In chapter 1 the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron to take a census of all the men over the age of 20 who could serve in the army. And so all were counted, with the exception of the Levites who were to serve in the Tabernacle. In chapter 2, the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron to arrange the tribes of Israel in a certain order around the Tabernacle. However, once again the Levites were not included in this arrangement, because another arrangement was to be put into place for them. In other words, we haven’t heard too much about the tribe of Levi yet. But that changes in chapter 3, because chapter 3 is all about the Levites. So, let’s look at this passage together.
Verses 1 to 10
And the chapter starts in verses 1 to 4 with Aaron and his sons, who were from the tribe of Levi. We’re told in verse 2 that Aaron had four sons, and all of them were anointed to be priests of the Lord. So, they were set aside from everyone else to serve the Lord in the Tabernacle and to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. Of course, two of Aarons sons died. As verse 4 reminds us, they tried to offer authorised fire to the Lord and fire came out from the presence of the Lord and killed them. Since they had no sons, the priesthood was now in the hands of their brothers, Eleazar and Ithamar.
Aaron and his sons were from the tribe of Levi. However, not all the Levites were priests, but the rest of the tribe was chosen by God to serve him in a special way in the Tabernacle. And their duties are mentioned in verses 5 to 10 but can be summarised by two phrases: doing the work of the Tabernacle; that’s in verse 3; and to take care of the furnishings; that’s in verse 8.
Doing the work of the Tabernacle probably referred to doing heavy work, like putting up and taking down the Tabernacle. And so, whenever it was time to camp, they were responsible for pitching the tent: putting the frames in place; and then placing over the frames all the necessary coverings; and then putting all the furnishings in the right place in the Tent of Meeting. And, of course, when it was time to move on, it was their responsibility to take everything down. Doing the work of the Tabernacle refers to all that heavy lifting.
Taking care of the furnishings meant guarding the furnishings and making sure that no unauthorised person came near them.
The role of the Levites was to put up and take down the Tent of Meeting and to guard it. As such, and according to verse 9, they were to be wholly devoted to helping the priests. And according to verse 10, no one else — apart from Aaron and his sons and the Levites — were permitted to approach the sanctuary. Anyone else who tried to approach the sanctuary must be put to death, because the Lord is holy and the lay people were not allowed to come near him, otherwise his anger would burn against the whole of the community.
Verses 11 to 39
In verses 11 to 13 the Lord explained to Moses that he had taken the Levites and appointed them to serve him in this way in place of the Israelite firstborn males. On the night when they left Egypt, the Lord went through the land of Egypt and killed every firstborn male in all the homes in Egypt, except among the Israelites who had put the blood of the Passover Lamb on their doorposts. When the Lord saw the blood, he passed over their homes, sparing the children inside. And since the Lord had spared their children on that occasion, they now belonged to him and could rightfully be enlisted in his service. However, instead of taking every firstborn male, he chose instead to take the Levites in their place.
And in verses 14 to 20, the Lord commanded Moses to take a census of the Levites and to count every male who was a month old or more. And their various families and clans are listed in verses 17 to 20.
Then, in verses 21 to 39, the number of males in each main family is given. We’re also told where each of them was to camp around the Tabernacle. So, according to verse 23, the clans belonging to Gershon were to camp on the west side; according to verse 29, the clans belonging to Kohath were to camp on the south; according to verse 35, the clans belonging to Merari were to camp on the north. That left Moses and Aaron and his sons who were to camp on the east, which — I said last week — was the primary place, the most important place, because the sun rose in the east and the entrance to the Tabernacle was on the east side.
But just as the twelve tribes were to form a square around the outer edge of the camp, so the Levites and priests were to form a square inside the camp and around the Tabernacle. They formed a buffer zone or a barrier between the Lord in the Tabernacle and the rest of the Israelites.
In verses 24 and 30 and 35 we’re given the name of the leader of each of the main families. And certain duties were assigned to each of the main families. So, according to verses 25 to 26, the clans belonging to Gershon were given responsibility for coverings, curtains and hangings. According to verse 31, the clans belonging to Kohath were given responsibility for the sacred furnishings in the Tent of Meeting. And according to verses 36 and 37, the clans belonging to Merari were given responsibility for the frames and posts and related items.
So, each of the main families was given a special responsibility. Once again we see the Lord is not a God of disorder, but of order; and he made sure that each of the families had an assigned role and work to do. And according to verse 32, one of Aaron’s sons was given responsibility for overseeing the work of the Levites. And if you look at verse 38, you’ll see that Moses and Aaron and his sons were given the responsibility for the care of the sanctuary. Since they were camped at the entrance to the Tabernacle, they were to guard the entrance and prevent any unauthorised person from coming too close.
If anyone is counting, you’ll notice that the numbers do not add up: there were 7,500 males in Gershon; there were 8,600 in Kohath; and there were 6,200 in Merari. If you add those three numbers up, you get 22,300. But according to verse 39 the total number should be 22,000 and not 22,300. Where did the extra 300 come from? Well, it’s likely the figure of 8,600 in verse 28 is inaccurate; and it should really be 8,300. God’s word — when originally inspired by him — is true and free from error. However, when the original inspired texts were being copied, occasional errors crept it; and the difference between 8,600 and 8,300 in Hebrew is just one letter. —
Verses 40 to 51
In verse 40 the Lord commanded Moses to conduct another census. This time, though, he was asked to count the firstborn Israelite males who were a month old or more. And the total number is given in verse 43: 22,273. So, that’s the number of firstborn males who rightfully belonged to the Lord since he had spared all their firstborn males on the night of the Passover. But remember: he had chosen the Levites to serve him in their place. However, the number of Levites was only 22,000. That’s 273 short; in a sense the Israelites owed the Lord another 273 firstborn males. But instead of insisting that another 273 males be chosen to serve alongside the Levites, the Lord commanded the people in verse 46 to redeem the 273 firstborn males. In other words, they were to buy their freedom so they would not need to serve in the sanctuary, but could continue to live with their families. And the redemption price was set at 5 shekels per male. The money collected was to be given to Aaron and his sons.
And so read in verse 49 that Moses collected the redemption money from those that exceeded the number redeemed by the Levites and gave it to Aaron and his sons, as he was commanded by the word of the Lord.
To see the importance of this passage, we should remember that one of the tasks of the Levites — and indeed of the priests — was to guard the Tabernacle and everything in it. So, in verses 25 and 31 and 36, where the NIV says the Gershonites, Kohathites and Merarites were to care for the Tabernacle and its furnishings, the Hebrew verb translated ‘to care for’ by the NIV really means ‘to guard’. They were guard these things, so that no unauthorised person would come near them. They were to guard these items when travelling; and when the people camped anywhere, the Levites were to arrange their tents around the Tabernacle to guard it from the rest of the people. In the same way, when it says in verse 38 that Moses and Aaron and his sons were to care for the sanctuary, it means they were to guard it. The priests and Levites were to guard the Tabernacle.
This aspect of their work is reminiscent of the work of Adam, who was also a kind of priest, and who was called by God to serve him in the garden-temple of Eden. And when the Lord placed Adam in Eden, he commanded him in Genesis 2:15 to work it and take care of it. He was to work it by cultivating it; and he was to take care of it by guarding it. Adam was called by God to guard the garden-temple of Eden and to prevent anything evil from coming in and spoiling it.
But, of course, Adam failed to guard the garden and he allowed the serpent to come in and to speak lies to Eve and to tempt her to eat the forbidden fruit. If Adam had been a faithful priest, he would have guarded the garden-temple and driven the serpent away. As a result of his failure, Adam and Eve became sinful and they were driven from God’s garden-temple. And what did the Lord put at the entrance to Eden? He placed on the east side of the garden — at the entrance — cherubim with a flaming sword, flashing back and forth, to guard the way into the garden and to the Tree of Life.
And so, years later, the Lord placed around the tabernacle, which symbolised the presence of the Lord on earth, priests and Levites who were to guard the way into his presence. By calling them to guard the Tabernacle, the Lord was making clear that sinners do not belong in his holy presence; and sinners cannot come into his presence and hope to live. Anyone who tried to approach the sanctuary had to be put to death.
In fact, we can think also of Exodus 19 where the people gathered around Mount Sinai, to meet the Lord. But the Lord commanded Moses to put limits around the base of the mountain to keep the people from coming too near.
So, a guard was placed outside Eden; a boundary was place around Sinai; guards were placed around the sanctuary in the Tabernacle. It was all designed to say:
Keep out. Sinners can’t come near.
But what do we find in the New Testament? Well, when the Lord Jesus died on the cross, to pay for our sins, the curtain of the temple — which was another barrier to keep sinners out — was torn in two to signify that there is a way for sinners to come into the presence of the Lord; and it’s through faith in the Saviour who suffered in our place and paid for our sins in full by his death on the cross. And so, through faith in the Saviour, we may come before God to worship him, confident in the knowledge that our sins have been paid for and we are covered by the blood of the Lamb.
Nevertheless, in the new Jerusalem which we read about in Revelation 21 — and do you remember last week that I said the Israelite camp in Numbers 2 and 3 was a shadow or type of the new Jerusalem — in the new Jerusalem there’s still a barrier in place to keep unredeemed sinners out; the entrance into God’s holy dwelling place is still guarded. While those who belong to the Lord and whose names are written in Lamb’s book of life are invited to come in and eat from the Tree of Life, nevertheless nothing impure will ever enter there, and no one who does what is shameful or deceitful may come in.
In the beginning, Adam was called to guard the garden-temple of Eden where God came and met with his people. After he fell — and we fell with him — angels were placed at the entrance to guard the way into the presence of the Lord. And so, when God set up his dwelling place on earth, sinners were not permitted to come near; and the way into his presence was guarded by priests and Levites. And the way into his presence in heaven is still guarded; and sinners will still be kept out of his presence, unless they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and forgiven by God.
And while we wait for Christ to come again — to shut his enemies out of God’s presence for good, but to bring all who believe into God’s presence for ever — the Lord has given to his elders the task of exercising church discipline, and barring from the Lord’s Table those who do not believe and who will not repent of their sins. The elders are to exercise church discipline, not with swords like the Levites, but with the word of God, which warns unrepentant sinners and which gives comfort to the lowly and contrite.