THE PRIESTS AND LEVITES: THEIR OBLIGATIONS AND RIGHTS.
The miraculous confirmation of the priesthood to Aaron as just narrated is followed by a reiteration of the duties and privileges of the sacerdotal tribe and of the revenue appointed for their support. There have been isolated laws relating to these subjects, but up to this time there has been no complete code. Aaron, as the priestly head, is first addressed, Numbers 18:1; Numbers 18:8, then Moses, Numbers 18:25, as the representative of the theocratic head of Israel.
While the middle books of the Pentateuch give special emphasis to the difference between the priests and the Levites, Deuteronomy, on the contrary, seems to obliterate this distinction by classing them together as a holy estate in contrast with the people. The two views do not contradict, but supplement, each other. In Deuteronomy the vocation of the Levites is subserved under the priestly calling in general, but without assigning to them any peculiar priestly function. Deuteronomy 10:8; Deuteronomy 18:7. Hence it is a great mistake to assert that Deuteronomy does not at all acknowledge the difference between the Levites who were priests and those who were not; for where the term Levites stands, it is just the common Levites who are meant. See especially Numbers 18:6-8, compared with Numbers 18:3-5. It is true, however, that both are treated as essentially a single whole in Deuteronomy, while the middle books denote the priests as “the sons of Aaron.” Deuteronomy, on the contrary, makes prominent the Levitical character of the priesthood by styling the priests “the sons of Levi,” (Deuteronomy 21:5; Deuteronomy 31:9,) or “Levitical priests.” Deuteronomy 17:9; Deuteronomy 17:18; Joshua 3:3. Hence the vocation of the Levites is designated by terms which are elsewhere applied precisely to the priestly office, namely, “to minister in Jehovah’s name,” “to stand before Jehovah.”
Deuteronomy 18:5; Deuteronomy 18:7; Deuteronomy 21:5; Deuteronomy 17:12. And accordingly the ordinance of the priesthood is as in Malachi 2:5, a covenant with Levi. A mixture of the offices of the two classes does not at all follow from the fact that the priests and also the Levites were the designated bearers of the ark of the covenant, since the former bore the ark on all solemn occasions, (Joshua 3:3; 1 Kings 8:3,) and the latter bore it during the wanderings in the wilderness, (Numbers 4:15,) and subsequently in the hasty flight of King David from Absalom. 2 Samuel 15:24.
THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE PRIESTLY TRIBE, Numbers 18:1-7.
1.Thou and thy father’s house — High rank and privilege are thus made to bear increased responsibilities.
The iniquity of the sanctuary — All misconduct in the sanctuary, all improprieties and all defects in service, shall be laid upon the sons of Aaron. Moreover, it was their duty not only to make expiation for these, but also for every defilement of the sanctuary by the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:6, note) even by their holy gifts.
Exodus 28:38. All these the priests must bear away or expunge by virtue of the sanctifying power of their office. See Numbers 18:23, note.
Iniquity of your priesthood — This comprised every neglect of the most conscientious performance of duty, and the defects in their official acts flowing from their own inherent depravity of nature. These were wiped out on the great day of atonement. See Leviticus 16:16-19, notes.
2-5.Thy brethren — The Gershonites and Merarites might serve before the tabernacle, but not within it, nor near the vessels and the altar, lest both they and the priests should die. See Numbers 4:18, note. “While the Levitical law does not define the sanctuary duties of the Levites, but leaves them, as they might naturally be left at the outset, to perform such services as the priest might require of them, long usage gradually assigned to them specific tasks, as the charge of the gates, slaying the sacrifices, boiling or roasting their flesh, etc. 2 Chronicles 23:4; 2 Chronicles 30:17.” — Dr. W.H. Green. These directions are made in view of the judgment fires which had already burned around the divine altars in the cases of the irreverent sons of Aaron (Leviticus x) and of Korah and his company. Chap. 16.
6.Given as a gift — See Numbers 3:9; Numbers 8:16, note. The duties of the priests were liturgical, those of the Levites were martial. At a later period the Levites were organized entirely in a military manner. It must be borne in mind that their functions, as described in the book of Numbers, refer only to the time of the people’s wandering, and not to their duties after their settlement in the Holy Land.
7.Every thing of the altar — That is, in the first or priests’ court.
Within the vail — The holy of holies, accessible only to the high priest on the day of atonement. Leviticus 16:12, note.
As a service of gift — The office of the priest was not to be discharged from constraint as a duty, but freely and gladly as an avenue through which the loving soul might pour its gratitude to the Giver. Thus Paul deemed himself the recipient of undeserved “grace,” that he might preach, not among his kinsmen, whom he loved better than his own life, but among the despised Gentiles, “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” The highest Christian experience has not been reached when the opportunity of the humblest service to Christ is not joyfully received as a gracious privilege. When the wife begins to care for the household from mere duty, and not from love to her husband, her home becomes a prison.
The stranger — All persons except the sons of Aaron. See Numbers 1:51, note.
Shall be put to death — Not by the verdict of a human tribunal, but by the judgment of God. See Numbers 4:18, note. In the days of Ezekiel God complains of the flagrant violation of this law, when strangers and people uncircumcised in heart and in flesh polluted the sanctuary. Ezekiel 44:7.
THE PRIESTLY REVENUES, Numbers 18:8-20.
8.The charge — Hebrew, the keeping of all holy gifts for their portion instead of a territorial allotment in Canaan. See Leviticus 7:35; Joshua 13:14, notes.
Heave offerings — The Hebrew word t’roomah is here used in its broadest sense, as in Exodus 25:2; Leviticus 2:9, including all the holy gifts. See Leviticus 21:22, note. For the proper heave offering see Leviticus 7:14, note.
An ordinance for ever — See Leviticus 3:17, note.
9.Meat offering — See Leviticus 2, notes.
Sin offering — See Leviticus 4:3, note.
Trespass offering — R.V., “guilt offering.” See Leviticus v, Introductory Note, and Leviticus 5:6, note. The burnt offering is omitted from the priestly revenues because none of it was reserved from the fire of the altar except the skin, which was a perquisite of the priest. Leviticus 7:8, notes.
Most holy — See Leviticus 2:3; Leviticus 6:25, notes.
10.In the most holy place — Hebrews, in a most holy place, not in the holy of holies, within the second vail, but in the court of the tabernacle, (Leviticus 7:6,) here called most holy to emphasize the statute. R.V., “As the most holy things.”
Every male shall eat — For the right of the priests to eat those sacrifices pronounced most holy see Leviticus vi, concluding note, and Leviticus 22:11, note.
11.The wave offerings — The waving or moving to and fro of sacrifices was a sign of dedication. This was done in the case of the thank offering with the breast and right shoulder, Leviticus 9:21; Leviticus 10:15, and in the case of the Nazarite’s meat offering, Numbers 6:20. See Leviticus 7:30; Leviticus 23:20, notes.
Sons and’ daughters — All the members of the priestly families, both male and female, including the bought and house-born servants, (Deuteronomy 12:12,) ceremonially clean, (Leviticus 22:3,) might eat the following holy things: The heave and wave offerings, the firstfruits, all the fat (best) of (olive) oil, new wine, and corn, and every clean thing devoted or placed under the ban. To the priest also belonged every firstborn of man and beast, all of which were redeemable except the perfect firstborn of the sacrificial animals. See Numbers 5:9, note.
12.Firstfruits — See Genesis 4:3; Leviticus 2:12; Leviticus 23:10, notes.
14.Every thing devoted — Hebrews, cherem. See Leviticus 27:28, note.
15.Every thing that openeth the matrix — Every firstborn male. The female firstborn of man and beast were exempted from consecration. See Leviticus 27:26, note. The firstborn of man were to be consecrated to Jehovah as a sacrifice, not after the manner of the heathen, by slaying and burning upon the altar, but by presenting them to the Lord as living sacrifices, devoting all their powers of body and mind to his service. Romans 12:1, note. “As the Egyptians were judged in their firstborn children because of their guilt, so that the children took the place of the whole nation, and bore as a sacrifice the curse of extermination which lay on all; so, on the contrary, Israel — the people chosen by Jehovah and redeemed from the bondage of man — in testimony that it owes its existence and possessions to divine grace alone,’ shall bring to God, as payment, the firstling blessings of his house in place of the whole.” — Oehler. Since the first birth represented all the births, the whole nation was to consecrate itself to Jehovah, and present itself as a priestly nation in the consecration of the firstborn, thus fore-shadowing the “royal priesthood” of every individual believer in Christ. See the Septuagint of Exodus 19:6, and 1 Peter 2:9.
16.According to thine estimation — That is, at the price which has been established for thee, namely, five shekels. See Numbers 3:47, note; Leviticus 27:2-7, notes.
17.Thou shalt not redeem, nor give as a substitute, (Leviticus 27:10,) nor use for thy own profit by deriving labour from the bullock or the fleece from the sheep. Deuteronomy 15:19.
Sprinkle their blood — See Leviticus 3:2, note.
Their fat — See Leviticus 3:3; Leviticus 3:17, notes.
A sweet savour — See Leviticus 1:9, note.
19.A covenant of salt — Salt symbolizes the unbending truthfulness of that self-surrender to the Lord implied in the sacrifice, excluding all impurity and hypocrisy.
“Unsavoury all our offerings are
Till acceptable through thy Son:
But hear well pleased our praise and prayer
Presented in his Name alone.
The salt we borrow from our Lord,
His meritorious righteousness,
And every deed, and thought, and word
Is season’d now with Jesus’ grace.” C. Wesley.
In common life salt was the emblem of a covenant. Among the modern Arabs, the parties to a treaty ratify it by eating bread and salt together. See Leviticus 2:13; Mark 9:49; Luke 14:34, notes.
For ever — See Leviticus 3:17, note.
20.I am’ thine inheritance — Peter describes this inheritance by the use of three negatives. 1 Peter 1:4. No positive terms can compass its greatness. It does not exclude temporal good, since the principal part of what was offered to God was the portion of the priests.
21.All the tenth in Israel — A tenth of all the earnings of twelve tribes — a revenue greater than the average of each — was an ample maintenance for the tribe set apart for sub-priestly service. “Yet this was not a splendid endowment. Even when the tithe was conscientiously handed over, it was no certain income. Moreover, if the people showed themselves averse to this tax, the tribe of Levi was subjected to unavoidable poverty. Deuteronomy 12:19; Deuteronomy 14:27; Deuteronomy 14:29.” — Oehler.
THE REVENUES OF THE LEVITES, Numbers 18:21-24.
In order that the tribe of Levi might be withdrawn from the common calling of life, which in the theocratic state was agricultural, and might give itself completely to its sacred vocation, no inheritance as a tribe was assigned to it.
22.Bear sin — That is, expiate it, or suffer its penalty, which in this case is death. The Seventy and the Vulgate render it thus: lest they commit a death-bearing sin. See Numbers 4:18, note; James 1:15; 1 John 5:16.
23.Do the service of the tabernacle — The Levites were the bearers and custodians of the tabernacle. They assisted the priests, but never sprinkled blood nor burned incense.
They shall bear their iniquity — Here is the idea of a vicarious atonement plainly expressed. The people had attempted to bear their own sins into the presence of God, and to make atonement, and the yawning earth, the fire, and the plague had swept away thousands. This was to teach them that holy persons were needful to purify the unholy by expiation. The people must be taught, at whatever cost, the difference between holy and unholy. Hence the presumptuous are consumed in the act of holding up their sins before Jehovah, a work for which Aaron and his sons had been specially consecrated. They could draw near the tabernacle as the representatives of Israel, taking upon themselves and bearing the iniquity of the congregation. Thus the need of a holy Mediator is prefigured, even Jesus Christ, “who appears in heaven for us.”
24.A heave offering — This implies that the tithe, or its equivalent, must be brought to the temple. But according to Deuteronomy 12:5-7; Deuteronomy 12:17; Deuteronomy 14:22-29, this vegetable tithe was not to be taken to the metropolis, but is to constitute hospitable and charitable meals at home, to which the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow are to be invited.
REVENUES FROM THE LEVITES TO THE PRIESTS, Numbers 18:25-32.
As a discipline to their moral natures, the tithe is imposed on the Levites as it is laid on the other tribes. To exempt any body of men from the law of benevolence is to intensify their selfishness and to harden their hearts.
26.A tenth part of the tithe — Ten per cent. of their income from the tithe and from all other sources was to be immediately paid over to the priests before the conscientious Levite could enjoy the remainder. Thus, though the position of the priests is higher, an essential portion of their sustenance was dependent on the honesty of the Levites. The priests were cared for sufficiently, but by no means abundantly. Compared with the endowments of the priestly caste in many other ancient nations, the provision for the Levitical priesthood is very moderate.
27.Shall be reckoned unto you — This tithe shall have all the elements of value and of sacrifice in the sight of the Lord, as it would have if it had been produced by toil and frugality, for it was a part of their living.
28.To Aaron the priest — To the high priest as the representative of the priesthood.
29.Out of all your gifts — Every thing received from the people and every gift of Providence produced in their suburban fields was subject to the tithe.
Heave offering of the Lord — That is, to the priests as Jehovah’s representatives.
All the best — Literally, the fat. This implies that the tenth given shall be of as good quality as the nine tenths retained. But if one bullock out of the ten, or one sheep, was of extraordinary excellence it must be given.
The hallowed part — Set apart or consecrated to a holy use.
31.Ye shall eat it in every place — The Levites might have as great freedom from ceremonial restrictions in the enjoyment of the tithe, after paying over a tithe of it to the priests, as the other tribes had in the enjoyment of their corn and wine and oil. The tithe, though a sacred obligation, had not the sacredness of the altar offerings, which must be eaten in a holy place.
32.Ye shall bear no sin — In the free use of the tithed tithe the Levites would violate no ceremonial law nor expose themselves to penalty.
Neither shall ye pollute — In this prohibition both priests and Levites are addressed. The holy things are to be exempt from profanation.
Matthew 7:6, note.
Lest ye die — The attention of the Hebrews was directed more to a judicial, physical death than to a punishment after death. Yet even in the Pentateuch, מות and θανατος, death, sometimes implies the perdition and misery of that exclusion from the presence and favour of God which in the New Testament is called the second death. See Deuteronomy 30:19.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 18". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany