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David Guzik :: Study Guide for Numbers 3

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The Census of the Levites

A. Priests and Levites.

1. (Num 3:1-5) The priests: The family of Aaron.

Now these are the records of Aaron and Moses when the LORD spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. 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 anointed priests, whom he consecrated to minister as priests. Nadab and Abihu had died before the LORD when they offered profane fire before the LORD in the Wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar ministered as priests in the presence of Aaron their father. And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

a. Nadab, the firstborn, and Abihu: Nadab and Abihu were the two oldest children of Aaron, and the two ranking priests behind him - yet they were struck down by the LORD for offering profane fire before the LORD (Leviticus 10:1-7).

b. Eleazar, and Ithamar: Therefore, Eleazar and Ithamar inherited the priesthood, and passed it down to their sons after them.

c. The sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he consecrated to minister as priests: It is important to realize that the priests were only one small family among the Levites; to be a priest and a Levite were not the same thing at all. Only those who were descendants of Aaron could be priests.

2. (Num 3:6-10) The Levites: Their role in relation to Aaron.

"Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. And they shall attend to his needs and the needs of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of meeting, to do the work of the tabernacle. Also they shall attend to all the furnishings of the tabernacle of meeting, and to the needs of the children of Israel, to do the work of the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are given entirely to him from among the children of Israel. So you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall attend to their priesthood; but the outsider who comes near shall be put to death."

a. Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him: The entire tribe of Levi was given to serve the needs of Aaron and the priests (they shall attend to his needs), the needs of the congregation at large (and the needs of the whole congregation), and the needs of the tabernacle itself (attend to all the furnishings of the tabernacle … to do the work of the tabernacle).

b. And they shall attend to his needs: Again, God has an order and organization. The Levites were under the direction of Aaron (that they may serve him … they are given entirely to him). They weren't to "do their own thing," but Aaron's thing.

i. "Nothing in the holy things of God was left to chance or improvisation. None of the sacred persons who ministered in his presence was to be unprepared or untaught." (Allen)

c. To do the work of the tabernacle: In some ways, being a priest was far more visible and perhaps "glamorous" than being a Levite. But the service of the Levites made the work of the priests possible, and was seen by God as having equal value.

i. The outsider who comes near shall be put to death: If a Levite grew jealous, and decided they wanted to do the work of a priest, it was strictly forbidden - it was an affront to God's order and organization.

3. (Num 3:11-13) The Levites are a special possession to God.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: "Now behold, I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine, because all the firstborn are Mine. On the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They shall be Mine: I am the LORD."

a. I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn: The firstborn belonged to God; a firstborn lamb from a ewe would be given to the LORD. God didn't want human sacrifice, so He took the tribe of Levi as Israel's firstborn.

B. The census of the tribe of Levi.

1. (Num 3:14-20) The command to number the tribe of Levi.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, saying: "Number the children of Levi by their fathers' houses, by their families; you shall number every male from a month old and above." So Moses numbered them according to the word of the LORD, as he was commanded. These were the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. 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, Izehar, Hebron, and Uzziel. And the sons of Merari by their families: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites by their fathers' houses.

a. Number the children of Levi: Though they were not counted among the available soldiers, the Levites were still to be counted, and counted by the males from a month old and above.

b. By their fathers' houses: They were to be categorized by the families, with the main grouping according to Levi's three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

2. (Num 3:21-26) The census and duties of the family of Gershon.

From Gershon came the family of the Libnites and the family of the Shimites; these were the families of the Gershonites. Those who were numbered, according to the number of all the males from a month old and above; of those who were numbered there were seven thousand five hundred. The families of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle westward. And the leader of the fathers' house of the Gershonites was Eliasaph the son of Lael. The duties of the children of Gershon in the tabernacle of meeting included the tabernacle, the tent with its covering, the screen for the door of the tabernacle of meeting, the screen for the door of the court, the hangings of the court which are around the tabernacle and the altar, and their cords, according to all the work relating to them.

a. The families of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle westward: The Gershonites (7,500 males) were to camp westward to the tabernacle (in between Judah and the tabernacle itself).

b. The duties of the children of Gershon: The Gershonites were to take care of the skins that covered the tabernacle itself.

3. (Num 3:27-32) The census and duties of the family of Kohath.

From Kohath came the family of the Amramites, the family of the Izharites, the family of the Hebronites, and the family of the Uzzielites; these were the families of the Kohathites. According to the number of all the males, from a month old and above, there were eight thousand six hundred keeping charge of the sanctuary. The families of the children of Kohath were to camp on the south side of the tabernacle. And the leader of the fathers' house of the families of the Kohathites was Elizaphan the son of Uzziel. Their duty included the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the utensils of the sanctuary with which they ministered, the screen, and all the work relating to them. And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest was to be chief over the leaders of the Levites, with oversight of those who kept charge of the sanctuary.

a. These were the families of the Kohathites: The Kohathites (8,600 males) were to camp southward to the tabernacle (in between Reuben and the tabernacle itself).

b. Their duty included the ark: The Kohathites were to take care of the furniture of the tabernacle: The ark of the covenant, the table of showbread, and so forth, under the direction of Eleazar the priest, son of Aaron.

4. (Num 3:33-37) The census and duties of the family of Merari.

From Merari came the family of the Mahlites and the family of the Mushites; these were the families of Merari. And those who were numbered, according to the number of all the males from a month old and above, were six thousand two hundred. The leader of the fathers' house of the families of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail. These were to camp on the north side of the tabernacle. And the appointed duty of the children of Merari included the boards of the tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its sockets, its utensils, all the work relating to them, and the pillars of the court all around, with their sockets, their pegs, and their cords.

a. These were the families of Merari: The family of Merari (6,200 males) were to camp northward to the tabernacle (in between Dan and the tabernacle itself).

b. The appointed duty of the children of Merari included the boards of the tabernacle: The family of Merari was to take care of the structural aspects of the tabernacle: The pillars, the boards, and so forth.

5. (Num 3:38-39) The camp of the priests.

Moreover those who were to camp before the tabernacle on the east, before the tabernacle of meeting, were Moses, Aaron, and his sons, keeping charge of the sanctuary, to meet the needs of the children of Israel; but the outsider who came near was to be put to death. All who were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of the LORD, by their families, all the males from a month old and above, were twenty-two thousand.

a. Those who were to camp before the tabernacle on the east: The family of Aaron, and Moses, were to camp on the east side of the tabernacle - closest to the entrance, which was on the east.

b. Moses, Aaron, and his sons, keeping charge of the sanctuary: God's order and organization extends to certain jobs for certain people to do. The families of the Levites had certain callings they were to fulfill. There was no one man or family to do everything; God made them dependent on one another to accomplish the work.

c. Were twenty-two thousand: "The total of 22,000 Levites given in verse 39 does not tally with the totals of the individual clans given in verses 22, 28, 34 which come to 22,300. The discrepancy is most easily explained as textual corruption in verse 28. The number of Kohathites may originally have been 8,300. 3 (Hebrew sls) could quite easily have been corrupted into 6 (ss)." (Wenham)

6. (Num 3:40-51) The exchange of the firstborn.

Then the LORD said to Moses: "Number all the firstborn males of the children of Israel from a month old and above, and take the number of their names. And you shall take the Levites for Me; I am the LORD; instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the livestock of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the livestock of the children of Israel." So Moses numbered all the firstborn among the children of Israel, as the LORD commanded him. And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names from a month old and above, of those who were numbered of them, were twenty-two thousand two hundred and seventy-three. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: "Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the livestock of the Levites instead of their livestock. The Levites shall be Mine: I am the LORD. And for the redemption of the two hundred and seventy-three of the firstborn of the children of Israel, who are more than the number of the Levites, you shall take five shekels for each one individually; you shall take them in the currency of the shekel of the sanctuary, the shekel of twenty gerahs. And you shall give the money, with which the excess number of them is redeemed, to Aaron and his sons." So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those who were redeemed by the Levites. From the firstborn of the children of Israel he took the money, one thousand three hundred and sixty-five shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. And Moses gave their redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the LORD, as the LORD commanded Moses.

a. Number all the firstborn males of the children of Israel: The firstborn - which was always thought to be the best and the favored - always belongs to God; so instead of giving the firstborn of Israel to God in sacrifice, the tribe of Levi was "given" to God as in place of each of the firstborn sons of Israel.

b. All the firstborn males, according to the number of names: However, there were 22,273 firstborn sons in Israel; and there were only 22,000 Levite males (Leviticus 3:39). The extra 273 were given a monetary value (five shekels for each one individually), and the money was given to the tabernacle as redemption money.

i. The number of firstborn sons is low if accounted for all the nation; it would mean that only one in 27 sons were firstborns - an unlikely percentage. It is more probable that the 22,273 firstborn sons were those born in the thirteen months of the Exodus.

© 2004 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission

CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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