Numbers 3

The Word Made Fresh

1Here are the members of Aaron’s and Moses’ family when Moses was on Mt. Sinai.

2The sons of Aaron were Nadab, the firstborn, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 3They were anointed as priests, 4but Nadab and Abihu died when they went before the LORD and made an unapproved offering by fire in the Sinai desert. They had no sons. Only Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests during their father Aaron’s lifetime.

5The Lord said to Moses, 6“Gather the tribe of Levi and assign them as Aaron’s assistants. 7They will serve Aaron and the Israelites at the meeting tent, and by taking care of the sanctuary. 8They will tend all the furnishings of the meeting tent and the sanctuary for the people of Israel, 9and they are given to Aaron and his sons to serve them. 10Aaron and his sons are appointed as priests; no one else may approach the sanctuary on pain of death.”

11The LORD also told Moses, 12“I have claimed the Levites in place of the firstborn sons of the Israelite women, and they belong to me. 13All the firstborn are mine; when I killed the firstborn in every Egyptian household, I set the firstborn of the Israelites aside for me – human or animal, they belong to me, for I am the LORD.”

14While they were camped in the Sinai desert the LORD told Moses, 15“Count the Levites, every male a month old or older, according to their family groups.” 16Moses did as he was told.

17The sons of Levi were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. 18There were two groups of Gershon’s descendants: Libni, and Shimei. 19The Kohathite groups were Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. 20The Merarite groups were Mahli and Mushi.

21So, Gershon’s clans were the Libnites and the Shimeites. 22There were 7500 males a month old or more. 23They were to camp on the west side, at the rear of the sanctuary. 24Their leader was Eliasaph son of Lael. 25At the meeting tent they were responsible for the tent and its covering, the curtain at the meeting tent entrance, 26the courtyard panels, the drapes at the entrance to the courtyard that surrounds the sanctuary and the altar, and the ropes.

27The clans of Kohath were the Amramites, Izharites, Hebronites, and Uzzielites. 28There were 8600 male members of their tribe a month old and older. They were responsible for the care of the sanctuary. 29They were to camp on the south side of the meeting tent. 30Their leader was Elizaphan, son of Uzziel. 31They took care of the chest, the table, the lampstand, the altars, all the items used in the sanctuary, the curtains and everything involved in their use. 32Aaron’s son Eleazar was in charge of those who took care of the sanctuary.

33The clans of Merari were the Mahlites and the Mushites. 34There were 6200 males a month old or older. 35Zuriel son of Abihail was their leader. They were to camp on the north side of the meeting tent. 36They were in charge of caring for the frames of the meeting tent and sanctuary; the crossbars, posts, bases, equipment, and so forth, 37plus the posts of the courtyard, their bases, tent pegs and ropes.

38Moses, Aaron, and his family were to camp on the east of the meeting tent toward the sunrise, just outside the meeting tent’s entrance. They were responsible for the overall care of the sanctuary and whatever had to be done for the people of Israel. Anyone else who approached the sanctuary was to be executed.

39In all there were 22,000 Levites a month old and older.

40The LORD said to Moses, “Count all the Israelite males a month old or older. Make a list of their names. 41Claim the Levites for me in their place, and the animals of the Levites in place of their firstborn animals, for I am the LORD.”

42Moses did as the LORD said. 43The total number of firstborn males a month old or older was 22,273. 44The LORD said, “Claim the Levites and their animals for me in place of the Israelites and their animals. 46Redeem the 273 firstborn Israelites above the number of Levites 47by collecting five shekels for each one according to the sanctuary shekel. 48Give the money to Aaron and his sons.”

49Moses collected the redemption money from the firstborn of the Israelites, 501365 shekels in all, 51and gave it to Aaron and his sons according the LORD’s instructions.


1-4: The sons of Aaron will become the next generation of priests, and their descendants will form the priesthood of Israel in the years to come. Eleazar and Ithamar are the two surviving sons, Nadab and Abihu having been burned to death in the tragedy described in Leviticus 10.

5-10: The tribe of Levi (Moses’ and Aaron’s tribe), except for Aaron and his direct descendants, are claimed by God for holy service, but not for the priesthood. The priesthood belongs only to Aaron and his clan.

11-13: The Levites are given to God as substitutes for the firstborn of all Israel.

14-20: They are divided into three groups, representing the three sons of Levi (who was the son of Jacob and Leah): Gershom, Kohath, and Merari. Each division will be given specific duties. The Levites are enrolled in a census, but this time the census is for all males from one month old and up. No reason is given for the rather extreme age range.

21-26: Gershom, consisting of the two clans of Libni and Shimei, totals 7500. They are to camp on the west side of the tabernacle and take care of the tabernacle structure.           

27-32: Kohath, consisting of the clans of Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel, numbers 8600. They are to camp on the south side of the tabernacle, and their duties are to care for all the sacred furnishings. Eleazar son of Aaron is put over them, since the furnishings are used by the priests for their rituals.

33-37: Merari, the clans of Mahli and Mushi, numbers 6200. They are to camp on the north side of the tabernacle. Their duties are to care for the structural parts of the tabernacle – poles and bars and hardware.

34-39: This leaves the east side of the tabernacle to the priests – Moses and Aaron and his sons – who are responsible for all the religious rituals. So sacred are their duties that no one else may dare participate on pain of death. The total of all the Levites is given as 22,000 (but the sum of the three clans – 7500, 8600 and 6200 – comes to 22,300).

40-43: God tells Moses that these 22,000 will be dedicated to God’s service in place of the first-born of the other tribes. There is thus a subsequent count of the first-born of the other tribes: there are 22,273 of them. (This would mean that the average family has 27 male children, so we probably aren’t given all the details here.)

44-51: Since there are 273 more first-born than there are Levites, an accounting has to be made, and it is determined that 5 shekels each is the price to be given to the priests for those 273 not replaced by the Levites. (Perhaps you noticed that this value is considerably less than the value of 30 shekels cited for a woman between 20 and 60 back in Leviticus 27:4.) We are not told how Moses decides which 273 of the 22,273 first-born have to pay the 5 shekels.


The organization is incredible and very complex but will go a long way toward eliminating arguments and behind-the-scenes power struggles within the overall community. Isn’t the same true within our congregations, organized as they are between ordained clergy and lay membership, and various committees charged with attending rather narrowly defined duties?