Numbers 3 commences with a recount of Aaron the brother of Moses and high priest’s four sons. The two oldest Nadab and Abihu were struck down by the LORD for making unauthorised sacrifices (Leviticus 10:1-7). Their priestly roles were inherited by their younger brothers Eleazar and Ithamar and the priestly succession passed down to their sons after them.
The sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he consecrated to minister as priests were only one small family among the Levites; to be a priest and a Levite were not the same thing at all. Only those who were descendants of Aaron could be priests.
What is readily apparent in our reading is that God desired order and organization in the way the Israelites were to worship him. The families of the Levites had certain callings they were to fulfill. There was no one man or family to do everything; God made them dependent on one another to accomplish the work.
Number 3:6-10 details the role of the tribe of Levi – serving the needs of Aaron and the priests, the needs of the congregation at large, and the needs of the tabernacle itself.
The Levites are a special possession to God. The firstborn belonged to God; a firstborn lamb from a ewe would be given to the LORD. God didn’t want human sacrifice, so He took the tribe of Levi as Israel’s firstborn (v.11-13).
In the census of the tribe of Levi (v.14-20), they were to be categorized by the families, with the main grouping according to Levi’s three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.
The families of the Gershonites (numbering 7,500 males) were to camp behind the tabernacle westward (in between Judah and the tabernacle itself). The Gershonites were to take care of the skins that covered the tabernacle itself (v.21-26).
The Kohathites (8,600 males) were to camp southward to the tabernacle (in between Reuben and the tabernacle itself). Their duty included taking care of the furniture of the tabernacle: The ark of the covenant, the table of showbread, and so forth, under the direction of Eleazar the priest, son of Aaron (v.27-32).
The family of Merari (6,200 males) were to camp northward to the tabernacle (in between Dan and the tabernacle itself). Their appointed duty was to take care of the structural aspects of the tabernacle: The pillars, the boards, etc (v.33-37).
The family of Aaron, and Moses, were to camp on the east side of the tabernacle – closest to the entrance, which was on the east, keeping charge of the sanctuary (v.38-39).
In total they numbered 22,000 Levites (v.39). Those quick at maths will see that this does not tally with the totals of the individual clans given in verses 22, 28, 34 which come to 22,300. Scholars explain this discrepancy as a textual corruption in verse 28. The number of Kohathites may originally have been 8,300. 3 (Hebrew sls) could quite easily have been corrupted into 6 (ss).
The exchange of the firstborn (Numbers 3:40-51)
The firstborn – which was always thought to be the best and the favoured – always belongs to God; so instead of giving the firstborn of Israel to God in sacrifice, the tribe of Levi was “given” to God as in place of each of the firstborn sons of Israel. However, there were 22,273 firstborn sons in Israel; and there were only 22,000 Levite males (Leviticus 3:39). The extra 273 were given a monetary value (five shekels for each one individually), and the money was given to the tabernacle as redemption money.
Numbers 4 further details the duties each of the Priestly families in relation to who was fit to serve and what responsibilities each had in relation to the special task of packing and transporting the tabernacle on its journey to the Promised land.
In our New Testament passage from Luke 1:39-56 we have the account of Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) to share the good news of her special pregnacy. In the encounter we are told:
when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit
Elizabeth gives Mary a prophetic blessing to the mother and her unborn child. Mary responds with a Song of Praise know as the Magnificat – a song of praise for what God has done.
There will be no further need for priests or the tabernacle for he is Emmanuel – God with us (Matthew 1:23), the first born child (Colossians 1:15-20) who will grow up to become our great high priest (Hebrews 4:14-16).