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 is the other side of Aaron’s prerogative as the chosen priest of God, as demonstrated with the budding of the rod in Numbers 17. Moses had authority from God; but he also had accountability.
i. God never gives authority without accountability; the two always go together. If God gives someone headship and expects others to submit to them in His order, 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 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.
b. That they may be joined with you and serve you: The Levites were the support people for the ministry of the priests. They didn’t have the prominent position but were important for their behind-the-scenes service.
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. In the same way, the New Testament says we are all different “parts” of the body, each with particular gifts and callings (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).
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, Leviticus 7:14), 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.
b. Every offering of theirs: The priest also received portions from the grain offering and sin offering and trespass offering; gifts of oil, wine, and grain, and ripe fruit from the firstfruits offerings were also to be given to the priests. This was how the priesthood was supported in Israel.
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.
d. I have given to you and your sons and daughters with you as an ordinance forever: All of these belonged to the priests, and it was vitally important the children of Israel fulfill their obligation to bring these things – God calls 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 makes things preserve and 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 custom, 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 the priests had the right to receive much, he also was deprived of inheritance in their land; they had no permanent portion of land given to them, because God said I am your portion and your inheritance.
i. What a precious place, to say “the Lord is my portion!” O Lord, You are the portion of my inheritance and my cup; You maintain my lot (Psalm 16:5). My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:26). 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, who 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: God commanded the tithes (a giving of ten percent of one’s income) be given to the Levites for their support. The tithes belong to God (He says I have given, so they are His to give), but He gives them to the Levites.
i. When an Israelite was not giving their tithe, they were not robbing the Levite – though the money ended up with them. They were robbing God (Malachi 3:8-10), because God received the tithe from the giver, and He gave it to the Levite.
ii. Some today think the tithe, since it went to support the Levites (who were, in a sense, government workers in ancient Israel), is covered by government taxes of today, and 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 it is done with a right heart (Luke 11:42).
iii. It is also important to understand that tithing is not a principle dependent on the Mosaic law; as Hebrews 7:5-9 explains, 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; that giving should be regular, planned, proportional, and private (1 Corinthians 16:1-4); that it must be generous, freely given, and cheerful (2 Corinthians 9).
v. Since the New Testament doesn’t emphasize tithing, one might not be strict on it for Christians (though some Christians do argue against tithing on the basis of self-interest); but since giving is to be proportional, we should be giving some percentage – and ten percent is a good benchmark – and starting place! For some to give ten percent is nowhere near enough; for others, at their present time, five percent may be a massive step of faith.
vi. If our question is, “How little can I give and still be pleasing to God?” our heart isn’t in the right place at all. We should have the attitude of some early Christians, who essentially said: “We’re not under the tithe – we can give more!” Giving and financial management is a spiritual issue, not just a financial one (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 they be supported by God – through the tithes of the children of Israel.
i. 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 also shows that when it is better for the gospel, the right should be willingly laid down for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 9:15).
ii. 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).
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 one supported through the gifts of God’s people who is lazy at his job; if a man is robbing his employer by laziness, how much more a minister of the gospel.
d. Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance: Just as with the priests, it 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 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 be using 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 exempt from tithing. They were also to give a tenth (and the best of them given as the tenth) due to the Lord, and the Lord gave it to the priests.
i. It was important for the Levites to learn how to be givers also; just because they were supported through the giving of God’s people, it did not mean they didn’t need to give. We all need to learn how to be givers, because God is a giver, and we are being transformed into the image of Jesus.
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, portions of each that went to the priests and/or Levites.
ii. Firstborn and firstfruits were “risky” giving; your land might not yield much more produce, and your cow or ewe might not give birth again – yet the first still belonged to God, and was given to the priests. 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).
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 32:28-29).
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 another ten percent given (sometimes called the “festival tithe”), but in context Deuteronomy 12 is only speaking of where to bring the tithe, not commanding an additional one to be brought; others have said Deuteronomy 14:28-29 speaks of another tithe (sometimes called the “poor tithe”) to be brought every three years, but since it speaks of the tithe, and since it also goes to the Levite and not just to the poor, it is best to understand that this is not an additional tithe, but a command that once every three years the tithe also be available to the poor, not just 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; they also were asked to give for special projects (like the building of the tabernacle, Exodus 35:4-9), and free-will giving to the poor.