Service as Substitutes

14 And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, 15 “List the sons of Levi, by fathers’ houses and by clans; every male from a month old and upward you shall list.” 16 So Moses listed them according to the word of the Lord, as he was commanded. 17 And these were the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon and Kohath and Merari. 18 And these are the names of the sons of Gershon by their clans: Libni and Shimei. 19 And the sons of Kohath by their clans: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. 20 And the sons of Merari by their clans: Mahli and Mushi. These are the clans of the Levites, by their fathers’ houses.

21 To Gershon belonged the clan of the Libnites and the clan of the Shimeites; these were the clans of the Gershonites. 22 Their listing according to the number of all the males from a month old and upward was 7,500. 23 The clans of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle on the west, 24 with Eliasaph, the son of Lael as chief of the fathers’ house of the Gershonites. 25 And the guard duty of the sons of Gershon in the tent of meeting involved the tabernacle, the tent with its covering, the screen for the entrance of the tent of meeting, 26 the hangings of the court, the screen for the door of the court that is around the tabernacle and the altar, and its cords—all the service connected with these.

27 To Kohath belonged the clan of the Amramites and the clan of the Izharites and the clan of the Hebronites and the clan of the Uzzielites; these are the clans of the Kohathites. 28 According to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, there were 8,600, keeping guard over the sanctuary. 29 The clans of the sons of Kohath were to camp on the south side of the tabernacle, 30 with Elizaphan the son of Uzziel as chief of the fathers’ house of the clans of the Kohathites. 31 And their guard duty involved the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister, and the screen; all the service connected with these. 32 And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest was to be chief over the chiefs of the Levites, and to have oversight of those who kept guard over the sanctuary.

33 To Merari belonged the clan of the Mahlites and the clan of the Mushites: these are the clans of Merari. 34 Their listing according to the number of all the males from a month old and upward was 6,200. 35 And the chief of the fathers’ house of the clans of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail. They were to camp on the north side of the tabernacle. 36 And the appointed guard duty of the sons of Merari involved the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories; all the service connected with these; 37 also the pillars around the court, with their bases and pegs and cords.

38 Those who were to camp before the tabernacle on the east, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, were Moses and Aaron and his sons, guarding the sanctuary itself, to protect the people of Israel. And any outsider who came near was to be put to death. 39 All those listed among the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron listed at the commandment of the Lord, by clans, all the males from a month old and upward, were 22,000. Numbers 3:14-39 ESV

Back when God brought the final plague of the death of the firstborn on the Egyptians, He claimed all the firstborn males of the Israelites as His own.

“Dedicate to me all the firstborn sons of Israel and every firstborn male animal. They are mine.” – Exodus 13:2 NLT

God had spared the firstborn of the Israelites and, in return, the people were to set apart those individuals to His service. They belonged to Him. But later, God revealed to Moses another plan. He appointed the tribe of Levi to serve as ministers to the priests and the Tabernacle. They were the smallest of the tribes and seemed to hold special favor with God because of their role in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle.

“All of you who are on the LORD’s side, come over here and join me.” And all the Levites came. He told them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Strap on your swords! Go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other, killing even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses, and about three thousand people died that day. Then Moses told the Levites, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Because of this, he will now give you a great blessing.” – Exodus 32:26-29 NL)

The Levites had become His servants. Now, they were to become the peoples’ substitutes. God still claimed the firstborn as His own. They belonged to Him because He had spared their lives the night the death angel had passed over their homes in the land of Egypt. When Moses numbered all the firstborn males of the tribes of Israel they totaled 22,273. These were probably the number of firstborn males who had been born since they had left Egypt. The total number of Levite males from one month and older was 22,000.

God was going to allow the Levites to become substitutes for the firstborn of all the Israelites.

“The Levites will be reserved for me as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel; I am the LORD. And the Levites’ livestock are mine as substitutes for the firstborn livestock of the whole nation of Israel.” – Number 3:41 NLT

God could have demanded that the firstborn males of all the tribes perform the service required to maintain and move His Tabernacle. He could have pressed them into service as His ministers and priests but instead, He set aside the tribe of Levi for this important duty. And in doing so, the Levites became substitutes for the people.

The Levites were not to be included in the census of fighting men but were made responsible for the care and transportation of the tabernacle. It was their task to take down and set up the tabernacle whenever God commanded them to move. And when they arrived at their God-appointed destination, they reassembled the tabernacle and then set up their own camps around it.

In this passage, God provides Moses with detailed instructions to divide the tribe of Levi into its clans or family groups.

So Moses listed them, just as the Lord had commanded.

Levi had three sons, whose names were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

The clans descended from Gershon were named after two of his descendants, Libni and Shimei.

The clans descended from Kohath were named after four of his descendants, Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel.

The clans descended from Merari were named after two of his descendants, Mahli and Mushi.

These were the Levite clans, listed according to their family groups. – Numbers 3:16-20 NLT

Each of these clans was to set up their camp on a particular perimeter of the tabernacle. One to the east, one to the west, another to the north, and the last one to the south. In doing so, they would be protecting the sons of Israel from coming near the tabernacle in an unclean state and facing certain death (Numbers 1:47-54).

The Levites had been given a huge responsibility. Not only were they to care for all the things related to the tabernacle, but they were to maintain its holiness. The tabernacle was God’s dwelling place and was to be treated with reverence. God seemed to know that if it was left up to the people, they would drop the ball. The tabernacle would probably fall into disrepair as they became distracted with their own cares and concerns. So He appointed this task to the Levites. They served as substitutes. They were given the unenviable task of keeping everything associated with the tabernacle pure and holy, including themselves and the people they served.

God had set apart the entire nation of Israel as a kingdom of priests.

“Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

And God had claimed the right to require the service of every firstborn among the Israelites because He had spared them from death during the final plague in Exodus. But He had chosen the Levites to serve as their substitutes. They served in the place of those who were rightfully obligated to serve God. Not every Israelite was required to serve as a priest. Their place was taken by the Levites. Not every firstborn was required to dedicate their life to the service of God and His tabernacle. Their place was taken by the Levites.

Which is a picture of Christ’s substitutionary death for each of us. He became our sin substitute. He paid the debt we owed. He took our place. He served in our stead. He satisfied the demands of a holy God and did what none of us could on our own. He made the ultimate sacrifice. And that is what the Levites did. They became a sacrifice for the people of Israel. They served and satisfied the demands of God by maintaining and caring for His Tabernacle. They kept the people of Israel from experiencing death by keeping the tabernacle holy and set apart for God. Their role was vital to the spiritual life of the people of God. They gave so that others might live. Just as Jesus did for us.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.