Commentary on Numbers 3

Notes (NET Translation)

Israelite Wilderness Camp Arrangement

1 Now these are the records of Aaron and Moses when the LORD spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. 2 These are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab, the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 3 These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he consecrated to minister as priests. 4 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. So Eleazar and Ithamar ministered as priests in the presence of Aaron their father.

Verses 1-13 take place on Mount Sinai (to be distinguished from the wilderness of Sinai in v 14). The family of Aaron belonged to the tribe of Levi (Ex 6:14-27; 1 Chr 6:1-15). Aaron may be mentioned before Moses because Aaron was the firstborn (Ex 6:20; Num 26:59; 1 Chr 23:13). The name Nadab means “the deity has been generous”, Abihu means “he is my (divine) father”, Eleazar means “God has helped me”, and Ithamar may mean “I have been shown wonders”. The story of Nadab and Abihu is told in Lev 10:1-7, although here we learn they had no children. Their death may be mentioned here to explain why only Eleazar and Ithamar are mentioned as in charge of the Levites (3:32; 4:16, 28, 33) and as a warning to follow the cultic laws exactly.

5 The LORD spoke to Moses: 6 “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. 7 They are responsible for his needs and the needs of the whole community before the tent of meeting, by attending to the service of the tabernacle. 8 And they are responsible for all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and for the needs of the Israelites, as they serve in the tabernacle. 9 You are to assign the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they will be assigned exclusively to him out of all the Israelites. 10 So you are to appoint Aaron and his sons, and they will be responsible for their priesthood; but the unauthorized person who comes near must be put to death.”

The duties of the Levites are to guard the tent of meeting and to dismantle, transport, and erect it when the Israelites travel (1:50-53). The Levites were to execute any unauthorized person who approached the tent of meeting. Temples throughout the ancient Near East had guards.

11 Then the LORD spoke to Moses: 12 “Look, I myself have taken the Levites from among the Israelites instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the Israelites. So the Levites belong to me, 13 because all the firstborn are mine. When I destroyed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They belong to me. I am the LORD.”

These verses refer to the laws of Exod. 13:2; 22:29-30; and 34:19-20. The principle is that every firstborn belongs to God (13:2). Every firstborn animal must be either sacrificed or redeemed and the substitute sacrificed (22:30; 34:19-20a). The firstborn son was to be redeemed by a substitution (34:20b). After the sin of the golden calf, the Levites were substituted without a formal statute (32:25-29). Their substitution is made formal here and spelled out in greater detail in 3:44-51.1

14 Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai: 15 “Number the Levites by their clans and their families; every male from a month old and upward you are to number.” 16 So Moses numbered them according to the word of the LORD, just as he had been commanded.

Verses 14-51 take place in the wilderness of Sinai (to be distinguished from on Mount Sinai in v 1). The intent of this census is to see if the number of Levites corresponds to the number of firstborn children from the other tribes of Israel. The census begins at the age of one month because that is the age to be eligible for redemption (Lev 27:6; Num 18:16).

Hebrew ʿal pi [“word” in NET] should be rendered “oracle” (cf. 9:18; 27:21; Num. R. 3:9); otherwise tsuvvah, “commanded,” is a tautology (see also 4:49). Thus the two Levitical censuses (chaps. 3-4), in contrast to the Israelite census (chap. 1), are taken by God. Moses is merely to record the totals (see 3:16) and the work assignments (4:49). Significantly, this reference to the Lord’s oracle occurs seven times in chapters 3 and 4. The supposition that the Levitical censuses are conducted with divine assistance is further supported by the absence of any mention of the procedure of writing down names as is indicated for the Israelite census (1:2, 18) and that of the Israelite first-born (3:40, 43). The reason for this distinction may be rooted in the fear of taking a census: Its dire consequences can be avoided only if each individual pays a half-shekel ransom (Exod. 30:11-16; Num. 31:48-54). But this ransom, presumed in the account of the census of Israel’s fighting force, is obviated in the census of the Levites because God Himself has taken their count. This indeed may explain why the notice of God’s selection of the Levites (3:11-13) precedes the account of their census: God counts them personally, thereby avoiding the dangers of a census. Significantly, the oracle is again resorted to in the account of redemption of the 273 remaining first-born (3:51), for how was Moses to select which of the surplus individuals had to pay five shekels each except by leaving the matter to God? Rabbinic tradition suggests that lots were drawn, a form of oracle. The Urim and Thummim could not have been used for this purpose since they were the exclusive reserve of the High Priest, as noted in Exodus 28:30 and Leviticus 8:8 (and cf. especially Num. 27:21).2

17 These were the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. 18 These are the names of the sons of Gershon by their families: Libni and Shimei. 19 The sons of Kohath by their families were: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. 20 The sons of Merari by their families were Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites by their clans.

21 From Gershon came the family of the Libnites and the family of the Shimeites; these were the families of the Gershonites. 22 Those of them who were numbered, counting every male from a month old and upward, were 7,500. 23 The families of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle toward the west. 24 Now the leader of the clan of the Gershonites was Eliasaph son of Lael.

25 And the responsibilities of the Gershonites in the tent of meeting included the tabernacle, the tent with its covering, the curtain at the entrance of the tent of meeting, 26 the hangings of the courtyard, the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard that surrounded the tabernacle and the altar, and their ropes, plus all the service connected with these things.

This chapter describes how the Levites are to guard the tent of meeting while it is being transported. Exodus 25-27, 30, and 38 describe the details of the tabernacle. The Gershonites guard the fabrics and coverings of the tent of meeting.

27 From Kohath came the family of the Amramites, the family of the Izharites, the family of the Hebronites, and the family of the Uzzielites; these were the families of the Kohathites. 28 Counting every male from a month old and upward, there were 8,600. They were responsible for the care of the sanctuary. 29 The families of the Kohathites were to camp on the south side of the tabernacle. 30 Now the leader of the clan of the families of the Kohathites was Elizaphan son of Uzziel.

The LXX of v 28 reads 8,300. Its reading is to be preferred over the MT since it allows the numbers given to sum to the 22,000 given in v 39 (the MT numbers sum to 22,300 which does not match v 39). A copyist probably corrupted the original 3 (shin, lamed, shin in Hebrew) to 6 (shin, shin in Hebrew).

31 Their responsibilities included the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, and the utensils of the sanctuary with which they ministered, the curtain, and all their service.

The Kohathites guard the sacred objects inside the tent of meeting.

32 Now the head of all the Levitical leaders was Eleazar son of Aaron the priest. He was appointed over those who were responsible for the sanctuary.

33 From Merari came the family of the Mahlites and the family of the Mushites; these were the families of Merari. 34 Those of them who were numbered, counting every male from a month old and upward, were 6,200. 35 Now the leader of the clan of the families of Merari was Zuriel son of Abihail. These were to camp on the north side of the tabernacle.

36 The appointed responsibilities of the Merarites included the frames of the tabernacle, its crossbars, its posts, its sockets, its utensils, plus all the service connected with these things, 37 and the pillars of the courtyard all around, with their sockets, their pegs, and their ropes.

The Merarites guard the framework of the tent of meeting.

38 But those who were to camp in front of the tabernacle on the east, in front of the tent of meeting, were Moses, Aaron, and his sons. They were responsible for the needs of the sanctuary and for the needs of the Israelites, but the unauthorized person who approached was to be put to death.

The tabernacle entrance was to the east.

39 All who were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered by the word of the LORD, according to their families, every male from a month old and upward, were 22,000.

40 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Number all the firstborn males of the Israelites from a month old and upward, and take the number of their names. 41 And take the Levites for me – I am the LORD – instead of all the firstborn males among the Israelites, and the livestock of the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the livestock of the Israelites.” 42 So Moses numbered all the firstborn males among the Israelites, as the LORD had commanded him. 43 And all the firstborn males, by the number of the names from a month old and upward, totaled 22,273.

There are 273 more firstborn Israelites to be redeemed than there are Levites to stand in for them.

44 Then the LORD spoke to Moses: 45 “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn males among the Israelites, and the livestock of the Levites instead of their livestock. And the Levites will be mine. I am the LORD. 46 And for the redemption of the 273 firstborn males of the Israelites who exceed the number of the Levites, 47 collect five shekels for each one individually; you are to collect this amount in the currency of the sanctuary shekel (this shekel is twenty gerahs). 48 And give the money for the redemption of the excess number of them to Aaron and his sons.”

The extra firstborn from the other tribes are redeemed by the payment of money. Five shekels is the votive offering amount given in Lev 27:6 for boys between one month and five years of age (cf. 18:15-16). It amounted to about six months’ wages for a day laborer.

The term “redemption” (peduye, root pada) has its origins in the Akkadian literature, where in Babylonian legal texts the cognate term padu denotes a form of monetary payment equivalent to the market value of an object or person, remitted in order to transfer property from one party to another. Property yielded in payment of debt could be redeemed at an agreed price. Persons who were slaves or indentured servants due to indebtedness could be freed from bondage by payment of the redemption fee. Israel was indebted to God for the deliverance of their firstborn, who were saved from death by the painting of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintels of their households when the angel of death passed over. Redemption for the nation was gained via the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, whose blood signaled the angel of death to deliver the faithful Israelite households from his mission of death. Therefore the firstborn males of the children of Israel belonged to God as his servants, but they could now be redeemed by (1) the rendering of the Levites as substitutionary payment or (2) the payment of the redemption fee of five shekels for those unaccounted for in the Levite census.3

49 So Moses took the redemption money from those who were in excess of those redeemed by the Levites. 50 From the firstborn males of the Israelites he collected the money, 1,365 shekels, according to the sanctuary shekel. 51 Moses gave the redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the LORD, as the LORD had commanded Moses.

It is not certain whether the whole sum of shekels was collected from all the firstborn or just the 273 excess firstborn. The most natural reading of verse 49 is that the sum was collected from the 273 excess firstborn.

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Ashley 1993, 79-80 
  2. Milgrom 1990, 19 
  3. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 3079-3088 
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