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Aaron had four sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. Nadab and Abihu were the older two and, like all good sons, they were training to go into the family business. They must have shown promise, because the Lord invited them to come along with the elders of Israel for the feast on Mount Sinai.[1] One can imagine how getting an invitation to have supper with God Almighty might cause one to become a little prideful. You can almost hear Nadab telling his friends, “Sorry, fellas, I can’t make it to the big dreidel game tonight. I’ve got a dinner engagement with the Lord.” Aaron must have been pleased as well that his sons were included. In this grand adventure with his brother Moses, he would have someone to take his place when he died. After all, Moses was eighty and he was the younger brother!

After the great supper (I think the menu was bread of heaven for the main course, angel food cake for dessert, and living water to drink), Moses went up alone to commune with the Lord. When he came back down into the camp, he had a new revelation about God’s relationship with His people. Prior to this encounter, Moses had put up a “tent of meeting” outside the camp. All those seeking the Lord could go outside the camp to this tent. And when Moses went, it was very special. The pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance of the tent while Moses was there.[2] The people would worship at the entrance of their own tents while their leader met with the Lord. A revelation of heaven was going to change all this.

On the mountain, the Lord revealed His heart to Moses. He wanted to be the central focus of His people’s lives. Accordingly, the entire camp was rearranged. A model of what Moses had seen in heaven was built and placed at its center. Around the tabernacle was erected the curtain of the court. In front of its one gate were the tents of Moses, Aaron, and the priests. The rest of the Levitical clans camped on the other three sides. This was a picture of God’s heart. His priesthood lived near Him. He was at their center, and serving Him was their life. His armies surrounded Him in an orderly encampment ready to do His will. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

It was. After all, the manifest presence of God Almighty dwelt among them in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. If you had been an Israelite living then, you could have stepped out of your tent and gazed on the ominous and awesome sight of the miraculous column. You would have known that of a truth God was in your midst; but a walk through the camp would soon bring home another lesson.

As you walked from the south[3] toward the center, the line of tents would abruptly end as if someone had drawn a line and posted a sign which said, “Beyond here none may pass!” Your eyes would gaze over a wide field, empty save for the tabernacle in its center and the tents of the Levites that surrounded it.[4] You turn right and walk east, careful not to step into the “holy ground.” As you round the southeast corner of the camp, you can make out Moses’ tent and the tents of the priests in front of the gate of the court. In the light of the fiery pillar, you can discern the glint of armor, scabbard, and hilt. The gate is guarded and the guards are armed.

Numbers 3:38
Moses and Aaron and his sons were to camp to the east of the tabernacle, toward the sunrise, in front of the Tent of Meeting. They were responsible for the care of the sanctuary on behalf of the Israelites. Anyone else who approached the sanctuary was to be put to death. NIV

Anyone who wasn’t a Levite or a priest and wasn’t carrying a sacrifice soon became one![5] God was in the center of the camp, but His people couldn’t approach Him. Or rather, His people couldn’t approach Him without blood. What a message! What a living testament! Daily life in the wilderness taught the children of Israel that the Lord was to be their central focus. His tent determined the placement of all the others. His column of cloud and fire set the march for the columns of Israel. He went before them and they encamped about Him. But they dare not approach Him without blood! This was the lesson from the heights Sinai brought to earth in their midst.

Exodus 19:12-13
12 And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death:
13 There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.

Moses marked the perimeter with twelve pillars and made an altar for its gate. That altar was bathed in blood in the ceremony of covenant consecration over the people.[6] None was to pass through to set foot on the mountain unless invited. All party crashers were condemned to die. Hebrews 12:20 tells us that this was a commandment that the people could not endure. In other words, it brought a holy fear into their hearts. They had seen the fire on the mountain and had heard the voice of the Lord; they had no doubt that if they broke through the perimeter they would die.[7] Even the priests had to sanctify themselves lest the Lord break out against them.[8]

The Lord’s presence on Mount Sinai made it holy ground. His abiding presence in the tabernacle not only made the field of separation holy, the entire camp was sanctified as well. This is why when someone became unclean they weren’t just barred from the sanctuary; they had to leave the camp itself. Yes, God was close, but He couldn’t be easily approached. And any defilement of person or property put Him farther out of reach still.

If you were a priest, God lived literally in your backyard. Meeting with God wasn’t something you dreamed about; it was your job. Going in and out of the court was a daily occurrence. Ordinary camp fires weren’t your chore. No, you tended the ever present flames of the altar of burnt offering. And you didn’t wash your hands and feet with water from earthen vessels. No, the brazen laver was your basin. Holy water from the Rock[9] cleansed you for service. You walked in the light of the golden lampstand. Eating in the holy place was how you were fed. And your clothes were impregnated with the smoke of the incense. Nearer, My God, to Thee nobody else could be! But you had to do it right; you were the servant of a holy God and one misstep could cost you your life.

[1] Ex 24:9-11
[2] Ex 33:7-12 NIV
[3] This would mean that you belonged to the division of Reuben.
[4] The Lord commanded there be a separation between the regular army and the tents of the Levites and the tabernacle (Num 2:2). From Josh 3:4 we surmise that distance of separation was 2,000 cubits on every side.
[5] See also Num 1:51-53
[6] Ex 24:4-8
[7] Deut 5:23-26
[8] Ex 19:22-24
[9] 1 Cor 10:4