Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Service and Revenues of the Priests and Levites - Numbers 18
The practical confirmation of the priesthood of Aaron and his family, on the part of God, is very appropriately followed by the legal regulations concerning the official duties of the priest and Levites (Num 18:1-7), and the revenues to be assigned them for their services (vv. 8-32), as the laws hitherto given upon this subject, although they contain many isolated stipulations, have not laid down any complete and comprehensive arrangement. The instructions relating to this subject were addressed by Jehovah directly to Aaron (see Num 18:1 and Num 18:8), up to the law, that out of the tenths which the Levites were to collect from the people, they were to pay a tenth again to the priests; and this was addressed to Moses (Num 18:25), as the head of all Israel.
The Official Duties and Rights of the Priests and Levites. - Num 18:1. To impress upon the minds of the priests and Levites the holiness and responsibility of their office, the service of Aaron, of his sons, and of his father's house, i.e., of the family of the Kohathites, is described as "bearing the iniquity of the sanctuary," and the service which was peculiar to the Aaronides, as "bearing the iniquity of their priesthood." "To bear the iniquity of the sanctuary" signifies not only "to have to make expiation for all that offended against the laws of the priests and the holy things, i.e., the desecration of these" (Knobel), but "iniquity or transgression at the sanctuary," i.e., the defilement of it by the sin of those who drew near to the sanctuary; not only of the priests and Levites, but of the whole people who defiled the sanctuary in the midst of them with its holy vessels, not only by their sins (Lev 16:6), but even by their holy gifts (Exo 28:38), and thus brought guilt upon the whole congregation, which the priests were to bear, i.e., to take upon themselves and expunge, by virtue of the holiness and sanctifying power communicated to their office (see at Exo 28:38). The "iniquity of the priesthood," however, not only embraced every offence against the priesthood, every neglect of the most scrupulous and conscientious fulfilment of duty in connection with their office, but extended to all the sin which attached to the official acts of the priests, on account of the sinfulness of their nature. It was to wipe out these sins and defilements, that the annual expiation of the holy things on the day of atonement had been appointed (Lev 16:16.). The father's house of Aaron, i.e., the Levitical family of Kohath, was also to join in bearing the iniquity of the sanctuary, because the oversight of the holy vessels of the sanctuary devolved upon it (Num 4:4.).
Aaron was also to bring his (other) brethren (sc., to the sanctuary), viz., the tribe of Levi, that is to say, the Gershonites and Merarites, that they might attach themselves to him and serve him, both him (ואתּה) and his sons, before the tent of testimony, and discharge the duties that were binding upon them, according to Num 4:24., Num 4:31. (cf. Num 3:6-7; Num 8:26). Only they were not to come near to the holy vessels and the altar, for that would bring death both upon them and the priests (see at Num 4:15). On Num 18:4, cf. Num 1:53 and Num 3:7.
The charge of the sanctuary (i.e., the dwelling) and the altar (of burnt-offering) devolved upon Aaron and his sons, that the wrath of God might not come again upon the children of Israel (see Num 8:19), - namely, through such illegal acts as Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:2), and the company of Korah (Num 16:35), had committed. To this end God had handed over the Levites to them as a gift, to be their assistants (see at Num 3:9 and Num 8:16, Num 8:19). But Aaron and his sons were to attend to the priesthood "with regard to everything of the altar and within the vail" (i.e., of the most holy place, see Lev 16:12). The allusion is to all the priestly duties from the altar of burnt-offering to the most holy place, including the holy place which lay between. This office, which brought them into the closest fellowship with the Lord, was a favour accorded to them by the grace of God. This is expressed in the words, "as a service of gift (a service with which I present you) I give you the priesthood." The last words in Num 18:7 are the same as in Num 1:51; and "stranger" (zar), as in Lev 22:10.
The Revenues of the Priests. - These are summed up in Num 18:8 in these words, "I give thee the keeping of My heave-offerings in all holy gifts for a portion, as an eternal statute." The notion of משׁמרת, keeping, as in Exo 12:6; Exo 16:23, Exo 16:32, is defined in the second parallel clause as משׁחה, a portion (see at Lev 7:35). The priests were to keep all the heave-offerings, as the portion which belonged to them, out of the sacrificial gifts that the children of Israel offered to the Lord. תּרוּמת, heave-offerings (see at Exo 25:2, and Lev 2:9), is used here in the broadest sense, as including all the holy gifts (kodashim, see Lev 21:22) which the Israelites lifted off from their possessions and presented to the Lord (as in Num 5:9). Among these, for example, were, first of all, the most holy gifts in the meat-offerings, sin-offerings, and trespass-offerings (Num 18:9, Num 18:10; see at Lev 2:3). The burnt-offerings are not mentioned, because the whole of the flesh of these was burned upon the altar, and the skin alone fell to the portion of the priest (Lev 7:8). "From the fire," sc., of the altar. אשׁ, fire, is equivalent to אשּׁה ot , firing (see Lev 1:9). These gifts they were to eat, as most holy, in a most holy place, i.e., in the court of the tabernacle (see Lev 6:9, Lev 6:19; Lev 7:6), which is called "most holy" here, to lay a stronger emphasis upon the precept. In the second place, these gifts included also "the holy gifts;" viz., (a) (Num 18:11) the heave-offering of their gifts in all wave-offerings (tenuphoth), i.e., the wave-breast and heave-leg of the peace-offerings, and whatever else was waved in connection with the sacrifices (see at Lev 7:33): these might be eaten by both the male and female members of the priestly families, provided they were legally clean (Lev 22:3.); (b) (Num 18:12) the gifts of first-fruits: "all the fat (i.e., the best, as in Gen 45:18) of oil, new wine, and corn," viz., ראשׁיתם, "the first of them," the בּכּוּרים, "the first-grown fruits" of the land, and that of all the fruit of the ground (Deu 26:2, Deu 26:10; Pro 3:9; Eze 44:30), corn, wine, oil, honey, and tree-fruit (Deu 8:8, compared with Lev 19:23-24), which were offered, according to Ch2 31:5; Neh 10:36, Neh 10:38, Tob. 1:6, as first-fruits every year (see Mishnah, Bikkur, i. 3, 10, where the first-fruits are specified according to the productions mentioned in Deu 8:8; the law prescribed nothing in relation to the quantity of the different first-fruits, but left this entirely to the offerer himself); (c) (Num 18:14) everything placed under a ban (see at Lev 27:28); and (d) (Num 18:15-18) the first-born of man and beast. The first-born of men and of unclean beasts were redeemed according to Num 3:47; Exo 13:12-13, and Lev 27:6, Lev 27:27; but such as were fit for sacrifice were actually offered, the blood being swung against the altar, and the fat portions burned upon it, whilst the whole of the flesh fell to the portion of the priests. So far as the redemption of human beings was concerned (Num 18:16), they were "to redeem from the monthly child," i.e., the first-born child as soon as it was a month old.
"All the holy heave-offerings" are not the thank-offerings (Knobel), but, as in Num 18:8, all the holy gifts enumerated in Num 18:9-18. Jehovah gives these to the priests as an eternal claim. "An eternal covenant of salt is this before Jehovah," for Aaron and his descendants. A "covenant of salt;" equivalent to an indissoluble covenant, or inviolable contract (see at Lev 2:13).
For this reason, Aaron was to received no inheritance in the land among the children of Israel. Aaron, as the head of the priests, represents the whole priesthood; and with regard to the possession, the whole tribe of Levi is placed, in Num 18:23, on an equality with the priests. The Levites were to receive no portion of the land as an inheritance in Canaan (cf. Num 26:62; Deu 12:12; Deu 14:27; Jos 14:3). Jehovah was the portion and inheritance, not only of Aaron and his sons, but of the whole tribe of Levi (cf. Deu 10:9; Deu 18:2; Jos 13:33); or, as it is expressed in Jos 18:7, "the priesthood of Jehovah was their inheritance," though not in the sense that Knobel supposes viz., "the priesthood with its revenues," which would make the expression "Jehovah, the God of Israel" (Jos 13:33), to be metonymical for "sacrificial gifts, first-fruits, and tenths." The possession of the priests and Levites did not consist in the revenues assigned to them by God, but in the possession of Jehovah, the God of Israel. In the same sense in which the tribe of Levi was the peculiar possession of Jehovah out of the whole of the people of possession, was Jehovah also the peculiar possession of Levi; and just as the other tribes were to live upon what was afforded by the land assigned them as a possession, Levi was to live upon what Jehovah bestowed upon it. And inasmuch as not only the whole land of the twelve tribes, with which Jehovah had enfeoffed them, but the whole earth, belonged to Jehovah (Exo 19:5), He was necessarily to be regarded as the greatest possession of all, beyond which nothing greater is conceivable, and in comparison with which every other possession is to be regarded as nothing. Hence it was evidently the greatest privilege and highest honour to have Him for a portion and possession (Bhr, Symbolik, ii. p. 44). "For truly," as Masius writes (Com. on Josh.), "he who possesses God possesses all things; and the worship (cultus) of Him is infinitely fuller of delight, and far more productive, than the cultivation (cultus) of any soil."
Revenues of the Levites. - For (חלף, instead of, for) their service at the tabernacle God assigns them "every tenth in Israel as an inheritance." On the tenth, see at Lev 27:30-33. The institution and description of their service in Num 18:22 and Num 18:23 is the same as that in Num 1:53 and Num 8:19. "Lest they bear sin:" see at Lev 19:17.
Appropriation of the Tithe. - Num 18:26. When the Levites took (received) from the people the tithe assigned them by Jehovah, they were to lift off from it a heave-offering for Jehovah, a tithe of the tithe for Aaron the priest (i.e., for the priesthood; see at Num 18:20). "Your heave-offering shall be reckoned to you as the corn of the threshing-floor, and the fulness (see Exo 22:28) of the wine-press," i.e., according to Num 18:30, as the revenue of the threshing-floor and wine-press; that is to say, as corn and wine which they had reaped themselves.
The whole of this heave-offering of Jehovah, i.e., the tithe of the tithe, they were to lift off from all their gifts, from all the tithes of the people which they received; "of all the fat of it," i.e., of all the best of the heave-offering they received, they were to lift off את־מקדּשׁו, "its holy," i.e., the holy part, which was to be dedicated to Jehovah.
They might eat it (the tithe they had received, after taking off the priests' tithe) in any place with their families, as it was the reward for their service at the tabernacle.
They would load no sin upon themselves by so doing (see Lev 19:17), if they only lifted off the best as tithe (for the priest), and did not desecrate the holy gifts, sc., by eating in all kinds of places, which was not allowed, according to Num 18:10, with regard to the most holy gifts. These regulations concerning the revenues of the priests and Levites were in perfect accordance with the true idea of the Israelitish kingdom of God. Whereas in heathen states, where there was an hereditary priestly caste, that caste was generally a rich one, and held a firm possession in the soil (in Egypt, for example; see at Gen 47:22), the Levites received no hereditary landed property in the land of Israel, but only towns to dwell in among the other tribes, with pasturage for their cattle (ch. 35), because Jehovah, the God of Israel, would be their inheritance. In this way their earthly existence as based upon the spiritual ground and soil of faith, in accordance with the calling assigned them to be the guardians and promoters of the commandments, statutes, and rights of Jehovah; and their authority and influence among the people were bound up with their unreserved surrender of themselves to the Lord, and their firm reliance upon the possession of their God. Now, whilst this position was to be a constant incitement to the Levites to surrender themselves entirely to the Lord and His service, it was also to become to the whole nation a constant admonition, inasmuch as it was a prerogative conferred upon them by the Lord, to seek the highest of all good in the possession of the Lord, as its portion and inheritance. - The revenue itself, however, which the Lord assigned to the Levites and priests, as His servants, consisting of the tenths and first-fruits, as well as certain portions of the different sacrificial gifts that were offered to Him, appears to have been a very considerable one, especially if we adopt the computation of J. D. Michaelis (Mos. Recht. i. 52) with reference to the tithes. "A tribe," he says, "which had only 22,000 males in it (23,000 afterwards), and therefore could hardly have numbered more than 12,000 grown-up men, received the tithes of 600,000 Israelites; consequently one single Levite, without the slightest necessity for sowing, and without any of the expenses of agriculture, reaped or received from the produce of the flocks and herds as much as five of the other Israelites." But this leaves out of sight the fact that tithes are never paid so exactly as this, and that no doubt there was as little conscientiousness in the matter then as there is at the present day, when those who are entitled to receive a tenth often receive even less than a twentieth. Moreover, the revenue of the tribe, which the Lord had chosen as His own peculiar possession, was not intended to be a miserable and beggarly one; but it was hardly equal, at any time, to the revenues which the priestly castes of other nations derived from their endowments. Again, the Levites had to give up the tenth of all the tithes they received to the priests; and the priests were to offer to Jehovah upon the altar a portion of the first-fruits, heave-offerings, and wave-offerings that were assigned to them. Consequently, as the whole nation was to make a practical acknowledgment, in the presentation of the tithe and first-fruits, that it had received its hereditary property as a fief from the Lord its God, so the Levites, by their payment of the tenth to the priests, and the priests, by presenting a portion of their revenues upon the altar, were to make a practical confession that they had received all their revenues from the Lord their God, and owed Him praise and adoration in return (see Bhr, Symbolik, ii. pp. 43ff.).