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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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NUMBERS 8

This chapter devotes a short paragraph (Numbers 8:1-4) to the lighting of the sacred candlestick, and the balance of the chapter (Numbers 8:5-26) regards the cleansing or purifying of the Levites for their service in the tabernacle. The information here is supplementary to that given in previous chapters of the Pentateuch. Much of the Pentateuch appears somewhat in the form of a Mosaic diary, but without any strict attention to the chronological fixation regarding the subjects treated. This structure does not indicate the blending of variant sources, nor contradictory accounts, but happens to be the manner in which Moses produced the book. Many of the critical community think they could have done a much better job, but unfortunately, none of them were ever entrusted with the responsibility for such a narrative as this!


 
Verses 1-4
And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron, and say unto him, When thou lightest the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the candlestick. And Aaron did so; he lighted the lamps thereof [so as to give light] in front of the candlestick, as Jehovah commanded Moses. And this was the work of the candlestick, beaten work of gold; unto the base thereof, [and] unto the flowers thereof, it was beaten work: according unto the pattern which Jehovah had showed Moses, so he made the candlestick.

The special consideration here is the actual lighting of the candlestick. One of the major characteristics of the sacred narrative is that of returning over and over again to the same subject, with additional details or instructions added in each reference. The same sacred pattern is here:

The details of the lampstand are given elsewhere: (1) in Exo. 25:31-40, where it is planned; (2) in Exo. 37:17-34, where it is made; (3) in Exo. 40:24,25, where it is actually set up; (4) in Lev. 24:2, where details for the sacred oil is given; and (5) here we find the actual lighting of it in a particular manner.F1

In front of the candlestick…
(Numbers 8:2). This was necessary because the candlestick was the only source of light within the sanctuary, and the purpose here was evidently that of causing light to illuminate the whole area as much as possible. Efforts of some critics to deny the early existence of this seven-branched candlestick have been totally frustrated. Excavations at Dothan by Joseph P. Free have found a seven-lipped ceramic lamp from early strata.F2 These directions are not a mere repetition, but a more precise definition of how the lights were to be lighted.F3

The symbolism of the sacred candlestick was presented at length in my Commentary on Exodus. The true symbolism is the representation therein of Christ, the Word of God (Christ is the Word), and the Church (the Church is Christ in the sense of being his spiritual body). Among the many foolish notions about what the candlestick symbolized are: (1) the seven openings in the human head; (2) "They represent the seven sources of earthly light, i.e., the sun, moon, and the five planets."F4 Such errors come from reading ancient mythology and not from the Bible.

Speak unto Aaron…
(Numbers 8:2). Aaron actually lighted the lamp.

The course he was ordered to follow was first to light the middle lamp from the altar-fire, and then the other lamps from each other: symbolical that all the light of heavenly truth is derived from Christ, and diffused by his ministers throughout the world.F5 (Unger adds this on the symbolism): The true Aaron lighted the lamps when he ascended on high and sent the Holy Spirit (the oil in the lamps) to bear witness of Himself.F6

Beaten work of gold…
(Numbers 8:4). This repetition of the material of which the candlestick was made according to the pattern God had shown Moses in the mount (Exo. 25:31ff) is exactly in keeping with the antiquated style of narrative adopted in these books.F7

CLEANSING OF THE LEVITES


 
Verses 5-13
And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them. And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of expiation upon them, and let them cause a razor to pass over all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and cleanse themselves. Then let them take a young bullock, and its meal-offering, fine flour mingled with oil; and another young bullock shalt thou take for a sin-offering. And thou shalt present the Levites before the tent of meeting: and thou shalt assemble the whole congregation of the children of Israel: and thou shalt present the Levites before Jehovah. And the children of Israel shall lay their hands upon the Levites: and Aaron shall offer the Levites before Jehovah for a wave-offering, on the behalf of the children of Israel, that it may be theirs to do the service of Jehovah. And the Levites shall lay their hands upon the heads of the bullocks: and offer thou the one for a sin-offering, and the other for a burnt-offering, unto Jehovah, to make atonement for the Levites. And thou shalt set the Levites before Aaron, and before his sons, and offer them for a wave-offering unto Jehovah.

Unger listed the specifics required for the cleansing of the Levites thus:

(1) by sprinkling with water (Num. 8:7a)

(2) by shaving all their flesh (Num. 8:7b)

(3) by washing their garments (Num. 8:7c)

(4) by atonement being made for them (Numbers 8:8-12)

(5) by identifying them with all Israel who were represented by them (Numbers 8:9,10)

(6) by their being waved before Jehovah (Numbers 8:11-13)

(7) by the subordination of the Levites to the priests (Numbers 8:13) and

(8) by commemorating the event of their being given unto Jehovah instead of the first-born (Num. 8:16ff).F8

There are a great number of things in this account that cannot be fully explained. Why? The passage does not contain a blueprint for repeating this ceremony. Many things known to ancient Israel with regard to this occasion are simply not revealed to us. Some of the things commanded here, of course, fall within the perimeter of our more complete understanding of what was done.

The washing of their garments, for example, was a customary act of all the Jews for ages prior to this time when preparing for worship. Jacob, it will be remembered, commanded his family to wash their clothes and change their garments upon the occasion of their return to Bethel, after the disaster at Shechem (Genesis 35:2). Likewise, the sprinkling with water was a ceremony practiced with variations in the cleansing of lepers.

However, the "waving" of the Levites before Jehovah is not explained, but our ignorance of exactly how this was done should not be the occasion of our unbelief that it was actually accomplished, by what means, we know not. We wish to cite here the comments of Gray, a famed critical scholar who, at the turn of the century wrote:

"Had the writer clearly thought out the ceremony, he would no doubt have expressed it intelligibly. Either the practical difficulty that a large body of over 20,000 men could not, like loaves of bread, be moved and waved to and fro before the altar never occurred to the author, and he introduced this without thinking HOW it could be done, or else the words have lost their original meaning."F9

An inherent enmity against the Bible appears in such a comment. The notion that the Bible was written by some thoughtless fool who never "thought out" what was being commanded was a current thesis when Gray wrote, and, it is still a major proposition with many liberal scholars who consider themselves too intelligent to believe the Bible. It never occurs to such individuals that the wisest and best men of all ages have fully believed and appreciated the Bible, among them, the inimitable Sir Isaac Newton whose works are quoted in this series. All of the assumptions that support the type of comment in focus here are incorrect.

(1) It is nowhere stated that all 20,000 of the Levites were to be devoted to this service in a single ceremony, the thing in view here possibly being the ceremony that was observed for each one, as the times and occasions made their service necessary. It is preposterous that some 20,000 Levites were required to perform in the ordinary functions of that tabernacle at that time.

(2) As for the waving, what could be the source of Gray's assumption that this text required even one man, much less 20,000, to be waved in the same manner as a loaf of bread? Where did he get that? Could there not have been some other ceremony, unknown to us, that was observed in waving one man or a hundred thousand?

We have not introduced this comment for its value, since it has none, but we have used it as an example of the methods of critical scholars.

Thou shalt assemble the whole congregation…
(Numbers 8:9). This was done through the device of some representative system.F10 It is an abuse of language to make this mean that over two million people, men, women and children, were assembled for this ceremony. Some things were so obvious that God did not need to give specific instructions concerning them. The laying on of hands (Numbers 8:10) was likewise done in some representative way, e.g., by the laying on of hands by the twelve tribal leaders upon the heads of the three division leaders of the Levites.F11

A great deal of scoffing comment concerns HOW the waving was done. First, it needs to be said that not the manner of waving, but the meaning of it is the principal thing here, namely, that the Levites were appointed unto the service of God by this ceremony. Dummelow was correct in the comment that, "HOW the waving was done is not certain, whether the Levites were led by Aaron back and forth before the altar, or whether he merely waved his hand over them."F12 Jamieson thought that, "Aaron brought the Levites one by one to the altar and directed them to make certain movements of their person before it."F13

Cook pointed to some ancient tradition that Aaron "merely pointed to the Levites and then waved his hands appropriately before the altar."F14 If God had considered that all subsequent generations should know exactly how this was done, would he not have written it here?


 
Verses 14-19
Thus shalt thou separate the Levites from among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be mine. And after that shall the Levites go in to do the service of the tent of meeting: and thou shalt cleanse them, and offer them for a wave-offering. For they are wholly given unto me from among the children of Israel; instead of all that openeth the womb, even the first-born of all the children of Israel, have I taken them unto me. For all the first-born among the children of Israel are mine, both man and beast: on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for myself. And I have taken the Levites instead of all the first-born among the children of Israel. And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the service of the children of Israel in the tent of meeting, and to make atonement for the children of Israel; that there be no plague among the children of Israel, when the children of Israel come nigh unto the sanctuary.

It seems to be significant that in this summary of the law of the Levites one finds the expression "the children of Israel" no less than eight times. A Jewish writer concluded from this that:

"Why this special emphasis upon the children of Israel in this particular section? Since only the Levites were chosen for service in the sanctuary, other Israelites might have been disturbed, wondering why they had not been deemed worthy to perform these functions ... This frequent mention of the children of Israel shows that God held all of His people in the utmost affection, not just the Levites.F15

And to make atonement…
(Numbers 8:19). This is quite an unexpected place to find the word atonement, for it cannot have its usual meaning in this place. As Wade pointed out, The meaning is, `afford a covering, a screen.' The Hebrew here cannot mean `to expiate sin.' It has in view the prevention of sin, since it would have been sinful for unhallowed persons to approach the sanctuary.F16


 
Verses 20-22
Thus did Moses, and Aaron, and all the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the Levites: according unto all that Jehovah commanded Moses touching the Levites, so did the children of Israel unto them. And the Levites purified themselves from sin, and they washed their clothes: and Aaron offered them for a wave-offering before Jehovah; and Aaron made atonement for them to cleanse them. And after that went the Levites in to do their service in the tent of meeting before Aaron, and before his sons: as Jehovah had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so did they unto them.

Whatever the scholars may find difficult in the matter of the "waving" of all those Levites, Aaron had no trouble at all with it. The sacred text says that he did it. This is similar to that passage about casting the money "unto the potter" in the house of the Lord (Zechariah 11:13). The critics have been looking for that "potter" for a hundred years without finding him, but Zechariah had no trouble with it, the Holy Scriptures say that "he did it!"


 
Verses 23-26
And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, This is that which belongeth unto the Levites: from twenty and five years old and upward they shall go in to wait upon the service in the work of the tent of meeting: and from the age of fifty years they shall cease waiting upon the work, and shall serve no more, but shall minister with their brethren in the tent of meeting, to keep the charge, and shall do no service. Thus shalt thou do unto the Levites touching their charges.

There are a number of important considerations in these verses. First, there is the "contradiction" in the giving of age twenty-five as the age when Levites began their service, whereas, previously the age of thirty years was specified. Different situations in view explain the difference: "The age varied for different kinds of service:

(1) for a soldier, it was age twenty,

(2) for a priest, it was age thirty, and

(3) for the Levites, it was age twenty-five."F17

As for the age of thirty indicated for Levites in Num. 4:3, this evidently referred particularly to those charged with moving the sacred furniture of the tabernacle. The work envisioned here is of a much wider nature. Another explanation, suggested by some, is that an apprenticeship of five years was also required, which would account for the variation. Whitelaw commented that:

"The directions in Num. 4:3 (for an age of thirty years) concerned the transport of the tabernacle and its belongings; this was a permanent regulation designed for ordinary labors of the sanctuary at a time when the Levites would be scattered throughout their cities, and could only serve by courses. Even at the age of twenty-five, it was difficult to provide the required number in the latter days of King David."F18

To keep the charge…
(Num. 8:26; Num. 1:53). This expression has the meaning of stand guard over, or standing guard.F19


Footnotes for Numbers 8
1: Elmer Smick, Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), p. 122.
2: Ibid.
3: C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), p. 45.
4: John Joseph Owens, Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, Numbers (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), p. 105.
5: Robert Jamieson, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957), p. 100.
6: Merrill F. Unger, Unger's Commentary on the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), p. 194.
7: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p. 46.
8: Merrill F. Unger, op. cit., p. 194.
9: George Buchanan Gray, International Critical Commentary, Numbers (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1903), p. 80.
10: Robert Jamieson, op. cit., p. 100.
11: J. A. Thompson, New Bible Commentary, Revised, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 178.
12: J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 105.
13: Robert Jamieson, op. cit., p. 101.
14: F. C. Cook, Barnes' Notes, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983. Reprint of the John Murry publication in London, 1879), p. 200.
15: Hiddushai Hatira, Wellsprings of Torah, Vol. 2 (New York: The Judaic Press, 1969), p. 302.
16: George Woosung Wade, Peake's Commentary on the Bible, Numbers (London: T. C. and E. C. Jack, Ltd., 1924), p. 217.
17: J. Vernon McGee, Through the Bible with J. Vernon McGee (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1981), p. 474.
18: Thomas Whitelaw, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 2, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 69.
19: Harry M. Orlinsky, Notes on the New Translation of the Torah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969), p. 229.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 8". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=nu&chapter=008>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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