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God’s Word for You

Numbers 3:1-4 The priests

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, May 27, 2021

The census at Mount Sinai concluded with a double count of the Levites. The tribe of Levi was excluded from the list of available fighting men because the Levites were to perform a different service in God’s kingdom: They were to serve God directly in the worship life of Israel. Originally, the firstborn son of every single tribe became the priest for his family. We see men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob performing this way, offering sacrifices as commanded by God (Genesis 31:54), preaching (Genesis 12:8), and sometimes setting up special altars (Genesis 26:25) or memorial stones (Genesis 28:18). When God struck down the firstborn sons of Egypt in the tenth plague, he commanded that the firstborn son of every womb of the Israelites belonged to him (Exodus 13:1). We saw an echo of that distinction in the four tribes that commanded the four groups on each side of the camp: Reuben (south) was the firstborn of Jacob’s wife Leah (Genesis 29:32). Dan (north) was the firstborn of Jacob’s concubine Bilhah (Genesis 30:6). Joseph was the firstborn of Jacob’s wife Rachel (Genesis 30:24), and his son Ephraim took the lead on the west side. Gad was the firstborn of Jacob’s concubine Zilpah (Genesis 30:11) but he was set to the south with Reuben so that Judah, who was given the birthright and the line of the Savior, would take the leading place at the head of all the tribes.

Aaron’s Sons and the Duties of the Levites
3 This is the family history of Aaron and Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.

Aaron and Moses were brothers, descended from Levi through his son Kohath and Kohath’s eldest son Amram (1 Chronicles 6:2-3). The date for these things is given in Scripture as 480 years before Solomon began building the temple in the fourth year of his reign (1 Kings 6:1). Internal Biblical sources and external secular sources date Solomon’s reign as beginning in 970 BC (his father David had reigned 930-970). The fourth year of Solomon’s reign was therefore 966 BC, and 480 years prior to that places the exodus in the spring of 1446 BC. Some older Christian and Jewish commentaries follow an incomplete Egyptian chronology at this point which would name Amenhotep II as the Pharaoh of the exodus, but for several decades it has been universally agreed that his father, Thutmose III, was reigning from 1479-1425 BC. I have tried to simplify this for students by adapting a familiar rhyme with BC dates:

    In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
    The Pharaoh’s name was Thutmose 2
    In fourteen forty-six BC
    The Pharaoh’s name was Thutmose 3

2 These are the names of Aaron’s sons: Nadab the firstborn, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 3 These are the names of Aaron’s sons, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to serve as priests. 4 Nadab and Abihu died in the presence of the Lord when they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord in the Wilderness of Sinai, and they had no sons. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the presence of Aaron their father.

The story of Nadab and Abihu is recounted in Leviticus 10. They and their father were ordained as the first priests of Israel on the very Day of Atonement. After Aaron’s ordination, he was permitted to go in to the Most Holy Place, burning incense and sprinkling blood to atone for his own sins and then the sins of the people. But Nadab and Abihu put incense into censers and offered “unauthorized” or “strange fire” before the Lord. Whether this means that they tried to go into the Holy of Holies without permission, or that they simply offered incense apart from the prescribed times (morning and evening sacrifice, and inside the Holy of Holies by the High Priest on this day ), we cannot say. What is important is that they treated the day or the burning of incense as something they could choose to do, a choice that they could make, rather than the will of God and something he commanded and regulated through his holy will.

Aaron grieved bitterly on that day. The same day he himself became a priest and the High Priest, the same day when he was able to atone for the sins of the nation before the Ark of the Covenant, the same day when all of the sacrifices of Israel commanded by God and the worship life in the tabernacle all began, was the same day that his oldest two sons died for their mistake.

Because of the sins of the people and their doubt, the whole generation of adults that left Egypt under Moses died before they ever reached Canaan (Numbers 26:65). As far as we can tell from the text of the Bible, Aaron’s sons were the first to die, and Moses himself was last. The pastors and other leaders who are keeping watch over your souls are men “who will have to give account” (Hebrews 13:17). Keep them in your prayers. Praise God for the many ways he looks after our bodies, souls, families, and lives. We are in God’s hands, and from there no one can snatch us away.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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