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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 3

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter has the enumeration of the Levites, their duties, and the substitution of the first-born. As is generally true, most of the writings available on these chapters have the nature of an extended harangue on the numbers in this section of the book, whether or not they are accurately reported, or if they are “fabricated,”(F1) or that maybe the word for “thousand” originally meant merely, “squads,” “families,” or some other unit far smaller than “thousand.”

These numbers in Moses’ fourth book present no problem whatever to the believer.

(1) If the numbers are exactly accurate in all respects, the only problem would be connected with how so vast a multitude could be maintained in the kind of environment the Sinai area is supposed to have been during Israel’s sojourn there. But where is the problem? Is anything too hard for God? Our holy text makes it perfectly clear that God Himself provided the food and drink for that whole era of forty years. The people who have trouble with this evidently know nothing of the God of the Bible.

(2) If, as strongly suggested by some writers, the word here rendered “thousand(s)” actually meant something else originally, then, in this particular, the Masoretic Text would be in error, but, of course, there is no evidence whatever to support such a view. However, even if such an error could be revealed here and there in the Holy Bible, the effect would be of as little consequence as a fly-speck on the Washington Monument. We do not believe any error exists in these numbers, but if God did indeed allow, through the weakness of men, some little flaw now and then in the Sacred Scriptures, it would have been by design to test the faith of his children. If people are going to believe merely those things that appear “reasonable” to them, the whole character of true faith in God is already destroyed. How REASONABLE could it have been to Abraham that he should slay his son Isaac as a SACRIFICE to God, when that same God had promised through that son Isaac to make Abraham’s posterity as numerous as the stars of heaven?

We shall not, therefore, waste any more time by exploring the controversy about these numbers, but shall attempt to interpret them as they stand in the text.

Verses 1-4

“Now these are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day that Jehovah spoke with Moses in mount Sinai. And these are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the first born, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the priests that were anointed whom he consecrated to minister in the priest’s office. And Nadab and Abihu died before Jehovah, when they offered strange fire before Jehovah, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children; and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the presence of Aaron their father.”

“These are the generations…” (Numbers 3:1). Here again we have the magnificent [~toledowth] encountered ten times in Genesis. “It is used here in a technical sense, referring to what follows (as in Genesis 2:4; Genesis 5:1; Genesis 6:9; Genesis 10:1; Genesis 11:10; Genesis 11:27; Genesis 25:12; Genesis 25:19; Genesis 36:1; and Genesis 37:2). It marks a new departure looking DOWN not UP the course of history.”(F2) Moses and Aaron were in themselves the beginning of vast influences that would flow downward throughout the course of history; and the account of that begins here.

“In the day that Jehovah spoke with Moses in Sinai” Noth referred to this as “a completely meaningless indication of time,”(F3) presumably meaning that it was meaningless to him. The words used here are very similar to the passage in Genesis 2:4, where is found the very first use of this word [~toledowth] in the Bible along with the qualifying words “in the day that Jehovah God made earth and heaven.” The significance of this is profound, proving that the passages in Genesis subsequent to Genesis 2:4 are a record not of the original creation, but what took place afterward, and that the new focus would not be on the heavens and the earth, but on the earth and heaven! The same implications are here, and are clearly indicated by the use of these words lifted from Genesis 2:4, where first the significant term [~toledowth] was used. Note the two pairs of words: earth and heaven, indicating the shift of emphasis to the lesser from the greater, and Aaron and Moses, indicating that same definite shift from the greater to the lesser in the passage here.

Numbers 3:2 has the names of Aaron’s four sons, but the punctuation takes no notice of their being named as pairs. “The names are listed in pairs: Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.”(F4)

In Numbers 3:2 and Numbers 3:3 are the identical words, “these are the names of the sons of Aaron… these are the names of the sons of Aaron the priests.” Jewish writers make much of this verbatim repetition in successive verses:

The statement, “These are the names of the sons of Aaron” occurs twice, first in the naming of the sons, and then in the characterization of the sons as priests, in order to show that even after their appointment to the priesthood, the sons of Aaron did not receive new names but were still considered the same human beings as before.(F5)

We find full agreement with the Jewish deductions from this passage, regardless of the fact that the purpose of the repetition here may not necessarily be connected with their deductions. Certainly the conceit of the Medieval Church in giving new names to their Cardinals and Popes upon their elevation to certain offices is not at all justified by anything in the Holy Scriptures.

“Nadab and Abihu died… when they offered strange fire…” (Numbers 3:4). The very mention of this unhappy event proves that post-exilic priests had nothing to do with composing, editing, adding to, or deleting anything from the Book of Numbers! This sad story of Nadab and Abihu would never have been found in any kind of Bible they could or would have produced. This verse, of course, explains why NO descendants of Nadab and Abihu were ever to be found among the priests of Israel, as they had died childless. Eleazar and Ithamar became thus the heads of the Aaronic order.

“In the presence of their father” The true meaning of this is not that they served “under the oversight of Aaron,”(F6) although, of course, they might actually have done this also. The true meaning is in the RSV, as noted by Whitelaw, “in the lifetime of their father.”(F7)

Verses 5-10

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him. And they shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle. And they shall keep all the furniture of the tent of meeting, and the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle. And thou shalt give the Levites unto Aaron and to his sons: they are wholly given unto him on the behalf of the children of Israel. And thou shalt appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall keep their priesthood: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.”

This paragraph reveals the divine appointment of the tribe of Levi, not as priests, but as a special class of workers who would be employed continually in the service of the tabernacle, under the oversight and supervision of the High Priest. It is not true that they were thus constituted a tribe of slaves. Theirs was an honored and privileged position in which they were perpetually exempt from military service and were supported entirely and particularly for this service.

We cannot agree that this placement of the Levites as essentially custodians and caretakers of the tabernacle derives from a post-exilic priesthood intent upon degrading their kinsmen the Levites. Even if such a priesthood at such a time had devised such a thing, what kind of blindness could have induced them to support their designs by “finding” instructions in the book of God (The O.T.) that are detailed in so specific and circumstantial a manner as are these instructions in Numbers? The post-exilic priests had no tabernacle, and for an extended period had no temple either. Add to this the fact that the instructions for the Levites were detailed in such things as dismantling and transporting the tabernacle, which at the alleged time of those priests writing these passages, had not even existed for ages. Even Noth admitted that all this is “exceedingly remarkable!”(F8) The proper word to describe such postulations, however, is not remarkable, but impossible! Moses alone can properly be considered as the human source through whom these instructions were conveyed to men, as clearly stated in Numbers 3:5: “Jehovah spake unto Moses.”

“The stranger that cometh nigh…” (Numbers 3:10). This repeated formula (also in Numbers 1:52) did not always have the same meaning. In Numbers 1:51, it means any non-Levites violating the restrictions would be put to death, and here it includes also any Levites who were not also priests. It is not clear whether human agency or divine fiat would accomplish the death of violators. In the case of Nadab and Abihu, just mentioned, it was by divine fiat, and from this, Jewish writers have concluded that God Himself would enforce this rule.(F9)

Verses 11-13

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the first-born that openeth the womb among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be mine: for all the first-born are mine; on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast; mine they shall be: I am Jehovah.”

There is important symbolism in this. “As representatives of the hallowed first-born (Exodus 22:29-30; Exodus 34:19-20), the Levites picture the saints composing `the church of the first-born… written (registered) in heaven’ (Hebrews 12:23), having no earthly inheritance, but a heavenly place and service.”(F10)

This paragraph is not a clumsy attempt to soften the degrading requirements early in the chapter that seem to enslave the Levites, but a true revelation of what is really meant by being given “unto the Lord.” All who are given unto God are given to serve; and the saved are saved to save.

The important question of just why God selected the Levites for this assignment is easily answered. Whitelaw has the best analysis of it:

“The most obvious reason why Levi was selected is that he was by far the smallest in numbers of the twelve tribes, being less than half the size of the next smallest. Also, he almost balanced the number of the firstborn. Furthermore, a larger tribe could not have been spared, and would not have been needed to supply the number required… Another reason may appear in the prophecy of Genesis 49:7. Both Levi and Simeon were doomed never to raise their heads as a united and powerful tribe in Israel.”(F11)

That an entire tribe (although the smallest) was required for the services detailed for the Levites in these chapters is manifest in the extensive and elaborate ritual prescribed by God himself for the tabernacle throughout the middle three books of the Pentateuch. A small number of persons could never have done all that God commanded to be done in connection with that extensive ritual.

Verses 14-20

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, Number the children of Levi by their fathers’ houses, by their families: every male from a month old and upward shalt thou number them. And Moses numbered them according to the word of Jehovah, as he was commanded. And these were the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon, and Kohath, and Merari. And these are the sons of Gershon by their families: Libni and Shimei. And the son of Kohath by their families: Areram, and Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. And the sons of Merari by their families: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites according to their fathers’ houses.”

The effect of this very abbreviated genealogy is that of dividing the Levites into three divisions:

(1) the Gershonites

(2) the Kohathites, and

(3) the Merarites

A marked difference in the method of numbering occurs here in that all males above the age of one month were included, whereas in the case of the military registration, only those above twenty years old were counted. Based upon this, Jewish tradition held that, “A child must live a month before being considered fully viable. Neither funeral nor mourning practices are observed if a child has not reached that age, and the child is considered as if stillborn.”(F12)

Verses 21-26

“Of Gershon was the family of the Libnites, and the family of the Shimeites: these are the families of the Gershonites. Those that were numbered of them, according to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, even those that were numbered of them were seven thousand and five hundred. The families of the Gershonites shall encamp behind the tabernacle westward. And the prince of the fathers’ house of the Gershonites shall be Eliasaph the son of Lael. And the charge of the sons of Gershon in the tent of meeting shall be the tabernacle, and the Tent, the covering thereof, and the screen for the door of the tent of meeting, and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the door of the court, which is by the tabernacle, and by the altar round about, and the cords of it for all the service thereof.”

The writing here follows absolutely the style of the 1500 B.C. period with an elaborate, stylized repetition. Also, there is discernible the same Biblical method observed throughout the Pentateuch of including additional and variations of instructions in each repetition. It is foolish indeed to find different “sources” for such supplemental information. It is simply the Biblical method. It will be remembered that God’s “two of each kind” orders for Noah’s loading the ark were supplemented later with “seven” of the clean kinds of creatures. The result of this is that the total instructions in each sector of labor would be known only by a careful attention to all that was written concerning it, and not by a mere glance at the first mention of it. Most of the critical scholars seem to be unaware of this, losing themselves in a maze of “various sources.” In regard to what is said here of the work of the Gershonites, “Their work concerned not the making of these things but their continuance in connection with the movement of the testimony.”(F13) On the march, the Gershonites followed the company of Reuben (Numbers 10:17).

Verses 27-32

“And of Kohath was the family of the Amramites, and the family of the Izharites, and the family of the Hebronites, and the family of the Uzzielites: these are the families of the Kohathites. According to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, there were eight thousand and six hundred, keeping the charge of the sanctuary. The families of the sons of Kohath shall encamp on the side of the tabernacle southward. And the prince of the fathers’ house of the families of the Kohathites shall be Elizaphan the son of Uzziel. And their charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary wherewith they minister, and the screen, and all the service thereof. And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall be prince of the princes of the Levites, and have the oversight of them that keep the charge of the sanctuary.”

Here of course, we have exactly the same presentation of the sons of Kohath as was given in the above paragraph for the sons of Gershon. In both, it is most evident that no complete genealogy of any kind is given for the period of time covering over four centuries from the entry into Egypt by Levi and his brother-sons of Jacob, the purpose here not being to give a complete genealogy, but only sufficient information to support the division of the Levites into the three predominant families mentioned in this chapter.

Verses 33-37

“Of Merari was the family of the Mahlites, and the family of the Mushites: these are the families of Merari. And those that were numbered of them, according to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, were six thousand and two hundred. And the prince of the fathers’ house of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail: they shall encamp on the side of the tabernacle northward. And the appointed charge of the sons of Merari shall be the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and the sockets thereof, and all the instruments thereof, and all the service thereof, and the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pins, and their cords.”

Thus is concluded the detailed enumeration and assignment for Merari, the third division of the Levites. It should be noted that Eleazar, son of Aaron, was appointed over the three princes of these divisions, giving him, in effect, charge of the entire tabernacle complex.

The totals of the enrollees of these divisions are 7,500 for Gershon, 8,600 for Kohath, and 6,200 for Merari, yielding a grand total of 22,300, precipitating the “tremendous problem” posed by the flat 22,000 given for this total in Numbers 3:39! Apparently, some of the commentators never heard of “round numbers.” Exploring “contradictions” of this nature is certainly a picayune business! The “explanations” usually focus on the fact that the Hebrew word for “6” as given in the enumeration for Kohath might actually have been “3,” due to the close similarities in the Hebrew designations for those numbers. The Jews used letters to signify numbers. The numeral six was represented by [~sh-sh], and the numeral three was represented by [~sh-l-sh]; and some scribe might easily have overlooked the [~l](F14). To us, the “round number” explanation is sufficient. The fact, however, that the round number of 22,000 was used when the total was subtracted from the total of the first-born of all Israel, means that whatever “error” existed would certainly have been in one of the totals of the three divisions. It is simply not a momentous question. Certainly, for some reason or other, the total was reduced by the sum of 300 in Numbers 3:39. Jewish expositors explain this by the proposition that certain Levites were ineligible to be counted in the trade off with the whole nation (next recorded) (several reasons for this are given), thus reducing the total to a round 22,000.

Verses 38-39

“And those that encamp before the tabernacle eastward before the tent of meeting toward the sunrising, shall be Moses, and Aaron and his sons, keeping the charge of the sanctuary for the charge of the children of Israel; and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death. All that were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of Jehovah, by their families, all the males from a month old and upward, were twenty and two thousand.”

Although Moses was given a place of honor alongside Aaron at the entrance to the tabernacle, Moses’ sons were not included, having no part whatever of the priesthood.

Verses 40-43

“And Jehovah said unto Moses, Number all the first-born males of the children of Israel from a month old and upward, and take the number of their names. And thou shalt take the Levites for me (I am Jehovah) instead of all the first-born among the children of Israel; and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstlings among the cattle of the children of Israel. And Moses numbered, as Jehovah commanded him, all the first-born among the children of Israel. And all the first-born males according to the number of names, from a month old and upward, of those that were numbered of them, were twenty and two thousand and threescore and thirteen.”

There is no difficulty whatever with these verses, except in the matter of the final total of all the first-born in Israel. The critics have been screaming for a hundred years that this number of 22,273 is absurd for an accurate account of the first-born males among a nation of some 2,000,000 people. Well, for the demographic experts in this field, this figure must indeed appear extremely small, and critics extrapolate these numbers to show that, according to these figures, every Jewish family would have had to have about fifty children!

However, the critics have missed the point altogether. Only those Israelites born AFTER the exodus were covered by this law of the dedication of the first-born, and this figure of 22,273 represents the first-born who were born AFTER the exodus. As Keil expressed it:

“Of course, the reference was only to the first-born of men and cattle that came into the world from that time forward (the time of the announcement of the law regarding the first-born), and not to those whom God had already sanctified to Himself by sparing the Israelites and their cattle (the night of the 10th plague).”(F15)

Critics, however, are never satisfied, and their answer to this true explanation of the low number is shouted, `that figure is too large for the births in a little over a year after Exodus.’ Well, the answer to their objection is patently obvious. That very first year when the Hebrews received their liberty, after years of galling service under the yoke of Pharaoh, there were bound to have been as many marriages (and consequently births) as would normally have occurred in five or ten years. It is easy to see that every person of age fit for marriage would have celebrated their liberation by choosing a mate. This figure of 22,273 first-born sons proves it. How else could it have happened? To be sure, the number is abnormally high for a similar statistic in any normal year for any people on earth, but that was not a normal year in any sense of the word. That certainly takes care of the nonsense about these figures being “absurd.”(F16) What an amazing folly is demonstrated by men who seek to “correct” writings of the third millennium anterior to themselves, especially in view of the fact that they simply do not have the knowledge to sustain them in such an effort. Long after this generation of unbelievers has been buried and forgotten, people will go on believing the Sacred Scriptures as has already been demonstrated throughout history.

Verses 44-51

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Take the Levites instead of all the first-born among the children of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle; and the Levites shall be mine: I am Jehovah. And for the redemption of the two hundred and three-score and thirteen of the first-born of the children of Israel, that are over and above the number of the Levites, thou shalt take five shekels apiece by the poll; after the shekel of the sanctuary shalt thou take them (the shekel is twenty gerahs): and thou shalt give the money, wherewith the odd number of them is redeemed, unto Aaron and to his sons. And Moses took the redemption money from them that were over and above them that were redeemed by the Levites; from the first-born of the children of Israel took he the money, a thousand three hundred and threescore and five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary: and Moses gave the redemption-money unto Aaron and to his sons, according to the word of Jehovah, as Jehovah commanded Moses.”

It is of interest that the 1,365 shekels equals the number of shekels procured by collecting five shekels each from 273 people. The author of the account here was most careful to give an exact report of everything related. How amazing it is, that after so many millenniums of time, the account is as perfect as it is.

It is significant that in the case of the cattle mentioned here, there was evidently permitted a redemption, through exchange, of both clean and unclean animals, some of which, according to legislation in Numbers 18:15-17, had to be sacrificed and not redeemed. Obviously, this was a special case not subject to normal requirements. Plaut noted that, normally, only “unclean animals could be redeemed, and therefore the Talmud applied this chapter only to clean animals.”(F17) It is not known, exactly, what happened.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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