The Levites were a special tribe in Israel, set apart for service to God and his people. The priest came from this tribe, but not all Levites were priests. Here God details the roles of the other Levites in the life of his people.
Levites Appointed For Service
Now these are the records of the generations of Aaron and Moses in the day when the Lord spoke [by special revelation] with Moses on Mount Sinai.
Numbers 3:1 (AMP)
Biblically speaking genealogy is always important. And so the first verses of chapter 3 serve to elaborate on the genealogy of Moses and Aaron (but mainly Aaron). Actually other than the fact that Moses is Aaron’s brother, none of the genealogy posted here applies directly to Moses.
Let me reiterate a principle that can get a little confusing but is essential to our understanding of the social structure of Israel so it’s worth repeating: Aaron and his family were but one of the several major clans that composed the tribe of Levi.
Even though there were several Levite clans God assigned Aaron’s clan with a holy status that was a notch above of other members of the tribe of Levi.
Specifically only members of Aaron’s clan could be the actual priests of Israel. All the other Levites were there to be servants and helpers to the priests; or perhaps more accurately, servants to the priesthood.
Priests were the only ones who could conduct the rituals and ceremonies. The other Levite families had different duties;
- Things like guarding the Tabernacle and carrying it around,
- Filling the water basins,
- Cleaning up,
- Stoking the fires,
- Playing music,
- Singing Psalms and so on.
So somewhat like the Levites were removed for service to God from the regular family of Israel (all the other tribes), the family of Aaron was removed from the regular family of Levi and given elevated status for the MOST SPECIAL service to God.
As for the High Priest (and there was ONLY one High Priest at a time) he was to come only from one specific son of Aaron, Eleazar.
So the tribe of Levi was removed from Israel for Tabernacle service; the family of Aaron was removed from the Levites for priestly service; and from the family of Aaron one specific son was to provide to provide the ongoing line of High Priests;
- Separating, and
These are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.
These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the priests who were anointed, whom Aaron consecrated and ordained to minister in the priest’s office. But Nadab and Abihu died in the presence of the Lord when they offered strange (unholy, unacceptable, inappropriate) fire before the Lord in the Wilderness of Sinai; and they had no sons. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the presence and under the supervision of Aaron their father.
Numbers 3:1-4 (AMP)
In verse 2 we get the names of Aaron’s sons and a sad reminder of the fate of two of them. The four sons are:
- Eleazar, and
Nadav was the first-born of Aaron. He would, under normal circumstances, have been the next High Priest after his father Aaron died; and then Nadav would have produced the line from which all future High Priests would have come.
But God killed Nadav and his brother Avihu in direct retaliation for their offering of “strange“ or “alien” fire to the Lord. That is they were performing their priestly duties but ignored direct instructions about some ritual procedures and so the Lord engulfed them in flames and burned them up right before their father, Aaron’s, eyes.
Since Aaron’s firstborn, Nadav, was dead and the 2nd born, Avihu, was also dead it fell to Eleazar to be next in line to be the future father of the High Priests.
Further it makes it clear that Nadav and Avihu’s bloodlines died with them because they had no sons at the time of their deaths. Their family trees were cut down and their lines ended.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near and present them before Aaron the priest, so that they may serve him.
Numbers 3:5-6 (AMP)
Now the next few verses, beginning with 5, defines the duties of the Levites (meaning the non-priests). And if you read this in English it is kind of hazy as to exactly what they’re supposed to do.
Most texts say something to the effect that ‘they shall perform duties………do the work of the Tabernacle…a duty on behalf of the Israelites’…etc.
They shall carry out the duties for him and for the whole congregation before the Tent of Meeting, doing the service of the tabernacle.
Numbers 3:7 (AMP)
In fact, the Hebrew makes the duties quite specific. In verse 7 what is usually translated, as simply as “perform duties” is, in Hebrew, shamar mishmereth. And it means, “keep guard”.
So verse 7 should read, “They (the Levites) shall keep guard for him and for the whole community before the Tent of Meeting….”.
As we discussed earlier one of the primary assignments of the Levites were as guards of God’s holiness and of His dwelling place.
Later on in that same verse where most translations say, “doing the work of the Tabernacle” (or something similar) the Hebrew used for “doing the work” is abad bodah. And this actually means, “doing heavy work”.
So the first duties assigned to the Levites are to shamar mishmereth, keep guard, and then to abad bodah, do the heavy work of the Tabernacle.
You shall give the Levites to Aaron and to his sons [as servants and helpers]; they are to be given wholly to him from among the Israelites. So you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall observe and attend to their priesthood; but the layman (non-Levite) who approaches [the holy things] shall be put to death.”
Numbers 3:9-10 (AMP)
Verses 9 and 10 essentially put across the idea that the Levites are dedicated to do the blue collar tasks associated with the Tabernacle, and that they are to follow the directions of the priests.
Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of and as a substitute for every firstborn, that is, the first that opens the womb among the Israelites. So the Levites shall be Mine, for all the firstborn are Mine. On the day that I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for Myself all the firstborn in Israel, both man and animal. They shall be mine; I am the Lord.”
Numbers 3:11-13 (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 one of my other blog posts 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; 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 11, when the firstborns of Israel were commemorated to God as a remembrance of their Passover salvation.
In my next blog post we will begin by discussing the replacement of the firstborn of Israel by the tribe of Levi.