Numbers 3 Study Notes
3:1-3 Within the cultural framework of the ancient Near East, family records (Hb toledoth, see note at Gn 5:1) served several purposes: (1) to provide historical connection to a pivotal point in the past, (2) to preserve familial community and organization within the larger societal structure, (3) to justify one’s position within the societal structure by providing a historical precedent from within one’s family line, and (4) to provide future generations with a source of pride. Moses used his records of the census to substantiate his and Aaron’s authority.
3:4 Nadab and Abihu suffered the judgment of death (Lv 10:1-2) by offering an unholy censer of incense (by fire). No improper or innovative cultic acts were allowed in the service of the tabernacle. This reminder of their death warned future generations of priests against attempting improper ritual. Eleazar would succeed his father in the high priest position following Aaron’s death in the region of Moab, across the Jordan River from the promised land (20:23-29; 33:38-39).
3:5-6 The language of God’s instruction to Moses is that of an animal sacrifice formally brought before a priest. Hence the Levites were brought and set apart before the high priest Aaron to serve God’s people.
3:7-9 The duties of the Levites on behalf of the entire community included daily maintenance to ensure the ceremonial purity of the sacrificial implements and curtains of the tabernacle furnishings that only they were allowed to touch.
3:10 The presence of God was symbolized by the ark of the covenant within the holy of holies. This area was protected by the priests on one level and by the Levites on the next. The Levites functioned as a lightning rod for the fiery wrath of God against potential encroachment of the holy place. Improper service by priests or their assistants was punishable by death.
3:11-12 In place of every firstborn of the Israelite families, the Levites served as a substitutionary living sacrifice before God for sacred service on behalf of the people of the other twelve tribes. The firstborn males of the Israelite families were to be presented to God through the agency of the priests (Ex 13:2,11-16; 22:29-30; 34:19-20). The firstborn were God’s sole possession based on the redemption-of-the-firstborn principle. “Redemption” finds a parallel in the Babylonian term padu, a form of monetary payment to transfer property from one party to another. An indentured servant could gain his freedom through monetary or property transfer, performance of a period of servitude, or a general cancellation of the debt by the owner.
3:13 The price of the Israelite redemption in the exodus was the death of the firstborn of Egypt, from Pharaoh to slave, as well as the firstborn of all Egyptian animals.
3:14-39 The census of the Levites was separated from the militia (1:17-46). They were exempt from military service. They served as support personnel who carried the sacred vessels and sounded the trumpets during the various stages of battle. Note the role of Phinehas in the Midianite campaign (31:6). The census of the militia numbered those twenty years of age and older, but the Levites were counted for the purpose of the firstborn redemption beginning at age one month. This ensured that there were enough Levites to approximate the number of the firstborn of the other twelve tribes.
3:21-26 The Gershonite clan transported the tabernacle and the tent. The tabernacle was composed of ten curtains of finely twisted blue, purple, and scarlet linen, each forty-two feet by six feet, with cherubim symbols woven into them (Ex 26:1-6). The tent was made from eleven curtains of goat hair, forty-five feet by six feet, with additional coverings of dyed red ram skins and fine leather (Ex 26:7-14).
3:27-32 The Kohathite clan was assigned the tasks of guarding and transporting the sacred tabernacle furnishings, including the ark of the covenant. They did not actually handle these items; this was done by the priests, who wrapped the implements and then handed them over to the Kohathites for transport.
3:33-36 The clan of Merari were the caretakers and transporters of the equipment needed to erect and dismantle the tabernacle. By the time of the Davidic monarchy, the three clans of Levites also served as musicians for the sanctuary service (1Ch 6:31-48).
3:39 The Levite total of 22,000 does not match the sum of the clans at 22,300, which would have made the five-shekel ransom price unnecessary. Most scholars emend the Kohathite total to 8,300 in line with the Lucianic recension of the Septuagint Greek translation, resulting in the 22,000 total.
3:40-51 The excess number of Israelite males was to be redeemed by five shekels, which amounted to 2.1 ounces of silver according to the twenty-gerah sanctuary shekel. The redemption price for each man in the Israelite militia was one-half shekel (Ex 30:11-16). These funds provided support for the service of the tent of meeting. Five shekels was the standard price of a slave and six months of wages for the average day laborer. In Leviticus the redemption rate was five shekels for a small male child and fifty shekels for an adult male (Lv 27:1-8). The substitutionary aspect of the ransom price theme in the Pentateuch has its ultimate fulfillment in the work of Jesus Christ as the paschal lamb, the final sacrifice for sin (1Pt 1:18-19).
3:43 The census figure of 22,273 presents a practical problem. If there were only that many firstborn among the 603,550 males, then each firstborn had an average of twenty-six brothers—an incredible birthrate not substantiated in the Bible or elsewhere. R. B. Allen attempts to solve the problem by contending that the author employed hyperbolic language, exaggerating the actual number of 60,355 by a factor of ten, yielding 603,550. Such tactics were common in ancient literature and were considered a meaningful use of symbolic or sacred numbers (e.g., seven, ten). Another solution is to identify the 22,273 as only those firstborn males who were born during the year and a half between the exodus and the census since the total number of firstborn among the 603,550 would have been much higher.