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God’s Word for You

Numbers 3:38-43 Our redemption

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, June 4, 2021

38 Those who camped in front of the Dwelling on the east side, in front of the Tent of Meeting, toward the sunrise, were Moses and Aaron and Aaron’s sons, who were performing the duties of the sanctuary on behalf of the Israelites. Any unauthorized person who goes near shall be put to death. 39 All of the Levities who were registered when the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron to register them according to their clans, every male a month old and up, were 22,000.

The little camp

Out in front of the tabernacle entrance was a little cluster of tents all alone. The group was so small it may have looked like some men from Issachar had moved too close to the sanctuary. But these were the tents of Moses and his wife, Aaron and his wife, and Aaron’s sons and their wives. In the years to come, while Israel was in its wandering years, these tents would multiply as Aaron’s grandsons grew up, married, loved their wives, and set up tents of their own just as Isaac had once done, Israel’s grandfather (Genesis 24:67). “Shouts of joy resound in the tents of the righteous” (Psalm 118:15).

The last sentence in verse 38 is strangely set in the present tense, while the rest of the passage is in an historical past tense. This leads me to think that it is a refrain of the earlier verses that explain the primary duties of the Levites (Numbers 1:51, 3:10), and so it reminds us that the priests were not exempt from that basic duty of the tribe of Levi: the security and holiness of the sanctuary. This was something that Aaron’s grandson would demonstrate later during the incident at Baal Peor (Numbers 25:7-8).

We will compare the 22,000 total at the end of verse 39 with the census total in verse 43 below.

Redemption of the Firstborn

40 The LORD said to Moses, “Register all the firstborn males of the Israelites one month old and up, and make a list of their names. 41 You are to take the Levites for me—I am the LORD—instead of every firstborn among the Israelites, and take the livestock of the Levites instead of every firstborn among the livestock of the Israelites.” 42 So Moses registered all the firstborn among the Israelites as the LORD commanded. 43 All the firstborn males listed by name, one month old and up, when registered, totaled 22,273.

Here the firstborn sons of all the other tribes are counted, and we see that it is very close to being the same as the total of the number of Levites. These had to be redeemed; that is, a substitute for each name had to be provided. For almost all of them, 22,000, this was covered by the Levites themselves a year old and over. But for 273 Israelites, there was no Levite, and so they had to pay the sanctuary shekel to be redeemed. This was the Lord’s own system of book keeping.

An objection that is sometimes raised here is that out of a population of 2,000,000, how could there be only 22,273 firstborn? There are different ways of answering this objection. One should first ask: Who is raising the question? Rationalists and other unbelievers hardly deserve to be answered in a question like this if they have already rejected Christ (Titus 3:10). “Such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:11). But if a Christian asks from faith and sincerely wonders, then we can point out that there is no reason to insist that the redemption of the firstborn had to be retroactive. That is, only the firstborn from this point onward needed to be redeemed through the tribe of Levi (presumably, the firstborn had already been acting as the spiritual leaders of their families up to this point). Since the giving of the Law thirteen months before it would be reasonable to expect about 19,000 new marriages per year among 2,000,000 people. Some of the wives at Sinai were already pregnant, and so a figure of 22,000 firstborn males from these newlyweds is completely within the kinds of numbers we would expect.

The illustration of redeeming the firstborn of Israel was not the end of the doctrine of redemption. The Lord’s will is to redeem all mankind from sin; to purchase us for himself, not with gold or silver, but with the holy and innocent blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. “Defend my cause and redeem me; preserve my life according to your promise” (Psalm 119:154). Paul laid it out clearly for all to understand: “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). This is the redemption we have. Whether Jew or Gentile, firstborn or baby of the family, man or woman, we all have the honored inheritance of God’s firstborn sons. We all are invited to pray to God our Father. And he hears us. He answers us. And he will give each one of us everlasting life with him forever in heaven.

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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