Meet the Levites
Aaron’s boys1This is the story of Aaron and Moses. It’s about what happened to them when they and the Israelites camped at Mount Sinai and when the LORD talked with Moses. 2Aaron had four sons: Nadab, the oldest, followed by Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 3Aaron’s sons were all ordained priests, commissioned to minister as priests. 4But Nadab and Abihu died when the LORD sent a flash fire to punish them. They had tried burning a strange incense offering to God. They had no children.
Levites become the new “firstborn sons”5The LORD told Moses: 6Tell the tribe of Levi to step forward. I want you to present them to Aaron the priest. Tell them they are to work for him. 7Their job is to serve him and all Israelites at the tent worship center. 8They’ll maintain the worship center inside and out, including all the furnishings. And they’ll help with whatever work goes on there. 9Assign the Levites to Aaron and his sons. They work for the priests alone. 10Tell Aaron and his sons that their job is to serve the people as their priests. If anyone else tries to do their work for them, execute them. 11The LORD also told Moses: 12Look, the Levites belong to me now. You used to give me the first child born in every family. But now, Levites will take their place. 13The first child in every family belongs to me. I showed that when I took the life of every first child born in Egyptian families. I did it, too, when I took the firstborn of their livestock. The first child of every Israelite belongs to me, and so do the first of their livestock. I made them mine. I am the LORD.
Census: Counting the Levites14With the Israelites still camped in the Sinai badlands, the LORD told Moses: 15Take a census of the Levites. Get a count of every male in every household. Count every boy or man who’s at least a month old. 16So, Moses counted them, just as the LORD instructed. 17Here are the descendants of Levi and his three sons, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. 18Gershon’s family grew into two clans—extended families named after two of his descendants: Libni and Shimei. 19Kohath’s family produced four clans named after descendants: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. 20Merari’s family produced two clans named after descendants: Mahli and Mushi.
These are the main Levite clans.
Meet the Gershon family21Two extended families made up the larger Gershon clan: Libni families and Shimei families. 22There were 7,500 boys and men in the clan, each one a month of age or older. 23The Gershon clan made their camp on the west side of the tent worship center. 24Eliasaph, Lael’s son, led the family. 25The Gershons were responsible for the tent sanctuary, with the layers of fabric and hide covering it. They managed the curtain entrance into the courtyard, too. 26They also took care of the curtain wall surrounding the worship center courtyard, altar, and sanctuary. This included the ropes and other equipment needed to support and maintain the curtains.
Meet the Kohath family27Four extended families made up the larger Kohath clan: Amram families, Izhar families, Hebron families, and Uzziel families. 28There were 8,600 boys and men in the clan, each one a month of age or older. They took care of the sanctuary: the Sacred Room. 29The Kohath clan camped on the south side of the tent worship center. 20Elizaphan, Uzziel’s son, led the family. 31The Kohath clan was responsible for almost everything inside the tent worship center. That included the sacred box that held the Ten Commandments, the curtained walls, the table that held the holy bread, the lampstand, the altars, and utensils priests used inside the Sacred Room. 32Aaron’s son, Eleazar the priest, oversaw everything that took place in the Sacred Room. He made sure the families did the work assigned them.
Meet the Merari family33Two extended families made up the larger Merari clan: Mahli families and Mushi families. 34There were 6,200 boys and men in the clan, each one a month of age or older. 35Zuriel, Abihail’s son, led the family. Merari’s pitched their tents on the north side of the sacred tent worship center. 36The Merari clan maintained the framework that held the sacred tent together: posts and their attached bases, crossbars, and everything needed to work with them and secure them in place. 37The family also took care of the framework that held the curtained wall around the sacred tent and its courtyard: posts, bases, ropes, and pegs which they drove into the ground to anchor the framing.
Reserved for Moses, Aaron38Moses and Aaron had a reserved campsite just outside the entrance into the courtyard of the tent worship center. This was on the sunrise side of the tent, at the eastern gate. They were in charge of what took place inside the sacred tent. If anyone other than a Levite tried to go inside, they were executed. 39Moses and Aaron counted the Levites, as the LORD instructed. There were 22,000 boys and men in the tribe, each one a month of age or older.
Census: firstborn sons40The LORD told Moses: I want you to count all the boys and men ages one month and older who were the first children born in their families. Make a list of their names. The LORD told Moses:
I want you to count all the boys and men ages one month and older who were the first children born in their families. Make a list of their names. 41I'm reserving the Levites for myself. They’ll be uniquely devoted to me. And they’ll take the place of the firstborn Israelite sons—the children formerly reserved for me. I am the LORD. Also, I want Levite livestock to take the place of the firstborn animals of all Israelites—animals previously sacrificed to me. 42Moses did what the LORD said. He counted the first sons born in each family. 43He came up with 22,273 firstborn sons, ages one month and older.
An offering for the priests44The LORD told Moses: 45Now I want you to give me the Levites as substitutes for all the first sons born into Israelite families. And do the same with Levite livestock. Substitute their animals for all the firstborn animals that the Israelites own. The Levites are mine now. I am the LORD. 46But there aren’t enough Levites to cover all the first sons born into Israelite families. There are 273 more firstborn Israelite sons than there are Levites. So, Israelites have to make up the difference. 47Take a collection. Have all the Israelite firstborn sons contribute five silver shekels. I’m talking about the kind of shekel weight approved for use at the worship center. 48Give that money to Aaron. It’s a redemption fee for the 273 firstborn Israelites not covered by a Levite substitute. 49Moses collected the money to cover the cost of firstborn Israelites buying themselves back from the LORD. 50Moses collected 1,365 silver shekels, in the shekel size accepted at the worship center. 51Moses gave the money to Aaron and his sons, as the LORD told him to do.
More literally, they “died in the presence of the LORD.” But the details are reported in Leviticus 10:2.
Moses and Aaron were both Levites, born into the tribe descended from Levi, who was one of Jacob’s 12 sons.
It took people with expertise in many areas to maintain and run the tent worship center, and later the Jerusalem Temple: tentmakers, metalworkers, carpenters. Some would eventually serve as security officers. Temple police helped arrest Jesus (John 18:3).
God didn’t require the Israelites to sacrifice their firstborn children, as some other religions in the region apparently did. But God had each family, in a sense, buy back the children by substituting them with animal sacrifices instead. That’s how Exodus 22:29 reports it. Some scholars say a different writer here in Numbers—someone with ties to the Jewish priesthood—told a different story. He said God has subbed out the firstborn children and subbed in the Levites. Perhaps another possibility is to consider the story as an illustration of how uniquely devoted to God the Levites would become. They would serve the emerging nation of Israel as the ministry tribe, as Israel’s worship leaders, and as the ancient version of today’s church bishop, with the pastors or priests under the bishop’s care, along with all of the local church ministry teams.
There were two rooms inside the tent sanctuary. The Sacred Room was the largest room. It’s where most of the activity inside the tent took place. Priests would go into this room every day and present God with incense offerings. And they would maintain the lamps and perform worship rituals, such as eating sacred bread. The high priest and Moses were the only ones allowed in the other room, the Most Sacred Room, sometimes called the Holy of Holies. This is where Israelites kept their most sacred object, the gold-plated box known as the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Ten Commandments etched into stone. These two rooms are also known in other Bible translations and paraphrases as the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place.
Ark of the Covenant.
See the relevant note for Numbers 3:12.
Some scholars argue that this, too, was a symbolic way of expressing the uniqueness of the Levites. Sacrifices of firstborn animals did seem to continue, as did the dedication of firstborn children such as the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1:21-28) and Jesus (Luke 2:23-24).
Roughly two ounces or 57 grams. See the note below about different weights in shekels.
Shekels came in different kinds of metal and different weights. It’s unclear what kind of shekel the writer was describing, or how much it weighed. There was a heavy shekel that weighed about 11.5 grams or .4 ounces. This was sometimes called the King’s Shekel or the Royal Shekel. Some scholars say this was also the weight used in the Israelite tent worship center and later in the Jerusalem Temple. The lighter shekel weighed about 9.5 grams or .33 ounces. Some scholars say this was probably the shekel accepted at the worship center. So, flip a coin.
Depending on the size of the shekel coin, Moses collected somewhere between 29-35 pounds (13-16 kg) of silver.
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