Numbers 18 – Laws Pertaining to Priests and Levites
A. Responsibilities of the priests and the Levites.
1. (1) The priests are accountable for the sanctuary and the priesthood.
Then the LORD said to Aaron: “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear the iniquity related to the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear the iniquity associated with your priesthood.
a. You and your sons and your father’s house: The priests – that is, Aaron, his sons, and their descendants – shall bear the iniquity related to the sanctuary, and the priesthood. They were accountable to God.
b. You shall bear the iniquity: This was the other side of Aaron’s privilege as the chosen priest of God, as demonstrated with the budding of the rod in Numbers 17. Aaron had authority from God as the appointed high priest, but he also had great accountability.
i. God never gives authority without accountability; the two always go together. If someone is in leadership at God’s providential direction and others are expected to submit to him, then God also has a special accountability for that person.
2. (2-7) The Levites are God’s chosen helpers for the priests in their ministry at the altar and the tabernacle.
Also bring with you your brethren of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, that they may be joined with you and serve you while you and your sons are with you before the tabernacle of witness. They shall attend to your needs and all the needs of the tabernacle; but they shall not come near the articles of the sanctuary and the altar, lest they die—they and you also. They shall be joined with you and attend to the needs of the tabernacle of meeting, for all the work of the tabernacle; but an outsider shall not come near you. And you shall attend to the duties of the sanctuary and the duties of the altar, that there may be no more wrath on the children of Israel. Behold, I Myself have taken your brethren the Levites from among the children of Israel; they are a gift to you, given by the LORD, to do the work of the tabernacle of meeting. Therefore you and your sons with you shall attend to your priesthood for everything at the altar and behind the veil; and you shall serve. I give your priesthood to you as a gift for service, but the outsider who comes near shall be put to death.”
a. Bring with you your brethren of the tribe of Levi: Aaron himself was of the tribe of Levi. While only he and his descendants were given the priesthood, the whole tribe of Levi had a special calling to help Aaron and the priests (Numbers 3:5-10).
b. That they may be joined with you and serve you: The Levites were called to support the work of the priests. They didn’t have the same prominent position as the priests, but they were important for their service.
i. The Levites are described as serving the priests (Numbers 18:2), the congregation of Israel (Numbers 16:9), and God (Deuteronomy 10:8). Both were true and each area was within their legitimate calling.
c. They shall not come near the articles of the sanctuary and the altar: The Levites were not allowed to do what the priests did, lest they die. Korah is an example of a Levite who dared to come near the articles of the sanctuary and the altar and who died as a result (Numbers 16:16-19, 31-33).
i. An outsider: “The term ‘stranger’…which often speaks of a foreign national, is used to describe all other people in the Holy Place. The only people who have a right to work in the shrine are the Levites under the supervision of the priests. All others are ‘foreigners.’” (Allen)
d. You shall attend to the duties of the sanctuary and the duties of the altar: If it was wrong for the Levites to envy or covet the work Aaron and his sons did as priests, it was also sin for Aaron and his sons to neglect the work God gave them to do. Though they had the gift of help from Levites, Aaron and his sons must attend to the priesthood for everything at the altar and behind the veil.
i. “The Levites were never to be regarded as ‘priests in training.’ They had a serious ‘career ceiling’ in their vocation. The sanctity of the Holy Place is not to be underestimated.” (Allen)
ii. In a similar way, the New Testament says we are all different “parts” of the body, each with gifts and callings (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). We shouldn’t envy or covet the gifts and callings of others.
iii. I give your priesthood to you as a gift for service: “Among the rest these words, ‘I give you the priesthood as a service of gift,’ emphasized again the fact that these priests, and these people, had done nothing to merit the provision. It was wholly one of grace, a gift from God.” (Morgan)
B. The privileges of the priests and the Levites.
1. (8-20) The firstborn and the devoted portions belong to the priest.
And the LORD spoke to Aaron: “Here, I Myself have also given you charge of My heave offerings, all the holy gifts of the children of Israel; I have given them as a portion to you and your sons, as an ordinance forever. This shall be yours of the most holy things reserved from the fire: every offering of theirs, every grain offering and every sin offering and every trespass offering which they render to Me, shall be most holy for you and your sons. In a most holy place you shall eat it; every male shall eat it. It shall be holy to you.
“This also is yours: the heave offering of their gift, with all the wave offerings of the children of Israel; I have given them to you, and your sons and daughters with you, as an ordinance forever. Everyone who is clean in your house may eat it.
“All the best of the oil, all the best of the new wine and the grain, their firstfruits which they offer to the LORD, I have given them to you. Whatever first ripe fruit is in their land, which they bring to the LORD, shall be yours. Everyone who is clean in your house may eat it.
“Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.
“Everything that first opens the womb of all flesh, which they bring to the LORD, whether man or beast, shall be yours; nevertheless the firstborn of man you shall surely redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. And those redeemed of the devoted things you shall redeem when one month old, according to your valuation, for five shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs. But the firstborn of a cow, the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle their blood on the altar, and burn their fat as an offering made by fire for a sweet aroma to the LORD. And their flesh shall be yours, just as the wave breast and the right thigh are yours.
“All the heave offerings of the holy things, which the children of Israel offer to the LORD, I have given to you and your sons and daughters with you as an ordinance forever; it is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD with you and your descendants with you.”
Then the LORD said to Aaron: “You shall have no inheritance in their land, nor shall you have any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel.”
a. Here, I Myself have also given you charge of My heave offerings: The heave offerings were brought to God as part of the peace offering (Exodus 29:28 and Leviticus 7:14), for a Nazirite’s consecration offering (Numbers 6:20), and for thanksgiving (Numbers 15:19-21). In the heave offering, a choice portion of the animal (the breast or the thigh) was heaved or waved before the LORD.
i. Afterwards, that choice portion of the meat was for the priest and his family and was considered holy – so it had to be eaten in the holy place.
ii. My heave offerings: “Something was regarded as holy, not because of some mysterious inner quality, but because it has been presented to the Lord for his use.” (Allen)
iii. All the wave offerings of the children of Israel: “By holding up grain or produce and waving it back and forth in the air in a respectful manner, the offeror was marking out the Lord as the source of his plenty. Since this food was not put to fire, it was then given over to the priests for their own family use.” (Allen)
b. Every offering of theirs: The priest also received portions from the grain offering and sin offering and trespass offering; gifts of oil, wine, grain, and ripe fruit from the firstfruits offerings were given to the priests. This was how the priesthood was supported in Israel.
i. “The cereal grain offering, as described in Leviticus 2:1-13 and Leviticus 6:14-23, was an unleavened mixture of fine flour, oil, and incense. A memorial portion was burned on the altar as a sweet aroma to the Lord, and the remainder was eaten by the Aaronic priests.” (Cole)
c. Everything that first opens the womb of all flesh: When the firstborn was brought to the tabernacle, either to be given or redeemed with money, it also belonged to the priest.
i. It was important to make clear that God did not want human sacrifice of any kind. The firstborn of man was never to be sacrificed to God but redeemed – an amount of money was given to God’s work instead of the sacrifice.
d. I have given to you and your sons and daughters with you as an ordinance forever: All these parts of these sacrifices belonged to the priests, and it was important for Israel to fulfill their obligation to bring them. This is emphasized as God called it a covenant of salt forever.
i. Salt speaks of purity, of preservation, and of expense. So, a covenant of salt is a pure covenant (salt stays a pure chemical compound), a covenant of salt is an enduring covenant (salt preserves things and makes them endure), and a covenant of salt is a valuable covenant (salt was expensive).
ii. Spurgeon on the covenant of salt: “By which was meant that it was an unchangeable, incorruptible covenant, which would endure as salt makes a thing to endure, so that it is not liable to putrefy or corrupt.”
iii. According to some ancient customs, a bond of friendship was established through the eating of salt. It was said that once you had eaten a man’s salt, you were his friend for life.
e. You shall have no inheritance in their land: While by God’s command the priests received much material support from Israel (and a lot of meat), they also were deprived of inheritance in their land. The priests had no permanent portion of land given to them because God said I am your portion and your inheritance.
i. Many of God’s people through the generations could say with David in Psalm 16, O LORD, You are the portion of my inheritance and my cup; You maintain my lot (Psalm 16:5). They could say with Asaph in Psalm 73, My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:26). They could agree with David in Psalm 142, I cried out to You, O LORD: I said, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (Psalm 142:5).
ii. When God is our portion, He is our inheritance – our hope, the one whom we trust for our future. We are satisfied in Him. Since we are all a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), we all have the LORD for our portion.
2. (21-24) Tithes given to the Levites.
“Behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance in return for the work which they perform, the work of the tabernacle of meeting. Hereafter the children of Israel shall not come near the tabernacle of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall perform the work of the tabernacle of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity; it shall be a statute forever, throughout your generations, that among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer up as a heave offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites as an inheritance; therefore I have said to them, ‘Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.’”
a. I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel: While the priests were supported by their portions of the sacrifices brought to God’s altar (Numbers 18:8-20), God commanded that the Levites be supported by the tithes of Israel (a giving of ten percent of income). The tithes belong to God (He says I have given, so they are His to give), but God then gave them to the Levites.
i. When an Israelite did not give their tithe, they did not rob the Levite, even though the money went to the Levites. They robbed God (Malachi 3:8-10), because God received the tithe from the giver, and God gave it to the Levite.
ii. Some today think the tithe commanded here is most like modern-day taxes paid to governments. This is because these tithes were to support the Levites who were, in a sense, government workers in ancient Israel. Those who hold this idea often claim that free-will giving mentioned in the Old Testament answers to the New Testament emphasis on giving. We can say that the New Testament nowhere specifically commands tithing, but it certainly does speak of it in a positive light if, and only if, it is done with the right heart (Luke 11:42).
iii. It is also important to understand that tithing is not a principle that depended on the Mosaic law. Hebrews 7:5-9 explains that tithing was practiced and honored by God before the Law of Moses.
iv. What the New Testament does speak with great clarity on is the principle of giving. The New Testament tells us that giving should be regular, planned, proportional, and private (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). It says that giving must be generous, voluntary, and cheerful (2 Corinthians 9).
v. Since the New Testament doesn’t emphasize tithing, one might not advocate a strict standard, even though some Christians argue against tithing because of self-interest. But since giving is to be proportional (as in 1 Corinthians 16:2), believers today should give according to some percentage. Based on the Old Testament description of the tithe, perhaps one could say that ten percent is a good goal or practice for the modern believer’s generosity. However, one should not regard ten percent as a hard limit to our generosity; surely God would have some give much more, as He has blessed and prospered them.
vi. If our question is, “How little can I give and still be pleasing to God?” it demonstrates that our heart isn’t in the right place. We should have the attitude of some early Christians, who essentially said: “We are not under the tithe – we can give more!” Giving and financial management are spiritual issues, not merely financial matters (Luke 16:11).
b. In return for the work which they perform: The tithes were also given by God as pay to the Levites, not as gifts. Because the Levites had dedicated themselves to the service of God, the people of God, and the things of God, it was right that they were supported by God – through the tithes of the children of Israel.
i. “The assignment of the tithe to the tribe of Levi is something new. Tithing, giving a tenth of one’s agricultural produce, was an ancient institution in the Near East. Both Abraham and Jacob gave tithes (Genesis 14:20, 28:22). Leviticus 27:30-33 regulates the redemption of tithes, evidently presupposing their existence, but it does not state who would receive them. This law, looking forward to the settlement in Canaan when tithing would become possible, lays it down that the Levites are to receive them.” (Wenham)
ii. In return for the work which they perform means the Levites had the “right” to expect to be supported through the tithe. Paul presents the same principle for ministers of the gospel in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 9:7-14). Yet in his words and in his life Paul also showed that when it was better for the gospel, this right should be willingly given up for God’s glory and the progress of His kingdom (1 Corinthians 9:15).
iii. However, once every three years, the tithe was collected and distributed not only to the Levites but also to the poor and needy among Israel (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
iv. “These payments were an acknowledgment of the enormous importance of the ministry of the tribe of Levi, representing the nation to God and God to the nation. Through their mediation the people were saved from the danger of extermination. Similarly, Jesus and Paul expected those who heard the gospel to recognize its worth by paying its ministers adequately (Matthew 10:9-10; 1 Corinthians 9:3-10, 16:2; cf. Matthew 23:23).” (Wenham)
v. According to Numbers 2:32, there were 603,550 men who could fight as soldiers among the 12 tribes of Israel (excluding the tribe of Levi). Numbers 3:39 says there were 22,000 men among the Levites. If we consider these counted men to be heads of households, then the tithes of 603,550 families supported 22,000 families among the Levites.
vi. This was potentially generous support. Every Levite family was supported by roughly 27 Israelite families from the other tribes. It’s difficult to make comparisons from our modern economy to an ancient agrarian society, but if for the sake of comparison, we said that each Israelite family averaged an income of $10,000 and tithed from it, the tithe (10%) of their income from the 603,550 families would total $603,550,000 – more than $603 million. If one-tenth went to the priests (as commanded by Numbers 18:25-32) and of the remaining, one-third was given to the poor in Israel (as in Deuteronomy 14:28-29), then the average Levite family would receive more than $16,000 ($16,460) – more than 160% of the income of the average Israelite family. Yet this was only true if every Israelite family properly paid their tithe.
vii. Since we have no evidence that the Levitical families were rich or lived wealthy lifestyles, it was probably the case that many Israelites never properly paid their tithes, as later described and rebuked in Malachi 3:8-10. Perhaps as few ancient Israelites actually gave God a tithe of their income as do believers today. It may be that God’s system “accounted” for Israel’s disobedience. In some sense, it was not “necessary” for every Israelite to pay their tithe to support the Levites, but it was necessary for their obedience and it was necessary to guard their hearts against greed and materialism.
c. The Levites shall perform the work of the tabernacle of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity: This shows that the Levites also had a special responsibility. If they were to be supported through the tithe, they had to do the job, and do it with diligence.
i. There are probably few things worse than someone who is supported through the gifts of God’s people but is lazy at his job. If a man robs his employer by laziness, how much more does a lazy minister rob God and His people?
d. Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance: Just as with the priests, this was a trade-off. The Levites did not have the best of both worlds; they did not have a personal inheritance of land as the other tribes did.
i. Those who are supported through the giving of God’s people should expect that they would not have the best of both worlds; they will not be wealthy in this life, though if possible, they should be comfortable. It is wrong for the congregation to keep the pastor “humble” through poverty, and just as wrong for the pastor to use the gifts of God’s people to live above God’s people.
3. (25-32) The Levites tithe to the priests.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak thus to the Levites, and say to them: ‘When you take from the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them as your inheritance, then you shall offer up a heave offering of it to the LORD, a tenth of the tithe. And your heave offering shall be reckoned to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor and as the fullness of the winepress. Thus you shall also offer a heave offering to the LORD from all your tithes which you receive from the children of Israel, and you shall give the LORD’s heave offering from it to Aaron the priest. Of all your gifts you shall offer up every heave offering due to the LORD, from all the best of them, the consecrated part of them.’ Therefore you shall say to them: ‘When you have lifted up the best of it, then the rest shall be accounted to the Levites as the produce of the threshing floor and as the produce of the winepress. You may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward for your work in the tabernacle of meeting. And you shall bear no sin because of it, when you have lifted up the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy gifts of the children of Israel, lest you die.’”
a. A tenth of the tithe: The Levites themselves were not excused from tithing. They were also to give a tenth of the tithe, and the best of them given as the tenth. This was due to the LORD, and the LORD gave it to the priests.
i. It was important for the Levites to also learn how to be givers. Just because they were supported through the giving of God’s people, it did not mean they were excused from giving. We all need to learn how to be givers, because God is a giver, and God wants His people to imitate Him.
ii. From all the best of them: “The tribute from the Levites was from the very best, literally ‘its fat’ (heleb), the same word used to describe the best Numbers 18:12.” (Cole)
iii. “There is a tendency, then and now, for persons to believe that if their lives are spent in the Lord’s work, then they are exempt from contributing to that work. This leads to a concept, lamentably more and more observed in our own day, that payment for ministry is something deserved and is something to be demanded.” (Allen)
b. Of all your gifts you shall offer up every heave offering due to the LORD: We are not told if the priests were to tithe from what they received. Presumably, they did not – because what belonged to the priests was considered holy, and not to be used by others outside the priestly families.
i. This chapter clearly shows that the obligation of the Israelite to give was far more than just the tithe (the giving of ten percent). The Israelite also had to give firstfruits (Numbers 18:12) of all their produce and the firstborn (Numbers 18:15) of their flocks and herds. These were portions that went to the priests and/or the Levites.
ii. To give the firstborn of the flock and the firstfruits of the field was something of a risk; it was giving in faith. This was because the cow that gave birth to a calf or the ewe that gave birth to a lamb might not give birth again. The field that produced grain or the vineyard that gave grapes might not give much more. The giving of firstfruits and the firstborn was a way to give God the first and the best, and to give God the priority. God promised to bless this giving of the firstfruits and firstborn in faith: Honor the LORD with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase; so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine (Proverbs 3:9-10). We are so accustomed to giving out of what is left over – giving from our surplus – that many of us are unfamiliar with the principle of the giving of the firstborn or the firstfruits.
iii. This wasn’t the end of Israel’s required giving. They were also told to leave a portion of their fields unharvested so the poor could eat from those portions (Leviticus 19:9-10). A Passover sacrifice was required from each family every year (Exodus 12:43-47). Sometimes a temple tax was required (Nehemiah 10:32-33), or a special tribute (Numbers 31:28-29).
iv. It is hard to estimate exactly how much the firstfruits and firstborn obligations amounted to; it would differ from family to family. But the actual required giving of Israel was far more than ten percent (the tithe).
v. Some say that Deuteronomy 12:6 speaks of an additional ten percent given (sometimes called the “festival tithe”), but in context Deuteronomy 12 speaks only of where to bring the tithe, and does not command an additional tithe. As well, some claim that Deuteronomy 14:28-29 commands an additional tithe every three years (sometimes called the “poor tithe”). Yet, since Deuteronomy 14:28 speaks of the tithe, and since it also went to the Levite and not only to the poor, it is best to understand that this was not an additional tithe, but a command that once every three years, the tithe was also available to the poor, not only to the Levite.
vi. Besides the required giving, Israel was asked to give free-will offerings: This chapter speaks of willingly given sacrifices, of which the heave offering went to the priests (Numbers 18:9-11).
vii. This wasn’t the end of Israel’s voluntary giving. Israel was asked to give for special projects like the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 35:4-9), and free-will giving to the poor.