Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Consecration of the Levites. - The command of God to consecrate the Levites for their service, is introduced in Num 8:1-4 by directions issued to Aaron with regard to the lighting of the candlestick in the dwelling of the tabernacle. Aaron was to place the seven lamps upon the candlestick in such a manner that they would shine פּניו אל־מוּל. These directions are not a mere repetition, but also a more precise definition, of the general instructions given in Exo 25:37, when the candlestick was made, to place the seven lamps upon the candlestick in such a manner that each should give light over against its front, i.e., should throw its light upon the side opposite to the front of the candlestick. In itself, therefore, there is nothing at all striking in the renewal and explanation of those directions, which committed the task of lighting the lamps to Aaron; for this had not been done before, as Exo 27:21 merely assigns the daily preparation of the candlestick to Aaron and his sons; and their being placed in the connection in which we find them may be explained from the signification of the seven lamps in relation to the dwelling of God, viz., as indicating that Israel was thereby to be represented perpetually before the Lord as a people causing its light to shine in the darkness of this world. And when Aaron is commanded to attend to the lighting of the candlestick, so that it may light up the dwelling, in these special instructions the entire fulfilment of his service in the dwelling is enforced upon him as a duty. In this respect the instructions themselves, coupled with the statement of the fact that Aaron had fulfilled them, stand quite appropriately between the account of what the tribe-princes had done for the consecration of the altar service as representatives of the congregation, and the account of the solemn inauguration of the Levites in their service in the sanctuary. The repetition on this occasion (Exo 27:4) of an allusion to the artistic character of the candlestick, which had been made according to the pattern seen by Moses in the mount (Exo 25:31.), is quite in keeping with the antiquated style of narrative adopted in these books.
Consecration of the Levites for their service in the sanctuary. - The choice of the Levites for service in the sanctuary, in the place of the first-born of the people generally, has been already noticed in Num 3:5., and the duties binding upon them in Num 4:4. But before entering upon their duties they were to be consecrated to the work, and then formally handed over to the priests. This consecration is commanded in Num 8:7., and is not called קדּשׁ, like the consecration of the priests (Exo 29:1; Lev 8:11), but טהר to cleanse. It consisted in sprinkling them with sin-water, shaving off the whole of the hair from their bodies, and washing their clothes, accompanied by a sacrificial ceremony, by which they were presented symbolically to the Lord as a sacrifice for His service. The first part of this ceremony had reference to outward purification, and represented cleansing from the defilement of sin; hence the performance of it is called התחטּא (to cleanse from sin) in Num 8:21. "Sprinkle sin-water upon them." The words are addressed to Moses, who had to officiate at the inauguration of the Levites, as he had already done at that of the priests. "Water of sin" is water having reference to sin, designed to remove it, just as the sacrifice offered for the expiation of sin is called חטּאת (sin) in Lev 4:14, etc.; whilst the "water of uncleanness" in Num 19:9, Num 19:13, signifies water by which uncleanness was removed or wiped away. The nature of this purifying water is not explained, and cannot be determined with any certainty. We find directions for preparing sprinkling water in a peculiar manner, for the purpose of cleansing persons who were cured of leprosy, in Lev 14:5., 50ff.; and also for cleansing both persons and houses that had been defiled by a corpse, in Num 19:9. Neither of these, however, was applicable to the cleansing of the Levites, as they were both of them composed of significant ingredients, which stood in the closest relation to the special cleansing to be effected by them, and had evidently no adaptation to the purification of the Levites. At the same time, the expression "sin-water" precludes our understanding it to mean simply clean water. So that nothing remains but to regard it as referring to the water in the laver of the sanctuary, which was provided for the purpose of cleansing the priests for the performance of their duties (Exo 30:18.), and might therefore be regarded by virtue of this as cleansing from sin, and be called "sin-water" in consequence. "And they shall cause the razor to pass over their whole body," i.e., shave off all the hair upon their body, "and wash their clothes, and so cleanse themselves." תּער העביר is to be distinguished from גּלּח. The latter signifies to make balk or shave the hair entirely off, which was required of the leper when he was cleansed (Lev 14:8-9); the former signifies merely cutting the hair, which was part of the regular mode of adorning the body. The Levites also were not required to bathe their bodies, as lepers were (Lev 13:8-9), and also the priests at their consecration (Lev 8:6), because they were not affected with any special uncleanness, and their duties did not require them to touch the most holy instruments of worship. The washing of the clothes, on the other hand, was a thing generally required as a preparation for acts of worship (Gen 35:2; Exo 19:10), and was omitted in the case of the consecration of the priests, simply because they received a holy official dress. הטּהרוּ for הטּהרוּ, as in Ch2 30:18.
After this purification the Levites were to bring two young bullocks, one with the corresponding meat-offering for a burnt-sacrifice, the other for a sin-offering.
Moses was then to cause them to draw near before the tabernacle, i.e., to enter the court, and to gather together the whole congregation of Israel, viz., in the persons of their heads and representatives.
After this the Levites were to come before Jehovah, i.e., in front of the altar; and the children of Israel, i.e., the tribe-princes in the name of the Israelites, were to lay their hands upon them, not merely "as a sign that they released them from the possession of the nation, and assigned them and handed them over to Jehovah" (Knobel), but in order that by this symbolical act they might transfer to the Levites the obligation resting upon the whole nation to serve the Lord in the persons of its first-born sons, and might present them to the Lord as representatives of the first-born of Israel, to serve Him as living sacrifices.
This transfer was to be completed by Aaron's waving the Levites as a wave-offering before Jehovah on behalf of the children of Israel, i.e., by his offering them symbolically to the Lord as a sacrifice presented on the part of the Israelites. The ceremony of waving consisted no doubt in his conducting the Levites solemnly up to the altar, and then back again. On the signification of the verb, see at Lev 7:30. The design of the waving is given in Num 8:11, viz., "that they might be to perform the service of Jehovah" (Num 8:24-26 compared with Num 4:4-33).
The Levites were then to close this transfer of themselves to the Lord with a sin-offering and burnt-offering, in which they laid their hands upon the sacrificial animals. By this imposition of hands they made the sacrificial animals their representatives, in which they presented their own bodies to the Lord as a living sacrifice well-pleasing to Him. The signification of the dedication of the Levites, as here enjoined, is still further explained in Num 8:13-19. The meaning of Num 8:13. is this: According to the command already given (in Num 8:6-12), thou shalt place the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and wave them as a wave-offering before the Lord, and so separate them from the midst of the children of Israel, that they may be Mine. They shall then come to serve the tabernacle. So shalt thou cleanse them and wave them. The same reason is assigned for this in Num 8:16, Num 8:17, as in Num 3:11-13 (כּל בּכור for כּל־בּכור, cf. Num 3:13); and in Num 8:18 and Num 8:19, what was commanded in Num 3:6-9 is described as having been carried out. On Num 8:19 see Num 1:53.
Num 8:20-22 contain an account of the execution of the divine command.
The Levitical period of service is fixed here at twenty-five years of age and upwards to the fiftieth year. "This is what concerns the Levites," i.e., what follows applies to the Levites. "From the age of twenty-five years shall he (the Levite) come to do service at the work of the tabernacle; and at fifty years of age shall he return from the service of the work, and not work any further, but only serve his brethren at the tabernacle in keeping charge," i.e., help them to look after the furniture of the tabernacle. "Charge" (mishmereth), as distinguished from "work," signified the oversight of all the furniture of the tabernacle (see Num 3:8); "work" (service) applied to laborious service, e.g., the taking down and setting up of the tabernacle and cleaning it, carrying wood and water for the sacrificial worship, slaying the animals for the daily and festal sacrifices of the congregation, etc.
"So shalt thou do to the Levites (i.e., proceed with them) in their services." משׁמרת from משׁמרת, attendance upon an official post. Both the heading and final clause, by which this law relating to the Levites' period of service is bounded, and its position immediately after the induction of the Levites into their office, show unmistakeably that this law was binding for all time, and was intended to apply to the standing service of the Levites at the sanctuary; and consequently that it was not at variance with the instructions in ch. 4, to muster the Levites between thirty and fifty years of age, and organize them for the transport of the tabernacle on the journey through the wilderness (Num 4:3-49). The transport of the tabernacle required the strength of a full-grown man, and therefore the more advanced age of thirty years; whereas the duties connected with the tabernacle when standing were of a lighter description, and could easily be performed from the twenty-fifth year (see Hengstenberg's Dissertations, vol. ii. pp. 321ff.). At a later period, when the sanctuary was permanently established on Mount Zion, David employed the Levites from their twentieth year (Ch1 23:24-25), and expressly stated that he did so because the Levites had no longer to carry the dwelling and its furniture; and this regulation continued in force from that time forward (cf. Ch2 31:17; Ezr 3:8). But if the supposed discrepancy between the verses before us and Num 4:3, Num 4:47, is removed by this distinction, which is gathered in the most simple manner from the context, there is no ground whatever for critics to deny that the regulation before us could have proceeded from the pen of the Elohist.