After a year camped at Mount Sinai, the Israelites have built a sanctuary at which to worship, and have received a law to regulate their everyday life. All that remains is for them to be organised into a coherent and disciplined community, capable of tackling the long trek through the wilderness and the conquest of Canaan.
This organisation will be based on their pre-existing tribal loyalties. Just like the Egyptian army (which camped in a square with the royal tent in the very centre), the Israelites are instructed to arrange their tents in an orderly manner around God’s tent, the Tabernacle. Each tribe is allocated its own area, according to its ancestry. And when they break camp and go on the march, each tribe has its designated position in the line. The tribe of Levi are given the responsibility of taking down, transporting and re-erecting the Tabernacle; and each Levite clan has its own defined role within this task. Because each place and role has been assigned by God, inter-tribal rivalries and arguments are minimised – and the system works.
Bureaucracy has a poor image; but it is noteworthy how many pages of the Bible are devoted to lists, censuses, rotas, and other kinds of administrative ‘paperwork’. As much as we might yearn for the supposed simplicity of the early Church, the fact is that large numbers of people need organisation if they are to live harmoniously and work effectively together. “God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” (I Corinthians 14:33) Each local church is a ‘body’ whose members have differing gifts and functions, determined not by us but by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12) – and ‘administration’ is on the list of gifts! But there is also a need for larger groupings – and the much-maligned denominations (which are, fundamentally, just ‘tribes’ of like-minded churches) actually perform this function rather well. Inter-church rivalry is inappropriate and unnecessary; we can and must work together to fulfil God’s purpose for all His people.