Why did Yahweh choose the Levites to be the one tribe He set apart for Himself in a special way? The Levites were the only ones who had permission to transport the Ark of the Covenant, they were the only ones allowed to set up and break down the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Of the thirteen tribes of Israel, Yahweh chose only one tribe out to draw near to Him in a special way. Why was this? Had the Levites done something especially pleasing to God? Yes, they had.
Furious with the Israelites for creating and worshiping a calf idol in God’s place, Moses stood at the entrance to a camp that was out of control and called out, “Whoever is for Yahweh, come to me.” All of the Levites immediately came over to him. No other tribe is mentioned. God then said to them through Moses:
“‘Every man must put on his sword and go through the camp from one end to the other. Each man must kill his brother, his friend, and his neighbor.” (Ex. 32:27)
The Levites did just as they were commanded and slaughtered 3,000 people in one day. That finally got the camp’s attention and the people settled down. Moses then told the Levites:
“You have been set apart to Yahweh today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and He has blessed you this day.” (Ex. 32:29)
Thousands of years later, Jesus would say to His disciples:
“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be My disciple.” (Lk 14:25-27)
God insists on being first. He demands that we value Him more than we do our own families and even our own lives. The Levites chose to take this attitude thousands of years before the Gospels were even written. They were serious about their devotion to God and their actions proved it. Anyone could have run over to Moses just to try and get on his good side, but God knew the Levites were more than just flatterers and He called on them to demonstrate their devotion in a way that cost them dearly. Can you imagine taking a sword and cutting down the people you love most in life? God didn’t set the Levites lose to kill only those they personally didn’t like or didn’t know. Instead God ordered each man to hunt down those nearest and dearest to him among the rabble that was still holding on to their rebellion. The Levites paid a high price for their devotion to God that day, but they paid it with enthusiasm. It takes a lot of energy to kill 3,000 people, but given how many adult Levite males there were at this time, this number is surprisingly low. If the men had been killing everyone they came across, the death toll should have been much higher, but if they were slowed down by trying to target only those closest to them as God commanded, the low number makes sense. A short while later, God inflicts Israel with a plague as further punishment for her idolatry—something He could have done right away instead of having the Levites go on their murdering rampage. Clearly the Levite exercise was serving another purpose besides just punishing Israel.
Whenever we decide to make a radical change in life, it is those closest to us who have the best chance of talking us out of it. God saw the sincere devotion of the Levites and it was precious to Him so He immediately set out to protect it. By having the Levites kill those they cared about the most, they silenced the voices of those who might later have mocked their siding with Moses and tried to discourage them in their walks. Remember that only those refusing to side with Moses were killed—these were people who were blatantly defying God and showing no reverence whatsoever. These people were like poisonous roots in Israel’s midst—far too willing to do Satan’s bidding on a moment’s notice. If the devotion of the Levites was to be preserved, all of their close personal ties with idolaters needed to be severed in a hurry.
Sometimes God’s demands on us feel overwhelming. The closer we get to Him, the more jealous and protective He will become over our relationship with Him. Instead of viewing His demands as stifling, we need to recognize them for the great compliment that they are. God is greedy for our attention and He doesn’t like to share us. How can we complain about the God of the universe taking such an interest in us?