The Levites (3:1–51)
1–3 This chapter deals with the descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob. Aaron and Moses were descended from Levi through his son Kohath and his grandson Amram (Exodus 6:16,18,20). Aaron and his four sons had been anointed6 and ordained7 (verse 3) to serve as priests (Leviticus 8:30). The priests of Israel were all descendants of Aaron. They served as mediators between God and the people; they brought God’s word to the people, and they brought the people’s offerings to God.8
4 See Leviticus 10:1–5 and comment.
5–10 The Levites were assigned to assist the priests by taking care of the general work of the tabernacle (verse 7); in doing this, the Levites were also serving the entire community (verse 8). However, all duties that required entering the sanctuary9 could only be carried out by the priests themselves; anyone else who approached (entered) the sanctuary either deliberately or carelessly was to be put to death (verse 10). God’s holy dwelling was not to be defiled (see Numbers 1:51–54 and comment).
11–13 Because the Lord had spared the firstborn of Israel during the night of the PASSOVER, from that time on He claimed all of Israel’s firstborn as His own (see Exodus 13:1–2 and comment). However, instead of taking the actual firstborn children of Israel, the Lord chose to take the Levites in place of the firstborn (verse 12). In this way, the Levites served as REIEMPTION for the firstborn. The Lord never intended that the firstborn be actually sacrificed, but they did need to be redeemed, ransomed, because they belonged to Him in a special way (see Exodus 13:11–16 and comment).
In verse 45, we see that not only the human firstborn were redeemed by the Levites, but even the firstborn of the livestock were redeemed by the livestock of the Levites.
14–20 The Lord instructed Moses to count the male Levites over one month old. Inverse 17,the names of Levi’s three sons are listed: Gershon, Kohath and Merari. Then follow the names of their respective sons.
21–26 The clans of Gershon (the Gershonites) were to camp on the west side of the tabernacle; they were responsible for the tabernacle’s outer structure: the tent, the coverings, and all the curtains.
27–32 The clans of Kohath (the Kohathites) were to camp on the south side of the tabernacle; they were responsible for the most holy furnishings of the tabernacle and everything related to their use. The Kohathites were given the greatest responsibility, because Aaron was descended from Kohath and Amram; he was one of the Amramites (verse 27). Aaron’s eldest surviving son, Eleazar, was appointed leader of the Kohathites (verse 32).
33–37 The clans of Merari (the Merarites) were to camp on the north side of the tabernacle; they were responsible for the frames, posts and bases of the tabernacle, and everything related to their use.
38 Finally, Moses and the priests were to camp on the east side of the tabernacle, in front of the entrance to the courtyard. They, of course, were responsible for presenting the offerings and performing whatever functions took place inside the tabernacle itself.
Again a warning is given about the danger of approaching the tabernacle in an unauthorized manner (see verse 10).
39–43 The total number of male Levites over one month old was 22,000.10 The total number of firstborn Israelite males was 22,273.11 Since it took one Levite to redeem one firstborn, 273 firstborn were left unredeemed.
44–51 Why should this exact number of unredeemed be so important? Because every individual is precious to God. For service in the army or in the tabernacle, round numbers can be used. But for redemption, each individual counts.
And so those 273 firstborn needed to be redeemed. They were redeemed by the payment of five shekels12 each (verse 47); this was the price for redeeming a male under five, according to Leviticus 27:6. The shekels were collected and given to Aaron and his two sons—just as the Levites themselves had been given to Aaron and his sons earlier (verse 9).
Those 273 firstborn were redeemed with silver. But Jesus has now paid for the redemption of every person who believes in Him. We have not been redeemed with perishable things such as silver or gold . . . but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18–19).