40 And the Lord said to Moses, “List all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking the number of their names. 41 And you shall take the Levites for me—I am the Lord—instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the people of Israel.” 42 So Moses listed all the firstborn among the people of Israel, as the Lord commanded him. 43 And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names, from a month old and upward as listed were 22,273.
44 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle. The Levites shall be mine: I am the Lord. 46 And as the redemption price for the 273 of the firstborn of the people of Israel, over and above the number of the male Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over.” 49 So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those redeemed by the Levites. 50 From the firstborn of the people of Israel he took the money, 1,365 shekels, by the shekel of the sanctuary. 51 And Moses gave the redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Numbers 3:40-51 ESV
It is easy to view the Levites as nothing more than the priestly order, the one tribe whose sole responsibility was to care for the tabernacle and serve as priests on behalf of the people of God. But there is a much deeper theological significance to their role as the spiritual mediators of Israel.
As has been stated before, God had spared the firstborn sons of Israel when He sent the death angel to punish the nation of Egypt. As a result of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to release the descendants of Jacob from their captivity, God gave Moses instructions concerning the final plague He would bring upon the Egyptians.
So Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.” – Exodus 11:4-6 ESV
Then God instructed the Israelites to prepare for the coming judgment by selecting an unblemished lamb for every household.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household…. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” – Exodus 12:1-3, 5-6 ESV
Each household was to sacrifice their lamb at the same time and follow God’s exacting instructions.
“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord‘s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 12:7-13 ESV
When the death angel passed through the land, he would “pass over” those homes on which the blood had been sprinkled on the doorposts and lintels. The sacrifice of the unblemished lambs would redeem any firstborn residing in that home.
“For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.” – Exodus 12:23 ESV
On the fateful night when the death angel passed over the city, “the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:29 ESV). But because of the sacrifice of the unblemished lambs, the homes of the Israelites were protected and their firstborn sons were spared. But “there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead” (Exodus 12:30 ESV).
As a result of this miraculous redemption of Israel’s firstborn sons, God commanded Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Exodus 13:1 ESV).
God had spared the firstborn of Israel, and He commanded that they be dedicated to His service. But as the Israelites were making their way to the land of Canaan, God ordered the tribe of Levi to serve as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel. The males of this one tribe would act as stand-ins for all those firstborn sons of the 11 other tribes who rightfully belonged to God. The Levites would redeem or ransom their brothers and serve on their behalf.
God ordered Moses to make a list of all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward. It would appear that these were the sons who had been born since the Israelites left Egypt. According to verse 43, that number amounted to 22,273 firstborn male sons from the 11 tribes of Israel. Verse 39 reveals that there were 22,000 firstborn male sons from the tribe of Levi.
“The Levites, amounting to twenty-two thousand, were given in exchange for an equal number of the first-born from the other tribes, leaving an excess of two hundred seventy-three; and as there were no substitutes for these, they were redeemed at the rate of five shekels for each (Nu 18:15, 16). Every Israelite would naturally wish that his son might be redeemed by a Levite without the payment of this tax, and yet some would have to incur the expense, for there were not Levites enough to make an equal exchange. Jewish writers say the matter was determined by lot, in this manner: Moses put into an urn twenty-two thousand pieces of parchment, on each of which he wrote “a son of Levi,” and two hundred seventy-three more, containing the words, “five shekels.” These being shaken, he ordered each of the first-born to put in his hand and take out a slip. If it contained the first inscription, the boy was redeemed by a Levite; if the latter, the parent had to pay. The ransom-money…was appropriated to the use of the sanctuary.” – Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
The Levites were more than just priests, they served as God-ordained substitutes whose lives were used to redeem or ransom those who rightfully belonged to God. They served in place of and on behalf of all those whom God had redeemed from death at the original Passover. And when the number of Levites didn’t match that of the firstborn males from the other 11 tribes, 273 families had to pay a sizeable tax of five shekels. The lack of a substitute came at a high price.
And this cost was meant to convey the value of each Levite’s life. No firstborn male was to take his freedom from service lightly or to treat the life of his Levite counterpart flippantly. This passage should serve as a reminder of the tremendous price God paid on behalf of every sinner whom He redeemed from death through the sacrifice of His Son.
For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:18-20 ESV
The author of Hebrews refers to the church as “the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23 NLT). Each has been “ransomed with the precious blood of the Son of God. All men are the Lord’s by creation, and all true Christians are his by redemption” (Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary).
According to Paul, Jesus is “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29 NLT). He was the firstborn Son of God who served as the sinless substitute for sinful men and women. His death made possible the gift of eternal life for those who at one time stood condemned before God. And had Jesus not offered His life as our substitute, none of us could have afforded to pay the debt we owed to God.
For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world… – Hebrews 10:4-5 NLT
For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:10 NLT
Numbers chapter 3 should remind us of the lines of that great old hymn, “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It.”
Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed through His infinite mercy,
His child, and forever, I am.
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.