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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Numbers 3

Verses 1-51

The placement and number of the Levites and first-born of Israel ch. 3

Note the recurrence of a key word in the Pentateuch in verse l: toledot.

"For the first time after the formative events of the Exodus deliverance and the revelation on Mount Sinai, the people of Israel are organized into a holy people on the march under the leadership of Aaron and Moses with the priests and Levites at the center of the camp. A whole new chapter has opened in the life of the people of Israel, and this new beginning is marked by the toledot formula." [Note: Olson, p. 108.]

God exempted the Levites from military confrontation with Israel’s enemies. He did this because He chose the whole tribe to assist the priests, Aaron’s family within the tribe of Levi, in the service of the sanctuary (Numbers 3:5-9). The Levites’ duties were to guard the holy things from affront of foolish people and to care for the holy things. [Note: G. Wenham, p. 70; Ashley, p. 69.]

"The Levites ministered to the priests (Numbers 3:6) mainly in the outward elements of the worship services, while the priests performed the ceremonial exercises of the worship itself." [Note: Irving Jensen, Numbers: Journey to God’s Rest-Land, pp. 28-29.]

God sanctified the Levitical service. Any Israelite who was not a Levite who did this work was to suffer execution (Numbers 3:10; Numbers 3:38).

On the first Passover night in Egypt God set apart all the first-born of the Israelites, man and beast, to Himself (Numbers 3:12-13). He did this when He chose Israel as His first-born (i.e., privileged) son. From that day to the one this chapter records, the Israelites had to dedicate their first-born sons for sanctuary service and their first-born cattle as sacrifices. Now God selected the Levites and their cattle in place of the first-born. God bestowed this privilege on the Levites because they stood with God when the rest of the nation apostatized by worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32:26-29).

"The power of a people lies in the birth of its progeny, and so a great value was placed on the first child to be born-a value so great, in fact, that in many nations the eldest son was sacrificed to the gods." [Note: Maarsingh, p. 16.]

The tabernacle responsibilities of each group were as follows.

Gershonitessoftware (curtains and coverings; Numbers 3:21-26)
Kohathitesfurniture and utensils (Numbers 3:27-32)
Merariteshardware (boards and bars; Numbers 3:33-37)

The total number of Levite males from one month old and up was 22,000 (Numbers 3:39), making it the smallest tribe in Israel by far. [Note: See Merrill, "Numbers," in The Bible . . ., p. 220, for explanation of the comparatively small number of Levites.] The fact that this figure does not tally with the totals in Numbers 3:22; Numbers 3:28; Numbers 3:34 may be the result of a "textual corruption," [Note: G. Wenham, p. 71. Cf. A. Noordtzij, Numbers, p. 38.] in particular a "copyist’s error." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:23.] Numbers 3:28 probably read 8,300 originally.

"3 (Hebrew sls) could quite easily have been corrupted into 6 (ss)." [Note: G. Wenham, p. 71.]

Moses then numbered all the first-born males in the other tribes from one month old and up. There were 22,273 of them (Numbers 3:43). Evidently these were born after the Exodus (cf. Numbers 1:45-46). God took 22,000 of the Levites in their places (Numbers 3:45). He specified the redemption of the remaining 273. That is, the Israelites had to pay five shekels to the priests for each of these men (Numbers 3:46-48). This freed them from God’s claim on them for sanctuary service (cf. 1 Peter 1:18-19).

"Theologically the section as a whole explores the theme of God’s holiness. Viewed in one way the priestly hierarchy is a means of protecting Israel from divine holiness. The introduction of another sacred order between priests and people emphasizes the difference between the fallibility of man and the perfection of God. . . . Viewed in another way the hierarchy constitutes the recognized channel through which God brings stability and well-being to his people." [Note: Budd, p. 41.]

"The Levites, the keepers of Yahweh’s dwelling place, were to surround the Tabernacle. They were particularly close, both in location and function, because they represented the firstborn of Israel whom Yahweh spared in the Exodus (Numbers 3:12-13; Numbers 3:44-45; Numbers 8:5-26). It was their responsibility to attend to the sanctuary (chap. 4) for it is ever the ministry of the eldest son to serve his father and protect his interests." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "A Theology of the Pentateuch," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 60.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/numbers-3.html. 2012.