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Numbers 3


Book of Numbers Chapter Three
Commentary by Pastor Ron Beckham

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The Substitute

In Chapters 1 and 2, we saw a record of God's plan for the tribes of Israel. Leadership was established, marching orders were given, the locations of the various tribes were made certain, but the tribe of Levi was specifically excluded. The other tribes were to have secular functions, but the Levites were to serve the nation as clergy, and their functions are clearly laid out here in Chapter 3. Notice in Verse 1, the names of two principal Levites: Moses, raised by Egyptians and exiled for four decades, and his older brother, Aaron: 1 "Now these are the records of the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai." What is expressed here is an emphasis on the family of Aaron—they were to be the priesthood, whereas Moses was Israel's national leader.

Verses 2-4 "These then are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. 3 These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to serve as priests. 4 But Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord when they offered strange fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron." We can see the "strange fire" of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, in Leviticus 10:1-3, where we find these younger men, priests by calling, offering incense "before the Lord, which He had not commanded them." Notice that in our call to service we are not precisely leaders—we are servants first, honoring the Lord by serving the people, but always acting as led by God. He is the Leader.

Verses 5-10: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 6 'Bring the tribe of Levi near and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. 7 They shall perform the duties for him and for the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle. 8 They shall also keep all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, along with the duties of the sons of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle. 9 You shall thus give the Levites to Aaron and to his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the sons of Israel. 10 So you shall appoint Aaron and his sons that they may keep their priesthood, but the layman who comes near shall be put to death.'" God simply CHOSE the tribe of Levi, though they are not necessarily the ones we would choose. If you have faith in the Lord, God chose you to have that faith, and it is not something to brag about. John 15:16 provides the clear words of Jesus that, "you did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you..." Paul the Apostle gave us the Holy Spirit's observation about us, when he said, "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame... the strong, and the base things of the world and the that no man should boast before God" (1 Corinthians 1:24-31). Trust in the Lord, no matter who or what you are, and though you are insufficient, it is our all-loving God who is all-powerful and makes you HIS. He wants you and it is so. You and I are not wonderful, but He is. Praise the Lord—forever!

Verses 11-13: "Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 'Now, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be Mine. 13 For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the Lord.'" You might be wondering why God does not speak to you like He spoke to Moses, and the answer to that question is: God IS speaking to us all. He's telling the unbelieving, "Come to Me...believe." He's telling us all, "TRUST in Me," but words are only one of His many ways of communication. He speaks through His creation, He communicates through His Word, the Bible, He speaks to us in dreams, through those who trust in the Lord and are called by Him to speak to us; He speaks through our problems and limitations; and He speaks to our hearts through His Holy Spirit. He spoke to Moses and He is speaking to you. Notice the Lord's words in these verses: the Levites were chosen as substitutes for the firstborn of Israel when the nation was delivered from Egypt. Jesus Christ is the Mediator of a "new covenant," bringing those who have faith in Him, into the "church of the firstborn" (Hebrews 12:23-24). "Church" is from a Greek term describing free citizens "called out" to discuss matters of state. Jesus, our Firstborn, has freed us to serve God.

Verses 14-16: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, 15 'Number the sons of Levi by their fathers’ households, by their families; every male from a month old and upward you shall number.' 16 So Moses numbered them according to the word of the Lord, just as he had been commanded." In Numbers 1:49, the Lord commanded Moses to NOT number the sons of Levi, the Levites, and in Numbers 2:33 we find that Moses excluded them in the census, "just as the Lord had commanded." Here, in Numbers 3:15-16, the Lord specifically said to do what was forbidden before, and we are to respond like Moses did. A "no" today might be followed by a "yes" tomorrow, for the Lord is working out a plan greater than our understanding. Our reply is "yes" to Him.

Levi was one of the sons of Jacob, also known as Israel, the third son. In Genesis 34:25 and context, we find that Levi and his older brother, Simeon, killed all of the males in the town of Shechem, including the elderly and very young. Yes they acted in defense of their sister, Dinah, but they did not follow God in what they did, and in Genesis 49:5-7, we read Jacob's deathbed prophesy about them: "...Cursed be their anger...and their wrath for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel." Unlike the other tribes that had specific boundaries, Simeon's descendants settled into uncertainty, essentially scattered in the south of the tribe of Judah. The Levites would also be scattered throughout Israel, but as priests and other workers associated with the religious practices of the nation.

Aaron, Moses and their sister, Miriam, were the great grandchildren of Levi, which may be seen in 1 Chronicles 6:1-3. Their genealogy is also seen in this chapter, beginning in Verse 17: "These then are the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon and Kohath and Merari." Gershon was the oldest son of Levi and Merari was the youngest. Kohath was the grandfather of Aaron, the first high priest of Israel.

Verses 18-22: "These are the names of the sons of Gershon by their families: Libni and Shimei; 19 and the sons of Kohath by their families: Amram and Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel; 20 and the sons of Merari by their families: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites according to their fathers’ households. 21 Of Gershon was the family of the Libnites and the family of the Shimeites; these were the families of the Gershonites. 22 Their numbered men, in the numbering of every male from a month old and upward, even their numbered men were 7,500." These are people who would likely be unknown to humanity, except they are carefully listed here because God has made it so, and if you feel unknown, lost or forgotten, note that God knows precisely who you are, what you are, and He loves you, even if your life makes you feel unlovable. If you are adopted and don't know who you are, He knows. If you have done something you cannot forget or forgive, like Levi, God can and will forgive, and bring good out of tragedy.

The duties of the Levites called Gershonites are seen in Verses 23-26: "The families of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle westward, 24 and the leader of the fathers’ households of the Gershonites was Eliasaph the son of Lael. 25 Now the duties of the sons of Gershon in the tent of meeting involved the tabernacle and the tent, its covering, and the screen for the doorway of the tent of meeting, 26 and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the doorway of the court which is around the tabernacle and the altar, and its cords, according to all the service concerning them." Gershon was the oldest son of Levi, son of Jacob, and his descendants were responsible for transporting and maintaining items of the tabernacle including curtains and screens, during Israel's time in the wilderness. Their duties may have seemed mundane, but to God, what they did was VERY important, and if you ever feel like your work is boring, it's time to recall that your work is for the Lord and your true function is to serve HIM.

Verses 27-32: "Of Kohath was the family of the Amramites and the family of the Izharites and the family of the Hebronites and the family of the Uzzielites; these were the families of the Kohathites. 28 In the numbering of every male from a month old and upward, there were 8,600, performing the duties of the sanctuary. 29 The families of the sons of Kohath were to camp on the southward side of the tabernacle, 30 and the leader of the fathers’ households of the Kohathite families was Elizaphan the son of Uzziel. 31 Now their duties involved the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, and the utensils of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all the service concerning them; 32 and Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest was the chief of the leaders of Levi, and had the oversight of those who perform the duties of the sanctuary." Kohath was the second son of Levi and his descendants were given the incredibly important tasks of caring for the precious items within the holy place and the holy of holies in the tabernacle. For anyone else, except the high priest, to touch items such as the ark of the covenant, meant instant death, and note that if you are authorized to touch that which is holy (separated from this world for the purposes of God), you are indeed blessed.

Verses 33-39: "Of Merari was the family of the Mahlites and the family of the Mushites; these were the families of Merari. 34 Their numbered men in the numbering of every male from a month old and upward, were 6,200. 35 The leader of the fathers’ households of the families of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail. They were to camp on the northward side of the tabernacle. 36 Now the appointed duties of the sons of Merari involved the frames of the tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its sockets, all its equipment, and the service concerning them, 37 and the pillars around the court with their sockets and their pegs and their cords. 38 Now those who were to camp before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, are Moses and Aaron and his sons, performing the duties of the sanctuary for the obligation of the sons of Israel; but the layman coming near was to be put to death. 39 All the numbered men of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the command of the Lord by their families, every male from a month old and upward, were 22,000." Merari was the youngest son of Levi, son of Jacob, and his descendants were now assigned to set-up, break down and transport portions of the tabernacle, in conjunction with their cousins, the Gershonites, while the nation remained in the wilderness. Note here that each group had specific functions for them alone, and others could not perform those functions. The Lord has a very specific "call" on the lives of each one of us—our joy and our standing with Him will be found by remaining within that call. Note, by the way, that the numbers of these Levitical workers do not add up to the total in Verse 39. The Hebrew expositors through the centuries, taught correctly that since the Levites were taken and counted instead of the firstborn of Israel, their own first-born were excluded from the count in this chapter.

Verses 40-43: "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Number every firstborn male of the sons of Israel from a month old and upward, and make a list of their names. 41 You shall take the Levites for Me, I am the Lord, instead of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the sons of Israel.' 42 So Moses numbered all the firstborn among the sons of Israel, just as the Lord had commanded him; 43 and all the firstborn males by the number of names from a month old and upward, for their numbered men were 22,273." The Lord spared the firstborn of Israel and destroyed the firstborn of Egypt, rescuing the nation Israel from slavery in the process (Exodus 12). The tribe of Levi was taken by God as a substitute for the firstborn who lived and did not die, introducing the concept of one person paying for the deliverance of another. One life given so another might live, is also seen in the animal sacrifices of Israel through the for life, the innocent for the guilty. It's a great parable created by God within the nation Israel and fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). He gave Himself for you and me. We are to BELIEVE in Him.

Verses 44-51 are a parable of greater things that were to come: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 'Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel and the cattle of the Levites. And the Levites shall be Mine; I am the Lord. 46 For the ransom of the 273 of the firstborn of the sons of Israel who are in excess beyond the Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels apiece, per head; you shall take them in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money, the ransom of those who are in excess among them, to Aaron and to his sons.' 49 So Moses took the ransom money from those who were in excess, beyond those ransomed by the Levites; 50 from the firstborn of the sons of Israel he took the money in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary, 1,365. 51 Then Moses gave the ransom money to Aaron and to his sons, at the command of the Lord, just as the Lord had commanded Moses." The sons of Levi were taken as substitutes for the firstborn of Israel, who did not die as the firstborn of Egypt did—but what would happen to the Levites? Were they to die? The answer is—no they would not. A ransom of money was given TO the Levites as a tithe to sustain them and as a substitutionary payment for them.

We see the fulfillment of these parables in places like 1 Peter 2:18-19, where Peter the Jew spoke to Jews who believed in the Lord Jesus—" were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot." Notice in the concluding verse of this chapter in Numbers, that Moses did exactly what the Lord commanded him. Not knowing the depth of meaning involved, he did what we all should do—in our words and actions we say "yes" to the Lord, accepting that, individually and collectively, we are sent by God to those we meet. 2 Corinthians 3:2-3 reveals that we are God's letter to this world, written in the blood of Jesus Christ, our Substitute.

Dear Lord Jesus, thank You for dying for me. Not unlike Levi, I have sinned, and You have paid the price. Forgive me, Lord. I am Yours. I trust in You. In Jesus Name. Amen.

Ron Beckham, Pastor
Friday Study Ministries
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"While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8)

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