Studies in Numbers, I Faithfulness, A The Counting, 3 The Clans, Text: 3:1-39

Studies in Numbers, I Faithfulness, A The Counting, 3 The Clans, Text: 3:1-39


There were about 2,000,000 souls in the wilderness so about 1% of the total population, or approximately 2% of the males were sequestered from the rest as special servants of the Lord. These were the 22,000 constituted by the descendants of Levi. They included the priests and Levites who were responsible for supervising the entire religious worship of Israel. We read about this in verses 1-10, This is the account of the family of Aaron and Moses at the time the Lord talked with Moses on Mount Sinai. The names of the sons of Aaron were Nadab the firstborn and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. Those were the names of Aaron’s sons, the anointed priests, who were ordained to serve as priests. Nadab and Abihu, however, fell dead before the Lord when they made an offering with unauthorized fire before him in the Desert of Sinai. They had no sons; so only Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests during the lifetime of their father Aaron. The Lord said to Moses, “Bring the tribe of Levi and present them to Aaron the priest to assist him. They are to perform duties for him and for the whole community at the Tent of Meeting by doing the work of the tabernacle. They are to take care of all the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting, fulfilling the obligations of the Israelites by doing the work of the tabernacle. Give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are the Israelites who are to be given wholly to him. Appoint Aaron and his sons to serve as priests; anyone else who approaches the sanctuary must be put to death.”


We have already observed that the lineage, the pedigree. the heritage of the Israelites was vitally important. This is evident in the numbering of the people according to their families and this is also revealed in the Biblical genealogies which stretch from the early chapters of Genesis into the New Testament and the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ the son of Abraham and the son of David. The importance of the genealogies is linked to Genesis 49 and Jacob’s prophetic blessings on his sons. The tribes have different destinies and also when they come into the land they have different inheritances. It is also shown in the fact that Judah the tribe of David and of Christ leads the multitude in the wilderness and not the tribe of Reuben, the first-born.. It is shown in the separation of the tribe of Levi from all the others and in no assigned inheritance for Levi in fulfillment of Jacob’s utterance in Genesis 49:7, Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel. Finally, it is shown most of all in the identification of Jesus as the promised Messiah. Now we do not learn from this that is important to trace our genealogy today, even though that has become a popular pastime. This is not important to us because once the Messiah has come the genealogies are unnecessary, except for our personal interest in our family. The pharisees were very proud of their heritage, but remember what John the Baptist said to them in Matthew 3:7-9, But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. Genealogies cannot save us as Paul makes clear in Romans 10:12 & 13, For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Also, in Galatians 3:9, So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. Lineage was vital in the Old Testament, but now it is useless in spiritual matters.


Israel had a liability to the Lord as revealed in verses 11-13, The Lord also said to Moses, “I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine,  for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether man or animal. They are to be mine. I am the Lord.” The last plague visited on the Egyptians leading to the Exodus was the death of all the firstborn. Israel was protected because, according to God’s command, they put the blood of a sacrificial lamb  on their door frames. Now God says that all the first-born of Israel belong to Him. But instead of taking every first-born son God is taking the tribe of Levi. They will have no inheritance in the land of Canaan because the Lord is their inheritance. As David exults in Psalm 16:5 & 6, The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup;Thou dost support my lot. The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; indeed my heritage is beautiful to me. Using the images of Canaan David says his true inheritance is the Lord, and not the land. Another modern paraphrase puts it this way. My choice is you, God, first and only. And now I find I'm your choice! You set me up with a house and yard. And then you made me your heir! Yes, we are God’s inheritance too, as He is ours. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 1:14 that the Holy Spirit is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. We are God’s possession, and His inheritance. Thus the Levites were an Old Testament type of all believers who are a holy priesthood. Here we are reminded that we belong to God by virtue of redemption by the blood; that we are uniquely set apart to serve; and that only those who are chosen and ordained may serve in their respective callings. Every one of us is redeemed, set apart, and engaged in the service of God. King David wrote in Psalm 84:10 For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.


Now in verses 14-39 we have a description of the location of the Priests and Levites in the camp with respect to the tabernacle in the center. As follows, The Lord said to Moses in the Desert of Sinai, “Count the Levites by their families and clans. Count every male a month old or more.” So Moses counted them, as he was commanded by the word of the Lord. These were the names of the sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath and Merari. These were the names of the Gershonite clans: Libni and Shimei. The Kohathite clans: Amram, Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel. The Merarite clans: Mahli and Mushi. These were the Levite clans, according to their families. To Gershon belonged the clans of the Libnites and Shimeites; these were the Gershonite clans. The number of all the males a month old or more who were counted was 7,500. The Gershonite clans were to camp on the west, behind the tabernacle. The leader of the families of the Gershonites was Eliasaph son of Lael. At the Tent of Meeting the Gershonites were responsible for the care of the tabernacle and tent, its coverings, the curtain at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the curtains of the courtyard, the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard surrounding the tabernacle and altar, and the ropes—and everything related to their use. To Kohath belonged the clans of the Amramites, Izharites, Hebronites and Uzzielites; these were the Kohathite clans. The number of all the males a month old or more was 8,600. The Kohathites were responsible for the care of the sanctuary. The Kohathite clans were to camp on the south side of the tabernacle. The leader of the families of the Kohathite clans was Elizaphan son of Uzziel. They were responsible for the care of the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the articles of the sanctuary used in ministering, the curtain, and everything related to their use. The chief leader of the Levites was Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest. He was appointed over those who were responsible for the care of the sanctuary. To Merari belonged the clans of the Mahlites and the Mushites; these were the Merarite clans. The number of all the males a month old or more who were counted was 6,200. The leader of the families of the Merarite clans was Zuriel son of Abihail; they were to camp on the north side of the tabernacle. The Merarites were appointed to take care of the frames of the tabernacle, its crossbars, posts, bases, all its equipment, and everything related to their use, as well as the posts of the surrounding courtyard with their bases, tent pegs and ropes. Moses and Aaron and his sons were to camp to the east of the tabernacle, toward the sunrise, in front of the Tent of Meeting. They were responsible for the care of the sanctuary on behalf of the Israelites. Anyone else who approached the sanctuary was to be put to death. The total number of Levites counted at the Lord’s command by Moses and Aaron according to their clans, including every male a month old or more, was 22,000. There were three families of Levites numbered: the Kohathites, The Gershonites, and the Merarites, and each of them had clans under them. Their locations were divided as were their duties. The Kohathites on the south side had charge of the sanctuary, its curtains and furniture. The Gershonites on the west side were responsible for all the external trappings of the tabernacle: the coverings and all the hangings in the courtyard. The Merarites on the north side were given the care of all the hardware of the tabernacle of both the frame of the tent of meeting and the outer courtyard, every post and fitting including ropes and tent pegs. The entrance  of the tabernacle faced east and there camped Moses and Aaron and their families, the priests, and the leader who supervised  the entire operation and only the ones permitted to enter the tabernacle. The location reinforces the holiness of the area and the Scripture reminds us that any unauthorized entrance carried with it the death penalty. “Anyone else who approached the sanctuary was to be put to death.” This is an indictment of much contemporary worship. One writer says, “Today Christians go to church, slide comfortably into their seats and expect to be entertained, emotionally tickled, and comfortably convinced. Is this what God desired when He proclaimed to Israel, "Before all people I must be regarded as holy.” R. C. Sproul reminds us, “The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.” We must keep holiness in mind if we are to worship God. In the book of first Samuel we read that the ark had been seized by the Philistines and then it was recovered. The day the ark was transported to Jerusalem was a great and happy moment. But they had forgotten how holy this ark was, because it was the place where God’s presence was to abide. Rather than transporting the ark as instructed in the law, the ark was placed on a new ox cart. It was a most jubilant procession as the ark made its way home. What a happy time. But when the oxen stumbled, and it looked as though the cart might be overturned and hurled to the ground, Uzzah reached out to steady the ark. Instantly, he was struck dead by God. Irreverence is a dangerous malady. Even when our motives are sincere and we are actively involved in the worship of God, we must constantly be mindful of the holiness of God and maintain a reverence for Him manifested by our obedience to His instructions and commands.


The priests and Levites had to be unswervingly loyal. They and they alone dealt with that which was extremely holy. In some translations this is called a charge in the King James version as in 1:7,  And they shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation, The charge of Aaron and of all the people of Israel, which was to secure the sanctuary from being polluted or plundered: this the Levites were to be employed about, and thereby ease the high priest and the other priests, and the people, of what otherwise would have been incumbent on them. Today when we ordain men to holy ministry, whether elders, deacons or pastors, there is a sermon and a charge. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that reminds us that we all have that charge, and that is the result of our being a holy priesthood. “A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify, a never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky. Arm me with jealous care, as in thy sight to live, and oh, thy servant, Lord, prepare a strict account to give! Help me to watch and pray, and on thyself rely, assured, if I my trust betray, I shall forever die.” In Jesus’ time the priests failed to fulfill their charge ministering unjustly. The Sanhedrin or great court of the Jews was composed of Pharisees, and the Priests who were Saducees.  The imperial Roman government and legislation recognized it as the Palestinian Patriarchate the ultimate authority in Jewish religious matters. There are a number of trials involving Jesus and the Apostles in the book of Acts and in  the three in which the presiding officer is identified, it is the High Priest of Israel. So  much for keeping their charge. Now WE have a charge, as did the priests and Levites. Those who minister in holy things have still a corresponding danger, and may find here a needed warning. The fervor shown in sacred worship and work must have an origin that is purely religious. He who pleads earnestly with God on behalf of men, or rises to impassioned appeal in beseeching men to repent, appearing as an ambassador of Christ urged by the love of souls, has to do not with symbols, but with truths, ideas, Divine mysteries infinitely more sacred than the incense and fire of Old Testament worship. For the Hebrew priest outward and formal consecration sufficed. For the minister of the New Testament, the purity must be of the heart and soul. This includes all of us.