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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 3

Verse 1

1.These also are the generations of Aaron and Moses He now separately enumerates the Levites; but, before he proceeds to state their number, he first shortly refers to what he had just before more fully narrated, that of the four sons of Aaron only two survived their father, inasmuch as Nadab and Abihu had suffered the penalty of their negligence in their defilement of the sacrifice. The six verses (423) which Moses inserts respecting the office of the priests have been expounded in their proper place. The dignity of the tribe of Levi is here exalted, when God compares the Levites to the first-born; the distribution of their charges is also touched upon, (424) but, since these things are connected with the census of the people, and the mode of pitching the camp, I have thought it best to annex them to what has just preceded, inasmuch as otherwise the history would be interrupted. And, in fact, in the order that I have followed, the office of each family is only incidentally treated of, so that all might know their proper station.

(423) Viz., verses 5-10. See ante, vol. 2, p. 220.

(424) “Quant a ce que Moyse touche ici des charges particulieres de chacune famille, combien que cela concerne le service duquel il a este traitte sur le Seconde Precepte, toutefois je n’ay peu aucunement faire, que de la mettre ici, afin que le fil de l’histoire ne fust point rompu;” with respect to the reference here made by Moses to the peculiar charge of each family, although it relates to the service which has been treated of under the Second Commandment, nevertheless I could not do otherwise than introduce it here, in order that the thread of the history might not be interrupted. — Fr.

Verse 5

5.And the Lord spake unto Moses. This passage contains two heads: first, That the Levites should be set apart for the ministry of the sanctuary and altar; and, secondly, That they should obey the chief priests of the family of Aaron, and do nothing except by their authority and command. But it has been already said, and we shall hereafter see again, that the tribe of Levi in general was divinely chosen to perform the sacred offices; so that the people might know that no one was worthy of so honorable a charge; but that it depended on the gratuitous calling of God, whose attribute it is to create all things out of nothing. In this way, not only was the temerity of those repressed who might be foolishly ambitious of the honor, but the whole Church was taught that, in order to worship God aright, there was need of extraneous aid. For, if the Levites had not stood between, the Law prohibited the rest of the people from having access to God, since it brought in the whole human race guilty of pollution. But, in order that they might be more certainly directed to the One Mediator, the high priesthood was exalted, and one priest was chosen to preside over all the rest: on this account God would have the Levites subject to the successors of Aaron. At the same time, He had regard to order, for a multitude, which is not governed by chiefs, will always be disorderly. Yet, it is unquestionable that the supreme power of Christ was represented in the person of Aaron; and hence the folly of the Papists is refuted, who transfer, or rather wrest, this example to the state of the Christian Church, (180) so as to set the bishops over the presbyters, and thus to fabricate the primacy of the Roman See. But if the true meaning of this figure be sought, it will be more appropriate to reason that, whatever ministers and pastors of the Church are now appointed, they are placed as it were under the hand of Christ, in order that they may usurp no dominion, but behave themselves modestly, as having to render an account to Him who is the Prince of pastors. (1 Peter 5:4.) Hence we conclude that the Papacy is only founded in wicked sacrilege; for Christ is unjustly deprived of His own, if any one else is feigned to be Aaron’s successor. Meanwhile, the political distinction of ranks is not to be repudiated, for natural reason itself dictates this in order to take away confusion; but that which shall have this object in view, will be so arranged that it may neither obscure Christ’s glory nor minister to ambition or tyranny, nor prevent all ministers from cultivating mutual fraternity with each other, with equal rights and liberties. Hence, too, was taken that declaration of the Apostle, that it is not lawful for any man to take this honor upon himself, but that they are the legitimate ministers of the Church who are “called” to be so. (Hebrews 5:4)

(180)Lesquels partissent tellement l’ordre de leur Hierarchyie qu’en la fin ils parvienent a la primaute du Siege Romain;” who so divide the order of their Hierarchy, that at length they arrive at the primacy of the See of Rome — Fr.

Verse 12

12.And I, behold, I have taken the Levites A little further on we shall see more clearly why God claims one tribe for Himself; He now only shews that the Levites rightfully belong to Him, because by special privilege the first-born of the people were preserved in the destruction of the Egyptians. God, therefore, declares that those, whose lives were thus gratuitously spared, were purchased to Himself. Since, then, He had the free option of devoting to Himself the first-born of every tribe, He was no less at liberty to take (425) only the twelfth part of the people from one tribe. Thus He cuts off all handle for complaint, inasmuch as it would have been intolerable ingratitude to withdraw from His control those whom He had miraculously redeemed; therefore He says that they did not perish in the general slaughter, in order that tie might subject them to ttimself.

(425) “Moins que la douzieme partie;” less than the twelfth part. — Fr.

Verse 15

15.Number the children of Levi after the house of their fathers The enumeration of the tribe now follows, commencing with the three sons of Levi, Kohath, Gershon, and Merari, from whom many families afterwards descended. It must, however, be observed, that all were numbered down to the youngest infants, whereas of the rest of the people only those who had passed their twentieth year were taken into account; whence it appeared that this was the smallest tribe; but by causing the infants to be reckoned, God intended to maintain a just proportion, as we shall see; for, if He had only taken them above their twentieth year, it would not have been known how many first-born there were, and thus the compensation to be made for them would have been uncertain. By this indulgence the people should have been induced to pay the tribute for the surplus with more readiness; for since, after the computation was made, it appeared how much their number came short of the required amount, God justly willed that those should be redeemed for money, who would else have been transferred to that tribe which represented the first-born, and it would have been an act of malignity to refuse God what he demanded, when He had spontaneously condescended to so just a compact. There was also another reason why the Levites were included in the census from their earliest childhood, rather than the others, viz., because it was not necessary that they should be fit for war, when God enrolled from the rest of the people soldiers for Himself who might afterwards bear arms.

Verse 17

17.And these were the sons of Levi by their names Hence it appears that the tribe of Levi, like the others, had made an astonishing progress from a small and contemptible beginning; for whereas he himself had only begotten three sons, Gershon and Merari only two each, and Kohath four; who would have expected such an increase, that twelve men in so short a time should have grown into so many thousands? But thus powerfully does God work under the semblance of weakness, that thus His glory may be the more conspicuous. But that He promoted the family of Kohath above the others, not only in the priesthood of Aaron, but also in their common ministry, proceeded from the same source of His gratuitous good pleasure, as the calling of Moses. He then, who had dignified also by so honorable an office, was, for his sake, gracious also to the family of Kohath. Neverthless, lost he should be suspected of ambition, or lest occasion of calumny should be given to the ungodly, God chose that the sons of Moses should remain in the ordinary station of the Levites.

Verse 45

45.Take the Levites instead of all the first-born The compensation of which I have spoken follows; for, since the complete portion of God was not found in the tribe of Levi, it must needs be supplied from elsewhere. Since, then, the Levites, infants as well as men, were less by two hundred and seventy-three than the first-born of the twelve tribes of Israel, God required that five shekels of the sanctuary should be paid for every head. We have elsewhere seen that the shekel of the sanctuary was double, amounting to two ordinary ones.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 3". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.