Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
These also are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day that the LORD spake with Moses in mount Sinai.
Nu 3:1-51. The Levites' Service.
1. These … are the generations of Aaron and Moses, &c.—This chapter contains an account of their families; and although that of Moses is not detailed like his brother's, his children are included under the general designation of the Amramites (Nu 3:27), a term which comprehends all the descendants of their common father Amram. The reason why the family of Moses was so undistinguished in this record is that they were in the private ranks of the Levites, the dignity of the priesthood being conferred exclusively on the posterity of Aaron; and hence, as the sacerdotal order is the subject of this chapter, Aaron, contrary to the usual style of the sacred history, is mentioned before Moses.
in the day that the Lord spake with Moses in mount Sinai—This is added, because at the date of the following record the family of Aaron was unbroken.
And these are the names of the sons of Aaron; Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.
2-4. And these are the names of the sons of Aaron—All the sons of Aaron, four in number, were consecrated to minister in the priest's office. The two oldest enjoyed but a brief term of office (Le 10:1, 2; Nu 3:4; 26:61); but Eleazar and Ithamar, the other two, were dutiful, and performed the sacred service during the lifetime of their father, as his assistants, and under his superintendence.
These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the priests which were anointed, whom he consecrated to minister in the priest's office.
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.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
5-10. Bring the tribe of Levi near—The Hebrew word "bring near" is a sacrificial term, denoting the presentation of an offering to God; and the use of the word, therefore, in connection with the Levites, signifies that they were devoted as an offering to the sanctuary, no longer to be employed in any common offices. They were subordinate to the priests, who alone enjoyed the privilege of entering the holy place; but they were employed in discharging many of the humbler duties which belonged to the sanctuary, as well as in various offices of great utility and importance to the religion and morals of the people.
Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him.
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.
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. they are wholly given unto him out of the children of Israel, &c.—The priests hold the place of God, and the Levites are the servants of God in the obedience they render to the priests.
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.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
11-13. I have taken the Levites, &c.—The consecration of this tribe did not originate in the legislative wisdom of Moses, but in the special appointment of God, who chose them as substitutes for the first-born. By an appointment made in memory of the last solemn judgment on Egypt (from which the Israelitish households were miraculously exempt) all the first-born were consecrated to God (Ex 13:12; 22:29), who thus, under peculiar circumstances, seemed to adopt the patriarchal usage of appointing the oldest to act as the priest of the family. But the privilege of redemption that was allowed the first-born opened the way for a change; and accordingly, on the full organization of the Mosaic economy, the administration of sacred things formerly committed to the first-born was transferred from them to the Levites, who received that honor partly as a tribute to Moses and Aaron, partly because this tribe had distinguished themselves by their zeal in the affair of the golden calf (Ex 32:29), and also because, being the smallest of the tribes, they could ill find suitable employment and support in the work. (See on De 33:8). The designation of a special class for the sacred offices of religion was a wise arrangement; for, on their settlement in Canaan, the people would be so occupied that they might not be at leisure to wait on the service of the sanctuary, and sacred things might, from various causes, fall into neglect. But the appointment of an entire tribe to the divine service ensured the regular performance of the rites of religion. The subsequent portion of the chapter relates to the formal substitution of this tribe.
I am the Lord—that is, I decree it to be so; and being possessed of sovereign authority, I expect full obedience.
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;
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,
14-31. Number the children of Levi—They were numbered as well as the other tribes; but the enumeration was made on a different principle—for while in the other tribes the number of males was calculated from twenty years and upward [Nu 1:3], in that of Levi they were counted "from a month old and upward." The reason for the distinction is obvious. In the other tribes the survey was made for purposes of war [Nu 1:3], from which the Levites were totally exempt. But the Levites were appointed to a work on which they entered as soon as they were capable of instruction. They are mentioned under the names of Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, sons of Levi, and chiefs or ancestral heads of three subdivisions into which this tribe was distributed. Their duties were to assist in the conveyance of the tabernacle when the people were removing the various encampments, and to form its guard while stationary—the Gershonites being stationed on the west, the Kohathites on the south, and the families of Merari on the north. The Kohathites had the principal place about the tabernacle, and charge of the most precious and sacred things—a distinction with which they were honored, probably, because the Aaronic family belonged to this division of the Levitical tribe. The Gershonites, being the oldest, had the next honorable post assigned them, while the burden of the drudgery was thrown on the division of Merari.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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. chief—rather, "chiefs" of the Levites. Three persons are mentioned as chiefs of these respective divisions [Nu 3:24, 30, 35]. And Eleazar presided over them; whence he is called "the second priest" (2Ki 25:18); and in the case of the high priest's absence from illness or other necessary occasions, he performed the duties (1Ki 4:4).
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.
38. those that encamp, &c.—That being the entrance side, it was the post of honor, and consequently reserved to Moses and the priestly family. But the sons of Moses had no station here.
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. twenty and two thousand—The result of this census, though made on conditions most advantageous to Levi, proved it to be by far the smallest in Israel. The separate numbers stated in Nu 3:22, 28, 34, when added together, amount to twenty-two thousand three hundred. The omission of the three hundred is variously accounted for—by some, because they might be first-born who were already devoted to God and could not be counted as substitutes; and by others, because in Scripture style, the sum is reckoned in round numbers. The most probable conjecture is, that as Hebrew letters are employed for figures, one letter was, in the course of transcription, taken for another of like form but smaller value.
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. Number all the first-born of the males of the children of Israel, &c.—The principle on which the enumeration of the Levites had been made was now to be applied to the other tribes. The number of their male children, from a month old and upward, was to be reckoned, in order that a comparison might be instituted with that of the Levites, for the formal adoption of the latter as substitutes for the first-born. The Levites, amounting to twenty-two thousand, were given in exchange for an equal number of the first-born from the other tribes, leaving an excess of two hundred seventy-three; and as there were no substitutes for these, they were redeemed at the rate of five shekels for each (Nu 18:15, 16). Every Israelite would naturally wish that his son might be redeemed by a Levite without the payment of this tax, and yet some would have to incur the expense, for there were not Levites enough to make an equal exchange. Jewish writers say the matter was determined by lot, in this manner: Moses put into an urn twenty-two thousand pieces of parchment, on each of which he wrote "a son of Levi," and two hundred seventy-three more, containing the words, "five shekels." These being shaken, he ordered each of the first-born to put in his hand and take out a slip. If it contained the first inscription, the boy was redeemed by a Levite; if the latter, the parent had to pay. The ransom-money, which, reckoning the shekel at half a crown, would amount to 12s. 6d. each, was appropriated to the use of the sanctuary. The excess of the general over the Levitical first-born is so small, that the only way of accounting for it is, by supposing those first-born only were counted as were males remaining in their parents' household, or that those first-born only were numbered which had been born since the departure from Egypt, when God claimed all the first-born as his special property.
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. the cattle of the Levites—These, which they kept to graze on the glebes and meadows in the suburbs of their cities, to supply their families with dairy produce and animal food, were also taken as an equivalent for all the firstlings of the cattle which the Israelites at that time possessed. In consequence of this exchange the firstlings were not brought then, as afterwards, to the altar and the priests.
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;
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:)
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.