Calendars and schedules help organize our time. Maps are necessary for trips, syllabi for university courses, flow charts for business processes, and blueprints for new buildings. These days, many people would be lost without all the plans stored on their smartphones.
Practical planning was necessary for Israel. After all, when two million people broke camp and moved out, it was a major undertaking! The Levites played a key role. By staying between the tabernacle and the rest of Israel, they helped prevent disobedient intrusions (whether intentional or unintentional), protecting the people from God’s wrath. In addition to thus serving as “security officers,” they were also responsible for maintaining and transporting the tabernacle’s furnishings (3:5–10). Their special status was not to lead to pride, however, as had been the case in the tragic episode of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu (3:4; see Leviticus 10).
The Levites also substituted for all of Israel’s firstborn sons (3:11–13, 40–41, 44–51). Because of what had happened at the original Passover, all the firstborn were now to be set apart or consecrated to the Lord. Symbolically, the entire tribe of Levi took their places by being set apart for God’s service: “The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine.”
In other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, firstborn sons were held responsible to lead the family in ancestor worship. God’s instructions here contradicted those idolatrous practices in order to help keep Israel’s eyes focused on Him. Another divine distinctive was that the Levite clans are listed here not in birth order, which would have been culturally expected, but rather in order of the sacredness of the tabernacle objects for which they were assigned to care.