|Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary|
3:40-51 The number of the first-born, and that of the Levites, came near to each other. Known unto God are all his works beforehand; there is an exact proportion between them, and so it will appear, when they are compared together. The small number of first-born, over and above the number of the Levites, were to be redeemed, and the redemption-money given to Aaron. The church is called the church of the first-born, which is redeemed, not as they were, with silver and gold; but, being devoted by sin to the justice of God, is ransomed with the precious blood of the Son of God. All men are the Lord's by creation, and all true christians are his by redemption. Each should know his own post and duty; nor can any service required by such a Master be rightly accounted mean or hard.
Verse 43. - Twenty and two thousand two hundred and threescore and thirteen. These were the first-born of the twelve tribes; but who were included under the designation "first-born" is a matter of grave dispute. The smallness of their number (not much above one per cent. of the whole population) has given rise to several conflicting theories, all of which seem to be artificial, arbitrary, and therefore unsatisfactory. It is urged by some that the expression "every male that openeth the womb" must be strictly pressed, and that there would be no "first-born" in those families (which form a considerable majority) in which either a girl was born first, or the eldest, being a boy, had died. It is further urged that only those first-horn would be counted who were not themselves fathers of families. These considerations will indeed reduce the probable numbers very largely, but not to the required amount. Others, again, give an entirely different turn to the difficulty by urging that as the command in Exodus 13. I was prospective only, so at this time only the first-born since the exodus were counted. This makes it necessary to assume an altogether unprecedented birth-rate during that short period. One other explanation strives to satisfy the arithmetical conditions of the problem by assuming that the whole of the Divine legislation in this matter was in reality directed against the worship of Moloch, and was designed to prevent the offering of first-born to him by redeeming them unto himself. As the rites of Moloch only demanded young children of tender age, only such were counted in this census. It may, indeed, be very probably concluded that their heavenly Father did claim these first-born, partly in order to save them from Moloch, because the people would thereafter be exposed to the fascination of that horrid superstition; but there is no proof whatever that they were acquainted with it at this time. These cruel rites, together with many other heathen abominations, are forbidden in Leviticus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 18:10, in view of the entry into Canaan, where they were practiced. The prophet Amos, when he reproaches them with having "carried the tabernacle of" their "Moloch" even in the wilderness (Amos 5:26), absolves them by implication from any darker superstition; and the highly rhetorical passage Ezekiel 20:26 seems to refer to the consequences of disobedience at a later date, and can hardly be pressed against the entire silence of the Pentateuch. Anyhow it does not seem possible, on the strength of a supposed intention on the part of God of which no trace appears in the text, to impose a narrow and arbitrary limit upon the plain command to number "all the first-born, from a month old and upward." If we turn from these speculations to the reason and ground of the matter as stated by God himself, it will appear much more simple. It was distinctly on the ground of their preservation from the destroying angel in Egypt that the first-born of Israel were claimed as God's peculium now (see verse 13). The command in Exodus 13:1 was no doubt prospective, but the sanctification of the first-born was based upon the deliverance itself; and this command was intended not to limit that sanctification for the present, but to continue it for the future. Now if we turn to Exodus 12:29, 30, and ask who the first-born were whom the destroying angel cut off, we see plainly enough that they included the eldest son, being a child, in every house; that every family lost one, and only one. On the one hand, Pharaoh himself was in all probability a first-born, but he was not in any personal danger, because he ranked and suffered as a father, not as a son. On the other hand, the majority of families in which the first-born was a daughter, or had died, did not therefore escape: "there was not a house where there was not one dead." Taking this as the only sure ground to go upon, we may conclude with some confidence that the first-born now claimed by God in-eluded all the eldest sons in the families of Israel who were not themselves the heads of houses. These were the destroyed in Egypt - these the redeemed in Israel. How they came to be so few in proportion is a matter in itself of extremely slight importance, and dependant, perhaps, upon causes of which no record was left.
Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
And all the firstborn males,.... For such only were ordered to be numbered, and not firstborn females:
by the number of names; which were particularly taken:
from a month old and upward; for before that time they were not sanctified to the Lord, nor subject to the redemption price:
of those that were numbered of them were twenty and two thousand two hundred and threescore and thirteen; 22,273 men; so that there were two hundred seventy three more than the Levites, Numbers 3:39.
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