We jump straight in with some quick genealogizing.

We’re reminded that Aaron had four sons – Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar – but that the elder two died “when they offered unholy fire before the Lord” (v.4), and they left no children.

We’re also told that only Aaron and his sons are allowed to be near the tabernacle, and that anyone else who approaches “shall be put to death” (v.10) – which I imagine makes things rather awkward for Moses.

Caring for your tabernacle

In the next portion of the chapter, we see a repeat of the Levite portion of the Exodus 6 genealogy, with some specifications as to which branches of the family are responsible for what.

You’ll remember that Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

Gershonites:

  • Gershon had two sons: Libni and Shimei (called Shimi in Exodus 6).
  • There are 7,500 Gershonites, and their camp is on the west side of the tent of meeting.
  • They are led by Eliasaph, son of Lael.
  • They are in charge of the tabernacle, the tent and its covering, the screen for the door of the tent of meeting, the hangings of the court, the screen for the door of the court, and its cords. Plus any services pertaining to any of these.

Kohathites:

  • Kohath had four sons: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel.
  • There are 8,600 Kohathites, and their camp is on the south side of the tent of meeting.
  • They are led by Elizaphan, son of Uzziel.
  • They are in charge of the ark, the table, the lampstand, the alters, the vessels of the sanctuary, and the screen. And, of course, any services pertaining to these.

The family of Merari:

  • Merari had two sons: Mahli (called Mahali in Exodus 6) and Mushi.
  • There are 6,200 in the clan of Merari, and their camp is on the north side.
  • They are led by Zuriel, son of Abihail.
  • They are in charge of the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessors. Also, the pillars of the court, their bases, and their pegs. And, as usual, any services pertaining to these.

Aaron’s sons:

  • Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons camp on the east side – “toward the sunrise” (v.38).
  • Aaron’s eldest son, Eleazar (now that Nadab and Abihu are dead), is the overall chief of the Levites.
  • They are in charge of the rites within the sanctuary.

You can see what the camp locations look like in the handy map we used in our discussion of Numbers 1&2:

12TribesEncampment

If you’re wondering why we’re counting Levites after Numbers 1:28, 2:33 specifically said not to count Levites, it’s because this is actually a different census. The one we got in the last two chapters was to determine how many potential soldiers were available, whereas this one has a more religious focus – as we shall see in the next section:

Redemption

We’ve been hearing an awful lot about how all the first-borns belong to God. This is repeated in Numbers 3, with the explanation that God had claimed all of the first-born back in Egypt – Egyptian and Israelite alike. He had chosen to kill the Egyptian kids right away, but had saved the Israelite ones for later. He’s keeping them alive, but they were tagged as God’s on the night of the Passover.

Nadab and Abihu offer unholy fire and die, from the Nuremberg Bible (Biblia Sacra Germanaica), 15th cent.

Nadab and Abihu offer unholy fire and die, from the Nuremberg Bible (Biblia Sacra Germanaica), 15th cent.

In Leviticus 27, we saw that people could be given as offerings to God without killing them. Instead, they would be servants/slaves belonging to God, having to do servile work around the sanctuary. So in this chapter, God is saying that all the first-born Israelites should be committed in this way.

But, of course, that’s not very practical, and our friendly neighbourhood God knows this. So he offers a chance to “redeem” the children by offering a substitute in their place.

The default substitute is a Levite. Every time a first-born is born to an Israelite, they are matched up to a Levite child who will do the servile work in the sanctuary in the first-born’s place. But, of course, God hasn’t quite figured out a way to keep Levite reproduction rates at a pace that matches the first-born birth rates, so he offers up a contingency plan: If there’s no Levite to take your child’s place, you can offer 5 shekels instead (which goes straight to Aaron). Today, this practice is called Pidyon haBen. Since there’s no proper Levites these days, the money just goes straight to your local guy with the last name of Cohen.

(First-born among cattle are substituted for cattle belonging to the Levites, just in case you were concerned that domesticated animals were being left out.)

At which point the author of Numbers decides to dispel some stereotypes and does a little math – badly. It presents the total number of first-borns among the Israelites as 22,273, and the total of the Levite males as 22,000. The actual total, based on the numbers we’re given just a few short verses earlier, is actually 22,300. We might argue that they’re just rounding, but then they go on to calculate the difference – 273 too many first-borns at 5 shekels each means that Aaron and his sons get 1,365 shekels. If they’re rounding, this whole passage makes no sense.

There’s also no mention of what happens if the number disparity is reversed (as is actually the case). Do extra Levites get to go free? Or are they still tied to the sanctuary? And if they’re still tied to the sanctuary, does the redemption trade have any meaning?

As an added note, Moses is instructed only to count children who are over 1 month of age. While this likely has a practical purpose (given the possibility of infant mortality), it also provides an interesting perspective on the abortion debate – since our current laws consider humans to be persons starting at birth, whereas God is literally only counting them at one month after birth. To claim biblical justification for moving that line to a point prior to birth is clearly problematic.

(I think that it also speaks to gender issues. The Bible – at least what we’ve read of it so far – is very clearly a text written for men by men, mentioning women only infrequently and certainly not concerned with what we might call “women’s issues.” If I’m not mistaken, in the ancient Mediterranean world, abortion was very much considered a women’s issue – so even though it, and contraception, were common, they are not getting any page space. The only real exception to this is in the story of Onan, which is more a purity concern with the spilling of seed, rather than a concern with barrier contraceptive methods.)