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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 3


The Mobilisation of the Army of Israel, and the Preparation of the Levites For Their Work of Bearing the Ark and Dwellingplace of Yahweh (1:1-4:49).

The first stage towards entry into the land had to be the mobilisation of the army of Israel, both of its fighting men, and of its ‘servants of the dwellingplace of Yahweh’. That is what is in mind in the first four chapters.

The description of this follows a general chiastic pattern indicated by the letters a to d and can be divided up as follows:

a The taking of the sum of the tribes and their responsibility (to war) (Numbers 1:1-46).

b The Levites’ responsibility for the Dwellingplace (Numbers 1:47-54).

c Positioning and arrangements for travel of the people (Numbers 2:1-32).

d The consecration of the priests to Yahweh (Numbers 3:1-4).

d The dedication of the Levites to the priests and to Yahweh (Numbers 3:5-13)

c Positioning and arrangements for travel of the Levites (Numbers 3:14-51).

b The priests’ responsibility for the Dwellingplace (Numbers 4:5-15).

a The taking of the sum of the Levites and their responsibilities (Numbers 4:1-4; Numbers 4:21-49).

Verse 1

‘Now these are the generations (family histories, records) of Aaron and Moses in the day that Yahweh spoke with Moses in mount Sinai.’

This is probably the remnants of a colophon closing off this military record. A colophon was included at the end of an ancient record in this way just as we would put a title and author’s name on a book cover. It gave a quick reference to the contents of the record. As we saw earlier, in Numbers 1:0 & Numbers 2:0 Moses and Aaron were seen in this section as continually acting together apart from when Moses was receiving Yahweh’s direct commands (see on Numbers 1:2-3). This verse is not really suitable as a heading for what follows, for Moses does not feature there, but it does make a very suitable ending.

Verses 2-4

Chapter 3 The Priests and the Levites.

In this chapter more information is given about the priests and Levites, those set apart by Yahweh to watch over His Dwellingplace. Their task was to watch over the holiness of the Sanctuary.

The Consecration of the Priests to Yahweh (Numbers 3:2-4 ; Numbers 3:10 ).

We are first given a summary of the priesthood as it then was, and their consecration. At this stage it can be seen why they would need assistance from the tribe of Levi. Apart from these five, soon to become three, no one apart from Moses was allowed within the Sanctuary, although the sons of these priests were no doubt already growing up. Aaron was by this time ‘well matured’ (Exodus 7:7) and Eleazar and Ithamar were no doubt married and would have developing sons of their own. The priests would soon multiply. But as yet they were still few.

Numbers 3:2-3

‘And these are the names of the sons of Aaron, Nadab the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the priests that were anointed, whom he consecrated to minister in the priest’s office.’

The names of the anointed priests apart from Aaron are given, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. These were his natural born sons whom, at Yahweh’s command, he had consecrated to minister with him in the priest’s office. (Or the ‘he’ may be Yahweh).

Numbers 3:4

‘And Nadab and Abihu died before Yahweh, when they offered strange fire before Yahweh, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children; and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the presence of Aaron their father.

But two of these four were slain ‘before Yahweh’, in the Sanctuary precincts, because they treated the things of God lightly, offering non-holy incense (‘strange fire’, that is, not in accord with God’s commandments) before Him. In view of the fact that everything in Numbers 4:0 is described as being under the control of Eleazar and Ithamar it is clear that that event had already happened by this stage.

Verses 5-13

The Dedication of the Levites to the Priests and to Yahweh (Numbers 3:5-13 ).

In the light of the shortage of priests the promotion of someone to act as assistants to them was inevitable. But it should be noted that the Levites had a limited main purpose. It was that of looking after the Dwellingplace and its contents on their travels. They were divine baggage boys. Such a stress could only have arisen during the wilderness period. It would otherwise have had no purpose. For once Israel were settled in the land and the Dwellingplace was permanently in one place this main task would be redundant.

That this occurred at an early date is especially confirmed by the fact that they were allotted nine tenths of the tithes. This could only have happened when their numbers were considerably in excess of those of the priesthood.

Numbers 3:5-6

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him.” ’

The tribe of Levi, Aaron’s own tribe, were now called on to supply supplementary Sanctuary service. They were set before Aaron as his Sanctuary servants, to ‘minister to him’ in his holy office. That is, they were available to do heavy work such as carrying, doing any work which did not require to be performed by a priest, and acting in general around the Sanctuary (but not within it except when the furniture had been packed) performing non-priestly functions.

“Bring near.” A religious term connected with the Sanctuary denoting the bringing of an offering to Yahweh. Thus the Levites were seen here as a kind of offering. They had replaced the firstborn sons of Israel as Yahweh’s servants.

Numbers 3:7-8

And they shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation, before the tent of meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle, and they shall keep all the furniture of the tent of meeting, and the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle.”

They were to be looked to both by Aaron and by the congregation of Israel to fulfil their responsibilities towards the Tent of Meeting. One of those responsibilities was to guard the Tent of Meeting (compare Numbers 1:53) and to maintain the furniture of the Tent of Meeting. The guarding would involve all the furniture, for while they could not touch it (when they carried the furniture it was wrapped and borne on staves), they must guard it with their lives. The maintenance was probably only in respect of smaller items which could be brought out for the purpose. We are not told what limitations were put on this at this time.

Numbers 3:9

‘And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and to his sons. They are wholly given to him on the behalf of the children of Israel.”

The Levites were ‘given to Aaron’, that is were put entirely at the disposal of Aaron and his sons. For all their duties they looked to them. The lack of mention of wider duties is significant. At this time the major one was to be that of total responsibility for the Dwellingplace when travelling, and of guarding it from intrusion. Later their responsibilities would widen, for example with regard to the overseeing of tithes of corn, wheat and barley. They would also teach the people the general requirements of the Torah as instructed by the priests, especially as it related to such things. But that would only be fully necessary when they were finally in the land.

Numbers 3:10

And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall keep their priesthood, and the stranger who comes nigh shall be put to death.”

It is, however, made clear that the Levites were not to act as priests. The priesthood was to be retained within the close family of Aaron. They were to ‘keep their priesthood’. Only they could approach the altar, manipulate the blood of offerings and sacrifices, and enter the inner Sanctuary. They were the authoritative teachers of the covenant regulations, the discerners of what was clean and unclean (Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 24:8). Any non-Aaronide who acted as a priest and drew near to the altar or the inner sanctuary for priestly service was to be put to death. How this sentence would be carried out, and by whom, is not described. Later, when priests were more numerous, it would clearly require checks on identification, and on ancestry and antecedents before such an execution took place (see Exodus 32:25-29; Numbers 25:7-12).

Numbers 3:11-13

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the first-born who open the womb among the children of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine, for all the first-born are mine. On the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt I hallowed to myself all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast. Mine they shall be. I am Yahweh.” ’

The reason for the appointment of the Levites is given. They were to be a substitute for the firstborn sons of Israel whom Yahweh had made holy to Himself at the first Passover (Exodus 13:2). This refers to the ‘bechor’, the first-born of the father. Thus in polygamous households there would still only be one firstborn. The ‘opening of the womb’ probably signifies the opening of the ‘mother womb’ of the family, that is, that of the leading wife, for the ‘first-born’ is a title only applied to such (Numbers 1:20; Genesis 27:32; Genesis 35:23; Genesis 36:15; Genesis 38:6; Genesis 43:33; Genesis 49:3, in comparison with all Jacob’s sons).

When Yahweh had slain all the first-born in Egypt He had made holy to Himself all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast (Exodus 13:2; Exodus 13:12; Exodus 13:15; Exodus 22:29; Exodus 34:19-20). It was to be their duty to serve Him in the ritual requirements of the cult. In the case of clean beasts this would be by being offered as an offering or sacrifice. In the case of men they could be ‘redeemed’ from being ‘offered’ by the slaughter of a clean beast in their place (Exodus 13:13; Exodus 13:15), but were then for ever to be available for the service of Yahweh. Those first-born alive at the original Passover were presumably seen as redeemed by the passover lamb, and they thereby became sanctified cult servants. But now the Levites were appointed to take their place.

Verses 14-16

Positioning and Arrangements for Travel of the Levites (Numbers 3:14-51 ).

i). The Command to Number The Levites Over One Month Old (Numbers 3:14-16 ).

Numbers 3:14-15

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, “Number the children of Levi by their fathers’ houses, by their families, every male from a month old and upward shall you number them.”

God now commanded the numbering of the male children of Levi. But the numbering was to be on a different basis to that in Numbers 1:0. Rather than being of those who were twenty years old and upwards it was of those who were one month old and upwards. This was because the comparison was to be made with all firstborn sons, not just adult ones. We can therefore assume that the same basis applied to the firstborn. They did not need to be redeemed until they were one month old.

Numbers 3:16

‘And Moses numbered them according to the word of Yahweh, as he was commanded.’

And as Yahweh commanded, so Moses did. He numbered the sons of Levi. He was continually obedient.

Verses 17-20

ii). The Descendants of Levi (Numbers 3:17-20 ).

For the purpose of the numbering further details were given of who were involved. This brings out who were qualified to be Levites. It was those who were directly descended from Levi or his household.

Numbers 3:17

‘And these were the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon, and Kohath, and Merari.’

First named were naturally Levi’s own sons, Gershon, Kohath and Merari. From these the Levites were outwardly descended. Of course they were not necessarily naturally so. They could have been born to others in the household of Levi thus becoming a part of the tribe of Levi. But they would be seen as ‘adopted’ sons of Levi.

It would appear from this that Gershon was the first-born (compare 1 Chronicles 6:1). It is therefore significant that it was the sons of Kohath who obtained the highest position, that of bearing the Ark and the Sanctuary furniture. This would seem to confirm that the reason for their selection, and therefore also for the selection of the Levites as a whole, was more to do with their relationship with Moses and Aaron. All that the molten calf incident did was demonstrate that they were not to be excluded because of unbelief. But in the end they were chosen because of their connections with the chosen ones.

Numbers 3:18-20

‘And these are the names of the sons of Gershon by their families: Libni and Shimei. And the sons of Kohath by their families: Amram, and Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. And the sons of Merari by their families: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites according to their fathers’ houses.’

Descent from the three sons of Levi was then described. If these were the grandsons, as they seemingly were (Numbers 3:27), then Amram was not the direct father of Moses, but his famous ancestor (see also 1 Chronicles 6:1-3). But it was quite common in those days for an ancestor to be described as a person’s ‘father’.

Verses 21-26

iii). The Family And Privileges of Gershon.

As Gershon was the first-born details concerning his sub-tribe were given first. Information was now given about general descent, status, sacred task and ‘numbers’ of those in the sub-tribe over one month old expressed in terms of ‘hundreds’ (units of those who serve).

Numbers 3:21

‘Of Gershon was the family (or ‘clan’) of the Libnites, and the family (or ‘clan’) of the Shimeites: these are the families (or ‘clans’) of the Gershonites.’

Coming down to Moses’ day the descendants of the sub-tribe of Gershon were the clans of the Libnites and the Shimeites. These were the ‘families’ of the Gershonites whose males from one month and upwards had to be ‘numbered’.

Numbers 3:22

‘Those that were numbered of them, according to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, even those that were numbered of them were seven thousand and five hundred.’

And those who were numbered amounted to seven ’lph. ’lph (‘thousands) were lower levels of ‘family’ to the two clans mentioned above, but larger than a ‘nuclear family’. Thus an ’eleph is lower down the scale from a mishpachah. There was one mishpachah divided up into seven ’eleph. And there were five ‘hundreds’, or service groups in those seven ’lph s.

Alternately it means that there were seven chieftains and in all five ‘hundreds’ or service groups. It will be noted that all is in ‘hundreds’ (service groups). There is no attempt to make an individual count.

Numbers 3:23

‘The families of the Gershonites shall encamp behind the tabernacle westward.’

The sub-tribes of the Gershonites were to encamp between the Rachel tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin to the west, and the Tabernacle. This was the third most prestigious position (Numbers 2:18-24). The first was to the east, occupied by the priests, the second to the south, occupied by the Kohathites, because they were more directly related to Moses and Aaron (compare Numbers 2:3-16).

Numbers 3:24

‘And the prince of the fathers’ house of the Gershonites shall be Eliasaph the son of Lael.’

The person appointed to oversee the Gershonites in their sacred tasks was Eliasaph, son of Lael, probably already the chieftain of the sub-tribe rather than a special appointment.

Numbers 3:25-26

‘And the charge of the sons of Gershon in the tent of meeting shall be the tabernacle, and the Tent, its covering, and the screen for the door of the tent of meeting, and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the door of the court, which is by the tabernacle, and by the altar round about, and the cords of it for all its service.’

The responsibility of the Gershonites was to be for the Dwellingplace itself, including the Tent Sanctuary, and all hangings and coverings and cords. This was the second most prestigious task of the Levites, the first being the responsibility for the sacred furniture including the Ark.

Verses 27-32

iv). The Family and Privilege of Kohath (Numbers 3:27-32 ).

Numbers 3:27

‘And of Kohath was the family (‘clan’) of the Amramites, and the family of the Izharites, and the family of the Hebronites, and the family of the Uzzielites: these are the families (‘clans’) of the Kohathites.’

Of the sub-tribe of Kohath the clans were the Amramites, the Izharites, the Hebronites and the Uzzielites. These together were responsible for the carrying of the Tabernacle furniture.

Numbers 3:28

‘According to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, there were eight thousand and six hundred, keeping the charge of the sanctuary.’

In the case of the Kohathites there were eight ‘wider families’ made up of six ‘service units’ who had ‘the charge of the Sanctuary’, that is, they had primary responsibility for looking after its principle effects while on the march. (Or alternately eight chieftains and six ‘hundreds’).

Numbers 3:29

‘The families of the sons of Kohath shall encamp on the side of the tabernacle southward.’

These ‘clans’ were to encamp on the south side of the Tabernacle, the second most prestigious position, between the Dwellingplace and the tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad. The priests themselves had the most prestigious position.

Numbers 3:30

‘And the prince of the fathers’ house of the clans of the Kohathites shall be Elizaphan the son of Uzziel.’

The chieftain of the Kohathite sub-tribe was Elizaphan, the son of Uzziel. He was chief over all the clans which were a part of the sub-tribe.

Numbers 3:31

‘And their charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the lampstand, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all its service.’

The responsibility of the Kohathites was to be for the actual Dwellingplace furniture, the Ark, the Table, the Lampstand, the altars (the altar of incense and the bronze altar), the vessels used in the inner Sanctuary, the screen which separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place (‘the veil’) and all aspects related to them

This was an awesome responsibility. They would, however, never see them ‘uncovered’. Always the priest would have covered them and packed them adequately first so that there was no danger of their touching them directly, for that would have meant their death.

Numbers 3:32

‘And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall be prince of the princes of the Levites, and have the oversight of them that keep the charge of the sanctuary.’

The importance of the task of the Kohathites is evidenced by the mention here of Eleazar, Aaron’s son, who would become High Priest on the death of Aaron. He was to be in authority over all the chieftains as ‘prince of the princes’. He was especially to have oversight over the Kohathites in their task, for it was they who ‘kept the charge of the Sanctuary’ (Numbers 3:28).

Verses 33-37

v). The Family and Privilege of Merari (Numbers 3:33-37 ).

Numbers 3:33

‘Of Merari was the family of the Mahlites, and the family of the Mushites: these are the families of Merari.’

The two clans of the Levite sub-tribe of Merari were the Mahlites and the Mushites.

Numbers 3:34

‘And those that were numbered of them, according to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, were six thousand and two hundred.’

Of these there were six ‘larger families’ (or ‘chieftains’) from which were drawn the two service units or hundreds who looked after the responsibilities of the sub-tribe.

Numbers 3:35

‘And the prince of the fathers’ house of the families of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail: they shall encamp on the side of the tabernacle northward.’

Their chieftain was Zuriel the son of Abihail. They encamped on the north side of the Dwellingplace, between it and the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naphtali.

Numbers 3:36-37

‘And the appointed charge of the sons of Merari shall be the boards of the tabernacle, and its bars , and its pillars, and its sockets, and all its instruments, and all its service, and the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pins, and their cords.’

The responsibility of the sons of Merari was for the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the Sanctuary, all the small parts so necessary for the whole.

Verse 38

vi). The Positioning of the Priests.

Numbers 3:38

‘And those who encamp before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrising, 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 who comes near shall be put to death.’

The Levites would be encamped to the north, the west and the south, but to the east of the Dwellingplace would be encamped Moses, and Aaron and his sons, and their households. That was where the entrance to the Dwellingplace was, and it was their responsibility to ensure that no one approached to enter, unless such approach was valid in accordance with God’s Instruction.

Verses 39-51

vii). The Make-up of the Levites And Their Substitution for the Firstborn (Numbers 3:39-51 ).

Numbers 3:39

‘All who were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of Yahweh, by their families, all the males from a month old and upward, were twenty and two thousand.’

The total ‘number’ of the male Levites over one month old is now given. Note that they are numbered ‘in terms of (by) their families’. Their total number came to 22 ’lph (families), or 21 family leaders/chieftains plus an ’lph composed of the 13 ‘hundreds’ of people (a rounded figure). Note how 13 ‘hundreds’ could be thought of as ‘a thousand’.

The adding up of the ‘numbers’ of the three sub-tribes would actually give us 22,300. Thus the 22 ’lph is clearly under any system a rounding off. Some have suggested that the extra three hundred was taken off in order to allow for the number of first-born in Levi, for as they were already dedicated to Yahweh as first-born they could not replace others who were dedicated as first-born. This is certainly good reason and would have to be allowed for, but the numbers are still rounded and not exact. (And they still are so even if, unnecessarily, an error in the copying of the text is suggested).

Numbers 3:40-41

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Number all the first-born males of the children of Israel from a month old and upward, and take the number of their names. And you shall take the Levites for me (I am Yahweh) instead of all the first-born among the children of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the children of Israel.” ’

The overall principle here is that the Levites and their cattle were to take the place of the firstborn of Israel and the firstborn of cattle who were obligated to Yahweh because of the deliverance at the Passover when the firstborn of sons and cattle were spared. That obligation was now removed by virtue of the setting apart of the Levites.

Moses was firstly to number all the first-born males of the children of Israel taking ‘the number of their names’. These were then to be released from their dedication to Yahweh by being replaced by Levites. Up to this point, since the setting up of the Dwellingplace, the firstborn sons had had to perform the duties there. That would be required no longer. While these duties would not have been onerous while in the wilderness, had they continued once in the land they would have become so. The firstborn sons would have had to leave home and would not have been fully available for work on the farms and with the flocks and herds. But now the service in the Dwellingplace was to be the privilege of the Levites.

“And the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the children of Israel.” The interpretation of quite what this indicates is complicated by the fact that while the Passover obligation of ‘the firstborn’ was being removed, the firstborn cattle of the children of Israel were still owing to Yahweh as firstfruits. That obligation was not removed. So it did not mean that the firstborn cattle were not to be offered to Yahweh. They were Yahweh’s anyway under the principle of the firstfruits. The point was rather that as the firstborn cattle were now already Yahweh’s as firstlings, they could not also be separately offered as firstborn. Thus they had to be substituted by the cattle of the Levites otherwise they would need to be offered twice over.

Initially all firstborn of cattle were to be ‘made holy to Yahweh’ (Exodus 13:2) because of the deliverance from Egypt and their sparing at the Passover. They shall be Yahweh’s (Exodus 13:12). They were to be ‘given to Yahweh’ (Exodus 22:30). They were later made holy to Yahweh as firstfruits (Deuteronomy 15:19). When they were being sacrificed the meat was to go to the priests (Numbers 18:15; Numbers 18:17-18). Some was, however, to be made available for feasting before Yahweh as Deuteronomy reveals (Deuteronomy 12:6; Deuteronomy 12:17; Deuteronomy 14:23; Deuteronomy 15:19). This latter ‘making holy as firstfruits’ is clearly not being abrogated as these future references make clear. But that is because they were firstfruits. The only obligation to be abrogated was that of the firstborn as a result of the Passover.

It should be noted that the Levite cattle now became Yahweh’s. All the cattle that they held in future would also be seen as Yahweh’s. All that a Levite owned from now on was his own home, or anything he purchased. The fields and cattle around his city belonged to Yahweh, while being available for the use of the Levites as Yahweh’s servants. Thus they could be substituted for the Passover firstborn cattle without being killed.

It is significant that the closer to Yahweh’s service they came the less possessions they had. Their minds were not to be filled with a desire for possessions, but to the desire to have God as their possession. They were not to be dragged down by ‘the deceitfulness of riches’. Their whole attention was to be on serving Him. Once this attitude was lost, they were lost.

“I am Yahweh.” This brings out the great privilege that was to be theirs. They were to be YAHWEH’s, servants of the One Who Is, the Creator, the Controller of History.

Numbers 3:42

‘And Moses numbered, as Yahweh commanded him, all the first-born among the children of Israel.’

So Moses did what Yahweh had commanded. He ‘numbered’ all the firstborn among the children of Israel, allocating them to their service.

Numbers 3:43

‘And all the first-born males according to the number of names, from a month old and upward, of those that were numbered of them, were twenty and two thousand two hundred and threescore and thirteen.’

The number of the firstborn males was assessed at 22 ’lph and two hundred and seventy three. All this is actually saying is that the number of Levites was twenty two ’lph (whatever that meant), and that by assessment the firstborn were 273 more. This incidentally removes any difficulty from the figures. There was simply a surplus of 273 extra to be accounted for, however we interpret the 22,000.

We have already noted that ‘according to the number of the names’ has a specialised meaning representing a grouping. See 1:18, 20, 22, etc.

This would also explain why there were so ‘few’ Levites compared with the other tribes. (22,000 Levites of one month old and upwards compared with 32,200 ‘above 20 years old’ of even the smallest other tribe). It could partly be explained by the fact that the Levites had probably not adopted so many resident aliens. But if the ’lph simply refers to ‘wider families’ (or ‘chieftains’) then it may simply have been due to the fact that their ‘family’ system worked on the basis of closer ties, this resulting in larger ‘families’.


Note On The 22,273 Firstborn of Israel.

For those who take all the ‘numbers’ in the Pentateuch in terms of modern translations and apply them literally this number has caused considerable problems. It is asked how could there only be 22,273 firstborn of Israel if there were 600,000 men of over 20? This would indicate excessively large families. The explanation could certainly be helped by the fact that ‘bechor’ meant simply the firstborn of the father (1:20), but only if polygamous marriages were fairly common. Later evidence is that they were not so, but circumstances may have been very different at this stage. The situation in Egypt may well have caused a shortage of men compared with women (compare Isaiah 4:1). Furthermore it may well be that the firstborn, due to their position in the family, had suffered most in Egypt, being the first to be put to death for infractions by ‘the slaves’. This could then have resulted in a small number of living firstborns, and would help to explain the judgment on the firstborn of Egypt.

However, in our view the difficulty does not arise for the reasons mentioned above.


Numbers 3:44-45

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the Levites instead of all the first-born among the children of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle. And the Levites shall be mine. I am Yahweh.” ’

Yahweh now repeats His instruction, stressing its importance, and making it crystal clear. The Levites were to replace the firstborn sons as servants of the Sanctuary, and their cattle, now set aside as Yahweh’s, were to replace the firstborn which would otherwise be due from the Israelite cattle. They would be released from their double obligation of firstling and firstborn, being now only responsible for firstlings.

Numbers 3:46-48

And for the redemption of the two hundred and threescore and thirteen of the first-born of the children of Israel, that are over and above the number of the Levites, you shall take five shekels apiece per head. After the shekel of the sanctuary you shall take them (the shekel is twenty gerahs), and you shall give the money, with which the odd number of them is redeemed, to Aaron and to his sons.”

The remaining surplus of 273 were now brought into account. They were to be redeemed by their parents at a ransom of 5 shekels per person. This money was then to be given to the priests. This was the estimate of the value of a male child under five years old (Leviticus 27:6 - possibly the equivalent of the slave price for a male under five years old), the redeemed children clearly being seen as those most recently born. The ones to be paid for were probably selected by Urim and Thummim. Or it may have been paid by the more wealthy. The resulting redemption silver was to be handed over to the priests.

Numbers 3:49-50

‘And Moses took the redemption-silver from those who were over and above those who were redeemed by the Levites. From the first-born of the children of Israel took he the silver, a thousand three hundred and threescore and five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary.’

So Moses collected the redemption silver which amounted to 1,365 shekels.

Numbers 3:51

‘And Moses gave the redemption-silver to Aaron and to his sons, according to the word of Yahweh, as Yahweh commanded Moses.’

Moses then passed it on to the priests, as he had been commanded by Yahweh, so that ‘the word of Yahweh’ was fulfilled.

One important lesson for us that comes from this chapter is its lesson on substitution and redemption. In the economy of God, like could be substituted for like. Thus was our Lord Jesus Christ, Creator of the world and all that is in it (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:14-17), a more than sufficient substitute for His creation.

We may also draw the lesson of responsibility. The Levites were required to respond to Yahweh and be totally dedicated to His service. God requires that of us too. But we are not restricted by the tribe that we belong to. Our dedication is a matter of willingness on our part. The question for us is, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 3". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.