Commentary on Numbers 18

Notes (NET Translation)

1 The LORD said to Aaron, “You and your sons and your tribe with you must bear the iniquity of the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you must bear the iniquity of your priesthood.

Only in this chapter (see vv. 1, 8, 20) and in Leviticus 10:8–11 are instructions given by God directly to Aaron. Otherwise they are transmitted to him via Moses (e.g., 6:23; 8:2). This extraordinary fact only underscores the hazards and rewards for performing the priestly and Levitical duties of guarding the sanctuary: The Lord personally wishes to communicate this information to the chief of the Levitical tribe. Furthermore, the direct address to Aaron is a fitting climax to the rebellious contention for the priesthood: God further vindicates Aaron by granting him a personal revelation.1

The charge comes, first, to Aaron and his sons, i.e., the Aaronic priesthood. To this group is added your father’s house (bêṯ-‘āḇîkā). Most scholars see this expression as a reference to the whole tribe of Levi. But the pl. bêṯ ‘āḇôṯ usually means a subdivision smaller than the clan (mišpāḥâ). Occasionally the expression is a synonym for the full tribe (Num. 17:17–18, 21 [Eng. 2–3, 6]). In the sing., as here, it means “tribe” only in 17:17 (Eng. 2), because of the play on the word maṭṭeh, “rod, tribe,” in that passage. In the discussion of the census of the Levitical families in 3:14–37, the sing. designates the three Levitical groups: the Gershonites (3:24), the Kohathites (3:30), and the Merarites (3:35). It seems a sound conclusion that, except where the context demands otherwise for clarity, the term in either the sing. or the pl. indicates a tribal subunit. Thus your father’s house here should probably be identified as Aaron’s family group, the Kohathites. This identification gains weight when it is realized that v. 2 brings the whole tribe of Levi into the picture prefixed with the words and also (weḡam). In 4:1–20 it is the Kohathites who cooperate with the priests in the preparation and carrying of the holiest things. This identification also agrees with the task assigned here for the holy objects, which, as in 10:21, is the proper translation of hammiqdāš.2

Mikdash, which is translated “sanctuary” in the NET, can refer either to a sacred area or to sacred objects. Milgrom concurs with Ashley that it refers to sacred objects in this verse. The priests bear responsibility for encroachment on the sacred objects when the tabernacle is at rest and the Kohathites bear responsibility when they carry the sacred objects during the march.

In this verse “iniquity” connotes the consequences of the act, not the act itself. The phrase “bear the iniquity of the sanctuary” means the priests and Kohathites will bear the divine punishment of future Israelite encroachments against the sacred objects. The phrase “bear the iniquity of your priesthood” means the Aaronic priests will bear the divine punishment of future encroachments on the priesthood. Priests who are blemished (Lev 21:23), inebriated (Lev 10:9), unwashed (Ex 30:20), or improperly dressed (Ex 28:43) cannot officiate at the altar. Priests other than the High Priest cannot enter the Holy of Holies (v 7).

2 “Bring with you your brothers, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, so that they may join with you and minister to you while you and your sons with you are before the tent of the testimony.

“Before the tent of meeting” is outside the sacred area.

3 They must be responsible to care for you and to care for the entire tabernacle. However, they must not come near the furnishings of the sanctuary and the altar, or both they and you will die.

The Qal of the verb mût (“to die”) is used of death by divine agency. This penalty might seem strange since the punishment for offenses that have a disastrous effect on society is usually death by human agency. But once a person breaks through the protective guard of Levites and priests, no one could stop the offense without endangering himself and the community in the process; hence only God could carry out the death sentence. The ones upon whom this death comes are they (the antecedent for which must be “the Levites”–all of them) and you (the antecedent for which is not just Aaron, since it is pl., but all the priests). Encroachment by a single Levite, then, would bring the death of the whole group of priests and Levites. This principle is harsh, but prior to this time such encroachment (without intercession) would bring the death of the whole community (e.g., the plague in 17:6–15 [Eng. 16:41–50]).3

Cf. Num 3-4.

4 They must join with you, and they will be responsible for the care of the tent of meeting, for all the service of the tent, but no unauthorized person may approach you.

In this verse an “unauthorized person” is someone who is neither a consecrated priest nor a devoted Levite.

5 You will be responsible for the care of the sanctuary and the care of the altar, so that there will be no more wrath on the Israelites.

This verse alludes to Korah’s rebellion and, perhaps, the deaths of Nadab and Abihu. At the end of the last chapter the people were afraid to approach the sanctuary. This verse tells them that divine wrath can be averted if the priests and Levites fulfill their duties.

6 I myself have chosen your brothers the Levites from among the Israelites. They are given to you as a gift from the LORD, to perform the duties of the tent of meeting.

The Levites are ultimately devoted to God but work for the priests.

7 But you and your sons with you are responsible for your priestly duties, for everything at the altar and within the curtain. And you must serve. I give you the priesthood as a gift for service; but the unauthorized person who approaches must be put to death.”

The “curtain” is the veil that separates the holy place from the most holy place. In this verse the “unauthorized person” is anyone who is not a priest. It may also include anyone who would try to enter the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and he could only do it once a year.

8 The LORD spoke to Aaron, “See, I have given you the responsibility for my raised offerings; I have given all the holy things of the Israelites to you as your priestly portion and to your sons as a perpetual ordinance.

Mish. Men. 5:6 interprets the terumah ritual as involving a vertical motion, hence the NET translation “raised offerings”. Milgrom argues that it should be understood as something set apart or dedicated. He prefers a translation of “dedication, contribution.” The function of the terumah ritual is to transfer the object from its owner to God.

Cf. Ex 25:1-3; 29:27-28; 30:13-15; 35:5, 21, 24; 36:3, 6; Lev 6:14-7:36; 10:14-15; 22:12, 15; 27:6-33; Num 5:9; 6:20; 15:19-20; 18:11-19, 24-29; 31:29, 41, 52; Ezek 45:1, 13, 16; 48:8-21.

9 Of all the most holy offerings reserved from the fire this will be yours: Every offering of theirs, whether from every grain offering or from every purification offering or from every reparation offering which they bring to me, will be most holy for you and for your sons. 10 You are to eat it as a most holy offering; every male may eat it. It will be holy to you.

The phrase “reserved from the fire” refers to the portions of the sacrifices that are not burned on the altar, but reserved for the priests. The meat of the burnt offering is entirely burned on the altar. The priestly perquisites are divided into two groups: the “most holy” and the “holy”. The most holy offerings are only to be eaten by priests (all of whom are male, v 10).

11 “And this is yours: the raised offering of their gift, along with all the wave offerings of the Israelites. I have given them to you and to your sons and daughters with you as a perpetual ordinance. Everyone who is ceremonially clean in your household may eat of it.

The tenufah ritual is nowhere defined but the rabbinic rendering “wave offering” (Mish. Men. 5:6) has been accepted by nearly all translations, dictionaries and commentaries. The Targums translate tenufah as “raise, elevate”. Milgrom reasons that since the tenufah ritual is frequently carried out with many objects (Ex 29:22-24; Lev 8:25-27) a waving motion would topple the entire offering, whereas raising the offering would be manageable. He concludes that the tenufah offering was raised or elevated.

Cf. Ex 29:22-26; 35:22; 38:24; Lev 7:30; 8:25-29; 9:21; 10:14-15; 14:12, 14; 23:11-14, 17-20; Num 5:25; 6:20; 8:11, 15, 21; 18:18.

12 “All the best of the olive oil and all the best of the wine and of the wheat, the first fruits of these things that they give to the LORD, I have given to you. 13 And whatever first ripe fruit in their land they bring to the LORD will be yours; everyone who is ceremonially clean in your household may eat of it.

Verse 12 refers to processed products whereas verse 13 refers to crops.

The governing principle was that before one could enjoy the produce of the land, an offering to God, the source of the bounty, was required. Only once this was done were humans free to benefit from the yield of the earth.4

Cf. Ex 23:16-19; 34:26; Lev 2:14; 19:24-25; 23:10-11; 17-18; Deut 18:4; 26:1-11; Prov 3:9-10.

14 “Everything devoted in Israel will be yours.

A devoted thing that can never be redeemed (Lev 27:28). Everything devoted to God becomes the priests’ property and cannot be used by the laity.

15 The firstborn of every womb which they present to the LORD, whether human or animal, will be yours. Nevertheless, the firstborn sons you must redeem, and the firstborn males of unclean animals you must redeem.

Humans and unclean animals cannot be sacrificed so they are redeemed by a payment.

Notice should be taken of the difference between the verbs used in the redemption of the first-born human and the first-born impure animal. The former is padoh tifdeh, an emphatic, whereas the latter is the simple imperfect tifdeh, which should be rendered “you may have redeemed.” The distinction is important: The redemption of the first-born human is mandatory; the redemption of the first-born animal is optional. Its owner may decline to redeem it, in which case the sanctuary may keep it as a work animal or sell it (Lev. 27:27).5

The process of human and animal redemption had a didactic purpose of reminding the Israelites of their redemption from Egypt, an object lesson of history that could be rehearsed in every generation so that the people might not forget the Lord’s benevolence and the heavy price that was paid for their deliverance unto freedom and blessing.6

Cf. Ex 11:1-10; 13:1-2, 11-16; 22:28-30; 34:19-20; Lev 27:1-13, 26-27; Deut 12:17; 14:23; 15:19-23.

16 And those that must be redeemed you are to redeem when they are a month old, according to your estimation, for five shekels of silver according to the sanctuary shekel (which is twenty gerahs).

It is impossible to tell to what its (lit., “his”) refers here. If the pronoun refers to the collective sing. firstborn (beḵôr) in v. 15, then the firstborn of unclean beasts must also be ransomed at five shekels, thus providing a new regulation that goes far beyond Lev. 27:11–12, 27. It is possible, however, that the pronoun refers only to the firstborn of humans (beḵôr hā’āḏām) in v. 15, which would then match 3:47 and Lev. 27:6. It is unlikely that such a high ransom price would be set on an unclean animal (according to Wenham’s estimate, about six months’ wages), or that an unclean animal would be set on a par with the value of a firstborn human male.7

17 But you must not redeem the firstborn of a cow or a sheep or a goat; they are holy. You must splash their blood on the altar and burn their fat for an offering made by fire for a pleasing aroma to the LORD.

Cows, sheep, and goats are ritually clean animals that have to be sacrificed.

18 And their meat will be yours, just as the breast and the right hip of the raised offering is yours.

Cf. Ex 29:27-28; Lev 10:14-15.

19 All the raised offerings of the holy things that the Israelites offer to the LORD, I have given to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual ordinance. It is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and for your descendants with you.”

The merely “holy” offerings (as opposed to the “most holy” offerings) could be eaten by any member of the priest’s family.

This perpetual statute concerning the tribute donation for priestly support is deemed a “covenant of salt”. Though the origin of this phraseology is unknown, the concepts of preservation and permanence are conveyed by the function of salt in ancient Near Eastern society. Salt as a preservative ensured the quality of the meat or other consumable or nonconsumable goods, as well as enhancing the taste when used in cooking. Salt, which accompanied many Israelite sacrifices, was used physically in the seasoning of the elements, but it also contributed to the quality of the covenant relationship between humanity and God (Lev 2:13). In Ezra 4:14 the Sanballatide leaders in Samaria pledged their loyalty to the Persian government by using the expression “we have salted the salt of the palace.” With these concepts in mind, the covenant of salt between Yahweh and the Aaronic priesthood emphasized the quality and permanence of the relationship. That relationship was evidenced outwardly through the perpetual statute of the Israelite supplying of tribute to Yahweh, which then provided the means of sustenance for the priests and their families.8

20 The LORD spoke to Aaron, “You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any portion of property among them – I am your portion and your inheritance among the Israelites.

The priests and Levites are provided for through the gifts of the people to God.

Since the tribal inheritance involved agricultural land only, the assignment of forty-eight cities and their surrounding pasture to the Levites (35:1–8) and to the priests (Josh. 21:13–19) does not contradict the prohibition against clergy owning land. Indeed, Ezekiel also forbids any landed inheritance to priests (Ezek. 44:28)–although he ostensibly assigns them land (Ezek. 45:4; 48:10–11). But in this case it is for residences only (“for houses”; 45:4). It is true that dedicated lands produce food for the priests (e.g., Lev. 27:21, 28), but they belong to the sanctuary not to the individual priests. In practice, however, this rule seems to have been breached (see 1 Kings 2:26).9

21 See, I have given the Levites all the tithes in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they perform – the service of the tent of meeting.

The assignment of tithes to the Levites is a new rule not found earlier in the Torah. Tithing involves giving ten percent of one’s agricultural produce. Recall that the Levites’ service consisted of dismantling, carrying, and erecting the tent of meeting.

Cf. Lev 27:30-33; Deut 12:17-19; 14:22-29; 26:12-15.

22 No longer may the Israelites approach the tent of meeting, or else they will bear their sin and die.

23 But the Levites must perform the service of the tent of meeting, and they must bear their iniquity. It will be a perpetual ordinance throughout your generations that among the Israelites the Levites have no inheritance.

The Levites will bear the responsibility for lay Israelite encroachment of the tent of meeting.

24 But I have given to the Levites for an inheritance the tithes of the Israelites that are offered to the LORD as a raised offering. That is why I said to them that among the Israelites they are to have no inheritance.”

25 The LORD spoke to Moses:

Some think Moses is now addressed so as to avoid a conflict of interest if Aaron had told the Levites to give a tithe to the priests.

26 “You are to speak to the Levites, and you must tell them, ‘When you receive from the Israelites the tithe that I have given you from them as your inheritance, then you are to offer up from it as a raised offering to the LORD a tenth of the tithe.

27 And your raised offering will be credited to you as though it were grain from the threshing floor or as new wine from the winepress.

Here the sense is that the materiel that the Levites withheld and then remitted to the priests would be credited to them as if they were desacralizing their own produce–grain and ripe fruit. The notion that the contribution of the Levites to the priests would “count” for them is repeated in v 30 below.10

28 Thus you are to offer up a raised offering to the LORD of all your tithes which you receive from the Israelites; and you must give the LORD’s raised offering from it to Aaron the priest.

29 From all your gifts you must offer up every raised offering due the LORD, from all the best of it, and the holiest part of it.’

All of the tribute described in this chapter was deemed “holy” (vv. 8, 9,17), and thus the best was also the holiest.11

30 “Therefore you will say to them, ‘When you offer up the best of it, then it will be credited to the Levites as the product of the threshing floor and as the product of the winepress.

31 And you may eat it in any place, you and your household, because it is your wages for your service in the tent of meeting.

32 And you will bear no sin concerning it when you offer up the best of it. And you must not profane the holy things of the Israelites, or else you will die.'”

When the Levites follow the divine regulation and set aside the tithe of the tithe, consecrating this portion to the use of the priests (v. 29), then there is no penalty for consuming the remainder outside the sacred precincts. But if this consecrated portion is not removed, then by consuming it as a nonpriest and by consuming it outside the sacred precincts (into which the Levites cannot go in any case), then the Levites are polluting holy things, which is a capital offense (i.e., encroachment).12

The chapter closes by stressing that any further rebellions by the Levites will result in death.

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. Milgrom 1990, 146 
  2. Ashley 1993, 339–340 
  3. Ashley 1993, 341 
  4. Levine 2008, 446 
  5. Milgrom 1990, 152 
  6. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 8458-8460 
  7. Ashley 1993, 351 
  8. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 8483-8492 
  9. Milgrom 1990, 154 
  10. Levine 2008, 452 
  11. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 8622-8623 
  12. Ashley 1993, 360–361 
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