Sunday, July 10, 2016

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 23

In this chapter, David first takes a census of the Levites and then assigns them to the temple ministry.

The main driving force in this chapter is expressed in v. 25-26: because Israel is no longer going to wander in the desert, the previous Levitical ministry (carrying the holy things) is no longer applicable.  The nation, the holy things, the LORD: they are now going to dwell in Jerusalem “forever”.  This leaves the Levites in an interesting position.  They were not granted a tribal inheritance (i.e. land) because they were dedicated to the LORD perpetually: Deuteronomy says that the LORD is their inheritance.  If their ministry is disbanded, they could still live in the Levitical towns (scattered throughout the nation), but they depend on the tithe for their sustenance because they do not own any farmland.  Instead, David is seeking to construct a ministry for the Levites that is true to the spirit of their prior occupation but fits their nation’s present circumstances.

This chapter begins with a census of the Levites.  It is necessary to count and organize the Levites in order to assign them to ministries, so even though the Levites were included in the extensive genealogy at the beginning of this book, it makes sense that they would be listed again here.  Afterwards, the chapter lists several different kinds of service for the Levites.

First, in v. 4-5, David lists several kinds of service.  The vast majority are assigned to “supervise the work of the temple of the LORD”, with another six thousand distributed as judges and officials and the remainder assigned to other tasks in the temple complex but not related to the temple itself.  Assigning Levites as judges and officials shows the fusion that often existed in Israelite society between the political and religious spheres.  This should not surprise us, seeing as the Law of Moses was considered the governing law in ancient Israel and that is itself a mixture of religious and civil law.  It should be readily apparent, given their place in society, that the Levites hold significant political power throughout the nation.  As in every theocracy, the priests sometimes act kinda like a king and the king sometimes acts kinda like a priest.  In this chapter, we see both as the king manages the affairs of the temple and the Levites are assigned judicial and administrative roles throughout the kingdom.

Second, v. 28-31 gives a second list of tasks for the Levites, as it relates to the temple.  This second list is probably a detailed breakdown for those who “supervise the work of the temple” in v. 4, which was the largest and most extensive part of the Levites’ service.  Indeed, the list of duties for the Levites is varied and extensive.  In my personal opinion, I think at this point the distinction between the priestly ministry and the Levitical ministry is starting to blur.  In the past, the priests did everything in the temple, are responsible for performing sacrifices and offerings, and handle some other random stuff like mold inspections.  The priests still handle sacrifices and the mold stuff, but now Levites are taking on a large portion of the temple ministry.  Even though I think their ministries are starting to look similar, the priests still have distinctly greater authority than the Levites, since the Levites are ministering “under their brothers the descendants of Aaron” (v. 32).

The reason why this chapter is pertinent is that David is organizing the Levites in service of the temple.  David is not just preparing the materials for constructing the temple, he is arranging for the Levites and priests to run the temple complex once it has been built.  In the post-exilic period, David’s structure is used as a prototype and justification for the temple order of their day, and we see this organization continue even into the New Testamental period.

Lastly, one minor textual note is that v. 3 says that the census counted men above 30 years old, while v. 24, 27 counts men who are over 20 years old.  The 30 year age limit is likely taken from Numbers 4:1-3 when the original census of the Levites was conducted for their assignment to ministry during the time of Moses.  The change to 20 years appears to have been instituted by David for no reason that we are given.

In the next chapter, David goes on to divide and organize the priests.

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