Today we are going to begin discussing how the Lord had chosen the Levites as the substitute for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel.
Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
Numbers 3:11 (AMP)
Verse 11 begins a fascinating divine instruction that is almost lost to both Christianity and Judaism. This is an instruction that I stated to you in my last blog, and told you we’d get it into a little more later…so here we are.
And, the instruction takes place in verses 11-13:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me, for all the firstborn males are mine. On the day I struck down all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both of people and of animals. They are mine; I am the Lord.”
Numbers 3:11-13 (NLT)
It is that the Levites are to REPLACE the first-born of the other tribes of Israel. That is, whereby God, in some special way, regarded all the firstborn males of the tribes of Israel as special and set-apart for Him…a kind of ownership or adoption by God…NOW He has taken the Levites, in total, as His own in substitute of all the firstborns of Israel.
That special status of Israelite firstborns, as over and above the firstborns of other nations, came about in Exodus 13:1, when the firstborns of Israel were commemorated to God as a remembrance of their Passover salvation.
In my last blog post we discussed that a Biblical principle is that all firstborns (or better, firstlings because it applies to humans, animals, and plants), the first of everything, belongs to God. This does NOT just apply to Israel but to everybody, at least all who worship the God of Israel.
And we saw this principle applied in Egypt when God killed all the firstborn of humans and animals among households that didn’t protect those firstborns by painting the blood of a yearling Ram on the doorposts of their homes (the first Passover).
Yet just as Israel as a whole was God’s set apart people, so all the firstborns of Israel held a special status above the firstborns of gentiles.
In fact, the implication is quite heavy…a near certainty, really…that BEFORE the establishment of the priesthood, the firstborns held a sacred status before the Lord.
Before there was a priesthood (and remember, the priesthood of Israel didn’t exist until Moses and Mt. Sinai), it was the duty of the firstborn of each family to perform sacrifices and other rituals on behalf of the family.
The firstborn was a kind of pre-priesthood family priest. And as we have discussed on a number of occasions this custom (as were many others) was neither unique NOR new to Israel.
We’ll find documents dating back 1000 years before this time (from Mesopotamian cultures) that specify certain religious and spiritual duties for the firstborn son of the family. And chief among these duties was to carry on all that was involved with ancestor worship and ritual.
This duty began with the responsibility of the firstborn to properly bury his parents. Thereafter the firstborn was to bring oil, and food, even water to the gravesite for the use of his deceased parents’ spirits.
During these rituals the names of the parents were recited because in some undefined way keeping the memory of the individual alive kept that individual’s spirit alive.
Now if the firstborn son conducted the ancestor worship rituals properly, then the spirits of his dead ancestors were to intercede on his behalf with the gods.
If the worship was done improperly then no intercession was possible and the spirits of his dead ancestors MIGHT even turn on him and make trouble for him; anything from causing disease to crop failure, to making his wife barren.
I tell you about all this ancestor worship because it was prevalent throughout the known world in ancient times, even well before Abraham. And it was in full swing at the time of Moses.
So we see traces of ancestor worship practices in the vocabulary Israel used as well as in the rituals of Israel (though of course they’re used for a similar, but different, purpose because God in no way tolerated ancestor worship among His people).
In fact there is little doubt in my mind that the reason we see the phrase “he died and went to be with his fathers” in several places in the Bible (in referring to death)…but mostly in the older parts of the Old Testament…. is that it was a common phrase used at funerals that reflected the general custom of ancestor worship.
I also have no doubt that the Israelites coming up out of Egypt believed in ancestor worship because it was almost universal in that era.
Let me remind you that what happens after death is VERY hazy and not directly addressed ANYWHERE in the Old Testament. This tells me that those who wrote the Old Testament weren’t sure what happened after death and different eras had different traditions about it all, which also undoubtedly varied among the various Middle Eastern cultures.
Now since ancestor worship was believed to have much to do with how one’s own life played out (full of good things or bad things) it was central to each culture’s overall worship practices.
There is little doubt in the minds of the learned Rabbis (and I agree with their conclusions) that the firstborns of Israel…. up until the moment the Levitical priesthood was established…were the family priests. Not in any organized way but simply as long-held custom.
So with all that in mind we can begin to see that much would change for Israel (rather drastically, I might add) when God established a divinely ordained, set-apart group of priests where the authority lay in one particular tribe.
So the change was that the ritual duties were transferred from being the charge of each separate family as each family saw fit, to a specified group of priests under a common set of laws and ordinances (the Law), and under centralized control (that of the High Priest), and the firstborn son, now being relieved of the duties he had formerly performed as kind of a family priest, had his status changed.
This change was, no doubt, seen as a demotion of sorts and would not have been well received.
Therefore we see that Levites assumed the status and responsibilities and many of the duties formerly held by the firstborns.
So in verse 11 we have the Lord saying, “I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites IN PLACE OF all the firstborns…” The transference of duty from the firstborn to the priestly tribe was complete.
I hope this little detour has made the proper impact upon you, because it does mark a momentous sea change in how Israel would operate as opposed to how it had in the past; and perhaps even more it made Israel appear quite different and odd over-and-against how all other cultures they interacted with would operate.
The replacement of firstborns was to be exacting ordered by God was not to be only general or symbolic; it would be done on a one-to-one basis; each male Levite was to be a substitute for one currently living firstborn of Israel.
We’ll see this fascinating scenario fleshed out very shortly. I tell you this before we get to it in the Scripture again because THIS was one of the primary purposes of the census taken of the Levites…and ONLY the Levites…that are commanded by God, beginning in verse 14.
That is, it was necessary to determine just how many male Levites there were, because that determined just how many of the regular male Israelites (non-Levites) firstborns would be covered, and for those not covered, it required special arrangements.