Feb. 12 Reading: Numbers 3-4 Commentary
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Now behold, I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine…'” (Num. 3:11-12)
In Numbers 3-4, we see certain responsibilities in the tabernacle handed out to Aaron’s sons and then to the members of the three houses of the tribe of Levi – Gershon, Kohath and Merari. Each family had different duties when it came to serving in the tabernacle. In this way, God spread out the responsibility of serving the people of Israel over many spiritual leaders.
It’s a picture of how the church functions today. Typically, you will have a lead pastor who is the main presence on stage, delivering the message most Sundays. But then there are others who step into the various ministry roles to assist on the paid staff or to volunteer as the ministry has needs. It speaks to how Paul said the church should function in I Corinthians 12 – as many members serving one body.
Numbers 3 – The Tribe of Levi Selected to Serve
Numbers 3 begins with a recap of Aaron’s family. He did have four sons: Nadab the firstborn, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. God ordained each one of them as priests in Leviticus 8. But Nadab and Abihu “died before the Lord when they offered profane fire before the Lord in the Wilderness of Sinai” (v. 4)(see Leviticus 10). Now only Eleazar and Ithamar remain to minister as priests with their father Aaron.
But who else would help them? The tabernacle was a structure that needed maintenance and attending and transporting when the people were on the move. Many sacrifices and offerings happened there. Surely these three men did not do all of that by themselves, right?
Originally, when God passed over the homes of the Hebrews during the Passover, he declared all the firstborn to be his own (see Ex. 13:1-2). These individuals were to serve him in whatever capacity. Now, that is going to change. God selects a new group of people to minister before him – the Levites.
God tells Moses in Num. 3:11-12:
“Now behold, I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine…”
It’s a new era. No longer would God require the firstborn from the families of Israel to be dedicated to his service. The Levites would be those people now. But just how many people are we talking about? How big was the tribe of Levi?
The Census of Levi
God commanded Moses to number the children of Levi, “…every male from a month old and above” (v. 15). Because the Levites were set apart to minister to the Lord, they were not counted in the overall census of the people in Numbers 1. That is because they were different from the people in certain ways:
1. The did not go to war. They were ministers to the Lord, not soldiers.
2. They also faced restrictions on their conduct that other Israelites did not face.
3. Ultimately, they lived in cities in the various tribes rather than live together in a single region of the land (Num 35:1-8).
When counted, these were the numbers from the three Levite families and where they were situated in the camp:
1. Gerson – 7,500 males (v. 22) encamped behind the tabernacle to the west (v. 23)
2. Kohath – 8,600 males (v. 28) encamped to the south of the tabernacle (v. 29)
3. Merari – 6,200 males (v. 34) encamped to the north of the tabernacle (v. 35)
But what about Aaron and his sons? They camped on the east side and were tasked with making sure people did not improperly approach the tabernacle (vv. 38-39).
The total population of Levites dedicated to serve was 22,000. In verses, 40-51, a redemption ceremony occurs where they are essentially exchanged for all the firstborn who had been serving the Lord based on his earlier decree.
Numbers 4 – Duties of the Levite Families
Numbers 4 goes into more detail about the duties of the three Levite families that would serve at the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a big structure with many things to manage. So, God assigned responsibilities to each family.
God gave the sons of Kohath the responsibility of caring for all the holy things. This included taking down the veil to the holy of holies and prepping the ark of the covenant for transport (vv. 5-6). This was perhaps the most important and delicate task associated with the tabernacle. Done improperly, this could have devastating consequences. For example, if a person touched the ark, they died (v. 15)(see II Samuel 6).
Eleazar himself was responsible for taking care of the oil for the light in the tabernacle, the incense, the daily grain offering, and the anointing oil. He also had general oversight of all the tabernacle and its furnishings (v. 16).
To the Levite family of Gershon, God gave the job of dealing with the curtains, screens and hangings of the tabernacle and for the other implements associated with them (vv. 21-26). Aaron’s son Ithamar oversaw that division.
Finally, God instructed the sons of the Levite family Merari to tend for and carry “…the boards of the tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its sockets, and the pillars around the court with their sockets, pegs, and cords, with all their furnishings and all their service; and you shall assign to each man by name the items he must carry” (Num. 4:31-32).
All these Levite families lived just on the other side of the tabernacle curtain between the tabernacle and the people from the other tribes as described Numbers 2. (Click here for a diagram of what this may have looked like.)
A Picture of Today
In the end, the men from all these Levite families were called by God to minister. They served the Lord in the manner commanded them. Their ministry allowed the tabernacle worship system to function properly and connect the people to God.
In this way, it mirrors the church today. Men are called to lead (like Aaron) but no one person should have total control over the ministries or responsibilities of a church. It takes a group of spiritual mature leaders working together in unity to make the church function properly.
Questions to Consider:
Many Levites served the nation of Israel with Aaron as their leader. This was a symbol of how the church would work today – many members serving in one body for the good of all. Are you serving in your church? If so, in what role? How do you enjoy serving others?
What other points would you want to know about in our Numbers 3-4 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.