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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 3

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



The question now arises, whether in a population exceeding two millions there could have been twenty-two thousand two hundred and seventy-three firstborn sons in the thirteen months since the passover. The proportion of male births to female among the Jews of modern times has been as high as twenty-nine to twenty, or nearly three to two. Assuming that in the month of the emancipation there were thirty-eight thousand marriages, it is not unreasonable to suppose that these would produce the required number of firstborn males, twenty-two thousand two hundred and seventy-three, in thirteen months, reckoning in the fruits of marriages previous to the exodus, which up to that time had been productive of no males. The exode must have given a wonderful impulse to marriage among the Hebrews, suddenly lifted up from crushing oppression and inspired and gladdened by freedom. The reasons for limiting the firstborn to those born after the Egyptian Passover are thus concisely stated in the Speaker’s Bib. Com.: “This seems implied in the very language used: ’Sanctify unto me the firstborn, whatsoever openeth (not hath opened) the womb;’ (Exodus 13:2; Exodus 13:11-12;) by the ground which God is pleased to assign (Numbers 3:13; Numbers 8:17) for making this claim; by the fact that the special duties of the firstborn had reference to a ritual which, at the time of the exodus, had not yet been revealed; and by the inclusion in the command of the firstborn of cattle, which obviously must mean those thereafter born, for we cannot imagine that an inquisition among the flocks and herds was made at the exodus to discover for immediate sacrifice the firstborn already in existence.”

Colenso’s argument in reply, that פשׂר is a noun, ( womb-opener,) simply removes the tense entirely, so that all presumption against the present tense is taken away.

Dr. M. Mahan thus concisely relieves this arithmetical difficulty: “The best way (perhaps) of reconciling the number of the firstborn with that of the male adults, is suggested by the fact that the total number of Levites was twenty-two thousand three hundred, whereas only twenty-two thousand were available as substitutes for the firstborn. What became of the three hundred? It is answered, that they were the firstborn of the Levites, and, consequently, could only redeem themselves, and not their brethren. If so, the firstborn of the Levites since the Passover would be in the proportion of three hundred to twenty-two thousand, or one to seventy-four, of the males ‘from a month old and upward.’ Now supposing that the firstborn of the other tribes meant only those who had been born since the law of redemption had been instituted, we may make the following calculation:

six hundred thousand fighting men would be about one half or one third of the male population of all ages; if we allow one half, the total number would be one million two hundred thousand; if we allow one third, it would be one million eight hundred thousand. Divide these sums respectively by twenty-two thousand, the number of the firstborn, and we get the rate of one to fifty-five in the one case, and one to eighty-one in the other; or, if we take the warriors to be (as is probable) something more than one third, and less than one half, of the whole number of males, we get a closer approximation to the one in seventy-four which has been previously calculated as the proportion of firstborn among the Levites. From this coincidence arises a probability that the firstborn in Numbers 3:43 were only those who had been born since the law of redemption had been given; and that said law was not intended to have a retrospective force.” These hypotheses (which are certainly not more violent than the assumptions of Colenso) would put the twenty-two thousand firstborn and the six hundred thousand warriors in a fairer proportion to one another, and so far would relieve the chief difficulty. See Poole’s Synopsis.

Verse 1


Because man is a religious being whose hopes and fears are constantly grasping the invisible and the immortal, his imperative religious wants require the ministry of a class of men set apart from secular cares and dedicated solely to sacred offices. Since they touch the deepest springs of human action and national character, it can never be a matter of indifference who shall sway the influence of the priestly office. “He who would rule a nation must first conciliate its priests.” Augustus did not complete the subversion of the Roman Republic until he created himself Pontifex Maximus. It is the prerogative of God to select his own priesthood. They are to be his apostles to man, and man’s representatives before him. Chosen by reason of their personal fitness, they hold their sacred office only so long as that fitness shall continue. The Lord chose Aaron for the office of high priest. That there might be some always in training for the succession, he made the priesthood conditionally hereditary. When one branch of the family became hopelessly corrupt, it was either disqualified for the headship or wholly repudiated, and another branch was chosen. 1 Samuel 2:27-36.

1. The generations Hebrews, toldoth as in Genesis 5:1 the descendants. This term as here used indicates the Levitical families generally, because Aaron and Moses, when Jehovah spake on Sinai, were exalted to be the spiritual fathers of the tribe of Levi, of which they were members.

Of Aaron Aaron is placed before Moses because of his high priesthood. The generations of a person are commonly inserted in Scripture history at a “crisis when either a signal and accomplished fulfilment of the Divine counsels is to be indicated, or a stage has been reached which establishes a basis for a fulfilment to be narrated at large in the sequel.”

And Moses The posterity of Moses may be expected to follow, but it is not found. For this omission we find no very satisfactory explanation. Prof. Bush partially relieves the difficulty when he says that “Moses’s lineage is probably included under the general name Amramite, Numbers 3:27, embracing all the children and grandchildren of Amram, with the exceptions only of Moses and Aaron.” The sons of Moses were ranked as Levites, since their father’s extraordinary office was not hereditary. Hence his sons are enumerated as Levites, (see 1 Chronicles xxiii, 14,) where the family record of Moses is inserted.

In the day This was the register of Aaron’s sons then living when Moses went up to the summit of Sinai. But two were judicially smitten by Jehovah before the awful transactions of the mount were concluded, so that at the time of the present enumeration they were not living.

Mount Sinai Of the Sinaitic group, the peak which bears the name of Jebel Musa, or Mount of Moses, was formerly identified by travellers as Mount Sinai. But the hypothesis that this peak is the peak from which the Decalogue was proclaimed to man must be abandoned, because the plain at its base is, in the words of Stanley, “rough, uneven, and narrow,” and utterly insufficient for the vast Hebrew host who are represented as spectators of that tremendous manifestation of Divine power. Military surveys confirm this conclusion, and hence Jebel Musa, the traditional Mount Sinai, has been abandoned. At the northern extremity of the Sinaitic range is found Ras Suf-safeh, with two wadies or valleys opening from its foot, where there is space for the entire assembly of Israel to gaze upon its summit, taking the highest estimate of their number. Modern travellers are quite unanimous in the opinion that this peak is Sinai. See notes on Exodus 3:1; Exodus 19:2. Dr. Robinson, who rejects the claims of Jebel Musa, says of the peak Ras Sufsafeh, which he calls Horeb: “We were surprised, as well as gratified, to find here, in the inmost recesses of these dark granite cliffs, this fine plain spread out before the mountain, because even to the present day it is a current opinion among scholars that no open space exists among these mountains; and I know not when I have felt a thrill of stronger emotion than when, in first crossing the plain, the dark precipices of Horeb rising in solemn grandeur before us, we became aware of the entire adaptedness of the scene to the purposes for which it was chosen by the Hebrew legislator.”

Verse 3

3. Anointed The anointing with oil symbolizes separation and consecration. The oil in both the Old Testament and the New typifies the grace of the Holy Spirit, “the unction from the Holy One.” Zechariah 4:2-12; 1Jn 2:20 ; 1 John 2:27; Acts 10:38. See Alford’s note on the ten virgins. Matthew 25:1-13. No man can acceptably minister at the altar of God who is not anointed with the anointing “that abideth and teach-eth.”

Consecrated Hebrews, whose hands he filled. Septuagint, whom he perfected as to their hands. Vulgate, whose hands he filled and consecrated. In giving over the priesthood to the sons of Aaron there was the ceremony of putting an offering into the hand of the candidate, (Num 8:27, 28,) as the Christian bishop fills, at his ordination, the hand of the candidate for the ministry of the Gospel of Christ with a copy of the Holy Scriptures.

Verse 4

4. Nadab and Abihu The tragic end of these sacrilegious priests is detailed in full in Leviticus 10:1-7, where see an extended annotation. They had but just been inducted into office. As men of note, they had been taken up the mount and had seen God. Exodus 24:9. A glorious manifestation of the power and mercy of God had just been given: “And the glory of Jehovah appeared unto all the people, and there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering.” The effect upon the people was to awaken the commingling emotions of joy and awe: “They shouted and fell on their faces.” Amid this scene Nadab and Abihu committed a rash act of sacrilege, “and there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them.” One vengeful flash from the Shekinah “struck them dead, with their censers in their hands, with not a moment’s warning. What a fearful exhibition of the truth that God’s jealousy burns fiercest about his altar!”

Strange fire Up to this event, which occurred just after the tabernacle was set up, and hence not more than four weeks before the census of the Levites, there is no record of any regulation respecting the character of the fire to be used for burning incense. But immediately after this sad catastrophe, in Leviticus 16:12, the command is given to take the coals of fire from the altar of burnt offerings on which it was perpetually burning. Leviticus 6:9; Leviticus 6:13. We infer that such a command had been given before to these newly-robed priests. The fire on the altar had been enkindled by God, and it was the duty of the priests to see that it never should go out. It is probable that this fire, and this only, had been prescribed for this service, and that these sons of Aaron wilfully transgressed this requirement. Some are of the opinion that the fire was called “strange” because the incense was not prepared in accordance with the prescription, “Ye shall offer no strange incense.” Exodus 30:9. It has also been suggested that the incense was burned in uncanonical hours, and that this was the offence.

Before the Lord These words do not necessarily imply that they had usurped the office of their father Aaron, and had rushed into the awful sanctity of the most holy place, where Jehovah, in the cloud of the Shekinah, was enthroned between the cherubim, for the entire tabernacle was filled with the special presence of the Lord. See on Leviticus 1:3. But from the prohibition of wine and strong drink to Aaron and his sons immediately following the account of the awful death of these two, we have good grounds for the inference that these priests were drunken when this impious act was committed. See Leviticus 10:8-11, and note the preceding context. Drunkenness impairs the faculty of moral discernment to discriminate “between the holy and the unholy,” and incapacitates to “teach all the statutes of the Lord.” “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh unto me.” Inebriation involves all vices and sacrileges.

Eleazar and Ithamar Aaron’s sole surviving sons. Half the Aaronic priesthood had been cut off at a stroke, as before noticed. God can carry on his work better with a pure ministry few in number, than with a multitude of unholy men in priestly robes serving their own lusts.

Verses 5-11


In the performance of the prescribed ritual there were many duties of a semi-sacerdotal nature, and some that were even menial. For the latter the Gibeonites were subsequently held, as a punishment for their mendacious diplomacy and as a relief to the Levites, who had been charged with all the sub-priestly duties connected with the tabernacle. Hence the propriety of a public presentation of the Levites, and a solemn charge pronounced by the high priest.

Verse 7

7. Charge of the… congregation As the Levites were subordinated to Aaron, it was proper that he should address them concerning their duties. As they were substituted for the firstborn of the people, the whole people were interested in their faithful discharge of their duties, and might with propriety be said to charge the Levitical body with these duties, which they themselves in the persons of their firstborn would have performed if the Levites had not been consecrated. In Numbers 8:11 Aaron is directed to “offer the Levites before the Lord for an offering of the children of Israel, that they may execute the service of the Lord.” The Hebrew for bring near, in Numbers 3:6, is a sacrificial word, used when an offering is presented to Jehovah.

Verse 9

9. 10. Wholly given The Hebrew repeats nethunim, given, to emphasize it. They are to be like good soldiers, not entangling themselves in secular affairs for personal aggrandizement or pleasure. As ample provision will be made for their support out of the offerings and tithes, so they are to render an undivided service to Jehovah, to Aaron, and to the congregation. The Levites, the nethunim, must be carefully distinguished from the nethinim, the condemned Gibeonites. Joshua 9:27.

The stranger Non-Levite. See Numbers 1:51, note.

Verses 11-13


On that night of wailing in Egypt, the saddest in the annals of mankind, the fifteenth of the month Nisan, when at midnight Jehovah smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from”the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon,” he passed over the blood-stained doors of the Hebrews, sparing their firstborn. These he commanded Moses to “set apart unto the Lord.” Exodus 13:12-16. For reasons not made known Jehovah relinquished this claim, and appointed the tribe of Levi to minister unto him instead of the firstborn. The substitution of adults capable of immediate service harmonizes well with the hypothesis that the phrase, “all the firstborn,” is to be understood prospectively, and so includes only infants born since the Exode, and incapable till thirty years old of rendering service. Levi may have had this honour for special fidelity in times of trial, especially against the abomination of the golden calf, set up and worshipped at the foot of Mount Sinai. Exodus 32:26-28. Dr. A. Clarke suggests that Levi was taken because it was the smallest tribe. This substitution accounts for the census of the tribe of Levi, the enumeration of the firstborn males, (Numbers 3:40,) and the redemption of the number in excess. Numbers 3:47. We are not to understand that the claim on the firstborn was to be retrospective, like an ex post facto law, and to cover all the firstborn of all ages, but those born after the passover night up to the census in the wilderness all born during the first thirteen months of the Exodus. Our reasons for this limitation will be seen when we discuss the number of firstborn, and their ratio to the fighting men. See Numbers 3:40, note.

Verse 12

12. Openeth the matrix Or womb. “This expression is generally employed in cases in which a common term is required to designate the firstborn of both man and beast, (Exodus 13:2; Exodus 13:12-15; Exodus 34:19-20; Numbers 8:16-17; also Numbers 18:15; Ezekiel 20:26;) but even then, wherever the two are distinguished, the term פשׂר , peter, is applied to the firstborn of animals, and בכור to the firstborn sons of men. On the other hand, where only firstborn sons are referred to, as in Deuteronomy 21:15-17, we look in vain for the expression peter rechem ’openeth the womb.’ Again, the Old Testament, like modern law, recognises only firstborn sons, and does not apply the term firstborn to daughters at all.” Keil and Delitzsch. The law of inheritance omits the daughter in designating the firstborn. In case of polygamy there was only one firstborn.

Verse 13

13. All the firstborn are mine This is a claim founded on the sovereignty of Jehovah, as is seen by the declaration, I am the Lord. As he had chosen Israel to be his firstborn (Exodus 4:22, note) by a sovereign national election to certain earthly privileges not to life everlasting so he exercised the prerogative of selecting a certain class in Israel to be devoted to his especial service. The intimation in this verse is, that the firstborn were saved from the destroyer because they were set apart or hallowed into Jehovah, and not that they were hallowed because they were spared. Hallowed Hebrew, kadash; Greek, αγιαζω ; Vulgate, sanctifico. The two senses of these words are: 1.) To set apart from secular to holy uses. 2.) To cleanse, to purify: of things, a physical cleansing; of persons, a spiritual as well as a physical purification is signified. When the Levites took the place of the firstborn they were not only set apart, but they were washed also. See Numbers 8:6-7. Hence the figures of the physical and spiritual cleansing from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit enjoined by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 7:1, and by James in Numbers 4:8. “Hallowed,” in this verse, signifies set apart. The firstborn were never ceremonially washed and initiated into the service of the tabernacle, because of the almost immediate substitution of the Levites.

Verse 14


14. Unto Moses To whom alone this order is given, probably because Aaron and his sons had a pecuniary interest in the result, inasmuch as the redemption money for the excess of the firstborn was to be paid to them.

In Numbers 3:39 of this chapter Aaron is spoken of as taking part with Moses in the enumeration; but in the Hebrew the Masoretic marks indicate a spurious reading. The same unauthorized reading occurs again in the Septuagint in Numbers 3:16.

Verse 15

15. After the house of their fathers Their mothers might have married into other tribes, and borne sons who were counted in those tribes.

Verse 22

22. Numbered… according to the number Mustered, or inspected, according to the number. The words differ in the Hebrew.

Verse 25

25. Tabernacle… tent… covering The tabernacle consisted of three chief parts, namely, the dwelling place, mishkan, or tabernacle strictly so called; the tent, ohel; and mikseh, the covering. The tabernacle itself was made of ten curtains of fine linen, ornamented with coloured cherubim resting upon a framework of boards, and was composed of the holy place and the most holy, corresponding to the adytum, ναος , or innermost sanctuary of the temple at Jerusalem. The tent a goat’s hair fabric was to cover the tabernacle, while spread over the tent was the covering made of the red skins of rams, or tachash skins, as a protection from the weather. See note on Numbers 4:6. Much confusion arises from the fact that in English tent and tabernacle are synonyms, and mean about the same as covering.

Verse 26

26. The cords of it The word “it” does not stand for the altar, which had no cords, nor for the hangings of the court, the care of which belonged to the Merarites, but to the tabernacle.

Verse 30

30. Elizaphan was of the youngest family of the Kohathites. Three other families outranked his in seniority. The ill-will awakened by this promotion of Elizaphan to the headship may have caused the rebellion of Korah, one of the older families.

Verse 39

39. Twenty and two thousand Here is bad arithmetic. The sum is three hundred less than the items call for, yet is correct, for it tallies with the total of the firstborn after subtracting the excess, two hundred and seventy-three, (Numbers 3:46,) who were to be redeemed by money. The rabbies explain the discrepancy by saying that there were three hundred firstborn among the Levites, and that they could not be offset for the same number of firstborn of the other tribes, and so were left out of the total. We adopt this explanation in preference to that of a clerical error of six hundred for three hundred by dropping the letter lamedth in the Hebrew word for three. Michaelis objects to this solution by the rabbies as inadmissible, because “the rule would apply to the particular amounts, as well as to the sum total.” This does not necessarily follow. Baumgarten makes a valuable suggestion when he says that “the silent omission of three hundred firstborn was intended, in this particular instance, to conceal the fact that there were limits to the assumed holiness of Levi, which were manifested in the inability to redeem Israel, in order that the relation between Levi and Israel might not be disturbed.” It speaks well for the scrupulous fidelity of the Jews in guarding their manuscripts that there has been no attempt to interpolate an explanation of this difficulty, or to alter the items to make them conform to the footing. Thus we have a high probability, amounting to a moral certainty, that the Jews, as “librarians for the Christians,” have faithfully transmitted to our hands the uncorrupted word of God.

Verse 40

40. A month old In Leviticus 27:6 the age of one month had been fixed as the age to be reached before the parents should redeem their firstborn son. Those dying under that age were not redeemed.

Verses 40-43


We have already hinted that the firstborn intended in this enumeration could not be the firstborn of every age, from the babe a month old up to the grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The difficulties of this broad interpretation, as suggested by Keil, are insuperable. The census of the males from the twentieth year upward would show a male population of over a million. Divide this sum by the number of firstborn, and there would be only one firstborn to forty or forty-five males, and, consequently, every father must have begotten, or still have had, from thirty-nine to forty-four sons; whereas the ordinary proportion of firstborn sons to the whole male population is one to four. By an examination of Exodus 13:2; Exodus 13:11, and the following verses, we find nothing inconsistent with that interpretation which makes the requirement to sanctify the firstborn wholly prospective and not retrospective.

Verse 41

41. The cattle of the Levites These do not seem to have been enumerated, but were estimated in the mass as equal to the firstborn cattle of all the other tribes. They were not all immediately sacrificed, nor were they taken from the Levites, but left in their possession to be sacrificed when needed. This is an impressive illustration of that stewardship of property required by Jesus Christ of all his followers. Having consecrated all their substance to him, they are to be ready to present it as a cheerful sacrifice at the first intimation of his will.

Verses 44-51


Since the results of the two enumerations disclose an excess of two hundred and seventy-three firstborn above the number of the Levites, Jehovah evinces the exactness of his demands, and sets an example of what men call square dealing, by requiring an equivalent for the services of these unexchanged firstborn. In all ages money has been deemed the equivalent of labour. In accordance with this principle of political economy, Jehovah sets a price upon the services of these two hundred and seventy-three firstborn, namely, five shekels each, about two dollars and seventy cents in the Federal currency, amounting to over seven hundred dollars, reckoning the shekel at fifty-three cents. The entire sum of redemption money was paid to Aaron and his sons as the representatives of Jehovah. The important question here arises, By whom was it paid? Here we have three conjectural answers:

1 . That the question of redeeming the two hundred and seventy-three was determined by lot; that twenty-two thousand drew lots which entitled them to be offset for as many Levites, and that the supernumeraries drew blanks, which indicated that they, or rather their parents, must pay each five shekels. This is the tradition, and is the theory of the Rabbies. It seems not to be just to the supernumeraries, nor to be in harmony with the dignity of Jehovah.

2 . Another hypothesis is, that the firstborn were redeemed by seniority, leaving the two hundred and seventy-three youngest to be redeemed by their parents.

3 . The more reasonable solution of the difficulty is the theory that this money was a tax upon the tribes, and was paid out of a common fund.

Verse 47

47. Shekel of the sanctuary Or, sacred shekel. Shekel signifies, in the Hebrew, weight in the abstract. But weights soon pass over into a designation of coins, as the English pound. There are in the Old Testament three shekels mentioned the ordinary shekel, the shekel of the sanctuary, and the shekel after the king’s weight. 2 Samuel 14:26. It is impossible to show the exact difference between these. According to the best authorities, the shekel was equal to three English shillings, or seventy-four cents. But if we follow the Septuagint, which translates it by διδραχμον , it equals in English currency one shilling seven pence half penny, or thirty-nine cents. In such case all our estimates of weight and value must be proportionally decreased. The latest conclusions, in Smith’s Dictionary, make the silver shekel equal to two hundred and twenty grains, or 220/417 of the Federal dollar, about fifty-three cents. In the sanctuary were kept the standard weights and measures; hence, “the balances of the sanctuary.”

The Jew’s religion touched his ordinary life at every point, as Christianity should its professors.

Twenty gerahs Gerah is Hebrew, meaning berry, or grain, possibly the seed of the carob-tree. The Mosaic gerah, which is equal to thirteen and seven tenths Paris grains, is equal to four or five beans of the carob, and, according to the Rabbies, to sixteen grains of barley.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 3". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-3.html. 1874-1909.
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