Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The sons of Aaron and the Levitical families
The contents of the chapter are as follows: Numbers 3:1-4. The ‘generations’ of Aaron, Numbers 3:5-10. The appointment of the Levites to be servants of the priests. Numbers 3:11-13. The Levites are a substitute for the first-born which God consecrated to Himself at the Exodus vv14-20. A summary of the Levitical families and their subdivisions. Numbers 3:21-39. The several duties of the three Levitical families on the march, Numbers 3:40-51. The substitution of the Levites for the first-born, the surplus of the first-born being redeemed by money.
These also are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day that the LORD spake with Moses in mount Sinai.1. these are the generations] A formula occurring several times in P ; Genesis 5:1; Genesis 6:9; Genesis 10:1; Genesis 11:10; Genesis 11:27; Genesis 25:12; Genesis 25:19; Genesis 36:1; Genesis 36:9; Genesis 37:2. It marks a fresh start in the history. ‘Generations,’ lit. origins, means ‘an account of a man and his genealogical descendants.’
Aaron and Moses] The two most important representatives of the tribe of Levi. Moses is usually mentioned first, but here Aaron has the precedence because the passage deals with his descendants only.
in the day, &c.] The words are attached very loosely to the context, and describe the point of time at which the new development—the organization of the tribe of Levi—begins.
1–4. The generations of Aaron.
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.3. the priests which were anointed] Many passages of P speak of the High Priest alone as being anointed to his office; cf. Exodus 29:7; Exodus 29:29, Leviticus 8:12. The anointing of all priests was a later development; cf. Exodus 28:41; Exodus 30:30; Exodus 40:15.
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.4. The incident here referred to is related in Leviticus 10:1-7. The meaning of ‘strange fire’ is uncertain. Either the incense which they burnt was not made in accordance with the divine prescription (given in Exodus 30:34-38). or the fire was not taken from the proper place—the altar of burnt-offering. ‘Strange’ means ‘not in accordance with the regular ritual’; see n. on Numbers 1:51.
they had no children] The point of this lies in the fact that after the exile all the priestly families called themselves ‘sons of Aaron,’ and traced their descent through Eleazar or Ithamar (see p. xvi).
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,5–10. The appointment of the Levites as an inferior, though sacred, body of priests’ servants.
Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him.6. minister unto him] i.e. unto all the priests, whom Aaron represented.
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.7. keep his charge] i.e. perform the duties of their service to him and to the priests.
the charge of the whole congregation] comprised the ritual functions in connexion with the offering of animals sacrificed by and in behalf of the laity of Israel.
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.
And thou shalt give the Levites unto Aaron and to his sons: they are wholly given unto him out of the children of Israel.9. wholly given unto him] i.e. to Aaron. In Numbers 8:16-19, it is explained that they are first given to Jehovah, and by Him given to the priests; cf. Numbers 18:6. In the present passage LXX. and Sam. read unto me, which is possibly correct. The Heb. rendered ‘wholly given’ is nethûnîm nethûnîm. i.e. ‘given, given.’ In the time of Ezra there was a class of temple slaves inferior to the Levites, and mostly foreigners, who were known as the Nethînîm, meaning ‘the given.’ It seems probable that at a later time these slaves rose in status and importance, and became identified with the Levites. And the passages which speak of the Levites as ‘given’ are an attempt to supply an origin for the name. See art. ‘Nethinim’ in Hastings’ DB. iii. 519. Ryle, Common Ezra and Neh., p. 28.
on the behalf of] Lit. as marg. ‘from.’ The Israelites handed over to the priests a whole tribe from among their number.
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.10. keep their priesthood] i.e. perform the duties of their priesthood. LXX. adds ‘and everything about the altar and within the veil’; cf. Numbers 18:7.
cometh nigh] approaches the sanctuary to perform a priestly office.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,11–13. The Levites substituted for the first-born.
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;12. All male first-born of men and animals are sacred to God, i.e. they must be sacrificed. In very primitive ages it is probable that this custom actually prevailed (cf. Genesis 22, 2 Kings 3:27, Micah 6:7), but the Israelite practice of redeeming human first-born by an equivalent in money or animals must have arisen at an early date. The practice of offering the firstborn is enjoined in J E (Exodus 22:29 (E ), Numbers 13:11-33 [Note: J, however, differs from P in dating the offering of first-born not from the Exodus but from the entrance into Canaan.] , Numbers 34:19 f. (J )), Numbers 18:15 f. (P ), and the redemption (in P ) is to be by a money payment. But at this point, in P , a different form of redemption is commanded, i.e. the handing over of the Levites for service. This subject is resumed in Numbers 3:40-51, where it is explained that the Levites were substituted only for those firstborn who were more than a month old at the time.
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.13. on the day, &c.] A reference to Exodus 13:1 f. (P ).
I am Jehovah] A solemn formula emphasizing the importance of a command or statement. It occurs occasionally in P (i.e. Numbers 3:41, Exodus 6:8; Exodus 12:12), but is specially characteristic of the ‘Holiness’ laws in Leviticus 17-26. See Chapman, Introd. p. 112.
And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying,14–20. Summary of the Levitical families.
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.15. from, a month old] to correspond with the firstborn (see Numbers 3:40).
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.17. The three sons of Levi are found only in P and the books of Chronicles, the latter being a priestly composition. To them were traced the three main divisions of the Levites in Jerusalem after the exile.
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.21–39. The Levitical families and their duties.
Notice that narrative in Numbers 3:21 f., 27 f., 33 f., 39 alternates with commands in Numbers 3:23-26; Numbers 3:29-32; Numbers 3:35-38. It is one of the many indications that the priestly portions of the book were the composite work of more than one writer.
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.23. behind] The usual expression for ‘westward,’ because the Hebrew faced eastward when thinking of the points of the compass; cf. Exodus 3:1, Deuteronomy 11:30, Jdg 18:12, Isaiah 9:12. With the characteristic tautology of the priestly style another word for ‘westward’ is added; cf. Numbers 3:38, Exodus 27:9. The latter denotes literally ‘towards the sea,’ shewing that the narrator was in Palestine when he wrote, the Mediterranean being the sea referred to.
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,25. the tabernacle; the Tent; the covering] Since the wooden framework is to be carried by the Merarites, these three expressions denote only the stuff hangings; cf. Numbers 4:25. An explanation of the terms is found in Exodus 26:1-14. As an ordinary tent consists mainly of the covering, the wood-work being only an accessory to support it, so (1) the tabernacle (or rather dwelling) proper consisted of ten strips of linen worked in three colours with figures of cherubim, and joined by hooks and loops into one whole (Numbers 3:1; Numbers 3:6 b). (2) The tent1 [Note: The spelling of the word in the R.V. with a capital T is misleading.] consisted of eleven strips of goats’ hair, joined together in the same way, and covering the ‘dwelling’ (Numbers 3:7; Numbers 3:11 b, 13b). (3) The covering was of rams’ skins dyed red (probably tanned) and of the water-tight skin of some marine animal such as the porpoise or dugong (Numbers 3:14).
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.26. the court, which is by the tabernacle, and by the altar] i.e. the court which encloses the dwelling and the altar of burnt-offering.
the cords of it] Cords are also assigned to the Merarites for transport (Numbers 3:37). If the repetition is not merely an oversight of the narrator, it is just possible to understand the cords in the present verse to be those by which the outer covering of the dwelling was fastened down, and those in Numbers 3:37 to be the cords by which the hangings of the court were kept taut.
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.28. eight thousand and six hundred] This should probably be read eight thousand and three hundred (שלש for שש); Numbers 3:39, and a comparison of Numbers 3:43 with Numbers 3:46, shew that the Levites numbered 22,000, whereas the figures given in Numbers 3:22; Numbers 3:28; Numbers 3:34 make a total of 22,300.
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.
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.31. For the ark, table, and candlestick (better lampstand)’, see Exodus 25, and for the two altars, Exodus 27:1-8; Exodus 30:1-10.
the screen] The door-hangings of the tabernacle and of the court have been assigned to the Gershonites (Numbers 3:25 f.). This is therefore the veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. But it is nowhere else called simply ‘the screen.’ We should probably read (with the Syr.) the veil of the screen, i.e. the veil which acts as a screen, as in Numbers 4:5, Exodus 40:3; Exodus 40:21.
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.32. Eleazar was himself a Kohathite through his father Aaron and his grandfather Amram (Exodus 6:18; Exodus 6:20; Exodus 6:23).
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,36, 37. See Exodus 26:15-30; Exodus 27:10-19.
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.38. Moses] The mention of his name in a command given to him is strange. It would be still stranger if he were the writer of the passage.
the charge] i.e. that which has to be attended to.
for the charge of the children of Israel] An idiomatic use of ‘for’ confined to late writings. It is virtually equivalent to ‘and.’ (Cf. Numbers 3:26 ‘for all the service’ with Numbers 3:31; Numbers 3:36 ‘and all the service.’) That which had to be attended to for the laity was the offering of sacrifice on the altar in the court.
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.
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.40–51. The substitution of the Levites for the first-born.
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.41. instead of all the firstlings among the cattle] This is inconsistent with Numbers 18:17 which enjoins that the firstlings of such cattle as are suitable for sacrifice may not be redeemed. The difficulty has been explained by supposing that the reference is to animals not suitable for sacrifice. But it is more probable that the present command dates from a later time when commands such as Numbers 18:17 were found impracticable.
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.
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;46, 47. The Levites number 22,000, but the first-born 22,273. The remaining 273 must therefore be redeemed by a payment of five shekels for each.
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:)47. the shekel of the sanctuary] Perhaps better the sacred shekel. This was the ancient Hebrew-Phoenician shekel. At the time of the writer the official coinage for secular purposes was the Persian-Babylonian, in which the shekel was some 28 grs. heavier. The Hebrew silver shekel used for sacred purposes weighed about 224.6 grs. Its actual value can be roughly estimated from the fact that in our Lord’s time the denarius paid to a labourer for a day’s work (Matthew 20:2) weighed 60 grs.
the shekel is twenty gerahs] The parenthetical explanation was needful to distinguish between the sacred and the official coinage. The gçrâh was equivalent to the Greek obolus (which is the rendering in the LXX.), and weighed 11.23 grs. A good account of the Hebrew coinage will be found in Hastings’ DB. iii., art. ‘Money.’
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.