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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged

Numbers 3

Verse 1

These also are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day that the LORD spake with Moses in mount Sinai.

These also are the generations ..., [ towlªdowt (H8435)] - (see the notes at Genesis 2:4; Genesis 5:1; Genesis 10:1, etc.) This chapter contains an account of their families; and although that of Moses is not detailed like his brother's, his children are included under the general designation of the Amramites (Numbers 3:27) - a term which comprehends all the descendants of their common father, Amram. The reason why the family of Moses was so undistinguished in this record is, that they were in the private ranks of the Levites, the dignity of the priesthood being conferred exclusively on the posterity of Aaron; and hence, as the sacerdotal order is the subject of this chapter, Aaron, contrary to the usual style of the sacred history, is mentioned before Moses.

In the day that the Lord ... This is added, because at the date of the following record the family of Aaron was unbroken.

Verses 2-4

And these are the names of the sons of Aaron; Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.

These are the names. All the sons of Aaron, four in number, were consecrated to minister in the priest's office. The two oldest enjoyed but a brief term of office (Leviticus 10:1-2; Numbers 26:61); but Eleazar and Ithamar, the other two, were dutiful, and performed the sacred service during the lifetime of their father, as his assistants, and under his superintendence.

Verses 5-10

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

Bring the tribe of Levi near, [ haqªreeb (H7126)] - make approach. It is a sacrificial term, denoting the presentation of an offering to God (Leviticus 16:9); and the use of the word, therefore, in connection with the Levites, signifies that they were devoted as an offering to the sanctuary, no longer to be employed in any common offices. They were subordinate to the priests, who alone enjoyed the privilege of entering the holy place; but they were employed in discharging many of the humbler duties which belonged to the sanctuary, as well as in various offices of great utility and importance to the religion and morals of the people.

Verse 9. They are wholly given ... The priests hold the place of God, and the Levites are the servants of God Verse 9. They are wholly given ... The priests hold the place of God, and the Levites are the servants of God in the obedience they render to the priests.

Verses 11-13

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

I have taken the Levites ... The consecration of this tribe did not originate in the legislative wisdom of Moses, but in the special appointment of God, who chose them as substitutes for the firstborn. By an appointment made in memory of the last solemn judgment on Egypt, from which the Israelite households were miraculously exempt, all the firstborn were consecrated to God (Exodus 13:12; Exodus 22:29), who thus, under special circumstances, seemed to adopt the patriarchal usage of appointing the oldest to act as the priest of the family. But the privilege of redemption that was allowed the firstborn opened the way for a change: and accordingly, on the full organization of the Mosaic economy, the administration of sacred things formerly committed to the firstborn was transferred from them to the Levites, who received that honour partly as a tribute to Moses and Aaron, partly because this tribe had distinguished themselves by their zeal in the affair of the golden calf (Exodus 32:29), and also because, being the smallest of the tribes, they could ill find suitable employment and support in the work (see the note at Deuteronomy 33:9).

The designation of a special class for the sacred offices of religion was a wise arrangement; because, on their settlement in Canaan, the people would be so occupied that they might not be at leisure to wait on the service of the sanctuary, and sacred things might, from various causes, fall into neglect. But the appointment of an entire tribe to the divine service ensured the regular performance of the rites of religion. The subsequent portion of the chapter relates the formal substitution of this tribe.

I am the Lord - i:e., I decree it to be so; and being possessed of sovereign authority, expect full obedience.

Verses 14-27

And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying,

Number the children of Levi. They were numbered as well as the other tribes, but the enumeration was made on a different principle; for while in the other tribes the amount of males was calculated from twenty years and upward, in that of Levi they were counted from a month old and upwards. The reason of the distinction is obvious. In the other tribes the survey was made for purposes of war, from which the Levites were totally exempt, and were appointed to a work on which they entered as soon as they were capable of instruction (cf. 1 Samuel 1:28).

They are mentioned under the names of Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, sons of Levi, and chiefs or ancestral heads of three subdivisions into which this tribe was distributed. Their duties were to assist in the conveyance of the tabernacle when the people were removing the various encampments, and to form its guard while stationary-the Gershonites being stationed on the west, the Kohathites on the south, and the families of Merari on the north. The Kohathites had the principal place about the tabernacle, and charge of the most precious and sacred things-a distinction with which they were honoured, probably, from the Aaronic family belonging to this division of the Levitical tribe. The Gershonites being the oldest, had the next honourable post assigned them, while the burden of the drudgery was thrown on the division of Merari.

Verse 21. The Shimites. This Levitical family, descended from Shimei or Shimi (Numbers 3:18: cf. Exodus 6:17), is supposed to be the root from which sprang Shimei mentioned in 1 Chronicles 3:19 and Zechariah 12:13.

Verses 28-31

In the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, were eight thousand and six hundred, keeping the charge of the sanctuary.

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 32

And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall be chief over the chief of the Levites, and have the oversight of them that keep the charge of the sanctuary.

Chief over the chief of the Levites, [ Uwnsiy' (H5387) nªsiy'eey (H5387) ha-Leewiy (H3881), the prince of the princes] - prince or chief of the whole tribe of Levi. Three persons are mentioned as chiefs of those respective divisions: and Eleazar presided over them; whence he is called "the second priest" (2 Kings 25:18); and in case of the high priest's absence from illness or other necessary occasions, he performed the duties. But it appears from the statement made in this verse that the actual high priest was not constituted prince of his tribe, as that would have been the union of a secular dignity with a sacred office (1 Kings 4:4).

Those that encamp ... That being the entrance side, was the post of honour, and consequently reserved to Moses and the priestly family. But the sons of Moses had no station there.

Verses 33-38

Of Merari was the family of the Mahlites, and the family of the Mushites: these are the families of Merari. No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 39

All that were numbered of the Levites, which Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of the LORD, throughout their families, all the males from a month old and upward, were twenty and two thousand.

Twenty and two thousand. The result of this census, though made on conditions most advantageous to Levi, proved it to be by far the smallest recorded in Israel. The separate numbers stated in Numbers 3:22; Numbers 3:28; Numbers 3:34, when added together, amount to 22,300. The omission of the 300 is variously accounted for-by some, because they might be firstborn who were already devoted to God, and could not be counted as substitutes; and by others, because, in Scripture style, the sum is reckoned in round numbers.

The most probable conjecture is, that as Hebrew letters are employed for figures, one letter was, in the course of transcription, taken for another of like form but smaller value. Dr. Colenso, appealing to Exodus 6:1-30, where it is said that Levi had three sons, concludes that there were no more in his family. But it appears from that chapter that those only are mentioned who were heads of families at the time of the exodus (Numbers 3:25), and consequently, although Levi may have had sons born to him in Egypt, they are reckoned as included under one or other of the three branches named. Dr. Colenso applies the same rule to the families of Levi's sons who are stated to have had, Gershon two (Numbers 3:18; Exodus 6:17); Kohath four (Numbers 3:19; Exodus 6:18), and Merari two (Numbers 3:20; Exodus 6:19); and as these are all that are recorded in the Pentateuchal list, he assumes that the genealogy is complete-so that, considering the smallness of the original stock, he rejects the number of descendants recorded as belonging to these three Levitical divisions as grossly exaggerated.

But the genealogical lists, which are expressly said to be confined to heads of families, cannot be considered as giving a full enumeration of the respective families. Some descendants are mentioned in this chapter (Numbers 3:24-35) whose names do not previously occur. Moreover, in 1 Chronicles 23:18, Shelomith, a fourth son of Izhar, is recorded, and four sons of Hebron (Numbers 3:19), of whose existence information is given no where else. 'The sons named are named for some special reason, as, for example, to present the descent of the chief families, or to give the pedigree of some particular person necessary to be noted: as here, the sons of Izhar are mentioned, because the oldest, Korah, was one of the heads of a rebellion. In like manner, the sons of Uzziel are given, because Mishael and Elzaphan are elsewhere mentioned on a very remarkable occasion. Only the heads are mentioned.

But the designation head implies others who were not heads - i:e., there were other sons, who also had children, but not being heads, they are not mentioned, themselves and their posterity being included in the families of the heads' (cf. 1 Chronicles 23:11) (Dr. McCaul's 'Examination of Colenso's Difficulties,' p. 119). The fact is that the object of the historian in giving the genealogical list of Levi, was not to show the number of the Levites, but to trace the descent of Aaron, and hence, it is carried down to the fifth descent through Aaron. This will be seen from the subjoined genealogical tree, the branches of which are delineated according to the statements in this chapter and Exo 6:16-27 .

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Thus, it appears that, in accordance with the historian's plan, five descents are given through Kohath, but only two through Gershon and Merari.

In this passage, while the same object is pursued to a certain extent, in naming the sons of Aaron (Numbers 3:2), the sacred historian had a further design by inserting the genealogical list of Levi's descendants, namely-that of showing the three principal divisions of the tribe to which special departments of duty connected with the tabernacle were assigned. After mentioning these great branches of the Levitical tribe, he proceeds to enumerate the different sections into which each of them was subdivided, stating that the Gershonites consisted of two portions-namely, the Libnites and the Shimites (Numbers 3:21); the Kohathites of four-namely, the Amramites, the Izharites, the Hebronites, and the Uzzielites (Numbers 3:27); and the Merarites of two-namely, the Mahlites and the Mushites (Numbers 3:33), with the heads or founders of these respective divisions; Eleazar, the son of Aaron, being superintendent in chief of all 'that kept the charge of the sanctuary' Numbers 3:32). In closing this record of the tribal and family distribution of Levi, the historian states the numerical amount of each of the three large divisions-proceeding manifestly upon the understood principle, that the several numbers, the 7,500 of the Gershonites, the 8,600 of the Kohathites, the 6,200 of the Merarites, included all those Levites who were connected with the respective divisions, though not exclusively the lineal descendants of the sons of Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, that are specified as the heads of the clans (see Benisch on this subject, p. 124).

Verses 40-51

And the LORD said unto Moses, Number all the firstborn of the males of the children of Israel from a month old and upward, and take the number of their names.

Number all the firstborn ... The principle on which the enumeration of the Levites had been made was now to be applied to the other tribes. The number of their male children, from a month old and upwards, was to be reckoned, in order that a comparison might be instituted with that of the Levites, for the formal adoption of the latter as substitutes for the firstborn. The Levites, amounting to 22,000, were given in exchange for an equal number of the firstborn from the other tribes, leaving an excess of 273; and as there were no substitutes for these, they were redeemed at the rate of five shekels for each (Numbers 18:15-16). Every Israelite would naturally wish that his son might be redeemed by a Levite without the payment of this tax, and yet some would have to incur the expense, because there were not Levites enough to make an equal exchange.

Jewish writers say the matter was determined by lot, is this manner: Moses put into an urn 22,600 pieces of parchment, on each of which he wrote 'a son of Levi,' and 273 more, containing the words, 'five shekels.' These being shaken, he ordered each of the firstborn to put in his hand and take out a slip. If it contained the first inscription, the boy was redeemed by a Levite; if the latter, the parent had to pay. The ransom money, which, reckoning the shekel at half crown, would amount to 12s. 6d. each, was appropriated to the use of the sanctuary.

The excess of the general over the Levitical firstborn is so small, as to form a copious subject of sneering ridicule to Dr. Colenso, who treats it thus: He places 22,273 firstborn males on the one hand, and 600,000 fighting men of 20 years old and upward on the other. He then adds what he considers a proportionate number of old men and boys, doubles the number, in order to preserve the just equality between the sexes, makes a fair allowance for a probable number of deaths, and then distributing the whole population into families according to an assumed standard, which he takes as the average, endeavours to prove 'the Bible numbers to be impossible, and the Pentateuch to be no record of real facts; to be not historically true.'

It must be acknowledged that there is a difficulty arising out of the small relative number of the firstborn; but it is not insurmountable. There are various ways of accounting for it-by supposing, first, those firstborn only were counted as were males remaining in their parents' household: second, that many firstborn had been killed by Pharaoh during the continuance of the infanticidal edict; third, that the firstborn in families frequently die, and yet in polygamous families, as among the Israelites, there was only one firstborn recognized; fourth, that those firstborn only were numbered which had been born since the departure from Egypt and the enactment of the law by which God claimed all the firstborn as his special property; or, fifth, that as the special purpose for which this census was taken was to separate the firstborn males for the service of God, none would be reckoned in this number but those who were of the pure stock, the direct lineage of Israel, the real descendants of Jacob; servants and retainers of every grade, though numbered among the fighting men, being perhaps strictly excluded from admission to this sacred office. Any of these hypotheses, particularly the last, suggest a very rational and simple way of meeting this difficulty, which originates, it will be observed, not from absurdity manifest on the face, or inconsistencies interwoven in the web, of the narrative (a groundless charge), but from the want of some connecting links or accompanying circumstances to give a character of completeness to the record.

In this succinct narrative Moses states facts just as they occurred, and as the Holy Spirit prompted him to register them, without explaining minutiae, or being solicitous to remove apparent discrepancies. It is only our ignorance of little attendant circumstances that occasions any difficulty, and surely it is much more sensible to admit a reasonable and probable hypothesis for supplying these, as is done in all historical and judicial inquiries, than to reject as unreliable a narrative which bears so strongly stamped upon it the impress of inspired truth ('Vindiciae Mosaicae,' by C. Pritchard, late Fellow of John's College, Cambridge, dud Secretary of the Astronomical Society).

Verse 41. The cattle of the Levites. These, which they kept to graze on the glebes and meadows in the suburbs of their cities, and supply their families with dairy produce and animal food, were also taken as an equivalent for all the firstlings of the cattle which the Israelites at that time possessed. In consequence of this exchange the firstlings were not brought then, as afterward, to the altar and the priests.

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Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Numbers 3". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/numbers-3.html. 1871-8.