273. Again no surprises.
Then God makes this announcement:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle. The Levites shall be mine: I am the Lord. 46 And as the redemption price for the 273 of the firstborn of the people of Israel, over and above the number of the male Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over.” 49 So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those redeemed by the Levites. 50 From the firstborn of the people of Israel he took the money, 1,365 shekels, by the shekel of the sanctuary. 51 And Moses gave the redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses.
Do you get what is going on? God, the LORD, the covenant God of Israel, declares that since the Levites belong to him they can be exchanged/redeemed for the first born sons of Israel. These first born sons belong to God, but they are in effect, bought back by the Levites. Well, not all of them. The number of Levites is 273 short. And that’s where the story gets interesting.
You see, if I were God, I would just expansively wave my hand and in godlike generosity say “Meh, what’s 273 in the big scheme of things. One and a half per cent? Forget about it!” But God doesn’t. He demands the full price of redemption, allowing a monetary exchange that totals, we are told, 1365 shekels according to the sanctuary shekel. If you were going to reject the God of the Bible on the basis that he is a nit-picker who is only concerned about legalities and tight requirements, this seems to aid your cause.
But does it? It may on the surface appear that he demands his pound of flesh in the manner of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, but in the context of both the book of Numbers and the Bible story as it unfolds, nothing could be further from the truth.
For a start, it is God – the LORD – who provides the redemption price for the firstborn sons. At the centre of Numbers is the Holy God – the one who cannot abide evil, living in the midst of his sinful people. The people owe him their very lives, and he could, by rights take their lives. He has done so already to the firstborn of Egypt. But what does he do? Among other things, including the tabernacle worship system, he provides a redemption price for their firstborn. And when he runs out of Levites, the final 273 are covered by a financial redemption. The God of Israel is showing in shadow form how he provides for redemption; a fact that will be ultimately demonstrated when his first born son – Jesus – pays the redemption price for all humans with his own life.
But secondly, and wonderfully, Numbers 3 demonstrates that God is so exacting about redemption, so finicky about it, that when he says the price of redemption is paid – it is surely paid! And that is great news for Christians struggling with doubts and fears about whether or not they need to do more or try harder in order to complete their salvation. Romans 3 reminds us that we have fallen far shorter than 273 Levites short, we have fallen short of God’s glory. Yet God provides a way for our coming up short, just as he did back in Numbers 3.
If the God of Numbers 3 says the price is paid, then the price is paid! Would a God who will not overlook 273 people, or 1365 shekels, overlook the infinitely more precious redemption price of the blood of his own dear Son (1 Peter 1:18-19)? Do you need to do more? No! Jesus himself on the cross said “It is finished!” and the debt of sin declared cancelled. God saw the debt and covered it by his grace. There is no more to pay. He no longer counts our sin against us.