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This chapter has the enumeration of the Levites, their duties, and the substitution of the first-born. As is generally true, most of the writings available on these chapters have the nature of an extended harangue on the numbers in this section of the book, whether or not they are accurately reported, or if they are "fabricated,"F1 or that maybe the word for "thousand" originally meant merely, "squads," "families," or some other unit far smaller than "thousand."
These numbers in Moses' fourth book present no problem whatever to the believer.
(1) If the numbers are exactly accurate in all respects, the only problem would be connected with how so vast a multitude could be maintained in the kind of environment the Sinai area is supposed to have been during Israel's sojourn there. But where is the problem? Is anything too hard for God? Our holy text makes it perfectly clear that God Himself provided the food and drink for that whole era of forty years. The people who have trouble with this evidently know nothing of the God of the Bible.
(2) If, as strongly suggested by some writers, the word here rendered "thousand(s)" actually meant something else originally, then, in this particular, the Masoretic Text would be in error, but, of course, there is no evidence whatever to support such a view. However, even if such an error could be revealed here and there in the Holy Bible, the effect would be of as little consequence as a fly-speck on the Washington Monument. We do not believe any error exists in these numbers, but if God did indeed allow, through the weakness of men, some little flaw now and then in the Sacred Scriptures, it would have been by design to test the faith of his children. If people are going to believe merely those things that appear "reasonable" to them, the whole character of true faith in God is already destroyed. How REASONABLE could it have been to Abraham that he should slay his son Isaac as a SACRIFICE to God, when that same God had promised through that son Isaac to make Abraham's posterity as numerous as the stars of heaven?
We shall not, therefore, waste any more time by exploring the controversy about these numbers, but shall attempt to interpret them as they stand in the text.
These are the generations.
(Numbers 3:1). Here again we have the magnificent [~toledowth] encountered ten times in Genesis. It is used here in a technical sense, referring to what follows (as in Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; and Gen. 37:2). It marks a new departure looking DOWN not UP the course of history.F2 Moses and Aaron were in themselves the beginning of vast influences that would flow downward throughout the course of history; and the account of that begins here.
In the day that Jehovah spoke with Moses in Sinai
Noth referred to this as a completely meaningless indication of time,F3 presumably meaning that it was meaningless to him. The words used here are very similar to the passage in Gen. 2:4, where is found the very first use of this word [~toledowth] in the Bible along with the qualifying words in the day that Jehovah God made earth and heaven. The significance of this is profound, proving that the passages in Genesis subsequent to Gen. 2:4 are a record not of the original creation, but what took place afterward, and that the new focus would not be on the heavens and the earth, but on the earth and heaven! The same implications are here, and are clearly indicated by the use of these words lifted from Gen. 2:4, where first the significant term [~toledowth] was used. Note the two pairs of words: earth and heaven, indicating the shift of emphasis to the lesser from the greater, and Aaron and Moses, indicating that same definite shift from the greater to the lesser in the passage here.
Num. 3:2 has the names of Aaron's four sons, but the punctuation takes no notice of their being named as pairs. "The names are listed in pairs: Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar."F4
In Num. 3:2 and Num. 3:3 are the identical words, "these are the names of the sons of Aaron ... these are the names of the sons of Aaron the priests." Jewish writers make much of this verbatim repetition in successive verses:
The statement, "These are the names of the sons of Aaron" occurs twice, first in the naming of the sons, and then in the characterization of the sons as priests, in order to show that even after their appointment to the priesthood, the sons of Aaron did not receive new names but were still considered the same human beings as before.F5
We find full agreement with the Jewish deductions from this passage, regardless of the fact that the purpose of the repetition here may not necessarily be connected with their deductions. Certainly the conceit of the Medieval Church in giving new names to their Cardinals and Popes upon their elevation to certain offices is not at all justified by anything in the Holy Scriptures.
Nadab and Abihu died. when they offered strange fire ...
(Numbers 3:4). The very mention of this unhappy event proves that post-exilic priests had nothing to do with composing, editing, adding to, or deleting anything from the Book of Numbers! This sad story of Nadab and Abihu would never have been found in any kind of Bible they could or would have produced. This verse, of course, explains why NO descendants of Nadab and Abihu were ever to be found among the priests of Israel, as they had died childless. Eleazar and Ithamar became thus the heads of the Aaronic order.
In the presence of their father
The true meaning of this is not that they served under the oversight of Aaron,F6 although, of course, they might actually have done this also. The true meaning is in the RSV, as noted by Whitelaw, in the lifetime of their father.F7
This paragraph reveals the divine appointment of the tribe of Levi, not as priests, but as a special class of workers who would be employed continually in the service of the tabernacle, under the oversight and supervision of the High Priest. It is not true that they were thus constituted a tribe of slaves. Theirs was an honored and privileged position in which they were perpetually exempt from military service and were supported entirely and particularly for this service.
We cannot agree that this placement of the Levites as essentially custodians and caretakers of the tabernacle derives from a post-exilic priesthood intent upon degrading their kinsmen the Levites. Even if such a priesthood at such a time had devised such a thing, what kind of blindness could have induced them to support their designs by "finding" instructions in the book of God (The O.T.) that are detailed in so specific and circumstantial a manner as are these instructions in Numbers? The post-exilic priests had no tabernacle, and for an extended period had no temple either. Add to this the fact that the instructions for the Levites were detailed in such things as dismantling and transporting the tabernacle, which at the alleged time of those priests writing these passages, had not even existed for ages. Even Noth admitted that all this is "exceedingly remarkable!"F8 The proper word to describe such postulations, however, is not remarkable, but impossible! Moses alone can properly be considered as the human source through whom these instructions were conveyed to men, as clearly stated in Num. 3:5: "Jehovah spake unto Moses."
The stranger that cometh nigh.
(Numbers 3:10). This repeated formula (also in Num. 1:52) did not always have the same meaning. In Num. 1:51, it means any non-Levites violating the restrictions would be put to death, and here it includes also any Levites who were not also priests. It is not clear whether human agency or divine fiat would accomplish the death of violators. In the case of Nadab and Abihu, just mentioned, it was by divine fiat, and from this, Jewish writers have concluded that God Himself would enforce this rule.F9
There is important symbolism in this. "As representatives of the hallowed first-born (Exo. 22:29,30; 34:19,20), the Levites picture the saints composing `the church of the first-born ... written (registered) in heaven' (Hebrews 12:23), having no earthly inheritance, but a heavenly place and service."F10
This paragraph is not a clumsy attempt to soften the degrading requirements early in the chapter that seem to enslave the Levites, but a true revelation of what is really meant by being given "unto the Lord." All who are given unto God are given to serve; and the saved are saved to save.
The important question of just why God selected the Levites for this assignment is easily answered. Whitelaw has the best analysis of it:
"The most obvious reason why Levi was selected is that he was by far the smallest in numbers of the twelve tribes, being less than half the size of the next smallest. Also, he almost balanced the number of the firstborn. Furthermore, a larger tribe could not have been spared, and would not have been needed to supply the number required ... Another reason may appear in the prophecy of Gen. 49:7. Both Levi and Simeon were doomed never to raise their heads as a united and powerful tribe in Israel."F11
That an entire tribe (although the smallest) was required for the services detailed for the Levites in these chapters is manifest in the extensive and elaborate ritual prescribed by God himself for the tabernacle throughout the middle three books of the Pentateuch. A small number of persons could never have done all that God commanded to be done in connection with that extensive ritual.
The effect of this very abbreviated genealogy is that of dividing the Levites into three divisions:
(1) the Gershonites
(2) the Kohathites, and
(3) the Merarites
A marked difference in the method of numbering occurs here in that all males above the age of one month were included, whereas in the case of the military registration, only those above twenty years old were counted. Based upon this, Jewish tradition held that, "A child must live a month before being considered fully viable. Neither funeral nor mourning practices are observed if a child has not reached that age, and the child is considered as if stillborn."F12
The writing here follows absolutely the style of the 1500 B.C. period with an elaborate, stylized repetition. Also, there is discernible the same Biblical method observed throughout the Pentateuch of including additional and variations of instructions in each repetition. It is foolish indeed to find different "sources" for such supplemental information. It is simply the Biblical method. It will be remembered that God's "two of each kind" orders for Noah's loading the ark were supplemented later with "seven" of the clean kinds of creatures. The result of this is that the total instructions in each sector of labor would be known only by a careful attention to all that was written concerning it, and not by a mere glance at the first mention of it. Most of the critical scholars seem to be unaware of this, losing themselves in a maze of "various sources." In regard to what is said here of the work of the Gershonites, "Their work concerned not the making of these things but their continuance in connection with the movement of the testimony."F13 On the march, the Gershonites followed the company of Reuben (Numbers 10:17).
Here of course, we have exactly the same presentation of the sons of Kohath as was given in the above paragraph for the sons of Gershon. In both, it is most evident that no complete genealogy of any kind is given for the period of time covering over four centuries from the entry into Egypt by Levi and his brother-sons of Jacob, the purpose here not being to give a complete genealogy, but only sufficient information to support the division of the Levites into the three predominant families mentioned in this chapter.
Thus is concluded the detailed enumeration and assignment for Merari, the third division of the Levites. It should be noted that Eleazar, son of Aaron, was appointed over the three princes of these divisions, giving him, in effect, charge of the entire tabernacle complex.
The totals of the enrollees of these divisions are 7,500 for Gershon, 8,600 for Kohath, and 6,200 for Merari, yielding a grand total of 22,300, precipitating the "tremendous problem" posed by the flat 22,000 given for this total in Num. 3:39! Apparently, some of the commentators never heard of "round numbers." Exploring "contradictions" of this nature is certainly a picayune business! The "explanations" usually focus on the fact that the Hebrew word for "6" as given in the enumeration for Kohath might actually have been "3," due to the close similarities in the Hebrew designations for those numbers. The Jews used letters to signify numbers. The numeral six was represented by [~sh-sh], and the numeral three was represented by [~sh-l-sh]; and some scribe might easily have overlooked the [~l]F14. To us, the "round number" explanation is sufficient. The fact, however, that the round number of 22,000 was used when the total was subtracted from the total of the first-born of all Israel, means that whatever "error" existed would certainly have been in one of the totals of the three divisions. It is simply not a momentous question. Certainly, for some reason or other, the total was reduced by the sum of 300 in Num. 3:39. Jewish expositors explain this by the proposition that certain Levites were ineligible to be counted in the trade off with the whole nation (next recorded) (several reasons for this are given), thus reducing the total to a round 22,000.
Although Moses was given a place of honor alongside Aaron at the entrance to the tabernacle, Moses' sons were not included, having no part whatever of the priesthood.
There is no difficulty whatever with these verses, except in the matter of the final total of all the first-born in Israel. The critics have been screaming for a hundred years that this number of 22,273 is absurd for an accurate account of the first-born males among a nation of some 2,000,000 people. Well, for the demographic experts in this field, this figure must indeed appear extremely small, and critics extrapolate these numbers to show that, according to these figures, every Jewish family would have had to have about fifty children!
However, the critics have missed the point altogether. Only those Israelites born AFTER the exodus were covered by this law of the dedication of the first-born, and this figure of 22,273 represents the first-born who were born AFTER the exodus. As Keil expressed it:
"Of course, the reference was only to the first-born of men and cattle that came into the world from that time forward (the time of the announcement of the law regarding the first-born), and not to those whom God had already sanctified to Himself by sparing the Israelites and their cattle (the night of the 10th plague)."F15
Critics, however, are never satisfied, and their answer to this true explanation of the low number is shouted, `that figure is too large for the births in a little over a year after Exodus.' Well, the answer to their objection is patently obvious. That very first year when the Hebrews received their liberty, after years of galling service under the yoke of Pharaoh, there were bound to have been as many marriages (and consequently births) as would normally have occurred in five or ten years. It is easy to see that every person of age fit for marriage would have celebrated their liberation by choosing a mate. This figure of 22,273 first-born sons proves it. How else could it have happened? To be sure, the number is abnormally high for a similar statistic in any normal year for any people on earth, but that was not a normal year in any sense of the word. That certainly takes care of the nonsense about these figures being "absurd."F16 What an amazing folly is demonstrated by men who seek to "correct" writings of the third millennium anterior to themselves, especially in view of the fact that they simply do not have the knowledge to sustain them in such an effort. Long after this generation of unbelievers has been buried and forgotten, people will go on believing the Sacred Scriptures as has already been demonstrated throughout history.
It is of interest that the 1,365 shekels equals the number of shekels procured by collecting five shekels each from 273 people. The author of the account here was most careful to give an exact report of everything related. How amazing it is, that after so many millenniums of time, the account is as perfect as it is.
It is significant that in the case of the cattle mentioned here, there was evidently permitted a redemption, through exchange, of both clean and unclean animals, some of which, according to legislation in Numbers 18:15-17, had to be sacrificed and not redeemed. Obviously, this was a special case not subject to normal requirements. Plaut noted that, normally, only "unclean animals could be redeemed, and therefore the Talmud applied this chapter only to clean animals."F17 It is not known, exactly, what happened.
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.