THE PENTATEUCH PART IV: NUMBERS
Lesson 2: Chapters 3-4
The Census of the Levites and the First-born Sons

Beloved God and Father,
You have called each of us individually and as a people of the universal New Covenant to a life sanctified in service to our Savior. Give us the strength of purpose and the discipline of holiness, Lord, to fulfill our destiny as the disciples of Jesus to share the Gospel and to provide a positive Christian witness in our daily lives. Also give us, Lord, the courage to announce to the world that although we live in the world we are not of the world. Keep us mindful, Lord, that as members of the Church militant we protect the sanctity of His Holy Church like the Levities were entrusted to protect the desert Sanctuary. Just as the Levites and the tribes of Israel carried their battle standards, we carry the Cross of our Savior as our battle standard. Guide us in our study, beloved Holy Spirit, of the responsibilities of the tribes of Israel as a holy people of the first corporate covenant at Sinai. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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And he added to Aaron's glory, he gave him an inheritance; he allotted him the offerings of the first-fruits, before all else, as much bread as he could want. Thus they eat the sacrifices of the Lord which he gave to him and his posterity. But of the people's territory he inherits nothing, he alone of all the people has no share, 'For I myself am your share and heritage.'
Sirach 45:20/25-22/27

God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ... by your gracious word you have established the plan of your Church. From the beginning, you chose the descendants of Abraham to be your holy nation. You established rulers and priests, and did not leave your sanctuary without ministers to serve you ...
Roman Pontifical, Ordination of Bishops 26, Prayer of Consecration

Lord, holy Father, ... when you had appointed high priests to rule your people, you chose other men next to them in rank and dignity to be with them and to help them in their task ... you extended the spirit of Moses to seventy wise men ... You shared among the sons of Aaron the fullness of their father's power.
Roman Pontifical, Ordination of Priests 22, Prayer of Consecration

Chapter 3: Census of the Levites

Chapters 1-2 recorded the numbers of the fighting men in the tribes of Israel (with the exception of the tribe of Levi) as 603,550 warriors. During the conquest of Canaan, a count of the troops is often given before a battle (i.e., Josh 8:3, 10) and during the period of the monarchy, censuses were taken of the population and of the fighting age men for the purpose of military conscription (2 Sam 24:1-9; 2 Chr 14:7).

The count of 603,500 men above twenty years from all the tribes except Levi, taken in the second month of the second year after leaving Egypt, is identical with that of an earlier census taken during the later part of the first year at Mt. Sinai to determine the poll tax for the Sanctuary to be paid by men age twenty and over (Ex 38:26). After the Israelites' numbers are reduced by battles and a severe plague, another census will be taken in the fortieth year after leaving Egypt that records a total of 601,730 men of fighting age (Num 26:51), a loss of 1,820 men over past thirty-nine year period. These numbers are in accord with the earlier count of 600,000 adult males who left Egypt in Exodus 12:37 and the same number of "foot soldiers" Moses mentions in Numbers 11:21, which is likely a rounded number. Chapter 3 continues the tribal census begun in Chapter one and records a separate census of the Levites who are one month old and older.

The focus of this chapter is the duty of the chief priests to guard (samar) their priestly duty and the duty of the Levities in guarding (samar) the Sanctuary. The chapter is divided into three sections:

  1. Verses 1-3 take the reader back to the summit of Mt. Sinai (vs. 1) where Moses was commanded to ordain Aaron and his sons as priests of Yahweh's Sanctuary (vs. 2-3), a command that was given on Moses' first ascent of Mt. Sinai prior to the sin of the Golden Calf.
  2. The action in verses 4-13 takes place at the base of the mountain in the wilderness of Sinai where we are reminded of the sin of Aaron's two eldest sons that cost them their lives (vs. 4) and where the clans of the tribe of Levi are given to Aaron as the keepers and guards of the Sanctuary and its Tabernacle (vs. 5-10) in place of the dispossessed first-born sons of Israel (vs. 11-13).
  3. Verses 14-51 take also take place at the camp at the base of the mountain where the clans of the Levites are numbered, assigned their camping quadrants around the Sanctuary and their responsibilities for taking care of the Sanctuary.

Numbers 3:1-4: The Chief Priests of the Tribe of Levi

3:1 These were the descendants of Aaron and Moses, at the time when Yahweh spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. 2 These were the names of Aaron's sons: Nadab the eldest, then Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. 3 Such were the names of Aaron's sons, priests anointed and invested with the powers of the priesthood. 4 Nadab and Abihu died in Yahweh's presence, in the desert of Sinai, when they offered unauthorized fire before Yahweh. They left no children and so it fell to Eleazar and Ithamar to exercise the priesthood under their father Aaron.

In the Hebrew text this short section is an account of Aaron's genealogy, introduced with two formula sayings: These are the family histories of ['elleh toledot] in verse 1 and These are the names ['elleh semot] in verses 2- 3. The formula phrase in verse 1 is the same phrase that divides the book of Genesis into several family histories (i.e., Gen 5:1; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12; 36:1, 9; etc.). The second formula phrase found in verses 2- 3 is also common to the Old Testament , especially the Pentateuch where it is used fourteen times: Genesis 25:13 [another example of the double formula in 25:12 and 13]; 36:10 [double formula in verses 9 and 10], 40; 46:8; Exodus 1:1; 6:16; Numbers 1:5; 3:2-3 [double formula phrase], 18; 13:16; 27:1; 34:17, 19. This formula phrase for genealogies is only used six times in the rest of the Old Testament (Ashley, The Book of Numbers, page 76, note 6).

Question: The inspired writer has previously identified the physical location of the events "in the wilderness of Sinai" (Num 1:1, 19). But Numbers 3:1 reminds us of the command God gave Moses concerning Aaron and his sons that took place "on Mt. Sinai". What was that command? See Ex 28:1-29:37.
Answer: It recalls the divine command Moses received that named Aaron and his four sons as Yahweh's chief priests to serve His Sanctuary and the description of their liturgical vestments and their ordination ceremony.

Question: What happened to Aaron's two eldest sons? See Lev 10:1-3.
Answer: Aaron's two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, were ordained priests who were struck down by Yahweh with holy fire because they offered the fire for burning the sacred incense of in the liturgical service with "unauthorized fire".

Aaron's eldest sons had willfully offered the fire for the incense improperly in what was probably the afternoon Tamid liturgical service. The morning service took place earlier and was concluded with the priestly blessing of the congregation (see 9:17, 23). The incense was only to be burned by using live embers taken from the altar of sacrifice that was in the Sanctuary courtyard (Mishnah: Tamid 5:5).

After the deaths of Aaron's heir, Nadab, and his second son, Abihu, Aaron's third son, Eleazar, was next in line to succeed his father as the high priest. All the future chief priests were descendants of Eleazar and Ithamar. The comment in verse 4 that Aaron's two eldest sons left no children illustrates the depth of the distress over their deaths. That they left no sons to carry on their "names" means that these sons of Israel were forever "dead" to their people.

Note: Did you notice the similarity between Nadab's name and the name of his maternal grandfather Amminadab (Ex 6:23)? Amminadab's name means "____(name of a deity) is gracious." The name of the deity may be the Egyptian god Ammon (Amun). In the Bible it is common for the name of a false god to be disguised. Moses' name "Mose" is Egyptian for "is born" and was the common suffix of theophoric names (names containing the name of a deity) in the 18th Dynasty in Egypt (i.e., Kamose, Ahmose, Tuthmose, Ramose). King's Saul's surviving son was named Ish-Baal/Esh-Baal "man of [the god] Baal" (1 Chr 8:33), but his name is usually rendered Ishbosheth "shameful man" (2 Sam 2:8-15)). Nadab may have been named for his grandfather and/or the first part of his name containing the name of false god was dropped. Many of the Israelite names recorded in the Pentateuch are Egyptian in origin.

Question: Usually Moses' name precedes Aaron's name in Scripture since it is Moses who takes precedence over his brother as the covenant mediator, but in Numbers 3:1 why is Aaron named before Moses? Where has Aaron been given precedence over Moses previously and what is the significance? See Ex 6:20.
Answer: Aaron is named before Moses in this list because Aaron is the first born son and this section is concerned with the genealogy of the tribe of Levi. Aaron is also named first in the genealogy in Exodus Chapter 6.

Of the seventy-eight times Moses and Aaron are mentioned together, Aaron's name only precedes Moses in the genealogical lists (Ex 6:20; Num 3:1; 26:59; 1 Chr 5:29; 23:13). Moses, as the covenant mediator, will encamp with his family along side Aaron's family. Moses' two sons, Gershom and Eliezer are not named because they are not eligible to be chief priests. The priesthood will only continue through Aaron's descendants. Moses' sons will be counted among the lesser ministers of the Levites (1 Chr 23:13-17; 26:23-28). (1)

Numbers 3:5-13: The Duties of the Levites
5 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 6 'Muster [ha-karev] the tribe of Levi and put it at the disposal of [abad] the priest Aaron: they must be at his service. 7 They will undertake the duties [samar mismeret] incumbent on him and the whole community before the Tent of Meeting, in serving [abad] the Dwelling, 8 and they will be in charge of [samar] all the furnishing of the Tent of Meeting and undertake the duties incumbent on the Israelites in serving the Dwelling. 9 You will present the Levites to Aaron and his sons as men dedicated; they will be given to him by the Israelites. 10 You will register Aaron and his sons, who will carry out [guarding = samar] their priestly duty [their priesthood]. But any unauthorized person who comes near must be put to death [ha-zar ha-karev yumat].' 11 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 12 'Look, I myself have chosen the Levites from the Israelites instead of all the first-born, those who emerge first from the womb in Israel; the Levites therefore belong to me. 13 For every first-born belongs to me. On the day when I struck down all the first-born in Egypt, I consecrated all the first-born in Israel, of both man and beast, to be my own. They are mine, Yahweh's.' [..]= literal translation (The Interlineal Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, pages 347-48; JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 17).

Numbers 3:5: Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 6 'Muster the tribe of Levi and put it at the disposal of the priest Aaron: they must be at his service. A key word in understanding the book of Numbers is the Hebrew word karev, which the JSP Torah Commentary on Numbers (page 342) says should be rendered in a permissive context as "qualify" in Numbers 3:6 and 18:2 (also see Jer 30:21; Ez 42:13; 44:16). The JPS Commentary translates 3:6 as: Advance [ha-karev] the tribe of Levi and place them in attendance upon Aaron the priest to serve [samar] him. The JPS commentary notes: "advance, rather 'qualify.' Hakrev [ha-karev] has a cultic connotation (Ex 28:1; 29:3, 8; 40:12; Num 16:5, 9-10). The Levites are 'qualified' in a ceremony (described in chap. 8) that will subordinate them as assistants to Aaron and his sons" (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 16). In the prohibitive context the word means "encroach" as it is used in the negative formula saying ha-zar ha-karev yumat, "a stranger who encroaches will be put to death", found four times in the book of Numbers (Num 1:51; 3:10, 38; 18:7).

Other key words used in this passage are samar and abad/aboda in the description of the duties of the Levites in protecting/guarding and keeping/serving the Sanctuary, which is reminiscent of Adam's same duties in keeping and guarding the garden Sanctuary of Eden (The Interlineal Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 347). Milgrom translates the idiom samar mismeret in verse 7 as "guard duty", as he also does in Numbers 1:53 (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 16).

The Hebrew verb abad is a prime root meaning "to work, to serve" and the word aboda (from the root abad) means any kind of work or labor or the person who does the work (the "keeper" or "server" of his "service"). The verb samar (shamar) means to "hedge about" (as with thorns), "to guard", "to protect." As noted in the introduction, most English translations where these words are used translate the Hebrew verb abad as "to serve," "of service," "to do duty," "to perform duties," "to minister," and the verb samar as "to guard," "to protect," "to keep," "to minister," "to keep charge of," and "to attend" (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon). Biblical scholar John Sailhamer interprets the commands using the verbs samar and abad together to be more accurately translated as "worship and obey" (The Pentateuch as Narrative, page 101).

In the body of the Pentateuch, the verbs samar and abad are only repeated together to describe the religious duties of the priests' and Levites' liturgical service in the sacred Sanctuary of Yahweh, the dwelling place of the presence of God. The use of these verbs is not well represented in the English translation:

  1. In Numbers 3:6-10 the word samar is used three times, the words abad/aboda are found four times in the Hebrew text along with both the positive context and the prohibitive phrase using the word karev in describing the responsibilities of the Levites in guarding the Sanctuary: 5 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 6 'Muster [karev] the tribe of Levi and [workers = aboda] put it at the disposal of the priest Aaron: [to do the work = aboda] they must be at his service [abad]. 7 They will undertake the duties [samar] incumbent on him and the whole community before the Tent of Meeting, in serving [abad] the Dwelling, 8 and they will be in charge of [samar] all the furnishing of the Tent of Meeting and undertake the duties incumbent on the Israelites in serving the Dwelling. 9 You will present the Levites to Aaron and his sons as men dedicated; they will be given to him by the Israelites. 10 You will register Aaron and his sons, who will carry out [samar] their priestly duty. But any unauthorized person who comes near must be put to death [ha-zar ha-karev yumat].' [..] = literal translation (The Interlineal Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 347-48).
  2. In Numbers 8:24-6 the words abad/aboda are used four times and samar is used once in the Hebrew text: 23 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 24 'This concerns the Levites. From the age of twenty-five onwards, the Levite will exercise his ministry and do duty [serve = abad] in the Tent of Meeting. 25 After the age of fifty, he is no longer bound to the ministry [to serve at a service = abad/aboda]; he will have no further duties; 26 but he will still help his brothers to assure the services [to serve = abad] in the Tent of Meeting, though he himself will no longer have any ministry [ministry to keep = samar]. This is how you will act as regards the ministry of the Levites. [..] = literal translation (The Interlineal Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 371).
  3. In Numbers 18:3-7 the word samar is used four times and the word abad is used twice in the Hebrew text together with the formula prohibition statement ha-zar ha-karev yumat: 3 They must be at your service and [they must keep = samar] the service of the whole Tent. Provided they do not come near the sacred vessels or the altar, they will be in no more danger of death than you. 4 They must join you, they must take charge of [and shall keep = samar] the Tent of Meeting for the entire ministry of the Tent, and no unauthorized person will come near you. 5 You will take charge of [and keep = samar] the Sanctuary and charge of the altar, and retribution will never again befall the Israelites. 6 Of the Israelites, I myself have chosen your brothers the Levites as a gift to you. As men dedicated, they will belong to Yahweh, to serve [abad] at the Tent of Meeting. 7 You and your sons will undertake [samar] the priestly duties in all that concerns the altar and all that lies behind the curtain. You will perform the liturgy, the duties of which I entrust [as a gift of service = abad] to your priesthood. But an unauthorized person approaching will incur death [ha-zar ha-karev yumat].' [..] = literal translation (The Interlineal Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 399).

Question: What is significant about the use of the Hebrew words abad and samar in Yahweh's description of the duties of the Levites in the Sanctuary? See where the same words are used by God to describe the ministry in another Sanctuary in Genesis 2:15 in the Hebrew text. Also see the Genesis study Lesson three.
Answer: These were the same Hebrew words used to describe Adam's duties in the garden Sanctuary in Eden.

These two verbs are used in God's covenant command to Adam to describe his responsibilities to the Edenic Sanctuary:

Note: the verbs are reversed in the literal Hebrew text. A more literal translation is: And Yahweh-God [YHWH-Elohim] put the man in the garden in Eden, saying to keep/protect [samar] and to serve [abad] it (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, page 5).

The verb samar "to guard"/ "keep charge" is also found in these Old Testament passages:

  1. To command the Cherubim to guard Eden in Genesis 3:24 NAB: He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard [samar] the way to the tree of life.
  2. To command the Levites to guard the Tabernacle in Numbers 1:53: ... but the Levites will pitch their tents round the Dwelling where the Testimony is. In this way, Retribution will be kept from falling on the whole community of Israelites, and the Levites will keep charge [samar] of the Dwelling of the Testimony.
  3. To command the son of the High Priest to supervise the Levites assigned to guard the Sanctuary in Numbers 3:32: The chief of the Levites leaders was Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest. He supervised the people responsible for [guarding = samar] the Sanctuary.
  4. To guard the royal palace of the king and to guard the Temple in 2 Kings 11:5-7 NAB: And he commanded them, 'This is the thing that you shall do: one third of you, those who come off duty on the Sabbath and guard [samar] the king's house (another third being at the gate Sur and a third at the gate behind the guards), shall guard [samar] the palace; and the two divisions of you, which come on duty in force on the Sabbath and guard [samar] the house of the LORD ...'(2)

The use of these same Hebrew verbs in association with the obligations of "serving/ ministering" and "protecting/guarding" Yahweh's Sanctuary identify Adam's priestly covenant obligations to the garden Sanctuary that was in Eden. The garden in Eden was the first sacred Sanctuary, making Adam was the first priest.

Numbers 3:9 You will present the Levites to Aaron and his sons as men dedicated; they will be given to him by the Israelites. The Levites belong to God (Num 8:16) who commands Moses to separate them out from the other tribes of the Israelites and to give them to the chief priests. In Numbers 8:16-19 we are told that the Levites are given by God ... because of the Israelites [from the midst of (mittok) the children of Israel], they have been dedicated to me in place of all those who first emerge from the womb, instead of the first-born of the Israelites ..., meaning the Levites will represent the children of Israel in service to the Sanctuary by replacing the first-born sons.

All the chief priests were Levites from the clan of Kohath, but not all the Levites or even all Kohathites were chief priests. The chief priests were limited to the Aaron, his sons, and their descendants. The anointed high priest was to be selected from among the chief priests descended from Aaron, Israel's first the High Priest.

Question: How was the service of the Levites different from the service of Aaron and his sons? See Ex 27:21; 28:1; Lev 1:5, 7-9; 2:1-3; 3:1-16; 4:20, 26, 31; 5:6, 13, 16, 26/6:7; 6:17/24-19/26; Num 3:6-10, 38; 8:21-26; 16:8-11; 18:1-32.
Answer: The three clans of Levi were lesser ministers who served the chief priests and took care of the Sanctuary. Only the descendants of Aaron served as chief priests. Only Aaron's descendants led liturgical worship, offered the sacrifices at the sacrificial altar, tended the golden lamp-stand and burned incense at the altar of incense in the Holy Place, ate the sin sacrifices of the people and the Bread of the Presence of God from the golden table, and forgave the inadvertent sins of the people. The penalty for infringing on any of the prerogatives of the chief priests was death, as in the revolt of the Levite name Korah in Numbers Chapter 16. The chief priests served for life, whereas the Levitical lesser ministers served as full representatives of their Levitical order until they were fifty years old.

Numbers 3:10: You will register Aaron and his sons, who will carry out [samar] their priestly duty. But any unauthorized person who comes near must be put to death.'

Question: Do Aaron and his sons also have a priestly duty in guarding the Sanctuary? See verse 10.
Answer: Yes. The genealogy of Aarons' descendants will determine eligibility for the ordained priesthood and the office of the high priest. Only Aaron's descendants are permitted to offer sacrifice at the altar, to forgive sins and to minister within the Tabernacle. They must guard their priestly prerogatives.

Question: What is the penalty for an Israelite usurping those prerogatives? Also see Num 4:18-20.
Answer: The penalty for usurping the priestly prerogatives is death.

Numbers 3:11-13: Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 12 'Look, I myself have chosen the Levites from the Israelites instead of all the first-born, those who emerge first from the womb in Israel; the Levites therefore belong to me. 13 For every first-born belongs to me. On the day when I struck down all the first-born in Egypt, I consecrated all the first-born in Israel, of both man and beast, to be my own. They are mine, Yahweh's.'

Question: How did the Levites come to replace the first born sons as "dedicated men" to serve as God's lesser ministers? See Ex 13:2, 11-13; 22:20-30; 32:25-29; 34:19-20; Num 3:40-51; 8:16; 18:1-7, 15-19.
Answer: From the time of the Passover redemption of the first-born sons and male beasts, every first-born male belonged to God. The first-born sons of Israel were intended to serve in God's Sanctuary. The first-born of the ritually "clean" beasts (cattle, goats and sheep) were to be given to the priests for the various types of ritual sacrifice, while all the first-born of the "unclean" animals were to be redeemed through the payment of a "clean" animal. However, the first-born sons were dispossessed of their status as servants of God in the incident of the Golden Calf when they did not rally to Moses' cry for help. When the Levites rallied to Moses and put down the revolt, God rewarded them by giving the Levites the position of the first-born sons as God's dedicated men and the lesser ministers of His Sanctuary.

The first-born sons continued to be consecrated to Yahweh at birth, but their parents were required to redeem them in the same way they redeemed a first born animal unfit for sacrifice (Ex 13:11). They redeemed their firstborn sons by paying a redemption tax (Ex 34:20; Num 18:21). The tax was given for the support of the Levites, thereby reminding every family of the loss of the status of their first-born sons in favor of the sons of the tribe of Levi who replaced the first born sons and are dedicated to Yahweh's service (Num 3:40-48; 8:12; Dt 18:21, 24, 26).(3)

Question: The tribe of Levi enjoyed a special status among the tribes of Israel, but there were also limits to their service and to their standing among the other tribes. What were those limits? See Lev 1:5-17; Num 4:18:20-24.
Answer: They could not perform the priestly rituals specifically assigned to the chief priests nor were they to possess a portion of the ancestral lands in the Promised Land of Canaan.

Numbers 3:14-39: The Census of the Levites as God's dedicated men, their Encampment around the Sanctuary and their Responsibilities in caring for the Sanctuary

14 Yahweh spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai and said: 15 'You must take a census of Levi's descendants by families and clans; all the males of the age of one month and over will be counted.' 16 At Yahweh's word Moses took a census of them, as Yahweh had ordered. 17 These were the names of Levi's sons: Gershon, Kohath and Merai. 18 These were the names of Gershon's sons by their clans: Libni and Shimei; 19 Kohath's sons by their clans: Amram, Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel; 20 Merari's sons by their clans: Mahli and Mushi. These were the clans of Levi, grouped by families.

Numbers 3:14: Yahweh spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai... This is the fourth time the setting of events has been described as "in the desert of Sinai". The Hebrew word is midbar, which is better translated as "wilderness" (also see Ex 19:1-2 and Lev 7:38/28). This is the area at the base of the holy mountain and should not be thought of as a desert where there is no plant life and little or no water. The wilderness of Sinai has little rainfall and the ground cannot be cultivated to grow crops but it does provide adequate wild grasses and shrubs for animals (JPS Commentary on the Torah: Numbers, page 4).

Moses was commanded to take a census of the descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob/Israel by his wife Leah (Gen 30:33-34). The tribe of Levi was divided into three clans who were the descendants of Levi's three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. Each clan of the Levites was further divided into sub-clans and families. The genealogies of the Levite clans will determine a man's eligibility to serve as men dedicated to Yahweh as His lesser ministers of the Sanctuary. One's identity as an Israelite was determined by the mother. A man born from a Levite father and a Gentile mother was not eligible for service as a Levitical minister. Each clan had specific responsibilities in caring for the Sanctuary.

This section records the specific duties of the three Levite clans and emphasizes the Hebrew word for "guard duty" [samar mismeret], while the second census in Numbers Chapter 4 will emphasize the "service/work" [abad/aboda] of the clans. Like the census of the other tribes in Chapters 1 and 2, the census account is composed of a number of repeated formula phrases arranged in virtually identical order.

The Gershonites :

21 From Gershon were descended the Libnite and Shimeite clans; these were the Gershonite clans. 22 Their full number, counting the males of one month and over, came to seven thousand five hundred. 23 The Gershonite clans pitched their camp behind the Dwelling, on the west side. 24 The leader of the House of Gershon was Eliasaph son of Lael. 25 As regards the Tent of Meeting, the Gershonites had charge of the Dwelling, the Tent and its covering, the screen for the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, 26 the curtaining of the court, the screen for the entrance to the court surrounding the Dwelling and the altar, and the cords required in dealing with all this.

Question: There were 7,500 Gershonites above the age of one month who camped on the west side of the Sanctuary. What were the responsibilities of the adult males?
Answer: They were responsible for all the Sanctuary's textile coverings:

The Kohathites:

27 From Kohath were descended the Amramite, Izharite, Hebronite and Uzzielite clans; these were the Kohathite clans. 28 Their full number, counting the males of one month and over, came to eight thousand three hundred. They were in charge of the sanctuary [They were to stand guard over the holy things]. 29 The Kohathite clans pitched their camp on the south side of the Dwelling. 30 The leader of the house of the Kohathite clans was Elizaphan son of Uzziel. 31 They were in charge of the ark, the table, the lamp-stand, the altars, the sacred vessels used in the liturgy, and the curtain with all its fittings. 32 The chief of the Levite leaders was Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest. He supervised the people responsible for [samar = guarding] the sanctuary. [..] = literal translation (also see Ashley, The Book of Numbers, page 84; Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 20).

Uzziel is mentioned in Leviticus 10:4 as Aaron and Moses' uncle and the father of Mishael and Elzaphan, the kinsmen who removed the dead bodies of Aaron's two eldest sons Nadab and Abihu from the Sanctuary after they were struck dead for their deliberate alteration of the liturgy of the afternoon service. The Elizaphan of Numbers 3:30, who is the leader of the Kohathites, is probably the same man as the Elzaphan of Leviticus 10:4. It is reasonable that the clan leader and his brother would be given the responsibility of seeing to the burial of leading members of their clan.

Question: There were 8,300 Kohathites who camped on the south side of the Sanctuary. According to the list in verse 31, what did their duties to the Sanctuary include? Also see Num 4:4-15.
Answer: They were responsible for carrying the sacred furniture and the sacred vessels that the priests had packed:

*Dt 31:8 records that "the priests, "the sons of Levi" also carried "the Ark of Yahweh's covenant..."

The NJB is following the Septuagint translation which lists the census of the Kohathites as 8,300 as opposed to the Hebrew translation which records their numbers as 8,600 (JPS Torah Commentary; Numbers, page 20; The Jewish Study Bible, page 289). Since the total number for the clans given in verse 39 for both the Greek Septuagint translation and the Hebrew Masoretic text is 22,000, this number would seem to indicate that the Septuagint, which is an older translation than the Masoretic text, is in this case the more accurate translation. The total numbers of the Levite clans in the census in the Hebrew translation do not add up to 22,000 but add up to 22,300.(4)

32 The chief of the Levite leaders was Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest. He supervised the people responsible for [samar = guarding] the sanctuary.

Moses, Aaron and his surviving two sons were members of the clan of the Kohathites. However, all three clans were under the authority of Moses and the chief priest, who in this passage have guard duty but no work. The "work" [abad/aboda] of the priests in dismantling the Sanctuary in preparation for the march will be defined in Chapter 4.

Question: As Aaron's heir and the future high priest what were Eleazar's responsibilities?
Answer: He supervised the leaders of the clans of Levi.

The Meraites:

33 From Merari were descended the Mahite and Mushite clans; these were the Meraite clans. 34 Their full number, counting the males of one month and over, came to six thousand two hundred. 35 The leader of the House of Merarite clans was Zuriel, son of Abihail. They pitched their camp on the north side of the Dwelling. 36 The Merarites were in charge of the framed work of the Dwelling, with its crossbars, poles, sockets and all its accessories and fittings, and also the poles round the court, with their sockets, pegs and cords.

Question: There were 6,200 Meraites who camped on the north side of the Sanctuary. What were their responsibilities to the Sanctuary?

Answer: They were responsible for the entire framework of the Sanctuary including the crossbars, poles, sockets, poles, fittings, pegs and cords.

The Covenant Mediator and Chief Priests:

38 Finally, on the east side, in front of the Dwelling, in front of the Tent of Meeting, towards the east, was the camp of Moses and Aaron and his sons, who had charge of the sanctuary on behalf of the Israelites. Any unauthorized person coming near was to be put to death [ha-zar ha-karev yumat]. 39 The total number of male Levites of the age of one month and over, whom Moses counted by clans as Yahweh had ordered, came to twenty-two thousand. [..] = literal translation (The Interlineal Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 350).

The separate census of the families of the descendants of Levi (clans of Gershon, Kohath, and Merari) who serve the Lord in His Sanctuary: all males one month old and older (Numbers 3:14-39).

Clans of the Levites Numbers of males one month or older

1. Gershonite clans

7,500

2. Kohathite clans

8,300

3. Merarite clans

6,200

Total number of the males one month and older

22,000

The Levite census begins at the age of one month because the first-born must be one month old to be eligible for redemption. See handout #3 for Lesson 1 for the encampment of the Levites and the other tribes around the Sanctuary.

Question: Compare the numbers of fighting men age twenty and older in the other tribes to the numbers of Levites. What strikes you as interesting about the comparison?

Answer: Since more male Levites are included in the count, one would expect their number to be greater or at least similar to the numbers of the males fit for military service in some of the other tribes. The numbers of the Levites is strikingly low.

Numbers 3:40-43: The Census of Israelite First-born sons

Yahweh said to Moses: 'Take a census of all the first-born of the Israelites, all the males from the age of one month and over; take a census of them by name. You will then present the Levites to me, Yahweh, instead of Israel, and similarly the Levites' cattle instead of the first-born cattle of the Israelites.' As Yahweh ordered, Moses took a census of all the first-born of the Israelites. The total count, by name, of the first-born from the age of one month and over came to twenty-two thousand two hundred and seventy-three.

Question: What was the number of the firstborn of all the tribes except Levi that the one month or older? What do you notice about the numbers of the first-born sons of the twelve tribes who were one month or older?
Answer: There were 22,275 males above one month old in the twelve tribes not counting Levi but counting Ephraim and Manasseh as separate tribes. The numbers of first-born sons of all the tribes with the exception of the Levites is also surprisingly low.

Numbers 3:44-51: Dedication of the Levites to Yahweh and the Ransom of the First-born sons

Yahweh then spoke to Moses and said: 'Take the Levites instead of all the first-born of the Israelites, and the Levites'' cattle instead of their cattle; the Levites will be mine, Yahweh's. For the ransom of the two hundred and seventy-three first-born of the Israelites in excess of the number of Levites, you will take five shekels for each, by the sanctuary shekel, at twenty gerah to the shekel; you will then give this money to Aaron and his sons as the ransom for the extra number.' Moses took the ransom money for the extra ones unransomed by the Levites, he took the money for the first-born of the Israelites: one thousand three hundred and sixty-five shekels, by the sanctuary shekel; and Moses then handed over their ransom money to Aaron and his sons, at Yahweh's bidding, as Yahweh had ordered Moses.

Question: Compare the numbers of Levite males one month and older to the numbers of first-born sons from the other tribes who were counted in the same age range.
Answer: First-born sons over one month old from the other tribes numbered 22,273, while the Levite males over one month old numbered 22,000; there is a difference of 273 males.

What can account for the low numbers for both the total number of Levites older than one month and the first-born sons of all the other tribes? Does this low number suggest that it was the first-born adult sons of the tribes who led the revolt against Moses in the sin of the Golden Calf and that great numbers of them were killed by the Levites? This would certainly account for the severity of God's judgment against the first-born sons and the loss of status as God's dedicated men in favor of the Levites.

In King David's day another census of taken of all the Levites who were thirty years old and older (it is assumed the count ended for men age 50 who had to retire from ministerial service). The adult male Levites, not counting the priests descended from Aaron, numbered thirty-eight thousand men who were serving in the Jerusalem Temple (1 Chr 23:3-5).

The number 22,273 in verse 43 represented the number of Levites in verse 39 (22,000), plus a remainder who were to be redeemed by a cash payment. In Leviticus a man between twenty and sixty years of age was valued at fifty silver sanctuary shekels (Lev 27:3-7). The choice of the Levites is understood as a substitution for the first-born sons of Israel who were spared on the night of the first Passover in Egypt (Num 8:12).

Chapter 4: Census of Levites in the Age of Service

Yahweh then said to Aaron: 'You, your sons and your ancestor's line with you will be answerable for offences against the Sanctuary. You and your sons with you will be answerable for the offences of your priesthood. You will admit your brothers of the branch of Levi, your ancestor's tribe, to join you and serve you, yourself and your sons, before the Tent of the Testimony. They must be at your service and the service of the whole Tent. Provided they do not come near the sacred vessels or the altar, they will be in no more danger of death than you.
Numbers 18:1-3 (emphasis added)

Almighty God ..., You established a threefold ministry of worship and service, for the glory of your name. As ministers of your tabernacle you chose the sons of Levi and gave them your blessing as their everlasting inheritance.
Roman Pontifical, Ordination of Deacons 21, Prayer of Consecration

Yahweh established a threefold ministry of worship and service in the ordained offices of the High Priest, the chief priests, and the Levitical lesser ministers. The chief priests, the descendants of Aaron from whom the ruling high priest was selected, began their training at age twenty-five and fully assumed their duties at age thirty, serving for life. The Levite's service began at age twenty-five for an apprentice period that lasted until age thirty when the Levite was sufficiently trained and able to assume full responsibility for his assigned duties in guarding, performing his ministerial service and keeping the Sanctuary. After age fifty, the Levite was no longer personally responsible for certain duties but was permitted to assist his brother Levites (Num 8:24-25; 18:1-7; 1 Chr 23:3, 24, 27; 2 Chr 31:17; Ezra 3:8).(5)

Chapter 4 records a second census of the Levites between the ages of thirty and fifty for the purpose of establishing the numbers of men responsible for dismantling, transporting and re-assembling the Sanctuary during the march to the Promised Land. The key Hebrew words in this passage are "work/workers; serve/service/servers", abad/aboda. In Numbers 4:1-49 the words abad and aboda are used about twenty-seven times in describing the duties of the Levites in dismantling the Sanctuary for the march, transporting the Sanctuary and reassembling the Sanctuary at the next camping site (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, pages 351-56). For example, see a more literal translation of the Hebrew from 4:47 in the Interlinear Bible translation: ... everyone who is going to do the service [aboda] as servers [aboda] in the work [abad] of the servers [aboda] in the Tabernacle of the congregation (Num 4:47). The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 356.

Three colors are mentioned in this passage. These are the same colors that were used in the textiles for the Sanctuary and in the High Priest's garments:(6)

  1. tekhelet   = Biblical blue (violet-blue)
  2. tola'ath     = Scarlet/red
  3. argaman = Red-purple (violet-purple)

Numbers 4:1-16: The Duties of the Kohathite Clan of Levi on the March
1 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 2 'Take a census by clans and families of the Levites descended from Kohath: 3 all men between thirty and fifty years of age and eligible for military service, who will have their duties in the Tent of Meeting. 4 These are the duties [aboda] of the Kohathites: looking after those things that are especially holy. 5 When camp is broken, Aaron and his sons must come and take down the screening curtain, and cover the ark of the Testimony with it. 6 Over this, they will put a covering of fine leather, over which they will spread a cloth [beged = garment] entirely of violet-purple [tekhelet = blue]. They will then fix the poles to the ark. 7 Over the offertory table they will spread a violet [tekhelet = blue] cloth [garment], and on it put the dishes, cups, bowls and libation jars; the bread of permanent [lehem ha-tamid] offering will also be on it. 8 Over these they will spread a scarlet [tola'ath] cloth [garment] and cover the whole with a covering of fine leather. They will then fix the poles to the table. 9 They will then take a violet [tekhetlet = blue] cloth [garment] and cover the lamp-stand, its lamps, snuffers, trays and all the oil jars used for it, 10 and will lay it and all its accessories in a covering of fine leather and put it on the litter. 11 Over the golden altar they will spread a violet [blue] cloth [garment], and cover that with a covering of fine leather. They will then fix the poles to it. 12 They will then take all the other objects used in the service of the Sanctuary, put them in a violet [blue] cloth [garment], with a covering of fine leather, and put it all on the litter. 13 When they have removed the ashes from the altar, they will spread a scarlet [argaman = red-purple] cloth [garment] over it, 14 and on this place all the objects used in the liturgy, the fire pans, hooks, scoops, sprinkling basins and all the altar accessories. Over this they will spread a covering of fine leather. They will then fix the poles to it. 15 Once Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy things and all their accessories at the breaking of camp, the Kohathites will come and carry them, but without touching any of the holy things on pain of death. Such is the load for the Kohathites in the Tent of Meeting. 16 But Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, is responsible for looking after the oil for the light, the fragrant incense, the daily [tamid] cereal offering and the anointing oil, and for supervising the entire Dwelling and everything in it, the holy things and their accessories.
[..] =
literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek, vol. I, pages 351-52).

The chief priests were commanded to make special coverings for all the sacred items in the Sanctuary. The JPS Torah Commentary identifies the coverings for the Ark and the covering for the other sacred furniture by a Hebrew word that is used in Scripture for the covering of a human being: ... it is no accident that a conspicuous exception is made with all the sancta in that they too are initially covered by a 'beged'. They are treated with the same respect as human beings ... (page 26).

Question: How many coverings were placed over the Ark?
Answer: The Ark of the Covenant was covered in three layers:

  1. the screening curtain
  2. a leather covering/garment
  3. a blue cloth/garment

The first covering was the curtain that covered the opening between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies that was made of linen and was embroidered in scarlet, purple, and blue threads and with embroidered winged cherubim (Ex 26:31-33; 36:35). The second covering (perhaps "wrapping" is a better designation) of leather was "yellow-orange" (JPS Commentary), tahash in Hebrew, which may mean "dolphin skin" and the third covering was the "blue garment".

The JPS Commentary translates the Hebrew word tekhelet into English as "blue" for the color of the garment. It is the same Biblical blue as the tassels the Israelites are commanded to wear on their prayer cloaks as a reminder of the sacred character of the ecclesial community. The modern nation of Israel represents this color in their national flag (Num 15:38-39; Dt 22:12).

Question: How is the golden table prepared for transport?
Answer: A blue garment was place over the table upon which the dishes, spoons, bowls and cups for the drink offering were placed along with the weekly twelve loaves of the Bread of the Presence. The second covering was a scarlet garment and the third covering was leather. The poles were then attached to the table.

Question: How was the Menorah (lamp-stand) prepared?
Answer: It was wrapped with a blue garment with all its accessories and was then covered in leather.

Question: How was the golden Incense Altar prepared?
Answer: It was wrapped with a blue garment and then with a leather covering before its carrying poles were attached.

Question: What was the last preparation in the Holy Place before moving to prepare the sacred furniture in the courtyard? See verse 12.
Answer: A blue garment was made to contain the remainder of the sacred vessels used in the Holy Place.

Question: How was the sacrificial altar in the courtyard prepared?
Answer: After removing the ashes and cleaning the altar, the altar was first covered with a red-purple garment upon which was placed the altar's sacred accessories. Next, everything was wrapped in leather and the poles were attached.

Question: Summarize the duties of the High Priest and the chief priests in preparation for the march?
Answer:

*The instruction in Exodus 25:15 state that the poles are not to be withdrawn from the Ark.

Notice that the order of preparation moves from the most sacred space of the Holy of Holies to next holiest space of the Holy Place and finally to those sacred furnishings in the third most holy space in the courtyard of the Sanctuary.

Question: The Sanctuary contained seven sacred items of furnishings that were copies of those that Moses saw in the heavenly Sanctuary (Ex 25:8-9). What is the only item of the sacred furniture in the desert Sanctuary that is not named in this preparation list and in the list in 3:31? See Ex 30:17-21.
Answer: The bronze holy water basin for ritual purification that stood in the courtyard is not mentioned in this list.

However, the Septuagint Greek translation records the instructions for preparing the laver at the end of verse 14: and they shall take a purple [red-purple] cloth, and cover the laver and its foot, and they shall put it into a blue* cover of skin and put it on bars (The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English, Samuel Bagster & Sons, Ltd, London, 1851, eighth printing, 1999, page 176). The Samaritan Pentateuch has the same passage. It is unthinkable that the bronze laver of ritual purification water should be omitted since it is ranked among the sacred objects (Ex 30:28-29). Note: *the Greek word is haukinthinos from hyacinthine, "hyacinth", indicating a deep bluish-purple color.

Question: What were Eleazar's duties in addition to being in charge of the leaders of the clans of the Levites and supervising their activities in preparing to transport the Sanctuary?
Answer: As Aaron's heir and a future high priest, he had the sacred duty of supervising everything associated with the transportation of the Sanctuary, especially :

Eleazar was not expected to personally carry these items. He is the chief of the Levite guards (Num 3:32) and the chief supervisor of the Levite labor battalions, including the supervision of the clan of Kohath who is responsible for the sacred furniture and other sacred vessels. Since he is personally responsible for the transport of these sacred items, Eleazar probably walked with those Kohathites who he personally entrusted with these items (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 28).

Numbers 4:17-20: Yahweh's Special Instructions to Moses Concerning the Safety of his Clan

17 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 18 'You must not let the group of Kohathite clans be lost to the rest of the Levites. 19 But deal with them in this way, so that they may survive and not incur death by approaching those things that are especially holy. Aaron and his sons will go in and assign to each of them his task [aboda] and load, in such a way that they have not need to incur the death penalty by going in and setting eyes on the holy things, even for an instant.' [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek, vol. I, pages 353).

Moses, Aaron and his surviving two sons were members of the Kohathite clan. It is unusual that the Kohathites are listed first since they are the second clan in the hierarchical order of the birth of Levi's sons who are the clan ancestors. Kohath was the second son of Levi. The order of clans in Chapter 4 contrasts with the order of the first Levitical census in 3:14-39 where the clan of the first-born son Gershon was mustered first (3:17).

Question: What accounts for the Kohathites being given the dominant first listing in the second census? See Lev 10:1-3; Num 4:12, 15-20; 6:1; 18:1; 1 Sam 6:19; 2 Sam 6:3-7. .
Answer: The covenant mediator and reigning high priest are both from the clan of Kohath. It is probably because of the clan association with the divinely appointed leaders that the work assigned the clan involves greater responsibility. They must transport the most sacred pieces of the Sanctuary. Their work is also more hazardous and they are expected to risk their lives in transporting and protecting the sacred items. The greater risk is not from other men but from offending God and incurring divine judgment as Aaron's sons incurred the wrath of God for profaning what is sacred.

Verse 18 is an explanation of verse 15b: ... the Kohathites will come and carry them, but without touching any of the holy things on pain of death. The other parts of the Sanctuary under the responsibility of the other two clans were to be transported in wagons, but the Kohathites were to personally carry the "holy things" (Num 7:7-9). Each of the pieces of sacred furniture (other than the bronze laver and the Menorah) had two long poles attached to each side so that the holy article could be carried by four men. If the Kohathites touched or in any way profane the holy things that they carried, they will be "lost" to the Levites because they will die. For example, see 2 Samuel 6:3-7 where poor Uzzah dies when he innocently puts out his hand to steady the Ark as it slides on the cart that is being used to transport it instead of the required gold covered poles.

Question: God's command to Aaron in verse 18 that the Kohathites must not be "lost" to the Levites recalls what earlier catastrophic event that resulted in a loss?
Answer: The loss of Aaron's two elder sons for improperly performing their priestly duties. God's judgment on Aaron's two priestly sons taught the Israelites that the holiness of God and His ordained rituals were not to be taken for granted and must be observed exactly in accordance with His commands.

Inadvertent breeches against the holiness of God were forgivable under the Law (see Lev 5:15-16; Num 15:27-29), but deliberate offenses were not: But the individual who acts deliberately, be he citizen or alien, commits an outrage against Yahweh, and such a man will be outlawed from his people. Since he has treated Yahweh's word with contempt and has disobeyed his order, such a man will be outlawed absolutely and will bear the consequences of his guilt (Num 30-31).

Question: Why were venial sins forgivable under the Old Covenant Law but mortal sins were not?
Answer: The atoning blood of animal sacrifice was not perfect enough to forgive all sin.

Question: What were Aaron and his sons' responsibilities in the preparation for the march and in setting up the camp and why didn't the Kohathites perform those duties? See Num 4:18-20.
Answer: They were responsible for preparing the sacred items for transport by covering each item so that their clan members did not profane the sacred by coming in direct contact with the sacred furniture and risking death. Only the ordained priests and covenant mediator were allowed touch the sacred objects, to stand at the sacrificial altar or to enter the Tabernacle and see the sacred furniture that was copied from those items in the heavenly Sanctuary.

Question: How was the Ark to be covered for transport? Read about the linen, purple (red-violet), blue (violet-purple) and crimson embroidered curtain in Ex 26:31-37
Answer: It was to be veiled with three coverings: the embroidered curtain, a covering of leather, and on top of those coverings a solid blue veil.

Question: Catholic Christians acknowledge the Virgin Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. Whenever Mary appears to those of us on earth, what color is her veil? See the chart "The Virgin Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant" in the Charts/Gospel section.
Answer: According to those privileged to receive a vision of the Virgin Mary, she is always covered by a blue veil.

Numbers 4:21-28: The Duties of the Gershonites on the March

21 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 22 'Take a census of the Gershonites by families and clans, too: 23 all the men between thirty and fifty years of age, eligible for military service [aboda], who will have their duties [aboda] [to serve = abad] in the Tent of Meeting. 24 These are the duties [burdens they bear to serve = abad] of the Gershonite clans, their functions and their loads. 25 They will carry the curtaining of the Dwelling, the Tent of Meeting with its covering and the covering of fine leather that goes over it, the screen for the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, 26 the curtaining of the court, the screen for the entrance to the court surrounding the Dwelling and the altar, the cords, all the accessories for worship [vessels of their service = aboda], and all the necessary equipment [of service = aboda]. 27 They will be responsible for these things [in this they will serve them = abad]. All the duties [service = aboda] of the Gershonites, their functions [service = aboda] and their loads, will be carried out under the direction of Aaron and his sons: you will see that they fulfil their charge . 28 Such are the duties of the Gershonite clans in the Tent of Meeting. Their work will be supervised by Ithamar, son of Aaron the priest.
[..] =
literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek, vol. I, pages 353-54).

Question: What were the Gershonites to carry on the march?
Answer: They were to carry:

See Ex 26:1-14, 31-37; and 27:9-19 for the description of these items.

Numbers 4:29-33: The Duties of the Merarites on the March

29 'You will take a census of the Merarites by clans and families. 30 You will take a census of all the men between thirty and fifty years of age, eligible for military service [aboda], who will have [abad] their duties in the Tent of Meeting. 31 The load they carry and the duties [aboda] incumbent on them in the Tent of Meeting will be as follows: the framework of the Dwelling, its cross-bars, poles and sockets, 32 the poles round the court with their sockets, pegs, cords and all their tackle [of the service = aboda]. You will draw up a list of their names with the loads for which each is responsible. 33 Such are the duties of the Merarite clans. All their duties [service = aboda] in the Tent of Meeting will be supervised by Ithamar, son of Aaron the priest.' [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek, vol. I, pages 354-55).

Question: What are the duties of Aaron's youngest priestly son, Ithamar?
Answer: Ithamar will personally supervise the clans of Gershonites and Merarites in the dismantling and transportation of the Sanctuary and the reassembly when they make camp again.

He was also in charge of the wagons uses to transport the parts of the Sanctuary (Num 7:8). In Exodus 38:21 Ithamar kept the records for the expenditures associated with building the Sanctuary.

Numbers 4:34-49: The Second Census of the Levite Adult Males

34 Moses, Aaron and the leaders of the community took a census of the Kohathites by clans and families: 35 all the men between thirty and fifty years of age, eligible for military service, for duties [aboda]in the Tent of Meeting. 36 The number of men counted in their clans came to two thousand seven hundred and fifty. 37 Such was the total number of men in the Kohathite clans who were eligible for duties [abad] in the Tent of Meeting and whom Moses and Aaron counted at Yahweh's bidding through Moses.

38 A census was taken of the Gershonites by clans and families: 39 all the men between thirty and fifty years of age, eligible for military service, for duties [aboda] in the Tent of Meeting. 40 The number of men counted in their clans and families came to two thousand six hundred and thirty. 41 Such was the total number of men in the Gershonite clans who were eligible for duties [abad] in the Tent of Meeting, and whom Moses and Aaron counted at Yahweh's bidding.

42 A census was taken of the Merarite clans by clans and families: 43 all the men between thirty and fifty years of age, eligible for military service, for duties [aboda] in the Tent of Meeting. 44 The number of men counted in their clans came to three thousand two hundred. 45 Such was the total number of men in the Merarite clans, whom Moses and Aaron counted at Yahweh's bidding through Moses.

46 The total number of Levites whom Moses, Aaron and the leaders of Israel counted in their clans and families, 47 all the men between thirty and fifty years of age, eligible for religious duties and for those of transporting the Tent of Meeting [everyone who is going to do the service = aboda as servers = aboda in the work = abad of the servers =aboda in the Tabernacle of the congregation] 48 came to eight thousand five hundred and eighty. 49 At Yahweh's bidding through Moses, a census was taken of them and each man was assigned his duty [aboda] and load. And so the census was conducted by Moses as Yahweh had ordered him.

In the final summation of the second census the words abad/aboda are used five times.

Census of Levite Clans:
Males between
30 and 50 years old

Kohathites

2,750

Gershonites

2,630

Merarites

3,200

Total

8,580

Question: How many Levites were younger than 30 years and older than 50?
Answer: There were 22,000 Levites who were older than one month and 8,580 men who were between 30 and 50 years old; that leaves 13,430 Levites who were 29 years old and younger or older than age 50.

The number of adult males between thirty and fifty is an astonishing low number when compared to the men over twenty who are fit for battle (which probably means men between twenty and fifty) numbered in the other tribes: the largest tribe of Judah had 74,600 warriors and the next smallest tribe to Levi, the Manassehites, had 32,200 warriors. What can account for the extremely low number in the census of the Levite adult males? We can only speculate on the answer to this question. Each tribal clan is descended from the sons of the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel. Levi only had three sons and therefore the Levites are composed of three clans and only eight sub-clans (Num 3:16-39). Other possibilities to account for the very low number compared to the other tribes:

  1. The "about three thousand" men who perished in the revolt of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:28 were men from the other tribes and we are not told about the great numbers of Levites who were killed defending Moses and the covenant.
  2. The number three thousand, indicating those lost to the newly formed Church of the Sinai Covenant in the revolt of the Golden Calf (Ex 32:28), may be a symbolic number and not a literal number. The numbers of the men who perished may have been far greater. The phrase "about three thousand" is repeated in Acts 2:41 where we are told that "about three thousand" souls were added to the New Covenant Church after St. Peter's homily on Pentecost Sunday, signifying a reversal of the loss in the revolt of the Golden Calf. The number three in Scripture is one of the "perfect numbers" signifying importance or fullness, especially associated with God's plan for man's salvation.
  3. The low numbers of both the fit adult men in the tribe of Levi and the numbers of first-born sons may indicate that the Golden Calf revolt was led by the first-born sons who saw themselves as rightful leaders of Israel and a great many of the first-born adult males and the defending Levites died in a very bloody battle.

Summary of the Role of the Levites:

  1. The Levites replaced the first-born sons of Israel as men whose lives are wholly dedicated to God's service.
  2. In place of the first-born sons of Israel, the Levites are given to Aaron and his sons (the chief priests) as lesser ministers and as representatives of Israel.
  3. The Levites are responsible for guarding the Sanctuary, for dismantling the Sanctuary when Israel was ready to begin the march, for carrying the Sanctuary and its sacred items, and for reassembling the Sanctuary when the Israelites set up camp.
  4. The chief priests, who are the descendants of Aaron and Levites of the clan of Kohath, have the responsibility to guard their own unique priestly duties.

Questions for group discussion:

Question #1: How was the hierarchy of the Old Covenant Church established? See Ex 18:19-26; 24:1-2, 9-11; 28-29.
Answer: Moses was the covenant mediator and the supreme figure of authority. Aaron was the anointed High Priest and his sons served as the chief priests and liturgical ministers of the Sanctuary. Aaron's eldest surviving son, Eleazar, administered the leaders of the Levitical clans whose male members served as lesser ministers. The Levitical lesser ministers were under the supervision of the chief priests. It was their duty to guard and care for the Sanctuary but they could not officiate at the liturgical services, offer sacrifice or forgive the sins of the people in the rituals of blood sacrifice. Each tribe was administered by seventy elders who served as heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, serving as permanent judges over minor tribal disputes. All major civil and religious cases were referred to Moses.

Question #2: How does the hierarchy of the Old Covenant Church compare to the New Covenant hierarchy of the Vicar of Christ, the universal Magisterium (bishops), priests and deacons? Who is the High Priest/King and covenant mediator? Who serves as the Vicar of the Priest-King of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth? What is the line of hierarchy and supreme authority within the Roman Catholic Church and from whom do we trace this line of supreme authority down through the centuries? See CCC 871-76, 1541-43, 1569, 1571.

Catechism references:

CCC 871-76, 1569, 1571: the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church

CCC 1541: the priesthood of Aaron and the service of the Levites prefigure the ordained ministry of the New Covenant Church.

CCC 1542-43: from the liturgy of the ordination of priests the ordination of deacons.

Endnotes:

1. In the period of the Judges, Moses' descendant Jonathan (from Moses' eldest son Gershom's line), apostatized from the authorized hierarchy of Yahweh's Sanctuary to serve as a priest in the worship of the shrine of the Golden Calf of Dan (Judg 18:30; 1 Kng 12:28-30).

2. See Strong's Exhaustive Concordance; The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: The Hebrew verb abad [#5647] is a prime root meaning "to work, to serve or keep"; while the verb samar (shamar) [#8104] means to "hedge about" [as with thorns], "to guard", "to protect." Also see The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, pgs 347-348; 371; 399: Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament, vol. 1, pages 658-9; Letter & Spirit, vol. I, "Worship in the Word," Hahn, page 107.

3. The "first-born" was a title designating the first son born from a woman. This is why Jesus is called Mary's "first-born son" in Mt 1:25. The designation of Jesus as Mary's "first-born son" in no way suggests that she had other children.

4. The Pentateuch portion of the Septuagint was translated c. 250 BC and the Masoretic text was translated into Hebrew in the early Middle Ages. See "Is the Catholic Old Testament Accurate" in the Documents section. The scribal error in the Hebrew text was the use of shin, lamed, shin instead of shin, shin (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 20).

5. Later, King David lowered the beginning age of service for a Levite to age 20 (1Chr 23:24-27).

6. There were three varieties of the murex snails and an insect that the Israelites used to produce the different colored dyes: the Murex trunculus yields a blue-purple dye and the Thais haemastoma (also called Purpura haemastoma) and the Murex brandaris yield a red-purple dye. The scarlet dye was made from the dried, crushed bodies of a scale insect. In the production of the blue and purple dyes the Muresx trunculus was gathered by hand in the shallow waters off the coast of Lebanon and in northern Israel (ancient Phoenicia). The city of Haifa was an important center for the production of dyes and was called Porphurion (purple) in Hellenistic times. The other two varieties of murex snails had to be harvested from deeper waters with nets or traps. Both the red-purple dye (Hebrew = 'argaman) and the blue-purple dye (Hebrew = tekhelet) were used in making the inner curtain of the Tabernacle that covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies (Ex 26:1) and in the garments of the High Priest (Ex 28:6, 15, 31, 33). The process for producing the Biblical blue dye was lost for centuries until rediscovered by scientists at the University of Haifa.

Michal Hunt, Copyright 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.