Numbers 8 – Lighting of the Lamps, the Levites Cleansed for Service
A. The lighting of the lamps.
1. (1-3) Lamps are placed on the lampstand.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron, and say to him, ‘When you arrange the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.’” And Aaron did so; he arranged the lamps to face toward the front of the lampstand, as the Lord commanded Moses.
a. When you arrange the lamps: The lampstand was described and made in Exodus 25:31-40; but the lampstand by itself could give no light. It had to have lamps placed upon it that made the light. The purpose of the lampstand was not to make light, but to make the light more visible.
i. The lamps burned a specially made olive oil and needed to be continually filled with oil to provide constant light. “A candlestick or lamp without oil is of no use; oil not burning is of no use. So a Church or society of religious people without the influence of the Holy Ghost are dead while they have a name to live.” (Clarke)
ii. Revelation 1:20 presents lampstands as a picture of the church, the new covenant community of God’s people. By this illustration, we see the principle that the church itself does not light the world, but it does provide a “platform” for the light of Jesus to be seen.
b. He arranged the lamps to face toward the front of the lampstand: The light from the lampstand in the tabernacle was focused to bring the most illumination to the rest of the tent, especially for the table to showbread in front of the lampstand, and the altar of incense to the left of the lampstand.
i. “In this way there would always be light on the bread; the twin symbols of life would work together to speak of the life-giving mercies of the Lord, whose attention is ever on his people.” (Allen)
ii. “Upon that table the light from the golden lampstand ever fell. Thus were typified the great principles of the life of fellowship with God, which have their fulfillment for us in Christ. We have a table of communion, but it is well to remember that upon it the light is ever shining. We only have right to that table as we dwell in that light.” (Morgan)
2. (4) Description of the lampstand.
Now this workmanship of the lampstand was hammered gold; from its shaft to its flowers it was hammered work. According to the pattern which the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.
a. The lampstand was hammered gold: The lampstand was hammered out of pure gold, with no specific dimensions given, but after the pattern of a modern-day menorah. It had one middle shaft with three branches coming out of each side, for a total of seven places for lamps.
i. Many items in the tabernacle were made of wood and covered with gold, such as the ark of the covenant, the altar of incense, and the table of showbread. The lampstand was different, made out of solid gold.
ii. “Not hollow, but solid and massive gold, beaten out of one piece, and not of several pieces joined or soldered together.” (Poole)
iii. Hammered gold: John Trapp commented on the King James Version translation, beaten gold: “To show that ministers must beat their brains to beat out the sense of the Scriptures, as the fowl beats the shell, to get out the fish, with great vehemency.”
b. According to the pattern which the Lord had shown Moses: This is another statement of the important idea that the tabernacle and its furnishings were built according to pattern – the pattern revealed to Moses when he met with the Lord on Mount Sinai (Exodus 25:9, 25:40, 26:30).
B. Cleansing and dedication of the Levites.
1. (5-7) Cleansing and sprinkling.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the Levites from among the children of Israel and cleanse them ceremonially. Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purification on them, and let them shave all their body, and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean.
a. Take the Levites from among the children of Israel and cleanse them ceremonially: The record of the dedication of the priests is in Leviticus 8-9. This is the record of the dedication of the Levites. The Levites did not offer sacrifices for atonement, dedication, or fellowship with God (as the priests did), but their service to God was nevertheless valued and important. Their work of practical service also required dedication and consecration to the Lord.
i. “The Levites are helpers to the priests, and the language describing their consecration is somewhat distinct from that of the priests. The priests were made holy, the Levites clean; the priests were anointed and washed, the Levites sprinkled; the priests were given new garments, the Levites washed theirs; blood was applied to the priests, it was waved over the Levites.” (Allen)
b. Sprinkle water of purification on them: This ceremonial cleansing pictured a cleansing of sin and was also part of the priestly consecration (Exodus 29:4). The water of purification was the water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19:1-9).
i. This cleansing with water is also part of the new covenant as described in Ezekiel 36:25: Then I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean.
c. Let them shave all their body: The shaving of the Levites as part of their consecration was mainly a symbol of their purification (as the bodies cleansed lepers were shaved, Leviticus 14:9) and consecration (as Nazirite heads were shaved at the end of their vow, Numbers 6:9, 18). Yet the Levites were also given to God from Israel as their “firstborn” – God received the tribe of Levi instead of each individual firstborn boy from Israel. Newborn babies are relatively free from hair, and this also corresponds with the shaving of the Levites in their dedication to God.
i. “Since Semitic men were characterized generally in the ancient world by wearing beards and by ample bodily hair, shaving these men’s bodies must have been regarded as a remarkable act of devotion to God.” (Allen)
2. (8-15) The dedication of the Levites through sacrifice.
Then let them take a young bull with its grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, and you shall take another young bull as a sin offering. And you shall bring the Levites before the tabernacle of meeting, and you shall gather together the whole congregation of the children of Israel. So you shall bring the Levites before the Lord, and the children of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites; and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord, like a wave offering from the children of Israel, that they may perform the work of the Lord. Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the young bulls, and you shall offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering to the Lord, to make atonement for the Levites.
“And you shall stand the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and then offer them like a wave offering to the Lord. Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the children of Israel, and the Levites shall be Mine. After that the Levites shall go in to service the tabernacle of meeting. So you shall cleanse them and offer them, like a wave offering.
a. Then let them take a young bull with its grain offering: As a bull was sacrificed, representatives from the whole congregation of Israel laid their hands on the Levites, to bless them and pray for their dedication before the Lord. It would be clear to both the Levites and the nation that the Levites were servants of both the Lord and the nation.
b. Like a wave offering from the children of Israel: A normal wave offering presented something to God (such as a portion of meat or bread) with a motion that communicated the idea “This is Yours, God.” In this consecration of the Levites, the children of Israel came before God and essentially said, “These Levites belong to You, Lord.”
i. “In the case of the Levites, we may suspect that Aaron and his sons would place hands on their shoulders and then cause them to move from side to side in a symbolic way to represent the fact that they were a living sacrifice presented before the Lord and that they now belonged to the priests to assist them in their work of service in the tabernacle.” (Allen)
3. (16-19) The Levites are regarded as Israel’s firstborn given to God.
For they are wholly given to Me from among the children of Israel; I have taken them for Myself instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the children of Israel. For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine, both man and beast; on the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them to Myself. I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel. And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the work for the children of Israel in the tabernacle of meeting, and to make atonement for the children of Israel, that there be no plague among the children of Israel when the children of Israel come near the sanctuary.”
a. I have taken them for Myself instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the children of Israel: This theme was previously stated in Numbers 3:40-51. God’s “possession” of the tribe of Levi was an expression of His lordship over all Israel.
i. “The Levites belonged to the Lord in exchange for his deliverance of the firstborn sons of Israel at the time of the tenth plague.” (Allen)
ii. “The Levites thereby make atonement (Hebrew kipper) for the people of Israel (19), that is pay the ransom price (koper). However, the Old Testament never countenances human sacrifice; so the Levites in their turn lay their hands on two bulls to make atonement for them.” (Wenham)
b. I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons: The Levites were not only set apart for God’s glory. They were also set apart for the help and benefit of the priests (Aaron and his sons).
i. That there be no plague: “This is added as a reason why God appointed them to serve in or about the tabernacle, that they might watch and guard it, and not suffer any of the people to come near it, or meddle with holy things, which if they did, it would certainly bring a plague upon them.” (Poole)
4. (20-22) Doing what God had commanded for the cleansing, dedication, and work of the Levites.
Thus Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the children of Israel did to the Levites; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so the children of Israel did to them. And the Levites purified themselves and washed their clothes; then Aaron presented them, like a wave offering before the Lord, and Aaron made atonement for them to cleanse them. After that the Levites went in to do their work in the tabernacle of meeting before Aaron and his sons; as the Lord commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did to them.
a. According to all that the Lord commanded: This was simple, wonderful obedience. God told Moses and the children of Israel to perform these dedication rituals for the Levites and they did them, just as God commanded.
i. “The implicit obedience of Moses and the people of Israel to the commands of God in the areas of ritual and regimen leave us quite unprepared for their complaints against his loving character and their outrageous breaches of faith in the rebellions that begin in the narrative of chapter 11.” (Allen)
b. After that the Levites went in to do their work: After the dedication ceremony at the tabernacle, the real work of the Levites had to begin. The work of the Levites was not focused on ceremonies (though these ceremonies had their place).
5. (23-26) The time of service for Levites.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “This is what pertains to the Levites: From twenty-five years old and above one may enter to perform service in the work of the tabernacle of meeting; and at the age of fifty years they must cease performing this work, and shall work no more. They may minister with their brethren in the tabernacle of meeting, to attend to needs, but they themselves shall do no work. Thus you shall do to the Levites regarding their duties.”
a. From twenty-five years old and above: A Levite’s time of active service was to begin at age thirty and last until fifty according to Numbers 4:3, 4:23, and 4:30. Yet their formal training began at age twenty-five, with a five-year apprenticeship.
b. At the age of fifty years they must cease performing the work: Since much of the work of the Levites involved hard, physical labor, it was from this work that they must cease when they turned fifty, allowing the younger men to bear the burden. There were other things that they could continue to do after fifty (minister with their brethren in the tabernacle).
i. “They would no longer dismantle and transport the tabernacle and its furnishing, but they could continue to serve as guards, insuring the sanctity of the holy place.” (Cole)
ii. “His mercy precluded a man doing the work that was demanded when he might be past his physical prime. There were to be no elderly, doddering Levites stumbling about in the precincts of the Holy Place, carrying poles too heavy for them to carry or doing things they were no longer able to do.” (Allen)
iii. The words perform (for entering service in verse 24) and performing (for leaving service in verse 25) are military words, used to describe warfare. Coming into service – even practical service among God’s people – can be warfare and leaving service can also be warfare.
c. Thus you shall do to the Levites regarding their duties: Moses, the children, of Israel, and the Levites all did as God directed them. The Levites showed the qualities of the kind of people ready to inherit the promised land: those who are cleansed, dedicated, and doing the work.