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The charge of the priests and Levites: their several portions.
Before Christ 1471.
Numbers 18:1. And the Lord said unto Aaron— God, having by the foregoing miracles vindicated the honour and authority of the priesthood, now lets Aaron know, probably by the hand of Moses, the importance of his office, wherein he was to behave with great care and circumspection; and withal he again declares the duty of the Levites, as distinct from that of the priests, from Num 18:1 to Num 18:8 and from thence proceeds to state what maintenance he had settled upon both for their encouragement in doing their duty. The bearing the iniquity of the sanctuary, and of the priesthood, means, that it should be upon them to bear the punishment of any profanations, either of the one, or the other, through their neglect.
Numbers 18:4. They shall be joined unto thee— Alluding to Levi's name; see Genesis 29:34. Stranger, in this verse, does not signify only those of other nations and relations, but all those who were not of the tribe of Levi.
Numbers 18:7. I have given your priest's office—as a service of gift— Houbigant renders this, For I have given you the priesthood for a gift: I have absolutely appropriated unto you, and given to you and your posterity, a grant of the priest's office. The priest's office might well be called a gift, and was a great privilege. The employment itself was an honour; and such a provision was made, that the priests might attend upon the duties of their holy function without distraction, as is mentioned in a subsequent part of this chapter.
REFLECTIONS.—Aaron is now confirmed in his ministry; a distinguished honour is put upon him; but he is reminded of the danger and difficulty of his arduous employment, that proportionable watchfulness, diligence, and zeal, may appear. 1. The charge of the sanctuary is entrusted to him, with the priests and Levites; and they are to be answerable to God for every neglect, or transgression, or mistake, in their ministrations. Note; The ministry is an awful charge, if one immortal soul perish through our ignorance or carelessness, his blood will God require at our hands. How many undertake the care of souls, who, have never weighed the solemn account they must one day make to God? 2. Their several employments are appointed. Aaron alone within the vail; his sons within the tabernacle; the Levites without, as their assistants in the service of the court and altar; each has his province, and all their work. God's house admits no idlers. An indolent priest is like Satan appearing among the sons of God. 3. Peculiar care must be taken, that no stranger enter there. The people were trembling at the thoughts of their danger in approaching the tabernacle, and the priests and Levites are charged to keep them at a distance from sin, that there may be no more wrath against them. Note; (1.) It is good to have the watchfulness of others to restrain us from evil, as men as our own precautions against it. (2.) The way to escape wrath, is to avoid sin. (3.) Ministers must not only put away iniquity from themselves, but be watchful and zealous to keep others from offending.
Numbers 18:16. Those that are to be redeemed from a month old, &c.— This law of redemption was a perpetual memorial to the Israelites of their deliverance from Egypt. The ceremony of redeeming the first-born subsists to this day among the Jews, in the following form: when the child is full thirty days old, the father sends for the priest to his house, where a select number of his friends are convened for that purpose: then the father, taking hold of a cup or basin wherein are several pieces of gold and silver, the child is put into the hands of the priest, who thus addresses himself to the mother: Is this your son? M. Yes. Pr. Had you never any other child, male or female, nor any miscarriage or untimely birth? M. No. Pr. This child, therefore, being the first-born, belongs to me. Then, turning to the father, he says, If you have a desire that the child should be your's, you must redeem him. Fa. That is my design in making you an offering of these pieces of gold and silver. Pr. You are willing then to redeem him? Fa. I am—Then the priest, turning to the assembly, says, This child, being a first-born, is mine, as it is written, Numbers 18:15-16. Every thing that openeth the matrix, whether it be of men or beasts, shall be thine; and those that are to be redeemed, thou shalt redeem, from a month old, for five shekels; nevertheless, I content myself with this in exchange; at the same time he takes about two gold crowns, and returns the child to the father and mother.
Numbers 18:19. It is a covenant of salt— That is, a perpetual covenant, or one which should last as long as that dispensation should last; see Leviticus 2:13. The reason of this mode of expression seems to arise from the preserving nature of salt; which, therefore, most probably, was held a symbol of friendship and fidelity. Hence the Greek proverb, αλα και τραπεζαν μη παραβαινειν, not to violate the salt and the table; i.e. the laws of friendship and hospitality. It is most likely, that in all solemn covenants which were confirmed by sacrifice, it was an ancient custom to offer salt with the sacrifice, to denote the faith and perpetuity of the covenant; so that, in this view, a covenant of salt will signify a covenant confirmed by sacrifice. It is well known, that the heathens were careful also to offer salt with all their sacrifices; a custom, most probably, derived from the very beginning of the world, and the first sacrifices which were offered; see Spencer, p. 760, and Calmet on the place. The Turks, to this very day, say of those who have entered into a vow of perpetual friendship, that they have eaten salt together; see Adag. Erasmi, under the words Sal and Mensa. Mr. Locke says, it is called a covenant of salt, because covenants were established by eating and drinking together, where salt was a necessary appendage.
REFLECTIONS.—God will have his servants liberally provided for: they shall not serve him for nought. As by their service they were excluded from all means of gain, the altar they served supplied them with plenty, and of the best. The offerings and first-fruits provided meat and drink for their families; and the ransom-money, and things dedicated, supplied them with every other necessary. Note; (1.) They who serve at the altar should live by the altar. (2.) A godly people will make a liberal provision for a gospel ministry. (3.) They who have the care of souls need have no other care upon them. (4.) Let faithful ministers trust their families with God; as he has provided for them while they live, he will not forget them when they are dead.
Numbers 18:20. I am thy part and thine inheritance— They lived by the altar, which was God's table, as it is explained, Joshua 13:14. This provision for the priest was so ample, that if any part of the land of Canaan had been given them together with it, there had been too great an inequality between them and the rest of the people: for, without any share in the land, their portion, upon computation, will be found to be far richer than that of any other person's whatsoever. Bishop Kidder has thus thrown together, in one view, all the parts of their emoluments; 1st, They had the tithes of the Levites, Numbers 18:26. This was very considerable; there being but one family of the tribe of Levi, and that tribe but small in comparison of the other twelve tribes. 2nd, They had the skins of the burnt-offerings, Lev 7:8 with some inconsiderable exception. 3rdly, The sin and trespass-offering was their's; and so was the meat-offering, Numbers 18:9. 4thly, The breast and shoulder of the peace-offerings, Lev 7:31 to which were afterwards added the cheeks, and maw, 5thly, They had the shew-bread, 6thly, Things or persons devoted or separated by a vow, Lev 27:21 and Num 18:14 of this chapter. 7thly, The restitution-money, 8thly, All the heave and wave-offerings, Numbers 18:8; Numbers 18:11. 9thly, The first-fruits, Numbers 18:12. Numbers 18:10thly, The first-born, Numbers 18:15. Numbers 18:11thly, The tribute mentioned, Num 31:29 with several other particulars.
Numbers 18:21. I have given the children of Levi all the tenth, &c.— The enemies of religion, availing themselves of some minute descriptions given by commentators of the revenue assigned to the tribe of Levi, have been forward to remark, that this revenue was excessive, and that the Levites were blood-suckers to their brethren; but a little attention will serve to convince us, that the constitutions of the law of Moses, upon this subject, were wise and just.
I. God, willing to be served suitable to his majesty, and having made choice of the tribe of Levi, and consecrated it to this service, thought it proper, on the one hand, that it should possess nothing as its own, in order that it might be solely occupied in the care of his worship; and on the other, that the members of that tribe might be dispersed over the country, in order to their being thereby better enabled to teach his law to his whole people. Nothing, therefore, was more just, than to furnish elsewhere the subsistence of the Levites; nothing more so, than to oblige the Israelites to provide it. This was an amends due to the Levites in return for their relinquishing a thirteenth part of the country which fell to them; a salary for their instructions; a recompense of their cares, in the daily service of the tabernacle. The whole question is, whether that which Moses assigned with these several views, was excessive? And we insist that it was not so.
II. What extremely enlarges the object in the eye of persons who stop at the surface of things, is, that some imagine, that all that the Levites received from the people was for themselves, and that they made a purse of it; not considering, that one part of the sacred revenues was employed for their frugal entertainment in the house of God, when they came, in their turns, to perform their regular service; that another part was appropriated to the use of the tabernacle, in keeping up its utensils and vessels; and that what remained served only to subsist the Levites in their families; 1. The first-fruits were an inconsiderable duty, being brought in a basket, Deuteronomy 26:2; Deuteronomy 26:19. These fruits were designed for feeding the Levites in waiting. They ate them in a holy place, in the presence of God, as was the designation of several other offerings. 2. The first-born, both of men and beasts, were another considerable revenue of the tabernacle. The first-born of clean beasts were sacrificed, and their flesh, with the first-fruits, served as the food of the priests in waiting, in the same manner as the lamb for the redemption of unclean beasts. As to the first-born of men, they were redeemed at five shekels a head; and these five shekels no way belonged to the Levites, but were put into the treasury, and employed to defray the expences of the tabernacle. The half shekel which the Israelites paid at the time of their numbering, had the like designation. Besides, the Levites paid it, as well as the rest; and those who think it was continued to be paid annually, are agreed, that it was always put to public use. We see then, 3. What were the means of subsistence for the priests and Levites when they were out of waiting. First, they had forty-eight cities, each of them forming a square of 4000 cubits, with 2000 cubits of ground round each: this was in all about 53,000 acres of ground. Now, upon the lowest calculation of the extent of the land of Canaan, it contained 11,264,000 acres of ground; so that the portion of the Levites was not as one to two hundred. Secondly, besides the cities and circumjacent grounds abovementioned, the Levites had the tenth of all the fruits; but there was hardly more than a thirtieth part of the country which produced things subject to the tenth; the rest consisted of pastures, woods, &c. So that the Levites did not gather the tenth for more than a third of the country. As to the beasts, of which they had also the tenth, those which had been once tithed, were never tithed again; so that this tenth, respecting only the cattle brought forth in the year, was not very considerable. Lastly, the two other sorts of tenths, employed at some sacred meals, did not enrich the Levites; they profited by them only as the friends of their inviters. Let us now see, therefore, whether the tribe of Levi had too great advantages. It was naturally to have the thirteenth part of the country, and from every 100£. to receive 6£. 10s. Instead of this, it received 10£. by levying the tythe; i.e. a little less than three and a half per cent. more than would otherwise have belonged to them. Was this too much for what they otherwise lost? The Levites had given up the advantage of independent government, which each of the other tribes enjoyed. They had nearly renounced all personal property; they had likewise renounced the profit they might have made by the cultivating of their own lands; they had trusted solely to the national faith, and the hazard of being ill paid; because, whatever misfortune befel their country, and in whatsoever quarter it happened, they must always feel it. Let any one estimate all this, and then judge whether the trifling advantage of three and a half per cent. could indemnify them for the losses we have been just hinting. It will be objected, perhaps, that they gathered the tenth without any trouble: but this advantage was fully counterbalanced, in other respects, by the charge of the tabernacle, and the care they bestowed to make themselves capable of instructing their brethren, as well as in giving them that instruction.
III. All that was really to be feared from this disposition, was, that the tribe of Levi, composed of persons who instructed others and were better versed than they in the study of the law, should gain too great an ascendancy over the rest of the tribes, and exercise an authority among them fatal to the nation. But God prevented this inconveniency: by dispersing the Levites, he made them dependant upon the tribe amidst whom they lived: by giving them no district of their own, and obliging them to receive their substance from all the other tribes, he caused them to preserve a proper respect: by this means, if they became refractory, they were constantly to be punished, either by withholding their tenths, or by seizing upon their persons. We are indebted for these reflections to Mr. Chais, who has abridged them from Mr. Lowman's excellent Dissertation on the Civil Government of the Hebrews, chap. 6:
REFLECTIONS.—The priests and Levites are forbidden all secular concerns, and can hold no inheritance, only the houses of the cities appointed them for a habitation. God was their portion; and he who has him for a portion, need not wish a better, and may well account all besides to be dung and loss. As the Levites' business is to keep charge of the tabernacle, and to prevent all profane intruders, they have their wages in the tenths of the produce of every kind; and out of these, a tenth of the best was offered for the priest's maintenance and accepted of God, as if the produce of their own lands; after which, the remainder was free for the use of the Levites and their families. Note; (1.) Out of the portion the Lord allots his ministers, they must be careful to honour him with a part. (2.) When we have dedicated to God a part of our substance, we may hope for his blessing and comfort in the use of the remainder.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 18". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany