There was much work associated with the priests’ office; and up to this point, there had only been three pairs of hands to do it all – namely, that of Aaron and his two sons. So here God appointed the Levites to help them. The term “Levites,” in this case, means all the rest of the males among the tribe of Levi, who were not direct descendants of the priestly family of Aaron. The Levites were divided into three classes, according to the three sons of Levi – Gershon, Kohath, and Merari – and these were subdivided into family groups. To these three “sub-tribes” of Levi, Moses assigned distinct departments of service for the Lord’s Tabernacle. The duties that he assigned had a particular reference to the migratory state of the Israelites at the time that these regulations were established. The Levites’ duties, of course, underwent considerable modification when the nation became settled in Canaan – especially after the Temple was built. David and Solomon, in particular, organized a new and different arrangement of their duties in 1 Chronicles 26.
For now, however, the Levites’ duties (as defined here and elsewhere in the Pentateuch) were to act as general assistants to the priests in various capacities. They would set up the Tabernacle, and they would take it down and convey it from place to place when the people moved at the Lord’s direction. They also served as its “guard” when it was stationary. And although they themselves were not allowed to offer sacrifices, they rendered important services to the priests by killing and preparing the animals that were sacrificed; for the priests’ duties in sacrifice seem to have only been those of sprinkling the blood, and of laying upon the altar the parts of the animals that were to be consumed.
As for the taking down and setting up of the Tabernacle, each of the three groups of Levites had their own particular responsibility. The Kohathites had the charge of removing and carrying the most sacred and precious things of the sanctuary – that is, the furniture of the Tabernacle, including the very Ark of the Covenant itself. This was doubtless intended to be an honorable distinction – possibly because Aaron’s priestly family was from this division of the Levitical tribe. The Gershonites’ job was to take care of the curtains and coverings of the Tabernacle and its courtyard; and the Merarites were responsible for the handling of the boards, pillars, and framework of the Tabernacle and courtyard.
Just as with the rest of the children of Israel, the different groups of Levites were also given specific directions concerning where they were to set up their tents. All the Levites were to encamp directly around the Tabernacle, within the space that was naturally protected or “guarded” by the arrangement of the camp of the rest of the Israelites. God directed that the Gershonites were to pitch their camp on the west side (the back “wall”) of the Tabernacle courtyard, the Kohathites were to camp along the south side of the courtyard, and the Merarites’ designated place was the north side. On the east side of the Tabernacle – right in front of the entrance to the courtyard – the tents of Moses and Aaron and his sons were located.
“I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn,” said the Lord in verse 12. In memory of His avenging the cause of the Israelites upon the Egyptians by destroying their firstborn, it pleased Him to direct that all the firstborn males of His own people should be set apart for Himself (Ex. 13:2). And since the duties of the Levites had not been appointed at that time, it appears as if it had been intended that these firstborn were to occupy the position of service which was afterwards assigned to the Levites. But at the same time, God provided an opening for the future substitution of the firstborn of the Israelites with the Levites, by allowing the firstborn to be redeemed (Ex. 13:13). Accordingly, when the Levites had signalized their zeal for the Lord in the matter of the golden calf, the distinction of being consecrated to His service was transferred to the whole tribe of Levi, instead of being assigned to all the firstborn of every tribe. This substitution was formally made in this chapter. The firstborn of all the tribes were numbered, and the whole tribe of Levi was also numbered. When this was done, the former were found to exceed the latter by 273 persons. The Levites were then understood to be taken in a one-for-one exchange for an equivalent number of firstborn sons from the rest of Israel. But since there were no living substitutes for the surplus number of firstborn Israelites, they were redeemed at the rate of five shekels (or around $95*) apiece; and these proceeds went to the use of the sanctuary.
Christ’s Church is called “the church of the firstborn.” They are not redeemed as the Israelites’ firstborn were, with silver and gold; but rather, being devoted by sin to the justice of God, they are ransomed with the precious blood of the Son of God!
Lord, purge our souls so that we may offer an offering in righteousness and be numbered among Your servants – imitating Jesus, Who became the servant of all! Amen.
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*based on the current values of silver on April 25, 2022
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