Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Muster of the Tribe of Levi. - As Jacob had adopted the two sons of Joseph as his own sons, and thus promoted them to the rank of heads of tribes, the tribe of Levi formed, strictly speaking, the thirteenth tribe of the whole nation, and was excepted from the muster of the twelve tribes who were destined to form the army of Jehovah, because God had chosen it for the service of the sanctuary. Out of this tribe God had not only called Moses to be the deliverer, lawgiver, and leader of His people, but Moses' brother Aaron, with the sons of the latter, to be the custodians of the sanctuary. And now, lastly, the whole tribe was chosen, in the place of the first-born of all the tribes, to assist the priests in performing the duties of the sanctuary, and was numbered and mustered for this its special calling.
In order to indicate at the very outset the position which the Levites were to occupy in relation to the priests (viz., Aaron and his descendants), the account of their muster commences not only with the enumeration of the sons of Aaron who were chosen as priests (Num 3:2-4), but with the heading: "These are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day (i.e., at the time) when Jehovah spake with Moses in Mount Sinai (Num 3:1). The toledoth (see at Gen 2:4) of Moses and Aaron are not only the families which sprang from Aaron and Moses, but the Levitical families generally, which were named after Aaron and Moses, because they were both of them raised into the position of heads or spiritual fathers of the whole tribe, namely, at the time when God spoke to Moses upon Sinai. Understood in this way, the notice as to the time is neither a superfluous repetition, nor introduced with reference to the subsequent numbering of the people in the steppes of Moab (Num 26:57.). Aaron is placed before Moses here (see at Exo 6:26.), not merely as being the elder of the two, but because his sons received the priesthood, whilst the sons of Moses, on the contrary, were classed among the rest of the Levitical families (cf. Ch1 23:14).
Names of the sons of Aaron, the "anointed priests (see Lev 8:12), whose hand they filled to be priests," i.e., who were appointed to the priesthood (see at Lev 7:37). On Nadab and Abihu, see Lev 10:1-2. As they had neither of them any children when they were put to death, Eleazar and Ithamar were the only priests "in the sight of Aaron their father," i.e., during his lifetime. "In the sight of:" as in Gen 11:28.
The Levites are placed before Aaron the priest, to be his servants.
"Bring near:" as in Exo 28:1. The expression לפני עמד is frequently met with in connection with the position of a servant, as standing before his master to receive his commands.
They were to keep the charge of Aaron and the whole congregation before the tabernacle, to attend to the service of the dwelling, i.e., to observe what Aaron (the priest) and the whole congregation were bound to perform in relation to the service at the dwelling-place of Jehovah. "To keep the charge:" see Num 1:53 and Gen 26:5. In Num 3:8 this is more fully explained: they were to keep the vessels of the tabernacle, and to attend to all that was binding upon the children of Israel in relation to them, i.e., to take the oversight of the furniture, to keep it safe and clean.
Moses was also to give the Levites to Aaron and his sons. "They are wholly given to him out of the children of Israel:" the repetition of נתוּנם here and in Num 8:16 is emphatic, and expressive of complete surrender (Ewald, 313). The Levites, however, as nethunim, must be distinguished from the nethinim of non-Israelitish descent, who were given to the Levites at a later period as temple slaves, to perform the lowest duties connected with the sanctuary (see at Jos 9:27).
Aaron and his sons were to be appointed by Moses to take charge of the priesthood; as no stranger, no one who was not a son of Aaron, could approach the sanctuary without being put to death (cf. Num 1:53 and Lev 22:10).
God appointed the Levites for this service, because He had decided to adopt them as His own in the place of all the first-born of Egypt. When He slew the first-born of Egypt, He sanctified to Himself all the first-born of Israel, of man and beast, for His own possession (see Exo 13:1-2). By virtue of this sanctification, which was founded upon the adoption of the whole nation as His first-born son, the nation was required to dedicate to Him its first-born sons for service at the sanctuary, and sacrifice all the first-born of its cattle to Him. But now the Levites and their cattle were to be adopted in their place, and the first-born sons of Israel to be released in return (Num 3:40.). By this arrangement, through which the care of the service at the sanctuary was transferred to one tribe, which would and should henceforth devote itself with undivided interest to this vocation, not only was a more orderly performance of this service secured, than could have been effected through the first-born of all the tribes; but so far as the whole nation was concerned, the fulfilment of its obligations in relation to this service was undoubtedly facilitated. Moreover, the Levites had proved themselves to be the most suitable of all the tribes for his post, through their firm and faithful defence of the honour of the Lord at the worship of the golden calf (Exo 32:26.). It is in this spirit, which distinguished the tribe of Levi, that we may undoubtedly discover the reason why they were chosen by God for the service of the sanctuary, and not in the fact that Moses and Aaron belonged to the tribe, and desired to form a hierarchical caste of the members of their own tribe, such as was to be found among other nations: the magi, for example, among the Medes, the Chaldeans among the Persians, and the Brahmins among the Indians. יהוה אני לי, "to Me, to Me, Jehovah" (Num 3:13, Num 3:41, and Num 3:45; cf. Ges. 121, 3).
The muster of the Levites included all the males from a month old and upwards, because they were to be sanctified to Jehovah in the place of the first-born; and it was at the age of a month that the latter were either to be given up or redeemed (comp. Num 3:40 and Num 3:43 with Num 18:16). In Num 3:17-20 the sons of Levi and their sons are enumerated, who were the founders of the mishpachoth among the Levites, as in Exo 6:16-19.
The Gershonites were divided into two families, containing 7500 males. They were to encamp under their chief Eliasaph, behind the tabernacle, i.e., on the western side (Num 3:23, Num 3:24), and were to take charge of the dwelling-place and the tent, the covering, the curtain at the entrance, the hangings round the court with the curtains at the door, and the cords of the tent, "in relation to all the service thereof" (Num 3:25.); that is to say, according to the more precise injunctions in Num 4:25-27, they were to carry the tapestry of the dwelling (the inner covering, Exo 26:1.), and of the tent (i.e., the covering made of goats' hair, Exo 26:7.), the covering thereof (i.e., the covering of rams' skins dyed red, and the covering of sea-cow skin upon the top of it, Exo 27:16), the hangings of the court and the curtain at the entrance (Exo 27:9, Exo 27:16), which surrounded the altar (of burnt-offering) and the dwelling round about, and their cords, i.e., the cords of the tapestry, coverings, and curtains (Exo 27:14), and all the instruments of their service, i.e., the things used in connection with their service (Exo 27:19), and were to attend to everything that had to be done to them; in other words, to perform whatever was usually done with those portions of the sanctuary that are mentioned here, especially in setting up the tabernacle or taking it down. The suffix in מיתריו (Num 3:26) does not refer to the court mentioned immediately before; for, according to Num 3:37, the Merarites were to carry the cords of the hangings of the court, but to the "dwelling and tent," which stand farther off. In the same way the words, "for all the service thereof," refer to all those portions of the sanctuary that are mentioned, and mean "everything that had to be done or attended to in connection with these things."
The Kohathites, who were divided into four families, and numbered 8600, were to encamp on the south side of the tabernacle, and more especially to keep the charge of the sanctuary (Num 3:28), viz., to take care of the ark of the covenant, the table (of shew-bread), the candlestick, the altars (of incense and burnt-offering), with the holy things required for the service performed in connection therewith, and the curtain (the veil before the most holy place), and to perform whatever had to be done ("all the service thereof," see at Num 3:26), i.e., to carry the said holy things after they had been rolled up in covers by the priests (see Num 4:5.).
As the priests also formed part of the Kohathites, their chief is mentioned as well, viz., Eleazar the eldest son of Aaron the high priest, who was placed over the chiefs of the three Levitical families, and called פּקדּה, oversight of the keepers of the charge of the sanctuary," i.e., authority, superior, of the servants of the sanctuary.
The Merarites, who formed two families, comprising 6200 males, were to encamp on the north side of the tabernacle, under their prince Zuriel, and to observe the boards, bolts, pillars, and sockets of the dwelling-place (Exo 26:15, Exo 26:26, Exo 26:32, Exo 26:37), together with all the vessels thereof (the plugs and tools), and all that had to be done in connection therewith, also the pillars of the court with their sockets, the plugs and the cords (Exo 27:10, Exo 27:19; Exo 35:18); that is to say, they were to take charge of these when the tabernacle was taken down, to carry them on the march, and to fix them when the tabernacle was set up again (Num 4:31-32).
Moses and Aaron, with the sons of the latter (the priests), were to encamp in front, before the tabernacle, viz., on the eastern side, "as keepers of the charge of the sanctuary for the charge of the children of Israel," i.e., to attend to everything that was binding upon the children of Israel in relation to the care of the sanctuary, as no stranger was allowed to approach it on pain of death (see Num 1:51).
The number of the Levites mustered, 22,000, does not agree with the numbers assigned to the three families, as 7500 + 8600 + 6200 = 22,300. But the total is correct; for, according to Num 3:46, the number of the first-born, 22,273, exceeded the total number of the Levites by 273. The attempt made by the Rabbins and others to reconcile the two, by supposing the 300 Levites in excess to be themselves first-born, who were omitted in the general muster, because they were not qualified to represent the first-born of the other tribes, is evidently forced and unsatisfactory. The whole account is so circumstantial, that such a fact as this would never have been omitted. We must rather assume that there is a copyist's error in the number of one of the Levitical families; possibly in Num 3:28 we should read שׁלשׁ for שׁשׁ (8300 for 8600). The puncta extraordinaria above ואהרן are intended to indicate that this word is either suspicious or spurious (see at Gen 33:5); and it is actually omitted in Sam., Syr., and 12 MSS, but without sufficient reason: for although the divine command to muster the Levites (Num 3:5 and Num 3:14) was addressed to Moses alone, yet if we compare Num 4:1, Num 4:34, Num 4:37, Num 4:41, Num 4:45, where the Levites qualified for service are said to have been mustered by Moses and Aaron, and still more Num 4:46, where the elders of Israel are said to have taken part in the numbering of the Levites as well as in that of the twelve tribes (Num 1:3-4), there can be no reason to doubt that Aaron also took part in the mustering of the whole of the Levites, for the purpose of adoption in the place of the first-born of Israel; and no suspicion attaches to this introduction of his name in Num 3:39, although it is not mentioned in Num 3:5, Num 3:11, Num 3:14, Num 3:40, and Num 3:44.
After this, Moses numbered the first-born of the children of Israel, to exchange them for the Levites according to the command of God, which is repeated in Num 3:41 and Num 3:44-45 from Num 3:11-13, and to adopt the latter in their stead for the service at the sanctuary (on Num 3:41 and Num 3:45, cf. Num 3:11-13). The number of the first-born of the twelve tribes amounted to 22,273 of a month old and upwards (Num 3:43). Of this number 22,000 were exchanged for the 22,000 Levites, and the cattle of the Levites were also set against the first-born of the cattle of the tribes of Israel, though without their being numbered and exchanged head for head. In Num 3:44 and Num 3:45 the command of God concerning the adoption of the Levites is repeated, for the purpose of adding the further instructions with regard to the 273, the number by which the first-born of the tribes exceeded those of the Levites. "And as for the redemption of the 273 (lit., the 273 to be redeemed) of the first-born of the children of Israel which were more than the Levites, thou shalt take five shekels a head," etc. This was the general price established by the law for the redemption of the first-born of men (see Num 18:16). On the sacred shekel, see at Exo 30:13. The redemption money for 273 first-born, in all 1365 shekels, was to be paid to Aaron and his sons as compensation for the persons who properly belonged to Jehovah, and had been appointed as first-born for the service of the priests.
"The redeemed of the Levites" are the 22,000 who were redeemed by means of the Levites. In Num 3:50, the Chethibh הפּדים is the correct reading, and the Keri הפּדים an unnecessary emendation. The number of the first-born and that of the Levites has already been noticed in the introduction to Numbers 1.