Numbers 18
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The duties and the dues of priests and Levites

And the LORD said unto Aaron, Thou and thy sons and thy father's house with thee shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary: and thou and thy sons with thee shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood.
1. thy sons] i.e. the priests. The expression was due to the post-exilic practice of all priests of tracing their descent genealogically to Aaron.

thy fathers’ house] Here it means the whole tribe of Levi, exclusive of Aaron and the priests.

bear the iniquity of the sanctuary … of your priesthood] i.e. bear the consequences of the iniquity of allowing your priesthood, or the sanctuary committed to your charge, to be profaned.

1–7. The duties of priests and Levites. The priests are to have charge of the sanctuary, and the Levites are to help them; the latter, however, may not come into contact with the sacred utensils or the altar. No layman may approach on pain of death. The subject has already been treated in Numbers 1:50-53, Numbers 3:5-10; Numbers 3:38; and the principle of the disabilities of laymen has been illustrated in ch. 14.

And thy brethren also of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of thy father, bring thou with thee, that they may be joined unto thee, and minister unto thee: but thou and thy sons with thee shall minister before the tabernacle of witness.
2. that they may be joined] This is a play on words, similar to that in Genesis 29:34, the verb lâwâh (לוה) being employed to explain the word Lçwî ‘Levite,’ so that the latter is understood to denote ‘one who is joined to the priests as a servant.’ Whether this was the original meaning and derivation is doubtful.

shall be before the tent] shall preside over the tent. The preposition is not local, but comprises sacred duties both within the tent and outside in the court.

And they shall keep thy charge, and the charge of all the tabernacle: only they shall not come nigh the vessels of the sanctuary and the altar, that neither they, nor ye also, die.
3. keep thy charge, &c.] see on Numbers 3:7.

the vessels] The Heb. word is capable of wider use than the Engl. ‘vessel’; it includes all the sacred utensils and furniture.

For the prohibition to come into contact with the sacred things cf. Numbers 4:15.

neither they, nor ye] they, for breaking the law, and ye for permitting it.

And they shall be joined unto thee, and keep the charge of the tabernacle of the congregation, for all the service of the tabernacle: and a stranger shall not come nigh unto you.
4. a stranger] Heb. zâr; anyone who is not a priest. See on Numbers 1:51.

And ye shall keep the charge of the sanctuary, and the charge of the altar: that there be no wrath any more upon the children of Israel.
5. ye shall keep the charge &c.] It ye includes both priests and Levites, then ‘the sanctuary’ is used in its widest sense to include the tent and the court and everything contained in them, which are to be guarded from the approach of laymen. But on the other hand ye may denote the priests only, and ‘the sanctuary’ will in that case mean everything from which the Levites were debarred; cf. Numbers 18:3; Numbers 18:7.

And I, behold, I have taken your brethren the Levites from among the children of Israel: to you they are given as a gift for the LORD, to do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation.
6. a gift, given unto Jehovah] See on Numbers 3:9.

Therefore thou and thy sons with thee shall keep your priest's office for every thing of the altar, and within the vail; and ye shall serve: I have given your priest's office unto you as a service of gift: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.
7. shall keep your priesthood] i.e. perform its distinctive duties.

within the veil] viz. the first hanging, at the entrance to the Holy Place. The Levites were debarred from entering any part of the tent, and from contact with the altar of burnt-offering in the court.

as a service of gift] The expression (if the text be correct) emphasizes the fact that the priests had done nothing to deserve these privileges; they were a free gift. The LXX. suggest a different reading—‘Ye shall perform the acts of service (as a) gift of your priesthood’; but the meaning is substantially the same. S. Paul gives similar teaching with regard to Christian privileges, 1 Corinthians 4:7.

And the LORD spake unto Aaron, Behold, I also have given thee the charge of mine heave offerings of all the hallowed things of the children of Israel; unto thee have I given them by reason of the anointing, and to thy sons, by an ordinance for ever.
8. A general statement that all the holy things of Israel are the property of the priests. This is afterwards limited by the regulations in the following verses.

the charge of my contributions] i.e. the contributions made to me. See on Numbers 18:9. If ‘the charge’ (the ordinary rendering of the Heb. mishmereth) is correct, the expression must mean ‘the duty of taking care that the contributions are not profaned through being eaten by non-priestly persons.’ But it is better to render that which is kept of my contributions, i.e. that portion of the sacrifice which is not burnt, but reserved to be eaten. This concrete force of the word mishmereth is unique, but not impossible.

by reason of the anointing] The marg. for a portion is correct. In Leviticus 7:35 a word from the same root is rendered ‘anointing-portion,’ but it is doubtful if it has any connexion with the root mâshaḥ which signifies ‘anoint.’

8–20. The priests’ dues. These are as follows: (a) All meal-, sin-, and guilt-offerings, with the exception of those parts which are burnt on the altar, i.e. given to God. These may be eaten by any male member of the priestly families ‘in a very holy place’ (Numbers 18:9-10). (b) Those portions of a ‘gift’ (i.e. a peace-offering) which are not eaten by the worshipper himself, nor given to God by being burnt on the altar; the priests’ portions thus consisted of the ‘contribution,’ including that part of it called the ‘wave-offering.’ These may be eaten by any member, male or female, of the priestly families, who is free from ceremonial pollution (Numbers 18:11). The fact that females might eat it implies that it might be eaten anywhere outside the sacred precincts, into which no female was admitted, (c) All the best of the fresh oil, wine, and corn (further defined as ‘the first’ of them), and the first-ripe fruits. These may be eaten by the same persons as in (b) (Numbers 18:12-13). (d) Every ‘devoted’ thing (Numbers 18:14). (e) The first-born of all clean cattle (Numbers 18:15 a), with the exception of the blood and fat which were given to God (Numbers 18:17). (f) The five shekels paid for the redemption of the first-born of men, and the redemption price (amount not stated) of the first-born of unclean beasts (Numbers 18:15 b, Num 18:16).

This shall be thine of the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every oblation of theirs, every meat offering of theirs, and every sin offering of theirs, and every trespass offering of theirs, which they shall render unto me, shall be most holy for thee and for thy sons.
9. The portions ‘[reserved] from the fire’ on the altar were a ‘handful’ or a small undefined quantity of the meal-offerings (Leviticus 2:2; Leviticus 2:9; Leviticus 2:16; Leviticus 5:12; Leviticus 6:15), and in the case of animal offerings certain portions of the fat (described in Leviticus 3:3-5; Leviticus 7:3-5). The blood, which represented the sacred life of the animal, was never eaten, but was poured out.

In the most holy place shalt thou eat it; every male shall eat it: it shall be holy unto thee.
10. As the most holy things] An improbable rendering, since the sacrifices in question have just been described (Numbers 18:9) by the term ‘the most holy things.’ Render: in a most holy place. This evidently denotes the court of the tabernacle (cf. Leviticus 6:16; Leviticus 6:26; Leviticus 7:6), though it usually stands for the innermost shrine.

And this is thine; the heave offering of their gift, with all the wave offerings of the children of Israel: I have given them unto thee, and to thy sons and to thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: every one that is clean in thy house shall eat of it.
11. the contribution from their gift] The portions of the peace-offering which were contributed to the priest, i.e. the breast and the right thigh.

and all the wave-offerings] i.e. including that part of the contribution—the breast—which was waved. For the ceremony of waving see on Numbers 18:25.

All the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the firstfruits of them which they shall offer unto the LORD, them have I given thee.
12. the best] lit. ‘the fat’ (as marg.). Cf. Deuteronomy 32:14, Psalm 81:16. This vague expression is explained by the more technical term the firstfruits, or the first (Heb. rêshîth); cf. Deuteronomy 18:4. The amount which the priest is to receive is not stated; but in later times fixed proportions were laid down by the chiefs of the Rabbinic schools.

And whatsoever is first ripe in the land, which they shall bring unto the LORD, shall be thine; every one that is clean in thine house shall eat of it.
13. The firstripe fruits … which they bring unto Jehovah] The latter clause shews that only a part of the firstfruits was offered; but the proportions, as in the case of the rêshîth, are not stated. For a full discussion of the subject reference may be made to Gray, Numbers, pp. 224–9.

Every thing devoted in Israel shall be thine.
14. Every thing devoted] Heb. ḥçrem. An object placed under a ḥçrem or ban was wholly given up to God and could not be redeemed. Gold and silver or other valuable articles might be captured in war, and similarly animals and human beings. The last are obviously excluded in the present regulation. Possibly the regulation is confined to such objects as were ‘devoted’ voluntarily by private individuals.

Every thing that openeth the matrix in all flesh, which they bring unto the LORD, whether it be of men or beasts, shall be thine: nevertheless the firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts shalt thou redeem.
15. of all flesh which they offer] i.e. clean animals, for they alone could be offered.

And those that are to be redeemed from a month old shalt thou redeem, according to thine estimation, for the money of five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs.
16. And as to his redemption money, from a month, &c.] The pronoun ‘his’ refers to the firstborn of men, who were redeemed from death by 5 shekels. The price for the firstborn of unclean animals varied according to the priests’ valuation (Leviticus 27:11 f., Lev 27:27).

from a month old] i.e. directly the age of a month has been reached, and so it practically means ‘at a month old.’

the shekel of the sanctuary] See on Numbers 3:47.

But the firstling of a cow, or the firstling of a sheep, or the firstling of a goat, thou shalt not redeem; they are holy: thou shalt sprinkle their blood upon the altar, and shalt burn their fat for an offering made by fire, for a sweet savour unto the LORD.
And the flesh of them shall be thine, as the wave breast and as the right shoulder are thine.
18. the flesh of them shall be thine] Aaron is to receive the whole of their flesh, as he had received the breast and thigh of the peace-offering.

All the heave offerings of the holy things, which the children of Israel offer unto the LORD, have I given thee, and thy sons and thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: it is a covenant of salt for ever before the LORD unto thee and to thy seed with thee.
19. a covenant of salt] In primitive days the eating of salt, or of the smallest portion of food belonging to another man, constituted a sacred bond of friendship. So the expression denotes ‘a covenant which cannot be broken.’ On the Hebrew ideas of a covenant see the writer’s Exodus, pp. 150–4.

And the LORD spake unto Aaron, Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any part among them: I am thy part and thine inheritance among the children of Israel.
20. The reason why the priests are to receive all these dues is that they are to possess no landed property in Canaan. Cf. Numbers 26:62, Joshua 14:3. This ordinance, however, did not exclude the assignment of certain cities, with their surrounding land, to the priests and Levites (Numbers 35:1-8, Joshua 21:1-42).

And, behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, even the service of the tabernacle of the congregation.
21–24. The Levites’ dues. These consisted in tithe levied on agricultural produce only (cf. Numbers 18:27; Numbers 18:30).

This was similarly assigned to the Levitical priests in the earlier law contained in Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Deuteronomy 26:12-15. But the present regulation is in advance of that in Dt. in that it assigns the tithe to the Levites absolutely. According to Dt. the Levite shared it, in two years out of three, with the offerer and his household, and in the third year with the poor—‘sojourners, widows, and orphans.’ This variety led in post-Biblical times to the imposition of two tithes (cf. Tob 1:7 ff.). In Leviticus 27:30-33, 2 Chronicles 31:6 (which are probably later than the present passage) mention is made of a fresh demand, viz. a tithe on cattle, which is found nowhere else in the O.T. In early days the ‘clergy’ were poor and humble persons who needed support from the charity of the rich. The contributions paid to them were at first small, and probably variable; the officials at the important sanctuaries, for example, would receive larger dues than those in country villages. But when, after the Exile, the priests and Levites advanced to a high position in the community, their demands gradually increased, until they became the grasping and avaricious rulers that we see in the Ḥasmoneans and the Sadducees.

In Hebrews 7:5 the payment of tithes by Israel is part of the argument that the Aaronic priesthood is inferior to that of Christ.

Neither must the children of Israel henceforth come nigh the tabernacle of the congregation, lest they bear sin, and die.
But the Levites shall do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they shall bear their iniquity: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations, that among the children of Israel they have no inheritance.
But the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer as an heave offering unto the LORD, I have given to the Levites to inherit: therefore I have said unto them, Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
25–32. A further payment to the priests. The tithe of the crops belongs so entirely to the Levites that it is considered a source of property from which they in turn must pay a tithe to the priests.

Thus speak unto the Levites, and say unto them, When ye take of the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then ye shall offer up an heave offering of it for the LORD, even a tenth part of the tithe.
And this your heave offering shall be reckoned unto you, as though it were the corn of the threshingfloor, and as the fulness of the winepress.
27. your heave-offering] your contribution, which you must make to the priests.

as the corn of the threshing-floor] In the same way that all Israel give to you a tithe of com and wine, so shall ye give a tithe of that tithe to the priests.

Thus ye also shall offer an heave offering unto the LORD of all your tithes, which ye receive of the children of Israel; and ye shall give thereof the LORD'S heave offering to Aaron the priest.
Out of all your gifts ye shall offer every heave offering of the LORD, of all the best thereof, even the hallowed part thereof out of it.
Therefore thou shalt say unto them, When ye have heaved the best thereof from it, then it shall be counted unto the Levites as the increase of the threshingfloor, and as the increase of the winepress.
30. The regulation may be paraphrased as follows: When ye shall have contributed [as a tithe] the best part from it [i.e. from the tithe which you have received], then it [the remaining nine-tenths] shall be for your own use, just as the rest of Israel use their corn and wine after contributing a tithe of it to you.

And ye shall eat it in every place, ye and your households: for it is your reward for your service in the tabernacle of the congregation.
31. in every place] Not in a holy place, but anywhere, as ordinary food for your households.

And ye shall bear no sin by reason of it, when ye have heaved from it the best of it: neither shall ye pollute the holy things of the children of Israel, lest ye die.
32. profane the holy things] i.e. the tithe of the tithe, which they would profane if they did not give it to the priests.

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