Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
These also are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day that the LORD spake with Moses in mount Sinai.III.
(1) These also are the generations of Aaron and Moses . . . —The name of Aaron is placed first, not only because he was the elder brother, but also because the ministry of Moses was restricted to his own person, and his sons are merely classed amongst the rest of the Levitical families in 1Chronicles 23:14; whereas the office of Aaron was perpetuated in the persons of his descendants. Hence we find no mention made in this place of the sons of Moses, but only of those of Aaron. The word generations here, as in the book of Genesis (e.g., Genesis 6:9; Genesis 25:19) and elsewhere, is used to denote the history; and in this sense the present and the following chapters pertain as much to Moses as to Aaron. Or the reference may be to the fact that Moses and Aaron were made the heads of the whole tribe of Levi, and therefore that the Levitical families generally are traced up equally to both.
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) Whom he consecrated . . . —Literally, filled their hand. The rites of consecration are described at length in Exodus 29:1-37, where the command given to Moses is related. and in Leviticus 8:1-13, where the account is given of the actual consecration, on which occasion the appointed sacrificial offerings were placed by Moses in the hands of Aaron and in the hands of his sons. The act of consecration was performed by Moses in the case of Aaron’s sons, as well as in that of Aaron himself.
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) Died before the Lord.—The account is given in Leviticus 10:1-2, where the same expression “before the Lord” is used both in regard to the offering of strange fire by Nadab and Abihu, and also in regard to their death.
And they had no children.—To die childless was regarded not only as a reproach, but also as a judgment. This was especially the case in regard to Nadab and Abihu, inasmuch as the sons of one, or of both (as was the case in regard to the sons of Eleazar and of Ithamar), would have succeeded to the high priesthood.
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) And they shall keep his charge.—The word rendered charge may mean the directions which the Levites should receive from Aaron (comp. Genesis 26:5); or—as seems more probable from the use of the same word in this and the following verse with reference to the congregation—it may refer to the charge which was laid upon Aaron and upon the whole congregation in matters pertaining to the public worship of God.
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) They are wholly given unto him.—Hebrew, Given, given are they to him. This repetition of the word nethunim (given) is emphatic. The same repetition occurs in Numbers 8:16, where the Levites are represented as “wholly given” to the Lord instead of the firstborn; and in Numbers 3:19 of that chapter, as in Numbers 3:12 of this chapter, they are represented as being given by Him to Aaron and his sons. The word nethunim must not be confounded with Nethinim, the name given at a later date (1Chronicles 9:2; Ezra 2:43; Nehemiah 3:26; Nehemiah 3:31) to the Gibeonites, who were made “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord” (Joshua 9:27). The tribe of Levi had proved themselves the most zealous for the honour of the Lord at the time of the worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32:26-29), and it was then that Moses gave them the charge to consecrate themselves (literally, to fill their hands, comp. Numbers 3:3 of this chapter) to the Lord. There was, therefore, a special reason for the selection of this tribe, independently of the fact that Moses and Aaron (and consequently the priests, as the descendants of Aaron) belonged to it.
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) Thou shalt appoint.—Or, number. The word is the same as that which is used for the numbering of the Israelites generally (Numbers 1:19) and for the numbering of the Levites (Numbers 3:15).
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 that I smote all the firstborn.—The command given to Moses respecting the sanctification or separation of the firstborn, both of man and of beast, is recorded immediately after the account of the exodus and of the institution of the Passover (Exodus 13:1-2). It does not clearly appear, however, from the terms employed whether the sanctification or separation applied to the firstborn then in existence—which appears to be by far the more probable supposition—or whether, as some suppose, the command was simply prospective. The whole nation of Israel is described in Exodus 4:22 as the Lord’s firstborn son, and the firstborn sons appear to have been regarded in the light of representatives of the entire nation.
Mine shall they be: I am the Lord.—Or, They shall be (i.e., belong) to me, (even) to me, Jehovah. (Comp. Genesis 4:26 : “And to Seth, to him also.” Literally, And to Seth, even him.)
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 and upward . . . —The males of the other tribes had been numbered “from twenty years old and upward” (Numbers 1:3). The firstborn males, however, among all the children of Israel, in whose place the Levites were taken, wer-directed to be numbered “from a month old and upward” (Numbers 3:40; Numbers 3:43); and this was the age afterwards fixed for their redemption (Numbers 18:16).
The families of the Gershonites shall pitch behind the tabernacle westward.(23) Behind the tabernacle westward.—As the position of the twelve tribes in respect of the tent of meeting had been already determined, so in this and the following verses the position of the priests and Levites is fixed. On the east side of the tent Moses and Aaron and Aaron’s sons were to encamp, on the south the Kohathites, on the west the Gershonites, on the north the Merarites.
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) In the tabernacle of the congregation.—Better, in the tent of meeting. It is important to distinguish between the ohel—i.e., the tent—and the mishkan—i.e., the tabernacle—which was the building of shittim wood with its curtains which was within the tent. The word ohel, where it occurs in the second place in this verse, evidently means the outer covering, as in Exodus 26:7, where the passage may be literally rendered thus :—“And thou shalt make curtains (or hangings) of goats’ (hair) for an ohel upon (or over) the mishkan.”
The covering thereof.—The mikseh (covering) appears to include the two coverings described in Exodus 26:14—viz., the covering of rams’ skins and that of badgers’ skins or seals’ skins.
The hanging for the door of the tabernacle of the congregation—i.e., for the entrance or opening of the tent of meeting. This hanging was of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine-twined linen, and was hung at the entrance—i.e., the eastern or open end of the tent (Exodus 26:36). The word rendered door (pethach, not deleth) means an opening. At a later period, when the Tabernacle was at Shiloh, it had doors (1Samuel 3:15). Both words occur in 1Kings 6:31 : “And for the entering (or at the opening) of the oracle he made doors.” &c.
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) And the hangings of the court . . . —See Exodus 27:9 and Note.
And the cords of it for all the service thereof.—The pronominal suffixes do not seem to refer to the court, the cords belonging to which appear to have been under the custody of the Merarites (Numbers 3:37), but to the mishkan or Tabernacle itself. Or, the latter suffix (its service, or the service thereof) may be designed to refer to each of the various things mentioned, as in Numbers 3:31, inasmuch as the words for all the service thereof may mean for everything which had to be done in connection with the things mentioned.
The families of the sons of Kohath shall pitch on the side of the tabernacle southward.(29) on the side of the tabernacle southward.—The south has its name in Hebrew (Teman) from Yamin, the right hand, because when a man stands with his face towards the east the south is on his right hand.
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) And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest . . . —In virtue, as it should seem, of the descent of Moses and Aaron from Kohath, the Kohathites had the most honourable portion of the service of the Tabernacle assigned to them; and hence, as the priests belonged to the Amramites, one of the four families of the Kohathites, Eleazar, the eldest surviving son of Aaron, was chosen to have the oversight over the whole body of the Levites.
And the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pins, and their cords.(37) And the pillars of the court round about . . . —See Notes on Exodus 27:9-19.
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) Keeping the charge of the sanctuary . . . —The word mikdash (sanctuary) appears to be of a more comprehensive import than mishkan, the shittimwood building, or ohel, the tent which covered it, and it seems to include the court which surrounded the Tabernacle, as in Leviticus 12:4; Leviticus 21:12.
For the charge of the children of Israel—i.e., to attend to everything which was commanded the children of Israel.
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.(39) And Aaron . . . —In the Hebrew text the word Aaron has certain marks over it, known as puncta extraordinaria, denoting that it is to be regarded as spurious or doubtful. It is omitted in the Samaritan and Syriac versions and in a few MSS. There appears. however, to be no sufficient reason for its rejection from the text.
Twenty and two thousand.—The total of the three several items—viz., 7,500, 8,600, and 6,200—amounts to 22,300. It appears, however, from Numbers 3:46 that the total is correctly given as 22,000, inasmuch as the number of the firstborn, 22,273, exceeded that of the Levites by 273. It has been suggested that in Numbers 3:28 we should read שלש (shalosh), three, for שׁש (shesh), six—i.e., 8,300 instead of 8,600; or, if the numbers were denoted, as it has been commonly supposed, by the letters of the alphabet, it is quite possible that one letter may have been substituted by the scribe for another. Some suppose that the three hundred were themselves firstborn sons, who had been born since the command to sanctify the firstborn, and that it is on this account that they were not included in the census. (See Bishop Wordsworth’s Notes in loc., where the reasons which may be assigned for the extreme paucity of this tribe, as compared with the other tribes, are discussed.) The later census, which also included the children from a month old and upwards, shows but a very small increase in the number of this tribe, the number on that occasion amounting only to 23,000 (Numbers 26:62).
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) And thou shalt take the Levites for me (I am the Lord) . . . —Or, And thou shalt take the Levites for Me—for Me, Jehovah. The assertions which have been frequently made respecting the transference of the priesthood of the firstborn to the Levites appear to be altogether without foundation. For (1) the priesthood which was exercised in patriarchal times was not restricted to the firstborn, but appears to have been common to the head of every family. (2) This priesthood was exercised previously to the exodus, and consequently previously to the command given to Moses to sanctify the firstborn. And (3) the priesthood, which belonged not to the firstborn exclusively, but to the Israelites at large, was thenceforth strictly confined to the family of Aaron, who inherited it not as the substitutes of the firstborn, but in the place of the whole nation.
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.(43) Twenty and two thousand two hundred and threescore and thirteen.—The extremely small number of the firstborn in proportion to a male population of 600,000 of twenty years of age and upwards—i.e., to a population of about 1,000,000 males—has been a fruitful source of difficulty, and, in some cases, a ground for the rejection of the historical truth of the narrative, which involves, it has been alleged, the incredible conclusion that there was only one firstborn to forty-four males. It might suffice, in answer to those who urge this difficulty as a ground for rejecting the truth of the narrative, to reply that it is difficult, if not impossible, to conceive that a writer who has recorded, or, according to the theory in question, invented so many complicated calculations, should have inserted amongst them one which is fraught with so much apparent improbability. Many solutions of the problem have been proposed which relieve the apparent disproportion of the number of the firstborn not only of its alleged impossibility, but even of improbability. Some have urged that we are constrained by every principle of analogy to restrict the firstborn sons to those who were under twenty years of age, and who had not been included in the census which had been already taken. The destruction of the firstborn of the Egyptians was clearly subject to a somewhat similar limitation. Pharaoh himself was, in all probability, a firstborn son; and in regard to the Egyptians generally there does not appear to have been above one death in each house (Exodus 12:30), although there must have been very many houses in which the father (and it may be the grandfather) as well as the son was a firstborn child. Another opinion is that by the firstborn in every family we are to understand the firstborn in every household, including the children of concubines and slaves. When due allowance has been made, on either of these hypotheses, for the average proportion of the sexes, the average number of early deaths, and also for the limitation of the term firstborn to those who were the firstborn on the side of the father as well as of the mother, it has been contended that the number of the firstborn is consistent with the supposition that each family of the Israelites consisted of about eight or nine children—a supposition which, considering how prolific the Hebrew women are said to have been, cannot be regarded as deserving of rejection on the ground of its incredibility. The most probable solution of the difficulty, however, appears to be that which is given in the Introduction.
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.(45) And the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle.—There appears to have been no numbering of the cattle. Had it been otherwise, an argument might have been used in support of the prospective reference of the command to number the firstborn, derived from the fact that it would have been impossible to ascertain the number of firstborn among the cattle. It appears, however, that the whole of the cattle of the Levites was given in redemption of the firstborn of all the cattle of the other tribes.
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) Thou shalt even take five shekels apiece by the poll.—It is not stated in what manner the 273 families of whom the redemption money was exacted were determined. Inasmuch, however, as the law of the redemption of the firstborn by the payment of five shekels came into operation from this time (Numbers 18:16), it seems probable that the money was exacted in the case of those who had been most recently born; or it may be that the matter was decided by lot.
After the shekel of the sanctuary.—See Exodus 30:13, where the expression occurs for the first time, and the value of the shekel is stated, as in this verse.
And thou shalt give the money, wherewith the odd number of them is to be redeemed, unto Aaron and to his sons.(48) And thou shalt give the money . . . —The verse may be rendered thus: And thou shalt give the money to Aaron and to his sons: even the redemption money of those who are over and above amongst them.
And Moses took the redemption money of them that were over and above them that were redeemed by the Levites:(49) Redeemed by the Levites.—i.e., who were redeemed by the substitution of the Levites in their place.
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.(51) The money of them that were redeemed.—Better, the ransom (or, redemption) money.