Numbers 3
Pulpit Commentary
These also are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day that the LORD spake with Moses in mount Sinai.
Verse 1. - These... are the generations of Aaron and Moses. The word "generations" (toledoth) is used here in a peculiar and, so to speak, technical sense, with reference to what follows, as in Genesis 2:4; Genesis 6:9. It marks a new departure, looking down, not up, the course of history. Moses and Aaron were a beginning in themselves as the chosen heads of the chosen tribe: Moses having the higher office, but one entirely personal to himself; Aaron being the first of a long and eminent line of priests. The actual genealogy, therefore, is that of Aaron, and he is placed first. In the day. Apparently the day mentioned in Numbers 1:1; or it may be more general, as in Genesis 2:4.
And these are the names of the sons of Aaron; Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.
These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the priests which were anointed, whom he consecrated to minister in the priest's office.
Verse 3. - Whom he consecrated. The "he" is impersonal; the Septuagint has, "whose hands they filled."
And Nadab and Abihu died before the LORD, when they offered strange fire before the LORD, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children: and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest's office in the sight of Aaron their father.
Verse 4. - They had no children. If they had left sons, these would have succeeded to their office, and to the headship of the priestly line. In the sight of Aaron. In his lifetime (cf. Genesis 11:28). Septuagint, "with Aaron." In the time of David the descendants of Eleazar were divided into sixteen courses, the descendants of Ithamar into eight (2 Chronicles 24:3).
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him.
Verse 6. - Bring the tribe of Levi near. Not by any outward act of presentation, but by assigning to them solemnly the duties following. The expression is often used of servants coming to receive orders from their masters.
And they shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of the congregation, to do the service of the tabernacle.
Verse 7. - They shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation. Septuagint, "shall keep his watches, and the watches of the children of Israel." The Levites were to be the servants of Aaron on the one side, and of the whole congregation on the other, in the performance of their religious duties. The complicated ceremonial now prescribed and set in use could not possibly be carried out by priests or people without the assistance of a large number of persons trained and devoted to the work. Compare St. Paul's words to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 4:5), "Ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake."
And they shall keep all the instruments of the tabernacle of the congregation, and the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle.
Verse 8. - Instruments. Vessels and furniture. Septuagint, σκεύη. Vulgate, vasa.
And thou shalt give the Levites unto Aaron and to his sons: they are wholly given unto him out of the children of Israel.
Verse 9. They are wholly given unto him. The word nethunim (wholly given) is emphatic here, and in Numbers 8:16. As the whole house of Israel at large, so especially (for a reason which will presently appear) the tribe of Levi belonged absolutely to God; and he, as absolutely, made them over to Aaron and the priests for the service of his sanctuary. Cf. Ephesians 4:11, "gave some apostles," etc. The Levites, as gifts from God (nethunim) to their brethren the priests, must be distinguished from the nethinim or serfs of foreign extraction given by the congregation to the Levites to do their most menial work for them (Joshua 9:27).
And thou shalt appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall wait on their priest's office: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.
Verse 10. - The stranger that cometh nigh. This constantly recurring formula has not always quite the same meaning: in Numbers 1:51 it signified any one not of the tribe of Levi; here it includes even the Levite who was not also a priest. The separation of the Levites for the ministry of the tabernacle was not to infringe in the least upon the exclusive rights of Aaron and his sons.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn that openeth the matrix among the children of Israel: therefore the Levites shall be mine;
Verse 12. - I have taken the Levites. The actual separation of Levi had been already anticipated (see Numbers 1:47, 53), but the meaning and purpose of that separation is now formally declared, into reason, however, is assigned for the choice of this particular tribe. It is almost always assumed that their zeal in the matter of the golden calf was the ground of the preference shown to them now. But it may be doubted whether there was any "preference" in the matter at all. To Aaron and his seed on undoubted and important preference was shown, but the functions and position of the Levites were not such as to give them any preeminence, or to secure them any substantial advantage. They were tied down to the performance of routine duties, which demanded no intelligence, and gave scope for no ambitions. The one obvious reason why Levi was selected is to be found in the fact that he was by far the smallest in numbers among the tribes, being less than half the next smallest, Manasseh, and almost exactly balancing the first-born. A larger tribe could not have been spared, and would not have been needed, for the purpose in question. If any more recondite motive must be sought for the Divine selection, it must be found in the prophecy of Genesis 49:7. Levi as well as Simeon, though in a different way, was doomed never to raise his head as a united and powerful tribe among his brethren.

Numbers 3:13 Verse 13. - Because all the first-born are mine (see Exodus 13:2, and below on verse 43). That the powers of heaven had a special claim upon the firstling of man or beast was probably one of the oldest religious ideas in the world, which it would be difficult to trace to any origin but in some primeval revelation. It branched out into many superstitions, of which the cruel cultus of Moloch was the worst. Among the tribes which preserved the patriarchal faith, it retained more or less of its primitive meaning in the assignment of sacrificial duties to the eldest son. According to the Targums, the "young men of the children of Israel" sent by Moses to offer sacrifices before the consecration of Aaron (Exodus 24:5) were first-born. Whatever ancient and latent claims, however, God may have had upon the firstborn of Israel, they are here superseded by a special and recent claim founded upon their miraculous preservation when the first-born of the Egyptians were slain. All the firstborn in that day became "anathema," devoted to God, for evil or for good, for death or for life. He, to whom belongs the whole harvest of human souls, came and claimed his first-fruits from the fields of Egypt. He took unto himself by death the first-born of the Egyptians; he left for himself in life the first-born of the Israelites. For the convenience, however, of the people, and for the better and more regular discharge of the ministry, he was content to take the single small tribe of Levi in lieu of the first-born of all.

Numbers 3:12 Verse 12. - Instead of all the first-born. The Septuagint inserts here, "they shall be their ransom."

Numbers 3:13 Verse 13. - Mine shall they be: I am the Lord. Rather, "mine shall they be, mine, the Lord's."

Numbers 3:15 Verse 15. - From a month old. The first-born were to be redeemed "from a month old" (Numbers 18:16).
Because all the firstborn are mine; for on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast: mine shall they be: I am the LORD.
And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying,
Number the children of Levi after the house of their fathers, by their families: every male from a month old and upward shalt thou number them.
And Moses numbered them according to the word of the LORD, as he was commanded.
And these were the sons of Levi by their names; Gershon, and Kohath, and Merari.
Verse 17. - These were the sons of Levi. These genealogical notices are inserted here in order to give completeness to the account of the Levites in the day of their dedication.
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 Izehar, Hebron, and Uzziel.
And the sons of Merari by their families; Mahli, and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites according to the house of their fathers.
Of Gershon was the family of the Libnites, and the family of the Shimites: these are the families of the Gershonites.
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.
The families of the Gershonites shall pitch behind the tabernacle westward.
Verse 23. - Shall pitch. These directions as to the position and duties of the Levitical families retain the form in which they were originally given. The way in which they are mixed up with direct narrative affords a striking proof of the inartificial character of these sacred writings. Behind the tabernacle westward. The tabernacle opened or looked eastward towards the sunrise.
And the chief of the house of the father of the Gershonites shall be Eliasaph the son of Lael.
And the charge of the sons of Gershon in the tabernacle of the congregation shall be the tabernacle, and the tent, the covering thereof, and the hanging for the door of the tabernacle of the congregation,
Verse 25. - The charge of the sons of Gershon. See Numbers 4:24-26.
And the hangings of the court, and the curtain for the door of the court, which is by the tabernacle, and by the altar round about, and the cords of it for all the service thereof.
And of Kohath was the family of the Amramites, and the family of the Izeharites, and the family of the Hebronites, and the family of the Uzzielites: these are the families of the Kohathites.
In the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, were eight thousand and six hundred, keeping the charge of the sanctuary.
Verse 28. - Eight thousand and six hundred. The four families of the Kohathites, of which that of Amram was one, must have contained about 18,000 souls. Moses and Aaron were sons of Amram, and they seem to have had but two sons apiece at this time. If, therefore, the family of the Amramites was at all equal in numbers to the other three, they must have had more than 4000 brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. It is urged in reply that Amram lived 137 years, and may have had many other children, and that the variations in the comparative rates of increase are so great and so unaccountable that it is useless to speculate upon them. There is, however, a more serious difficulty connected with the genealogy of Moses and Aaron, as given here and elsewhere. If they were the great-grandchildren of Levi on their father's side, and his grandchildren on their mother's side, it is impossible to maintain the obvious meaning of Exodus 12:40. Either the genealogy must be lengthened, or the time must be very much shortened for the sojourning in Egypt. The known and undoubted habit of the sacred writers to omit names in their genealogies, even in those which seem most precise, lessens the difficulty of the first alternative, whereas every consideration of numbers, including those in this passage, increases the difficulty of the second. To endeavour to avoid either alternative, and to force the apparent statements of Scripture into accord by assuming a multiplicity of unrecorded and improbable miracles at every turn (as, e.g., that Jochebed, the mother of Moses, was restored to youth and beauty at an extreme old age), is to expose the holy writings to contempt. It is much more reverent to believe, either that the genealogies are very imperfect, or that the numbers in the text have been very considerably altered. Every consideration of particular examples, still more the general impression left by the whole narrative, favours the former as against the latter alternative.
The families of the sons of Kohath shall pitch on the side of the tabernacle southward.
And the chief of the house of the father of the families of the Kohathites shall be Elizaphan the son of Uzziel.
Verse 30. - Elizaphan the son of Uzziel - of the youngest branch. This may have aroused the jealousy of Korah, who represented an elder branch.
And their charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary wherewith they minister, and the hanging, and all the service thereof.
And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall be chief over the chief of the Levites, and have the oversight of them that keep the charge of the sanctuary.
Verse 32. - Eleazar. The priests were themselves Kohathites, and therefore their chief is here mentioned as having the oversight over the other overseers - ipsos custodes custodiens.
Of Merari was the family of the Mahlites, and the family of the Mushites: these are the families of Merari.
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.
And the chief of the house of the father of the families of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail: these shall pitch on the side of the tabernacle northward.
And under the custody and charge of the sons of Merari shall be the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and the sockets thereof, and all the vessels thereof, and all that serveth thereto,
And the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pins, and their cords.
But those that encamp before the tabernacle toward the east, even before the tabernacle of the congregation eastward, 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 that cometh nigh shall be put to death.
Verse 38. - Before the tabernacle toward the east,... Moses, and Aaron and his sons. The most central and honourable place in the camp, and the most convenient for constant and direct access to the sanctuary. Moses held a wholly personal and exceptional position as king in Jeshurun (Deuteronomy 33:5); Aaron was hereditary high priest. Between them they represented the union of royal and sacerdotal authority, which had many partial continuations in Jewish history, but was fully realized in Christ.
All that were numbered of the Levites, which Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of the LORD, throughout their families, all the males from a month old and upward, were twenty and two thousand.
Verse 39. - Twenty and two thousand. It is obvious that there is a discrepancy between this total and its three component numbers, which make 22,300. It is so obvious that it must have been innocent; no one deliberately falsifying or forging would have left so palpable a discrepancy on the face of the narrative. It may, therefore, have arisen from an error in transcription (the alteration of a single letter would suffice); or it may be due to the fact that, for some reason not stated, 300 were struck off the Levitical total for the purpose of this census. Such a reason was found by the Hebrew expositors, and has been accepted by some moderns, in the fact that the Levites were taken and counted instead of the first-born, and that, therefore, their own first-born would have to he excluded. There is nothing to be said against this explanation, except that no trace of it appears in a narrative otherwise very full and minute. The first-born of the Levites may have been just 300 (although the number is singularly small), and they may have been considered ineligible for the purpose of redeeming other first-born; but if so, why did not the sacred writer say so, instead of silently reducing the total of "all that were numbered of the Levites"?
And the LORD said unto Moses, Number all the firstborn of the males of the children of Israel from a month old and upward, and take the number of their names.
And thou shalt take the Levites for me (I am the LORD) instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel; and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstlings among the cattle of the children of Israel.
And Moses numbered, as the LORD commanded him, all the firstborn among the children of Israel.
And all the firstborn males by 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.
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.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle; and the Levites shall be mine: I am the LORD.
And for those that are to be redeemed of the two hundred and threescore and thirteen of the firstborn of the children of Israel, which are more than the Levites;
Thou shalt even take five shekels apiece by the poll, after the shekel of the sanctuary shalt thou take them: (the shekel is twenty gerahs:)
Verse 47. - Five shekels apiece. This amount had already been fixed (Leviticus 27:6, if indeed this chapter does not belong to a later period as the commutation value of a male child under five years old who had been vowed unto the Lord. If the redeeming of the first-born by the Levites began with the eldest, those that were left over would all be within this age. A shekel. See Exodus 30:13.
And thou shalt give the money, wherewith the odd number of them is to be redeemed, unto Aaron and to his sons.
And Moses took the redemption money of them that were over and above them that were redeemed by the Levites:
Of the firstborn of the children of Israel took he the money; a thousand three hundred and threescore and five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary:
And Moses gave the money of them that were redeemed unto Aaron and to his sons, according to the word of the LORD, as the LORD commanded Moses.
Verse 51. - Gave the money... unto Aaron. The Levites were given to Aaron in lieu of the first-born. As, however, their number fell somewhat short, the redemption money taken for the remainder was due to Aaron as compensation, and was doubtless applied to the support of the tabernacle worship.

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