God’s Word for You
Numbers 3:11-20a Christ foreshadowed
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, May 31, 2021
The Census of the Levites
11 The LORD spoke to Moses, 12 “See, I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites instead of every firstborn that opens the womb among the Israelites. The Levites are mine, 13 for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, both human and animal. They are mine. I am the LORD.”
The phrase peter rechem means “to open the womb.” It’s not common in the Bible, but it occurs a few times in Exodus 13 (the consecration of the firstborn), here and in Numbers 18:15, and once in Ezekiel 20:26, where God is speaking to a prophet who was also trained as a Levite and a priest. Usually we find a more common word, bekor “firstborn.” The difference seems to be one of variety, but there is a hint of a promise behind “open the womb,” since an open womb will follow that firstborn with more children. When God asks something from us, he supplies what he asks for, and he blesses us beyond our needs.
In Egypt, when God put all of the first-born sons (and animals) to death, he sanctified the firstborn sons of Israel (and the firstborn animals) for his service (Exodus 13:1-2). Because of the incident with the golden calf, when all the Levites rallied to Moses to stand up for the Lord, the Lord accepted the whole tribe of Levi to redeem the rest of the firstborn sons of Israel. Since there was a difference in their numbers, the Israelite firstborn over and above the number of Levites had to pay a small amount of tax to make up the difference. Should we include the detail here that Moses and Aaron were also Levites? No. The prophet of Israel could have come from any tribe at all. But as for Aaron, it was not his own fidelity that brought him under the grace of God. Aaron had cast the gold calf himself. His repentance is not recorded, but the Lord accepted him and called him to be his high priest. His sins were ultimately covered in the first Day of Atonement. Like all ministers of God, his position is only possible because of God’s grace, not at all because of his own abilities, potential, or personal piety.
14 The Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, 15 “Register the Levites according to their fathers’ houses, by their clans. You are to register every male a month old and up.”
16 So Moses registered them as he was commanded by the word of the LORD.
17 These were the names of the sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.
18 These were the names of the sons of Gershon according to their clans: Libni and Shimei.
19 The sons of Kohath according to their clans were Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel.
20 The sons of Merari according to their clans were Mahli and Mushi.
Right away, we are faced with an important difference between this first census of the Levites and the previous count of all Israel. This census was not of men able to fight, but all Levites a month old and older. This was because God ordered that at one month, each firstborn male in Israel had to be redeemed “according to the sanctuary shekel” (Numbers 18:16; cp. Numbers 3:40,43).
The Levites sub-divided into eight clans. There were two Gershonite clans, four Kohathites, and two Merarites. Moses and Aaron happened to come from the eldest branch of the family of Kohath, the sons of Amram.
Later in the Bible, in the days of David and Solomon, we find specific duties of certain Levites and priests that are not listed in Numbers. For example, a descendant of Korah baked the offering bread (1 Chronicles 9:31), and other Levites of the Kohathite clan made the twelve loaves set out on each Sabbath (1 Chronicles 9:32). Some were musicians, others were skilled and mixing the special incense, and so on. But these skills do not automatically transmit through families. A good trumpet player may not be the son of a good trumpet player. An excellent bread maker might not be the father of an excellent bread maker. So these tasks, set down for us in David’s time, should not be assigned to a particular branch of Levites four hundred and eighty years before.
The tribe of Levi was a shadow of blessings that would come through Christ. Only Christ could serve in the way that he did, and the Levites filled a role that other Israelites could not. Just as the firstborn Israelites were redeemed from service by this special tribe, set apart for this one service, so also all mankind. It is not just a few who are redeemed by Christ, but all of us are redeemed by Christ, who was set apart for this one service for us all. Later in the book we will see Israelites who rejected the Levites and the priesthood of Aaron and his sons, and they fell away from the redemptive service of the priesthood (Numbers 16:1-50). They did not receive the forgiveness offered to them. This, too, is the case with those who reject Christ. His redemption is for all, but there are those who fall away from his grace by rejecting Jesus as their Savior. Those who reject Christ are not saved by Christ. Their unbelief tears them away, and only unbelief damns. The gentle salvation offered by Jesus is the sweetest gospel: “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:2-3). Like a bruised, bent reed, or like a smoking wick, any amount of faith is seen by God as faith; saving faith. To trust in Christ is to be saved by Christ. “In his name the nations will put their hope” (Matthew 12:21). Everyone who looks to Jesus says with such a faith: “I have put my hope in your word” (Psalm 119:81). Trust in Jesus who has redeemed you. He has done what the Levites only foreshadowed. He has accomplished your forgiveness, your righteousness, and your eternal salvation.
Pastor Timothy Smith