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the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 18

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

1And the Lord said unto Aaron, Thou and thy sons. By this solemn appeal God stirs up the priests to devote themselves to their duty with the greatest fidelity and zeal, for He declares that if anything should be done contrary to the requirements of religion, they should be accounted guilty of it, since those are said to “bear the iniquity of the sanctuary” who sustain the crime and the punishment of all its pollutions. God would have the sanctuary kept clear from every stain and defect; and also the dignity of the priesthood was to be maintained in chastity and pureness; a heavy burden, therefore, was imposed upon the priests when they were set over the holy things as their guardians, on this condition that if anything were done amiss they were to be exposed to punishment, because the blame rested on them; just as if God had said that negligence alone was tantamount to sacrilege. Thus their honor, conjoined as it was with so much difficulty and danger, was by no means to be envied.

In this way did God admonish them that the legal rites were of no trifling importance, since he so severely avenged all profanations of them; for thus it was easily to be gathered that something far more excellent and altogether divine was to be sought for in these earthly elements. This may also be very properly applied spiritually to all pastors, to whom blame is justly imputed, if religion and the holiness of God’s worship be corrupted, if purity of doctrine impaired, if the welfare of the people endangered, since the care of all these things is entrusted to them.

Verse 2

2.And thy brethren also. He here assigns their duties to the Levites, that they also may minister, but, as it were, under the hand of the priests, viz., that they may be ruled by their commands. Thus the authority was in the hands of the priests, but the Levites afforded them their assistance. On this ground they are prohibited from approaching the altar, or entering the greater sanctuary; in fact, a lower degree is assigned to them, half-way between the priests and the people. Hence did all learn how reverently God’s majesty must be served; for although He had adopted the whole people, yet so far was it from being lawful that any of the multitude should penetrate to the altar, that the Law even kept back the Levites from thence, although they were God’s peculiar ministers. Moreover, in this figure, we perceive how necessary is a Mediator for us to conciliate God’s favor towards us; for, if it was not allowable for the holy and chosen seed of Abraham to approach the typical sanctuary, how should we, who were aliens, (200) now penetrate to heaven, unless a way of access were opened to us through Christ? Finally, when He forbids strangers from meddling with holy things, He does not mean only foreigners, but all the people, except the tribe of Levi; for here a distinction is drawn, not between the Church and heathen nations, but between the ministers of the sanctuary and the rest of the people.

(200)Qui estions estrangers, et rejettez au pris d’eux.” —Fr.

Verse 5

5.And ye shall keep the charge. He again exhorts the priests to be diligent in the performance of their office, with the addition of a denunciation of punishment if they failed in zeal and earnestness. Nor does He now threaten them alone, but the whole people; neither does this contradict the foregoing declaration, inasmuch as the common fault of all by no means lightened theirs. Nay, if God punished the innocent people on account of the pollution of the sanctuary, how much heavier a punishment awaited the priests, (antistites,) by whose fault the sin was committed, so that they might be justly accounted its authors. Meanwhile let us learn from this passage how sincerely we ought to demean ourselves in the service of God, the profanation of which is intolerable to Him. Moreover, in order that the priests might engage themselves in their duties more actively, and with greater sedulity, He shews that they cannot give way to idleness without base ingratitude, since they reign in a manner over the whole tribe of Levi, or at any rate they hold the supremacy among their brethren. An indirect reproof of their negligence, if they do not faithfully fulfill their duties, is implied, when God reminds them that He has of His liberality honored them with the priesthood. “I have appointed your office, as a gift,” (201) i.e., I have gratuitously conferred on you what was otherwise yours by no right. Others read it differently, viz., “I have appointed your priesthood as a ministration of gift:” but since the meaning amounts to the same thing, nor does it make any difference in the main, we may freely take our choice.

(201)Donum posui munus vestrum.” — Lat. “I have given your office unto you as a service of gift.” — A. V. The latter part of the sentence is omitted in Fr.

Verse 8

8.And the Lord spake unto Aaron. He now proceeds to state more fully what he had been lately adverting to, as to the rights of the priests with respect to the sacred oblations. We must, however, remember the contrast, which I spoke of, between the priests of the higher order and the Levites; for, whilst the family of Aaron is invested with peculiar honors, the other families of the tribe of Levi are abased. God, then, assigns to the priests alone all the offerings, in which was the greater consecration, called “the holy of holinesses.” (208) An exception will afterwards appear; viz., that the whole was to be deposited, by way of honor, with the priests, out of which they were to pay a part to the Levites, who were performing their office in the service of the sanctuary. He tells them that this privilege is given them “by reason of the anointing,” lest the priests should pride themselves or magnify themselves on this score; for God’s gratuitous liberality ought to instruct us in modesty and humility. It is by this argument that Paul corrects and represses all vain boasting: “Why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7.) Now, the sons of Aaron had obtained their anointing by no other right, than that God had been pleased to elect them to it. This is also indicated by their privilege being spoken of as “a gift:” but God thus more expressly commends His grace, for He makes mention of His gift for another reason, i.e., that none should enter into any dispute or controversy with the priests on this point.

(208) A. V. “The most holy things:” “the holy of holies:” Ainsworth, whose note is, “Heb. ‘of the holiness of holinesses,’ i.e., of the most holy things; which the Greek translateth ‘of the hallowed (or sanctified) holy things.’ Some oblations in the sanctuary are called holy, and, by the Hebrew doctors, light holy things, some holy of holies, i.e., most holy things,” etc.

Verse 9

9.This shall be thine. He enumerates certain kinds of sacrifices which He desired to come to the share of the priests; viz., all the residue of the burnt-offerings; secondly, the minha, or meat-offering; thirdly, what was consecrated of the sin and trespass-offerings; although the following clause, “which they shall restore unto me,” seems to be added by way of restriction, as if it only designated those sacrifices of which mention will be elsewhere made, (209) and by which they purged themselves from the guilt of theft, unless it may perhaps be preferred to read it as if to the sin and trespass-offerings this third were added, wherein people restored what did not belong to them, that they might be freed from the guilt of theft. After this He adds the free gifts, which the children of Israel vowed, and the first-fruits of oil, as well as of wine and corn. But this distinction was laid down, that God might more surely prevent jealousy and ill-will; for if there had been any ambiguity, many disputes would have straightway arisen, and thus the reverence due to sacred things would have been impaired. At the same time, however, God prescribes to the priests, that none but males should eat of the burnt-offerings, and nowhere else but in the sanctuary; for there would have been danger (as we said before) that the dignity of these holy offerings would have been lessened, if they had been carried away to private houses and mixed with ordinary meats; besides, God was unwilling to indulge the priests in sumptuous living, but by the very sight of the sanctuary induced them to be frugal and sober in their repasts. For this was a kind of military discipline to encourage abstinence, that they should go away from their wife and family to take their meal. But whatever was offered as a vow, and the first-fruits, He allows to be eaten of by the women, and in their houses, provided only that no unclean person should touch what had once been sacred.

(209) See Numbers 5:8, infra, p. 273.

Verse 15

15.Every thing that openeth the matrix. The same thing is now ordained as to the first-born, viz., that the priests should have them also for themselves; though at the same time a distinction is inserted, that the first-born of man should be redeemed. With regard to unclean beasts, the owners were free either to redeem or to kill them. But, since this matter is not professedly treated of here, God only briefly declares that He gives to the priests whatever profit may be made of the first-born. The command that the first-born should be redeemed according to the estimation of the priests, does not mean that the priests should themselves prescribe the value, as if they had the authority to do so; but that estimation is referred to by which they were bound according to God’s command, as we saw elsewhere; and this may be readily gathered from the context, because the price is presently added, which God Himself had fixed. As to the first-born of clean animals, another law is given, viz., that they should be killed at the altar, and their fat burned, whilst the flesh was to belong to the priests, like the breast and the right shoulder of the burnt-offerings. But, lest any of the Levites or of the people — since men are always eager for innovation — should ever attempt to violate this decree, all controversy is removed in future ages, when God declares that what He gave to the priests He would never have taken away from them. First, He uses the word edict or decree, (210) which others translate “statute:” and then adds the title “covenant,” (211) in order that its observation may be more sacred, and less exposed to contentions and quarrels; for nothing could be more indecent than that the priests should dispute regarding their rights and privileges. God, then, signifies that He shall be Himself outraged, if any one should trouble the priests. By the word “salt,” perpetuity is metaphorically expressed; in which, however, God appears to allude to the sacrifices, which it was not lawful to offer unless seasoned with salt; that the Israelites might learn that, by earthly and corruptible things, something greater was designated; for we know that salted meats do not so easily become corrupt. In a word, this metaphor implies inviolable stability.

(210) חק from חקק describere, decernere, statuere. — Taylor’s Concordance.

(211) Addition Fr. “ voire, Paction de sel ."

Verse 20

20And the Lord spake unto Aaron. This passage only refers in general to the payment of those tithes which were common to all the Levites. We shall soon afterwards see that the Levites, by God’s command, paid other tithes to the priest; and a third sort will be added, which were only offered every third year. As to the present passage, God requires tithes of the people for the maintenance of the tribe of Levi. It is indeed certain that the custom had existed of old among the ancient patriarchs before the Law, that they should vow or offer tithes to God, as appears from the example of Abraham and Jacob. Moreover, the Apostle infers that the priesthood of Melchisedec was superior to that of the Law, because, when Abraham paid him tithes, he also received tithes of Levi himself. (Genesis 14:20; Genesis 28:22; Hebrews 7:11.) But there were two different and special reasons for this payment of tithes, which God ordained by Moses. First, because the land had been promised to the seed of Abraham, the Levites were the legitimate inheritors of a twelfth part of it; but they were passed over, and the posterity of Joseph divided into two tribes: unless, therefore, they had been provided for in some other way, the distribution would have been unequal. Again, forasmuch as they were employed in the sanctuary, their labor was worthy of some remuneration, nor was it reasonable that they should be defrauded of their subsistence, when they were set apart for the performance of the sacred offices, and for the instruction of the people. Two reasons are consequently laid down why God would have them receive tithes from the rest of the people, viz., because they had no part in Israel, and because they were engaged in the service of the tabernacle. Besides, God, who as their King laid claim to the tithes as His own right, resigns them to the Levites, and appoints them to be as it were His representatives. To this the words, “I am thine inheritance,” refer.

The manner in which the tithes were employed will be seen afterwards in its proper place: it will be sufficient now to remember that the part which God had taken away from them and transferred to the sons of Joseph was thus compensated for; and since they were withdrawn from domestic cares, that in the name of all the people they might be more at liberty for, and more intent upon, sacred things, an income for their maintenance was thus given them. Wherefore the Papal priests draw a silly inference, when they claim the tithes for themselves, as if due to them in right of the priesthood; else must they needs prove that those, whom they call the laity, are their tenants, as if they were themselves the lords of the twelfth part of all landed property; and again, it would be sacrilege to appropriate the tithes to their own use, and to possess other lands of which they receive the rent. Nor does that expression of the Apostle, which they no less dishonestly than ignorantly allege, help them at all,

"The priesthood being changed, the right also is at the same time transferred.” (Hebrews 7:12.)

The Apostle there contends, that whatever the Law had conferred on the Levitical priests now belongs to Christ alone, since their dignity and office received its end in Him. These blockheads, just as if they had robbed Christ, appropriate to themselves the honor peculiar to Him. If they duly performed their duties, and, giving up all earthly business, devoted themselves altogether to the instruction of the people, and to the execution of all the other offices of good and faithful pastors, unquestionably they ought to be maintained by the public; as Paul correctly infers that a subsistence is now no less due to the ministers of the Gospel than of old to the priests who waited at the altar, (1 Corinthians 9:14;) but under this pretext they unjustly lay hands on the tithes, as if they were their owners, and with still greater impudence accumulate landed properties and other revenues.

It is probable that when the Roman Emperors (214) first professed themselves Christians, either induced by just and proper feelings, or out of superstition, or impressed with a pious solicitude that the Church should not be without ministers, they gave the tithes for the maintenance of the clergy; for whilst the Roman State was kee, the people used to exact tithes from their tributary nations. And this was the case, too, where there were kings; for the Sicilians (215) paid tithes before the Romans obtained dominion over them. Moreover, if there was a scarcity of corn in the city, the senate demanded a second tithe of the provinces. Nay, we gather from 1 Samuel 8:15, that it was a most ancient custom for kings to receive tithes; so that we need not be surprised that the Romans should have imitated this example. Whence we may infer that, when the Emperors wished to bestow a maintenance on pastors out of the public stock, they rather chose a tenth than any other proportion, that they might imitate God. And in fact some traces of this still remain; for the tithes do not everywhere belong to the priests; and it is well known that a good part of them are swallowed up by monks and abbots, who were not formerly reckoned among the clergy. I need not say that some lands are tithe free. But how would the Pope have allowed them to be held by laymen, if, by divine right, (as they stupidly prate,) they had been the sacred inheritance of the clergy? In conclusion, inasmuch as titlies are to be counted amongst public imposts and tributes, let not private individuals refuse to pay them, unless they wish to destroy the political state and government of kingdoms; but let pious princes take care to correct abuses, so that idle bellies may not devour public revenues which are devoted to the Church.

I am thy part. I have just before explained the meaning of this clause, viz., that, because the Levites were excluded from the common inheritance, God compensates this loss out of what is His, as if they received it from His hand; as much as to say, that He in Himself afforded a supply abundantly sufficient for their remuneration. Meanwhile, they are commanded to be contented in Him alone. Nor can we doubt but that David alludes to this passage when he exclaims,

"The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance; the lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places,” (Psalms 16:5;)

for he intimates not only that God is more to him than all earthly wealth, but that in comparison with Him all that others accounted to be most excellent and delectable was worthless. Since now we are all made priests in Christ, this condition is imposed upon us, that we should seek no other portion. Not that we are actually to renounce all earthly goods, but because our felicity is so securely based on Him, that, contented with Him, we should patiently endure the want of all things, whilst those who possess anything should be no less free and unentangled than as if they possessed nothing.

(214) “The common opinion is, that it was in the fourth century, when magistrates began to favor the Church, and the world was generally converted from heathenism. Some think Constantine settled them by law upon the Church, but there is no law of Constantine’s now extant that makes express mention of any such thing. — Before the end of the fourth century, as Mr. Selden not only confesses but proves out of Cassian, Eugippius, and others, tithes were paid to the Church.” — Bingham Antiq. B. 5, ch. 5, Section 3.

(215) By the “Lex Hieronica,” referred to by Cicero in C. Verrem., lib. 2:13, and 3:6.

Verse 22

22.Neither must the children of Israel. He again inculcates what he had before said, that the Levites were chosen to attend to the sacred things; since God would not admit all the people promiscuously, as before the giving of the Law, when others also offered the sacrifices. But, nevertheless, He strongly charges them that they should be attentive to the performance of their duties, since, if any of them should offend, their crime would be fatal; for so we must understand His words, “they shall bear their iniquity (202) to die:” just as in the next verse He says that they shall be guilty of all the pollutions, for, if the service of God should be defiled by inadvertency, the crime shall be imputed to them.

(202) See margin, A. V. He paraphrases the words of verse 23.

Verse 25

25.And the Lord spake unto Moses. This is another kind of tithe, i.e., a hundredth part of the whole produce, which the Levites paid to the priests. Some reckon a third kind; but I have given my reasons why I do not agree with this opinion. Assuredly it is not probable that in the same year double tithes were exacted and paid. Let this twofold division, therefore, be enough for us. A larger portion was given to the priests, not only as an honorable distinction, but. because greater holiness and integrity in expending them was expected from them; and also that they might meet many peculiar burdens. Lest then the Levites should be too sordid and niggardly, God declares that their theft would be no less wicked if they dealt dishonestly towards the priests, than as if the people should withhold any part of their own just share; for this is the object of the words, that the tithe of the tithes, which they are commanded to pay, should be as if they paid it from the threshing-floor and the wine-press, (Numbers 18:27;) as though it were said that they were no more exempted from the second tithes, than the people from the first. The precept is then still further extended, viz., that they should offer a part of all the offerings. Thirdly, sincere liberality is inculcated upon them, that they should not lay aside as the priests’ portion anything that was lean or out of condition, or in any respect of inferior quality, but that they should rather offer whatever was most choice; for this is what is meant by the word חלב, cheleb, (224) which some translate adeps; the word pinguedo seemed more suitable, in which, however, there is a metaphor contained.

(224) Numbers 18:30. A.V. “ the best thereof.” Margin, “Heb., fat.” According to Facciolati, adeps, means liquid fat which does not readily become hard; and pinguedo, simply fat, “an oily substance in animals and other things."

Verse 31

31.And ye shall eat it. Because the tithes were reckoned to be amongst the sacred oblations, a question might arise, whether it was lawful to eat them anywhere except in the sanctuary. God therefore declares, that when the Levites had separated the δευυτεροδεκάτας (the second tithes,) the residue passed into the nature and condition of ordinary meats; inasmuch as they might then eat in any place of the bread made of tithe-corn, like the produce of their own fields. The reason, which is subjoined, seems to be by no means appropriate; via, that it was the reward for the labor which they bestowed on the service of the tabernacle; for hence it was rather to be inferred, that this food was peculiarly destined for the ministers, whilst they were discharging their official duties, and keeping watch in the tabernacle, or killing the victims at the altar. But since by God’s command they were scattered over the whole land, and did not cease to be ministers of the tabernacle on account of the distance of their residence, it was justly permitted that, wherever they might be, they should eat of the meat appointed them by God. If it were allowable to take the particle כי, ki, (225) adversatively, the sense would be clearer. In the next verse he confirms the same declaration, i.e., that they should be free from all guilt when they had honestly paid the priests. Yet at the same time they are strictly admonished that they should not commit themselves by any fraud; for God declares that it would amount to sacrilege, if they should have thievishly embezzled any of it, and threatens them with capital punishment; for “to pollute the holy things” of the people, is equivalent to profaning whatever was consecrated in the name of the whole people.

(225) כי for, or because.W.

"On pourroit aussi translater, Combien que ce soit votre loyer;” it might also be translated, although this is your reward. — Fr.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 18". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/numbers-18.html. 1840-57.
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