In between all the stories about the Israelites complaining and getting punished for it, Numbers 18-20 describes how tithes were to be distributed and tells the story of the first passing of the high-priest torch. On the surface, it looks like a sweet deal for the Levites, who get temple-related jobs. They get to keep everyone else's tithes, the 10% of their wealth that the Israelites were obligated to offer to their god. And 10% of that tithe went specifically to Aaron, the high priest. Of course, the Levites were presumably doing work for this payment, and since doing tasks for the temple didn't have as direct a source of payment as raising livestock, this was a way of making working at the temple a reasonable career. One might even say lucrative, since 10% of the community’s wealth was being concentrated in less than 3% of the population.
The chronology of establishing the priesthood is a bit odd. After the Israelites leave Egypt, Moses counts everyone except the members of his own tribe, the Levites, presumably because they were going to guard the tabernacle. When the Levites were finally counted, they were tallied differently than the rest of the Israelites. All the other tribes were looked at as warriors, so only able-bodied adult males were counted. Of the Levites, every male one month old and older was counted, and still they wound up being the smallest tribe at 22,000 official people. This was roughly equal to the number of first-born males in the whole Israelite community, so back in Numbers 3 a justification was made to set apart the tribe of Levi as a priesthood. One potential priest for every first-born male, at least at that moment in Israelite history.
So, at this point, the Levites did the temple-related work, and everyone else paid them to do it. This is essentially what the tithe was. It was a tax. The Israelite government was a theocracy (much like Egypt), with the dictatorial Moses at its head and the remainder of his tribe handling the management of the tabernacle, which was the central feature in Israelite life. What went on at the tabernacle affected life and death of thousands of people through supernatural means that the average Israelite couldn't hope to understand. Moses' brother Aaron was the high priest over all the other Levites, so they levied a tax on the other tribes. If an American doesn't pay taxes, the worst case scenario is that the offender could be imprisoned while the IRS takes the money to which it's entitled by force. If an Israelite didn't pay the required tithe, a hole could open up in the earth and swallow them. Or they could die from a mysterious plague.
Later on, it will be clear that the Levites were expected to have other sources of income. There wasn’t really enough temple-related work to occupy the entirety of the tribe. Levites are recorded as being doctors, teachers, judges, musicians, and law enforcement officers. A part of the tithe also went to support people in the community who were no longer able to earn a living, essentially a form of social security. So, although the Levites were entitled to a share in the community’s wealth, they did provide important services for the community.
Even though it's not necessarily a familiar way of setting up a society, it certainly makes sense. The one thing that seems odd is how apologetic Moses is about the whole thing. Instead of just saying, "I'm in charge, and this is how it's going to be," he sets up God as the source for all of these proclamations. Maybe that's something he learned from the Egyptians. Maybe he thought it would keep people from complaining about things. But no matter how many plagues or fires killed off groups of dissatisfied Israelites, people kept complaining. They complained about Moses, and they complained about God. On the surface, they may have used language that suggested they were giving a tithe "to God," but they knew at some level that they were paying what amounted to a tax to the Levites. Just as taxpayers feel entitled to complain about their government today, the Israelites felt entitled to complain about the way they were being governed, even if it meant being irreverent to the point of risking death.
At the beginning of Numbers 20, they complain again. Miriam dies, and in the next sentence the Israelites complain that there isn’t any water. It’s tempting to tie this back into the purity laws of the previous chapter regarding cleaning oneself with water after handling a dead body, but it doesn’t really seem like that was the chief complaint. They needed water to drink just to stay alive. In this famous story, God commands Moses and Aaron to go and command a rock to provide water. Instead, Moses takes personal credit and strikes the rock with an angry admonition toward the Israelites. His sister had just died, so one can understand his irritability in the face of more complaints. Water flowed forth, and everyone was satisfied for the moment.
Everyone except God. Moses and Aaron were admonished because they took credit for the water. In the story, God told the two leaders that they would not enter the Promised Land as a punishment for not treating him as holy in front of the Israelites. There are plenty of lessons that could be extracted from the 12 verses that comprise this story, but you can draw spiritual lessons from nearly any source if you are looking for them. It’s likely that tales like this were initially told to create a justification for the names of the places involved. This particular tale also creates a reason for why the leaders of the Israelites died before the community reached its goal.
Aaron dies just a short time after that scene at the rock, and the mantle of high priest is passed on to his son, Eleazar. Since it was no secret that this time would eventually come, Numbers 19 is essentially a training ritual for Eleazar. It’s a special sacrifice that involves all of the things that a high priest should be able to do confidently, and it’s specified that Eleazar will preside over the ceremony. One chapter later, Eleazar is made high priest and Aaron dies. The "Ordinance of the Red Heifer" was his final exam, even though the text doesn’t quite put it that way.
Just before Aaron dies, Moses sends word to the Edomites, asking for safe passage through their lands. Not surprisingly, this request is denied. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, whom Jacob tricked out of his inheritance. When Jacob ran away and came back fourteen years later, Esau attempted to rekindle their brotherly relationship, but Jacob was fearful and basically avoided his brother’s lands. Whether the story is true or not, any Edomite who identified with his forefather Esau would understandably be suspicious of any descendant of Jacob asking for any favors. So Aaron dies on the border of Edom, with armed Edomites prepared to defend their borders against an Israelite invasion.
Religious rhetoric provided a colorful context for early Israelite society, and it didn't prevent people from being involved citizens, vocal about their concerns and disappointments. Some people today are more cowed than the Israelites were by the idea that God has commanded something. It has perhaps become more dangerous than a physical plague. Certain segments of our society hear a person claim to know what God wants and they accept it without question. This is not a thoughtful or enlightened way to participate in one’s society. When we take away the “infallible absolute authority” as intermediary, the people who ask us to think, spend, or vote a certain way are required to explain their platform much more clearly than a simple “God said so.” It becomes much easier to judge ideas based on their merits and their potential benefits to society when the smoke screen of religion is taken away. The cynic in me suggests that there are some leaders who prefer having the smoke screen, for whatever reason.
Perhaps it would have gone exactly the same for Moses if he had controlled the early Israelite society through some other means. If he had said, “We’re going to collect a 10% tax from everyone, and that tax will be used to pay for doctors, teachers, and the officials that will settle disputes in our community,” would there have been a great public outcry against that? Abraham knew about the Mesopotamian practice of collecting a tithe, so the concept was nothing revolutionary. Even claiming that a god (i.e., a particular priesthood) was entitled to a portion of a community’s wealth was nothing new. Maybe I’m crediting the Israelites with more sophistication that they actually possessed, but the real revolutionary idea would have been to say, “This is what will be best for our community, so this is what we will do.” Then again, (if the biblical account is to be believed) Moses was never really comfortable with the idea of being responsible for so many people’s well-being.
Have we matured enough as a society to be honest about our ideas? Are we able to set smoke screens and emotional rhetoric aside to consider the actual merits of our ideas? Can we discern between what is the best for our society and what is simply a personal preference? And if we have that discernment, do we also possess the integrity to put personal preferences aside for the greater good? Whatever the answer, the way to strengthen our discernment and integrity is to expect it of ourselves and of one another. There are ways to gently invite the religious and emotional rhetoric to be put aside for a moment, to reassure an individual that ideas can be considered without resorting to personal attacks. We don’t always have the opportunity to have such frank conversations with our leaders today, but they also don’t have the power to make the earth swallow us whole. As often as we do share ideas with one another, though, we have the opportunity to become more discerning and honest – to be better citizens of our society, and more effective participants in our own lives.