Numbers 3 - The Census of the Levites
A. Priests and Levites.
1. (1-5) The priests: The family of Aaron.
a. Nadab and Abihu were the two oldest children of Aaron, and the two ranking priests behind him - yet they were struck down by the Lord for offering profane fire before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-7).
b. Therefore, Eleazar and Ithamar inherited the priesthood, and passed it down to their sons after them.
c. It is important to realize that the priests were only one small family among the Levites; to be a priest and a Levite were not the same thing at all. Only those who were descendants of Aaron could be priests.
2. (6-10) The Levites: Their role in relation to Aaron.
a. The entire tribe of Levi was given to serve the needs of Aaron and the priests (they shall attend to his needs), the needs of the congregation at large (and the needs of the whole congregation), and the needs of the tabernacle itself (attend to all the furnishings of the tabernacle . . . to do the work of the tabernacle).
b. Again, God has an order and organization: The Levites were under the direction of Aaron (that they may serve him . . . they are given entirely to him). They weren't to "do their own thing," but Aaron's thing!
i. "Nothing in the holy things of God was left to chance or improvisation. None of the sacred persons who ministered in his presence was to be unprepared or untaught." (Allen)
c. To do the work of the tabernacle: In some ways, being a priest was far more visible and perhaps "glamorous" than being a Levite. But the service of the Levites made the work of the priests possible, and was seen by God as having equal value.
i. The outsider who comes near shall be put to death: If a Levite grew jealous, and decided they wanted to do the work of a priest, it was strictly forbidden - it was an affront to God's order and organization.
3. (11-13) The Levites are a special possession to God.
a. The firstborn belonged to God; a firstborn lamb from a ewe would be given to the Lord. God didn't want human sacrifice, so He took the tribe of Levi as Israel's "firstborn."
B. The census of the tribe of Levi.
1. (14-20) The command to number the tribe of Levi.
a. Though they were not counted among the available soldiers, the Levites were still to be counted, and counted by the males from a month old and above.
b. They were to be categorized by the families, with the main grouping according to Levi's three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.
2. (21-26) The census and duties of the family of Gershon.
a. The Gershonites (7,500 males) were to camp westward to the tabernacle (in between Judah and the tabernacle itself).
b. The Gershonites were to take care of the skins which covered the tabernacle itself.
3. (27-32) The census and duties of the family of Kohath.
a. The Kohathites (8,600 males) were to camp southward to the tabernacle (in between Reuben and the tabernacle itself).
b. The Kohathites were to take care of the furniture of the tabernacle: The ark of the covenant, the table of showbread, and so forth, under the direction of Eleazar the priest, son of Aaron.
4. (33-37) The census and duties of the family of Merari.
a. The family of Merari (6,200 males) were to camp northward to the tabernacle (in between Dan and the tabernacle itself).
b. The family of Merari was to take care of the structural aspects of the tabernacle: The pillars, the boards, and so forth.
5. (38-39) The camp of the priests.
a. The family of Aaron, and Moses, were to camp on the east side of the tabernacle - closest to the entrance, which was on the east.
b. God's order and organization extends to certain jobs for certain people to do; the families of the Levites had certain callings they were to fulfill. There was no one man or family to do everything; God made them dependent on one another to accomplish the work.
c. "The total of 22,000 Levites given in verse 39 does not tally with the totals of the individual clans given in verses 22, 28, 34 which come to 22,300. The discrepancy is most easily explained as textual corruption in verse 28. The number of Kohathites may originally have been 8,300. 3 (Hebrew sls) could quite easily have been corrupted into 6 (ss)." (Wenham)
6. (40-51) The exchange of the firstborn.
a. The firstborn - which was always thought to be the best and the favored - always belongs to God; so instead of giving the firstborn of Israel to God in sacrifice, the tribe of Levi was "given" to God as in place of each of the firstborn sons of Israel.
b. However, there were 22,273 firstborn sons in Israel; and there were only 22,000 Levite males (3:39). The extra 273 were given a monetary value (five shekels for each one individually), and the money was given to the tabernacle as redemption money.
c. The number of firstborn sons is low if accounted for all the nation; it would mean that only one in 27 sons were firstborns - an unlikely percentage. It is more probable that the 22,273 firstborn sons were those born in the thirteen months of the Exodus.