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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 3

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-51


Separation of the Levites to the service of the Tabernacle as the king’s tent and the ensign (the banner) of Jehovah

Numbers 3:4

The muster and encampment of the tribe of Levi

Numbers 3:1-51

1These also are the generations of Aaron and Moses, in the day that the Lord 2spake with Moses in mount Sinai. And these are the names of the sons of Aaron; 3Nadab the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the priests which were anointed, 12whom he consecrated to minister in the priest’s office. 4And Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord, when they offered strange fire before the Lord, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no 3children: and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the sight of Aaron their father.

5And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 6Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him. 7And they shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation before the 4tabernacle of the congregation, to do the service of the tabernacle. 8And they shall keep all the 5instruments of the ctabernacle of the congregation, and the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle. 9And thou shalt give the Levites unto Aaron and to his sons: they are wholly given unto him out of the children of Israel. 10And thou shalt 6appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall wait on their priest’s office: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to 11death. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 12And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn that openeth the matrix among the children of Israel: therefore the Levites shall be mine; 13Because all the firstborn are mine; for on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast: mine they shall be: I am the Lord.

14And the Lord spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, 15Number the children of Levi after 7the house of their fathers, by their families: every male 16from a month old and upward shalt thou number them. And Moses xnumbered them according to the 8word of the Lord, as he was commanded. 17And these were 18the sons of Levi by their names; Gershon, and Kohath, and Merari. And these are the names of the sons of Gershon by their families; Libni, and Shimei. 19And the sons of Kohath by their families; Amram, and Izehar, Hebron, and Uzziel. 20And the sons of Merari by their families; Mahli, and Mushi. These are the families 21of the Levites eaccording to the house of their fathers. Of Gershon was the family of the Libnites, and the family of the Shimites: these are the families of the Gershonites. 22Those that were xnumbered of them, according to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, even those that were xnumbered of them were seven thousand and five hundred. 23The families of the Gershonites shall 24pitch behind the tabernacle westward. And the 9chief of the 10house of the father of the Gershonites shall be Eliasaph the son of Lael. 25And the charge of the sons of Gershon in the ctabernacle of the congregation shall be the tabernacle, and the tent, the covering thereof, and the 11hanging for the door of the ctabernacle of the congregation, 26And the hangings of the court, and the hcurtain 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.

27And of Kohath was the family of the Amramites, and the family of the Izeharites, and the family of the Hebronites, and the family of the Uzzielites: these are the families of the Kohathites. 28In the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, were eight thousand and six hundred, keeping the charge of the sanctuary. 29The families of the sons of Kohath shall pitch on the side of the tabernacle 30southward. And the fchief of the ghouse of the father of the families of the Kohathites shall be Elizaphan the son of Uzziel. 31And 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 hhanging, and all the service thereof.

32And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall be 12chief over the chief of the Levites, and have the oversight of them that keep the charge of the sanctuary.

33Of Merari was the family of the Mahlites, and the family of the Mushites: these are the families of Merari. 34And those that were xnumbered of them, according to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, were six thousand and 35two hundred. And the fchief of the ghouse of the father of the families of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail: these shall pitch on the side of the tabernacle northward. 36And 13under the custody and 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 vessels thereof, and all that serveth thereto, 37And the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pins, and their cords.

38But those that encamp before the tabernacle toward the east, even before the ctabernacle of the congregation eastward, 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. 39All that were xnumbered of the Levites, which Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of the Lord, 14throughout their families, all the males from a month old and upward, were twenty and two thousand.

40And the Lord said unto Moses, xNumber all the firstborn 15of the males of the children of Israel from a month old and upward, and take the number of their names. 41And thou shalt take the Levites for me (I am the Lord) instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel; and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the 42firstlings among the cattle of the children of Israel. And Moses xnumbered, as the Lord commanded him, all the firstborn among the children of Israel. 43And all the firstborn males by the number of names, from a month old and upward, of those that were xnumbered of them, were twenty and two thousand two hundred and threescore and thirteen.

44And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 45Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their 46cattle; and the Levites shall be mine: I am the Lord. And 16for those that are to be redeemed of the two hundred and threescore and thirteen of the firstborn of the children of Israel, which are more than the Levites; 47Thou shalt even take five shekels apiece by the poll, after the shekel of the sanctuary 17shalt thou take them: (the shekel is twenty gerahs:) 48And thou shalt give the money, 18wherewith the odd number of them is to be redeemed, unto Aaron and to his sons. 49And Moses took the 19redemption money of them that were over and above them that were 20redeemed by the Levites: 50Of the firstborn of the children of Israel took he the money; a thousand three hundred and threescore and five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary: 51And Moses gave the money of them that were predeemed unto Aaron and to his sons, according to the word of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses.


[Numbers 3:3. מִלֵּא יָד .מִלֵּא יָדָם לְכַהֵן “to fill the hand” is a natural and graphic idiom for consecration, just as installation is in English. The latter signifies that one is placed and there he must always be found. The former that one “has his hands full,” and has no leisure for other business. The ceremony of consecration, Exodus 29:9-28, symbolizes this idea, especially in Numbers 3:24. Naturally מִלֵּא alone, and the substantive מִלֻּא become the abbreviated form for the same notion. See Smith’s Bib. Dict. Art. Priest, consecration.

Numbers 3:9. נתונם נתונם, see Numbers 8:16. The repetition is for the sake of emphasis, signifying complete surrender, see Ewald, § 313.

Numbers 3:13. לי אני יהיה “to me, myself, Jehovah,” Maurer, Keil. The Bib. Comm. So also in Numbers 3:41; Numbers 3:45.

Numbers 3:30. The dots above ואהרן “can have, it is supposed, no other meaning than to intimate that the word is wanting in some Codd. It is wanting in 8 codd. of Ken. and in 4 of Ross.; also in the Sam., Syr., and Copt. This would agree with Numbers 3:5,” Maurer. Not sufficient reason for omission, comp. Numbers 4:34; Numbers 4:37; Numbers 4:41; Numbers 4:45, Keil.

Numbers 3:51. The K’thibh חַפִּדְיֹם the correct reading, Keil.—Tr.].


[The generations, Numbers 3:1. “These are the res gestæ, that happened to them,” Fagius, Vatablus, Ab. Ezra, Piscator. The act of birth is only the first in the series. On this use of the word comp. Genesis 5:1; Genesis 6:9; Genesis 25:18 and Bush, in loc.—Tr.].

Order or the Levitical Service (Chap. 3).

A. The Calling of the Tribe of Levi. This calling was foreshadowed in the religious zeal of the brothers Simeon and Levi (Genesis 34:0), and in the judgment of their father Jacob upon their act (Genesis 49:0). The two brothers resembled each other, as did also their deed and their destiny; they were scattered in Israel. But while Simeon gradually disappears in Israel, Levi looms up greater and greater, until at the summit of his elevation he destroys himself, in the person of Caiaphas. In this contrast the two natures of youthful, religious zeal come out in relief. In the one, religious zeal passes over into fanaticism, into fleshly passion, the glow becomes smoke and vapor; in the other, the flame clears itself from smoke, the seething must becomes pure wine. It should be borne in mind, that Israel owes its theocratical and historical salvation to the tribe of Levi: even a weak maid, Miriam, had a large share in the rescue of Moses; and the latter, the saved saviour (Muscha Mosche) of his people, was in a large measure supported by his brother Aaron. Soon, however, after the moment when Aaron wavered, the tribe of Levi stood manfully at the side of Moses for the re-establishment of the fear of Jehovah; and afterwards, when Phineas executed summary judgment, it displayed a bravery which received quite a mysterious acknowledgment in the blessing of Moses, Deuteronomy 33:8. Thus the vocation of Levi was ontological; but the historical development took place gradually. The prophetic starting place of the Levitic calling is found in the person of Moses; and the self-renunciation, with which he calls his brother Aaron to the priesthood, and allows the priestly dignity to pass over to the descendants of the latter, while his own sons attend Aaron as mere serving Levites, is the sign and the seal of the divine purity which ruled, in combination with divine revelation, at the institution of the Levitical vocation. Three stages can be distinguished in the development of this vocation: first, the historical reason for their call, (Exodus 32:0); second, their preliminary appointment; third, the establishment and definition of the services of the office, given in the present section; special modifications follow hereafter, especially the elevated position of the order.

We distinguish regarding the hierarchical organization the following gradations:—(1) The people of the tribe, embracing the families as well as the men, the emeriti and demeriti, as well as the serving members. The boys were set apart for the Levitical service after the first month of their age; for no rule can be set for the earliness of spiritual illumination, as the history of Samuel proves. The entrance upon the general duties begins at the age of twenty-five; for the proper high-priestly and priestly duties, as well as for the Levitical ministration in the care of the Sanctuary, the age of thirty years was required. The typical hierarchy descends in the following gradations.:—(1) Aaron and his sons; (2) The priestly Levitical assistants; (3) The Levites in general as devoted to God and the priestly service (נְתוּנִים); (4) The servants, afterwards attached to the tribe, of non-Levitical and even of non-Israelitish blood (נְתִיגִים). Although the tribe of Levi, after the division of the tribe of Joseph into two separate tribes, seems to form a thirteenth tribe; yet this would be an entirely false conception, since it represents the first-born, the priestly dignity of all twelve tribes.

B. The Relations of the Levites. In relation to Moses and Aaron, they are to be regarded as the spiritual family (Numbers 3:2-4); Aaron appears as the priestly head. With reference to their ministerial functions, they are presented to the high-priest, and are devoted to him as his servants. With reference to the tribes, however, they have this advantage, that they represent the first-born of all the tribes; they are an eminent tribe wholly made up of native first-born; and the complete infatuation of the company of Korah is shown by the fact that they were not content with that eminence. However they did not form a caste, like the Brahmins in India and the Magi in Media, because their physical condition was subject to a strict moral censorship, and because their importance was greatly limited by the prophetic order on the one hand, and on the other by the princely order. Hence they first attained to a hierarchical power in the time of Zerubbabel, when the princely power had become extinct and the prophetic authority was on the point of dying out.

C. The numbering of the Levites. The numbers of the tribe branches, 7,500, 8,600, and 6,200, added together give the sum 22,300; whereas the number given is only 22,000. We think the Rabbinical solution of this apparent discrepancy of numbers quite well founded, notwithstanding the doubts of Knobel and Keil. If the sum total of the Levites was to determine the ratio which they bore to the sums of the first-born in the other tribes, because the surplus of the first-born had to be redeemed with money, then the first-born among the Levites should certainly not be included in the count, else there would be nullity in the calculation. For them 300 was therefore deducted. This seems to us a much more evident explanation than the supposition of a blunder in the text, (see Keil, p. 204) [who conjectures that in Numbers 3:28 שׁלשׁ should be read for שׁשׁ or 8,300 for 8,600.—Tr.]. We do not at all assume that the first-born of the tribes paid a ransom to the Levites on account of the worship which they conducted for them, for they were by that in a certain measure superseded (chap. 16); at all events the Levites had a favored position, and in that case, too, all the first-born would have had to pay, and not merely the excess of 273. We have already seen that the mention here is of a numbering of the first-born from the first month on to twenty years, being a contrast with the numbering of the first-born from twenty years and over, but forming a parallel to the Levites who were over a month old. These young first-born are represented by the young Levites, and hence their excess must be ransomed by a payment to the high-priestly tribe. And this not indeed because the Levites represented them at the Sanctuary generally, but because they took their place at the theocratic headquarters. It was a kind of a military tax for minors. Thus we read in chap. 7 of the great offerings which the heads of tribes presented for the care of the Tabernacle—they had already given their contributions for the building of the Tabernacle (Exodus 35:27). In that case, as also in that of the shekel of the Sanctuary, their payment was properly a religious tax; here it was a sort of war tax. [“The ransom money, reckoning the shekel at half a crown, would amount to 12s. 6d.” Dr. Jamison.—Tr.]. And when it is likewise laid down that the cattle of the Levites should represent the first-born of the cattle of the individual tribes, which they had to offer up, it doubtless means that they were not slaughtered immediately on their being offered, but were taken into the herds of the Levites, which even consisted wholly of sacrificial beasts, according to the needs of worship. On the meaning of the first-birth see Knobel, p. 13.

D. The organic basis of the camping of the Levites. The sons of Levi were called: Gershon, (stranger, banishment); Kohath (assembly, congregation); Merari.—From Gershon came: Libni (white), and Shimei (Jah is prince of praise). From Kohath sprang: Amram (people of the high one?); Izehar (oil); Hebron (union); and, Uzziel (power of God). The sons of Merari were: Mahli (a tender one, according to Fuerst), and Mushi (drawn upward? allied to Moses). The aggregate see in the text.

E. Levitical Camping Order. The Gershonites encamp behind the tent, that is, westward: their chief was Eliasaph (whom God has added—similar to Joseph), son of Lael (for God, consecrated to God). Their charge is over the external parts of the Sanctuary, viz., the coverings and hangings, except the screen of the Holy of Holies. The Kohathites camp to the south-ward. Their chief was called Elizaphan (whom God guards), son of Uzziel (God is power). To their care are entrusted all the interior parts of the Sanctuary, viz., the Ark of the Covenant. Thus they have an exalted occupation, as, indeed, they embrace also the priestly branch, whence, also, Eleazar, the son of Aaron, is the superior of all the individual Levitic chiefs. Opposite the Kohathites upon the northern side, camp the families of Merari: their chief was named Zuriel (God is rock), son of Abahail (father of strength; or, father the strength); they attend to all that belongs to the frame work of the Tabernacle. In front of the entrance to the Tabernacle towards the east encamped Moses and Aaron with his sons, who performed the sacred acts of the worship. All intrusion of strangers to this place was forbidden on the pain of death. [Numbers 3:10; Numbers 3:38, the stranger, זר see on Numbers 1:51.—Tr.]

[On the difficulty presented by the proportion of first-born to the sum-total of men fit for service, see Introduction, § 7 b. Numbers 3:49. The redeemed of the Levites mean those ransomed by the equal member of the Levites.—Tr.]


[See under Numbers 1:0.

Numbers 3:14 sq. “The Levites of a month old could not honor God and serve the Tabernacle as those that were grown up; yet out of the mouths of babes and sucklings the Levites’ praise was perfected. Let not little children be hindered from being enrolled among the disciples of Christ, for such was the tribe of Levi; of such is the kingdom of heaven, that kingdom of priests. The redemption of the first-born was reckoned from a month old (Numbers 18:15-16), therefore from that age the Levites were numbered.” M. Henry.

Numbers 3:44-51. The relation of money and religion is illustrated by the ransom for the 273 in excess of the 22,000 first-born of the Levites. Money cannot measure the value of spiritual things, but it can express that they have value. It cannot pay the debt we owe to God, but it can express that we do owe Him much. Five shekels, paid under the conditions here specified, could express that the payer owed himself to God’s service, and that the payee accepted the position of substitute. While money has the place that men assign it, it must have its religious use. Where there is much money, much of it must flow into the Lord’s treasury, or there is little religion there.—Tr.]


[1]Heb. whose hand he filled.

[2]whose hand they had filled to be priests.


[4]Tent of Meeting.


[6]muster, mustered.

[7]their fathers-houses.

[8]Heb. mouth.




[12]prince of the princes.

[13]Heb. the office of the charge of.


[15]omit of the.

[16]as ransom of the two hundred, &c.

[17]thou shalt take, twenty gerahs the shekel.

[18]the ransom of those over and above among them.



Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 3". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/numbers-3.html. 1857-84.
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