With the first few chapters of Numbers it would be easy to get hung up on the fact that the numbers involved – a census of the tribes in the Exodus – are pretty huge. I did check the maths, and it’s certainly not impossible that in the 400 years of slavery suggested in Genesis 15:12-15 a family of 70 could grow to over a million. It doesn’t feel right to me to imagine Israel travelling through the desert with the population of 4-5 cities the size of Wolverhampton, though. On the other hand, I don’t think that the numbers matter that much!
What matters is that Israel was already made up of distinct tribes – which would in time each have their own part of Israel as a homeland. And scattered through those tribes would be the Levites, a tribe set apart for God’s service. They would be supported by the other tribes, and live differently.
Even among the Levites, Numbers 3 & 4 make it clear that there are different roles – different subtribes will have different parts of the Tent of Meeting to care for, and different functions in God’s service. From the beginning, God’s people have been varied and have had varied roles. Perhaps we tend too easily to try to do everything ourselves!