Numbers 3 – The Census of the Levites
A. Priests and Levites.
1. (1-4) The priests: The family of Aaron.
Now these are the records of Aaron and Moses when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. And these are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab, the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he consecrated to minister as priests. Nadab and Abihu had died before the Lord when they offered profane fire before the Lord in the Wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar ministered as priests in the presence of Aaron their father.
a. Now these are the records of Aaron and Moses: Now, the census of the tribes of Israel will record the tribe and family of Aaron and Moses. This was done as Israel was still at Mount Sinai.
i. Adam Clarke noted that Moses did not appoint his sons to leadership in Israel: “Moses passes by his own family, or immediate descendants; he gave no rank or privilege to them during his life, and left nothing to them at his death. They became incorporated with the Levites, from or amongst whom they are never distinguished.”
b. Nadab, the firstborn, and Abihu: Nadab and Abihu were the two oldest children of Aaron, and the two ranking priests behind him – yet they were struck down by the Lord for offering profane fire before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-7).
i. The death of Nadab and Abihu is referred to at least five times in Leviticus and Numbers. This repetition shows that God did not want the event forgotten, or the lessons it teaches to be neglected.
ii. “Seemingly the most common reports of failure we hear of God’s ministers in our own day are of their malfeasance, indolence, greed, lust, and abuse of power. Tragically the lessons of the past are forgotten with frightful ease. The spiritual descendants of Nadab and Abihu continue to occupy the ranks of the ‘ministers’ of God.” (Allen)
c. Eleazar, and Ithamar: Therefore, the third and fourth-born sons of Aaron (Eleazar, and Ithamar) inherited the priesthood, and passed it down to their sons after them.
d. The sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he consecrated to minister as priests: It is important to realize that the priests were only one small family among the Levites. To be a priest and to be a Levite were not the same thing at all. Only those who were descendants of Aaron could be priests.
2. (5-10) The Levites: Their role in relation to Aaron.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. And they shall attend to his needs and the needs of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of meeting, to do the work of the tabernacle. Also they shall attend to all the furnishings of the tabernacle of meeting, and to the needs of the children of Israel, to do the work of the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are given entirely to him from among the children of Israel. So you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall attend to their priesthood; but the outsider who comes near shall be put to death.”
a. Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him: The entire tribe of Levi was given to serve the needs of Aaron and the priests (they shall attend to his needs), to serve the needs of the congregation at large (and the needs of the whole congregation), and to serve the needs of the tabernacle itself (attend to all the furnishings of the tabernacle…to do the work of the tabernacle).
i. These were important aspects of the Levite’s service, but they also had at least one other important responsibility: to teach God’s word to the people of God. Deuteronomy 24:8 is one passage stating that the priests and the Levites were to teach the people of Israel God’s word: Carefully observe and do according to all that the priests, the Levites, shall teach you; just as I commanded them, so you shall be careful to do.
ii. We also see that Levites from the families of Gershon, Kohath, and Merari also served as musicians during the reign of King David (1 Chronicles 6:33-47).
iii. However the Levites served, it was in sacrificial surrender to God. Clarke notes of the phrase bring the tribe of Levi near: “Hakreb is properly a sacrificial word, and signifies the presenting of a sacrifice or offering to the Lord. As an offering, the tribe of Levi was given up entirely to the service of the sanctuary, to be no longer their own, but the Lord’s property.”
b. And they shall attend to his needs: God appointed an order and organization for the Levites and the priests. The Levites were under the direction of Aaron (that they may serve him…. they are given entirely to him). Their main mission was to help Aaron and help his work as priest for Israel.
i. According to Wenham, attend to his needs is more literally, “to keep guard.” Lexicons explain the verb somru as “to keep, watch, guard.”
ii. “They had to be permanently on guard, ready to kill any unauthorized person approaching the tent of meeting, its furniture or the altar. The phrase he shall be put to death implies a judicial execution, though in this context it is more like a policeman shooting a bank robber.” (Wenham) Examples of this kind of “policing” of the sanctuary are found in Exodus 32:25-29 and Numbers 25:7-12.
iii. They were to protect against both enemies (foreign invaders) and “friends” – Israelites not authorized to enter the tabernacle or its courts.
iv. “Whereas Mesopotamian and Egyptian temples had statues of divine emissaries as guardians for their various temples, Israel knew of no such demonic entities in their prophetic religion. There was but one true power in the universe, the God of Israel, and his sanctuary must be protected and secured from the intrusion or defilement by ‘the only remaining adversary – man.’” (Cole)
v. “Nothing in the holy things of God was left to chance or improvisation. None of the sacred persons who ministered in his presence was to be unprepared or untaught.” (Allen)
c. To do the work of the tabernacle: In some ways, being a priest was far more visible and perhaps “glamorous” than being a Levite. But the service of the Levites made the work of the priests possible and was seen by God as having equal value. It was all part of the work of the tabernacle.
d. The outsider who comes near shall be put to death: This outsider could include a Levite who presumed to take the role of a priest. If a Levite grew jealous, and decided they wanted to do the work of a priest, it was strictly forbidden. This sin against God’s order and organization was to be severely punished.
i. “Service at the tabernacle may be done only at the express command of God. There is a special poignancy in the words of v.10 as they follow the paragraph reminding us of the deaths of Aaron’s sons.” (Allen)
ii. In the perspective of the New Covenant, God also has an order and an organization. God has appointed offices and roles in the church such as elder, pastor (shepherd), and overseer. There should be an appropriate recognition of such offices and the men who properly fulfill such offices (Hebrews 13:7 and 13:17, Ephesians 4:11-15).
iii. However, in the New Covenant every believer is a priest (1 Peter 2:5 and 2:9; Revelation 1:6 and 5:10). While there is structure and order in the New Covenant community, all have equal standing before God in Jesus Christ, and equal access to God in Jesus.
3. (11-13) The Levites are a special possession to God.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Now behold, I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine, because all the firstborn are Mine. On the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They shall be Mine: I am the Lord.”
a. I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn: In the Law of Moses, God had special claim to the firstborn of Israel (Exodus 13:1-2 and 13:11-15). As the Exodus passages show, this was true of both man and beast. This demonstrated the principle that God has claim to the first and best of our blessings.
i. Allen notes that the words instead of “serve as a clear example of substitution in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Genesis 22:13: ‘a ram…instead of his son’; cf. also Matthew 20:28).”
b. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine, because all the firstborn are Mine: Levi, the son of Israel and ancestor of the tribe of Israel, was not the firstborn among his brothers. Yet God chose the Levites as His own, and regarded them as a replacement for the firstborn of the nation as a whole (because all the firstborn are Mine).
B. The census of the tribe of Levi.
1. (14-20) The command to number the tribe of Levi.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, saying: “Number the children of Levi by their fathers’ houses, by their families; you shall number every male from a month old and above.” So Moses numbered them according to the word of the Lord, as he was commanded. These were the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. And these are the names of the sons of Gershon by their families: Libni and Shimei. And the sons of Kohath by their families: Amram, Izehar, Hebron, and Uzziel. And the sons of Merari by their families: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites by their fathers’ houses.
a. Number the children of Levi: Though they were not counted among the available soldiers of Israel (Numbers 1:47-49), the Levites were still to be counted.
b. Number every male from a month old and above: For the military census of Numbers 1, Israel counted every male twenty years old and above (Numbers 1:45). The Levites were not counted for military service, so they counted every male from a month old and above.
c. By their fathers’ houses: The tribe of Levi was to be categorized by the families, with the main grouping according to Levi’s three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.
2. (21-26) The census and duties of the family of Gershon.
From Gershon came the family of the Libnites and the family of the Shimites; these were the families of the Gershonites. Those who were numbered, according to the number of all the males from a month old and above; of those who were numbered there were seven thousand five hundred. The families of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle westward. And the leader of the fathers’ house of the Gershonites was Eliasaph the son of Lael. The duties of the children of Gershon in the tabernacle of meeting included the tabernacle, the tent with its covering, the screen for the door of the tabernacle of meeting, the screen for the door of the court, the hangings of the court which are around the tabernacle and the altar, and their cords, according to all the work relating to them.
a. The families of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle westward: The Gershonites (7,500 males) were to camp on the west side (behind) of the tabernacle. This was in between the tribe of Ephraim and the tabernacle itself.
b. The duties of the children of Gershon: The Gershonites were to take care of the skins that covered the tabernacle itself. According to all the work relating to them means the children of Gershon were responsible for the disassembly, transport, assembly, and upkeep of the tent with its covering, the screens, the hangings, and their cords.
3. (27-32) The census and duties of the family of Kohath.
From Kohath came the family of the Amramites, the family of the Izharites, the family of the Hebronites, and the family of the Uzzielites; these were the families of the Kohathites. According to the number of all the males, from a month old and above, there were eight thousand six hundred keeping charge of the sanctuary. The families of the children of Kohath were to camp on the south side of the tabernacle. And the leader of the fathers’ house of the families of the Kohathites was Elizaphan the son of Uzziel. Their duty included the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the utensils of the sanctuary with which they ministered, the screen, and all the work relating to them. And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest was to be chief over the leaders of the Levites, with oversight of those who kept charge of the sanctuary.
a. These were the families of the Kohathites: The Kohathites (8,600 males) were to camp on the south side of the tabernacle. This was in between the tribe of Reuben and the tabernacle itself.
i. “Some Kohathites under the rebellious leadership of Korah would later challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron over the Israelite community (Numbers 16:1-50).” (Cole)
ii. The families of the Amramites: “The term ‘Amramites’ reminds us of the family of Aaron and Moses. Aaron is an Amramite (see Exodus 6:20). The presence of the family of the Amramites suggests that Amram was not the direct father of Aaron, Miriam, and Moses but an ancestor. Hence, Aaron and Moses were from the family of Kohath, of the tribe of Levi.” (Allen)
b. Their duty included the ark: The Kohathites were to take care of the furniture of the tabernacle: The ark of the covenant, the table of showbread, the lampstand, the altars, and other tools and furnishings. All the work relating to them means they were responsible for the covering, the proper transport, the placement, and the maintenance of these holy articles.
c. Eleazar the son of Aaron the high priest was to be chief over the leaders of the Levites: All the Levites with duties related to the charge of the sanctuary were under the supervision of the priests.
4. (33-37) The census and duties of the family of Merari.
From Merari came the family of the Mahlites and the family of the Mushites; these were the families of Merari. And those who were numbered, according to the number of all the males from a month old and above, were six thousand two hundred. The leader of the fathers’ house of the families of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail. These were to camp on the north side of the tabernacle. And the appointed duty of the children of Merari included the boards of the tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its sockets, its utensils, all the work relating to them, and the pillars of the court all around, with their sockets, their pegs, and their cords.
a. These were the families of Merari: The family of Merari (6,200 males) were to camp on the north side of the tabernacle. This was in between the tribe of Dan and the tabernacle itself.
b. The appointed duty of the children of Merari included the boards of the tabernacle: The family of Merari was to take care of the structural aspects of the tabernacle including the pillars, the boards, and so forth. All the work relating to them means they were responsible for the disassembly, the transport, the assembly, and the maintenance of these articles that gave a frame, structure, and stability to the tabernacle.
5. (38-39) The camp of the priests.
Moreover those who were to camp before the tabernacle on the east, before the tabernacle of meeting, were Moses, Aaron, and his sons, keeping charge of the sanctuary, to meet the needs of the children of Israel; but the outsider who came near was to be put to death. All who were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of the Lord, by their families, all the males from a month old and above, were twenty-two thousand.
a. Those who were to camp before the tabernacle on the east: The family of Aaron, and Moses, were to camp on the east side of the tabernacle – closest to the entrance, which was on the east side of the sanctuary.
i. “Moses and Aaron had the most honored location, as we would expect. They guarded the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and they did so facing the sun. There is a sense in which the opening of the tent best faces the east, for this is the direction of the encampment of the people. Later on Solomon was to build the holy temple in Jerusalem. Its entrance also would face east. The morning sun would shine first on the entrance of the Holy Place, as a symbol of the life-giving light of God that illumines the place of his presence.” (Allen)
b. Moses, Aaron, and his sons, keeping charge of the sanctuary: God’s order and organization extends to certain jobs for certain people to do. The families of the Levites had certain callings they were to fulfill. There was no one man or family to do everything; God made them dependent on one another to accomplish the work.
c. To meet the needs of the children of Israel: The work of the priests and the Levites was for the glory and honor of God. Yet another essential part of their service was to simply meet the needs of the children of Israel. Knowing the nature of their work, this was largely focused on their spiritual needs, but certainly included needs beyond the spiritual. To do their work well as priests and Levites, they need to be servants, and sympathetic to the people and their needs.
d. But the outsider who came near was to be put to death: The work of the priests and Levites was only to be done by those born into the established families. It was exclusive, and not open to all on the basis of desire or ambition. This Old Covenant emphasized a sense of exclusion; the New Covenant emphasizes inclusion.
e. Were twenty-two thousand: The number of males among the Levites totaled 22,000 men.
i. “The total of 22,000 Levites given in verse 39 does not tally with the totals of the individual clans given in verses 22, 28, 34 which come to 22,300. The discrepancy is most easily explained as textual corruption in verse 28. The number of Kohathites may originally have been 8,300. 3 (Hebrew sls) could quite easily have been corrupted into 6 (ss).” (Wenham)
6. (40-51) The exchange of the firstborn.
Then the Lord said to Moses: “Number all the firstborn males of the children of Israel from a month old and above, and take the number of their names. And you shall take the Levites for Me; I am the Lord; instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the livestock of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the livestock of the children of Israel.” So Moses numbered all the firstborn among the children of Israel, as the Lord commanded him. And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names from a month old and above, of those who were numbered of them, were twenty-two thousand two hundred and seventy-three. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the livestock of the Levites instead of their livestock. The Levites shall be Mine: I am the Lord. And for the redemption of the two hundred and seventy-three of the firstborn of the children of Israel, who are more than the number of the Levites, you shall take five shekels for each one individually; you shall take them in the currency of the shekel of the sanctuary, the shekel of twenty gerahs. And you shall give the money, with which the excess number of them is redeemed, to Aaron and his sons.” So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those who were redeemed by the Levites. From the firstborn of the children of Israel he took the money, one thousand three hundred and sixty-five shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. And Moses gave their redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses.
a. Number all the firstborn males of the children of Israel: In Numbers 3:11-13 God told Moses that the Lord would claim Levites as a substitute for the firstborn males of Israel. As the first and presumably the best of God’s blessings, the firstborn belonged to God. A firstborn lamb would be sacrificed to the Lord; but God did not want human sacrifice. He received the Levites instead, and this command to number all the firstborn males of the children of Israel was part of that exchange. They were to take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel.
i. There can be a difference between what God lays claim to and what He materially receives. God laid claim to all of Israel, and spiritually they all belonged to Him and His purpose. Materially, God received only the tribe of Levi in the place of all Israel. The same concept is true regarding our material possessions. Everything we have belongs to God; it is all His. Materially speaking, we return to Him a proportion in the place of all that belongs to us.
b. All the firstborn males, according to the number of names: However, there were 22,273 firstborn sons in Israel; and there were only 22,000 Levite males (Numbers 3:39). There were more firstborn sons than Levite males. The extra 273 firstborn sons were assigned a value in money (five shekels for each one individually), and the money was given to the tabernacle. This amounted to one thousand three hundred and sixty-five shekels of what God called redemption money.
i. The number of firstborn sons is low if accounted for all the nation; it would mean that only one in 27 sons were firstborns – an unlikely percentage. It is more probable that the 22,273 firstborn sons were those born in the thirteen months since their departure from Egypt.
ii. “The price for the redemption of the excess firstborn of the Israelites was five shekels, or about 2.1 ounces of silver per person according to the twenty-gerah sanctuary shekel.” (Cole)
iii. “Five shekels apiece was the price to be paid for the redemption of a first-born a month old, Numbers 18:15-16; but this money, though paid for these 273 persons, was probably paid out of the common stock of all.” (Poole)
iv. The Levites were redeemed with a silver shekel, but under the New Covenant the believer is redeemed with something far more costly and precious: the blood of Jesus Christ, as a lamb without blemish (1 Peter 1:18-19).