Commentary on Numbers 8:5-26

Notes (NET Translation)

5 Then the LORD spoke to Moses:

Chapter 3 reports the census of the Levites, chapter 4 their various tasks in dismantling and transporting the tabernacle, chapter 7 the gift of oxen and carts for its transport, and at last the ceremony in which they were dedicated to their role as guardians and movers of the tabernacle is described.1

6 “Take the Levites from among the Israelites and purify them.

The Levites are purified (made ritually clean/pure) whereas the priests were sanctified (made holy) (Lev 8:12). By moving into the sphere of the ritually clean/pure the Levites can come into proximity with the holy objects.

That the only Levites who had to undergo purification were those belonging to the work force, the males between ages thirty (or twenty-five; cf. v. 24) and fifty (chap. 4), is demonstrable on the following grounds: (1) only the term ʿavodah occurs (vv. 11, 15, 19, 22), but guard duty (mishmeret) does not appear at all (contrast vv. 23-26); (2) guard duty would require no purification, since it is performed outside the sacred area where there would be no contact with sancta; (3) one of the purification rites reads: “let them go over their whole body with a razor” (v. 7), implying that only mature males are involved; (4) verses 23-26, which focus on the retirement age of the Levite work force, constitute a logical continuation of this section, which speaks of the induction of the Levite work force. This being the case, then, the text does not posit an induction “service.” Rather, it only calls for the cleansing of the Levite work force as a prerequisite to its handling of the Tabernacle and its sancta, which would imply that when the younger Levites reached the age of thirty, they too would undergo similar purification, but individually.2

7 And do this to them to purify them: Sprinkle water of purification on them; then have them shave all their body and wash their clothes, and so purify themselves.

The “water of purification” may (or may not) be water taken out of the laver or the waters containing the ashes of the red cow (Num 19). Shaving the body (Lev 14:8-9; Num 6:9, 18) and washing the clothes (Lev 11:25; 13:6-54; 14:9; 15:5-27; 16:26-28; 17:15-16; Num 19:7-21; 31:23-24) symbolically remove any potential ritual impurity. Commentators assume the Levite washes his body while fulfilling the commands in this verse.

8 Then they are to take a young bull with its grain offering of fine flour mixed with olive oil; and you are to take a second young bull for a purification offering.

9 You are to bring the Levites before the tent of meeting and assemble the entire community of the Israelites.

10 Then you are to bring the Levites before the LORD, and the Israelites are to lay their hands on the Levites; 11 and Aaron is to offer the Levites before the LORD as a wave offering from the Israelites, that they may do the work of the LORD.

Presumably, representatives of the people laid their hands on the Levites. The laying on of hands should be understood in terms of laying the hands on the head of a sacrificial victim (Lev 1:4; 3:2; 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33; 7:28-34). The Levites are offered to God as substitutes for the people.

12 When the Levites lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, offer the one for a purification offering and the other for a whole burnt offering to the LORD, to make atonement for the Levites.

The laying of the hands by the Levites upon the heads of bulls symbolized their identification with the sacrifices offered on their behalf. Hence the rendering of the lives of the animals before God symbolized the surrendering of the lives of the Levites for service in the tabernacle.3

The sequence of sacrifices, beginning with a sin offering (ḥaṭṭāʾt) and continuing with a burnt offering (ʿôlāh), is significant. The ḥaṭṭāʾt served to remove impurity and made the Levites ready for their presentation to God. Then the ʿôlāh served as the first act of worship by the purified Levites, a test of God’s acceptance of them in their new role. The same sequence is observable in the ceremonies of the priestly investiture, as recorded in Lev 8:14-21, as well as in the purification of the Sanctuary, as prescribed in Lev 16:3.4

The clause lekappēr ʿal hallewiyyîm [to make atonement for the Levites] requires special comment, because the verb kippēr most often describes expiatory rites involving the use of sacrificial blood. We might attribute usage of the verb kippēr in this verse to the overall looseness of terminology characteristic of chap. 8. Quite possibly kippēr merely connotes some manner of purification in this instance. And yet another idea may be operative here: In certain contexts lekappēr ʿal represents the more complete formula lekappēr ʿal nepeš ‘to serve as ransom for a life’ (Exod 30:15; Lev 17:11). In such cases the piʿel form, kippēr, does not mean “to expiate” directly, but is denominative of kôper ‘ransom’ and means, literally, “to serve as kôper, ransom.” This is the sense of lekappēr ʿālâw in Lev 1:4: “to serve as redemption for him,” namely, for the person who has donated a burnt offering, having placed his hand upon it.

Here, too, it is best to understand the statement in question as conveying the notion that proper assignment of the burnt offering by the Levites served to “redeem” them, or to protect them, if you will, from God’s wrath. Anyone standing in close proximity to the Deity was in danger of incurring God’s wrath, regardless of whether he had committed an actual offense. God’s acceptance of the burnt offering signaled his acceptance of the Levites’ devotion. This interpretation is virtually explicit in v 19, below, which speaks of the role of the Levites themselves. Their dedication to cultic service would serve to avert the plague of God’s wrath. This was also the rationale given for the payment of half a shekel to finance the building of the Tabernacle by each male Israelite on the occasion of a census, according to Exod 30:12–16.

In summary, the ʿôlāh, as part of the rites of Numbers 8, tested God’s disposition. If God accepted it, he was pleased by the dedication of the Levites; they were protected from divine wrath. This attitude contrasts sharply with God’s displeasure at the Qorahites on another occasion. Not only was their offering rejected, but they were struck down by God’s wrath, as we read in Numbers 16–17.5

13 You are to have the Levites stand before Aaron and his sons, and then offer them as a wave offering to the LORD.

The presentation of the Levites as a wave offering (8:13) at the entrance to the tabernacle and before the priests and the Israelite congregation fulfills the complement of the three types of sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus: atonement (sin purification), consecration (burnt), and communal (wave). In this setting, instead of the priests offering an animal on behalf of the Levites, the Levites themselves became the wave-fellowship offering in the full display of the community triunity of priests, Levites, and people.6

14 And so you are to separate the Levites from among the Israelites, and the Levites will be mine.

15 “After this, the Levites will go in to do the work of the tent of meeting. So you must cleanse them and offer them like a wave offering.

16 For they are entirely given to me from among the Israelites. I have taken them for myself instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn sons of all the Israelites.

17 For all the firstborn males among the Israelites are mine, both humans and animals; when I destroyed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I set them apart for myself.

Cf. Ex 13:2, 11-16; 22:29; 32:26-29; 34:19; Num 3:5-13, 40-51; 18:1-32.

18 So I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn sons among the Israelites.

19 I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the Israelites, to do the work for the Israelites in the tent of meeting, and to make atonement for the Israelites, so there will be no plague among the Israelites when the Israelites come near the sanctuary.”

The Hebrew kippur (“atonement”) should be translated “ransom” in this passage.7 The Levites assume the responsibility for any Israelite encroachment upon the sancta (18:21-23). Only the Levites can come close to the sancta, otherwise a plague may break out.

20 So Moses and Aaron and the entire community of the Israelites did this with the Levites. According to all that the LORD commanded Moses concerning the Levites, this is what the Israelites did with them. 21 The Levites purified themselves and washed their clothing; then Aaron presented them like a wave offering before the LORD, and Aaron made atonement for them to purify them. 22 After this, the Levites went in to do their work in the tent of meeting before Aaron and before his sons. As the LORD had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did.

This paragraph once again emphasizes that Moses, Aaron, and all the people did exactly as God commanded.

23 Then the LORD spoke to Moses:

24 “This is what pertains to the Levites: At the age of twenty-five years and upward one may begin to join the company in the work of the tent of meeting, 25 and at the age of fifty years they must retire from performing the work and may no longer work.

Erecting, dismantling, and transporting the tent of meeting is the work reserved for those between 25 and 50. The age of entry in this verse (25) differs from the age of entry given in ch. 4 (30) (vv 3, 23, 30, 39, 43, 47). The events of ch. 8 are chronologically prior to the events of ch. 4. Even if we want to assign the two passages to different traditions, we are left with a redactor who left two different traditions in close proximity to each other. No explanation for the different age of entry is given. A suggestion, without explicit textual support, is that a Levite served as an apprentice from 25 to 30.

We can also note that other passages differ over the age when Levites could work. An entry age of 20 is given during David’s reign (1 Chr 23:24-27), during Hezekiah’s reign (2 Chr 31:16-17), and in the early postexilic community (Ezra 3:8). An entry of age of 30 is given during David’s reign (1 Chr 23:2-5).

Jacob Milgrom offers the following comment:

The answer [to the entry age of 20], rather, is to be found in the changed work profile of the Levites. The key to the change is the elimination of the upper age limit. As the Chronicler himself testifies, by the time of David, the Levite no longer had to transport the Tabernacle and its sancta but was responsible for the maintenance of the Temple, the preparation of sacrificial ingredients, the guarding of the Temple (continuing the ancient function), and the musical liturgy (1 Chron. 23:28-31). Thus the additional duties of the Levite, which did not entail excessive physical labor, made necessary the extension of his employ from the age of twenty until death (cf. Ramban on 8:24-26). This is reflected in the rabbinic statement that upon entry into the promised land, the Levite could be disqualified not by age but only by an impaired singing voice (Sif. Num. 63; Sif. Zut. on 8:26).

Nonetheless, the discrepancy of ages thirty (chap. 4) and twenty-five (chap. 8) still remains within the priestly text. The Septuagint simply cuts the Gordian knot: It conveniently reads twenty-five instead of thirty in 4:3, 23, 30. The rabbis harmonize the discrepancy by conjecturing that at age twenty-five the Levite entered into training and perhaps served as an assistant, but only at age thirty did he assume his full role in the ranks of Levite laborers. The members of the Dead Sea sect at Qumran resolved this discrepancy precisely in the same way except that they applied the Levitical ages for Tabernacle service to their entire community. Rendering the word for the Levitical work force, tsavaʾ (e.g., 4:3; 8:24), as “army” (cf. 1:3), they mandated that each male was mobilized to begin his military training at age twenty-five; he then performed menial tasks until age thirty, when he was fully enrolled into the military ranks (1QSa 1:12-19; 1QM 7:3). This interpretation, incidentally, clearly shows that the Qumranites had the Masoretic text and not the Septuagint before them.8

26 They may assist their colleagues in the tent of meeting, to attend to needs, but they must do no work. This is the way you must establish the Levites regarding their duties.”

Levites over 50 can still guard the tent of meeting, they just can’t help transport it.

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. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 1676-1678 
  2. Milgrom 1990, 61 
  3. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 4360-4362 
  4. Levine 2008, 273 
  5. Levine 2008, 276–277 
  6. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 4349-4353 
  7. Milgrom 1990, Excursus 19 
  8. Milgrom 1990, 65-66 
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