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Numbers 3:1-4

The book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of Moses that comprise the Torah, which means “Law.” It gets its English name from the Greek Old Testament called the Septuagint (or LXX). The LXX named this book, “Arithmoi,” meaning “Numbers.” Its Hebrew name means “in the desert” or “in the wilderness.” Both names are appropriate. The Hebrew name is appropriate because Numbers covers the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness (or “desert”) from Sinai to the plains of Moab. The Greek name is also appropriate because of the many lists, and the numbers within those lists.

At the beginning of the book, the Israelites had been camped at Mount Sinai for about a year. The book of Exodus covered their escape from Egypt and their journey to Sinai. The LORD commanded Moses to organize the people in preparation to leave Sinai and go to the Promised Land. The book covers around 38 years of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, and describes many of Israel’s failures, including mutinies against Moses and outright disobedience to the word of the LORD. In Numbers, the LORD declares that the generation that left Egypt would die in the wilderness due to their disobedience. Only two, Joshua and Caleb, were allowed to enter the Promised Land, due to their faithfulness. Even Moses died without entering the Land due to disobedience.

The book of Numbers can be outlined in many ways. The most general outline involves the generation that leaves Egypt and the one after it, as seen below:
• Events Involving the Exodus Generation (Num. 1 – 25)
• Events Involving the Second Generation (Num. 26 – 36)

Another outline sees the book having three major divisions based on the major encampments of the Israelites:
• Israel at Sinai (Num. 1:1 – 10:10)
• Israel at Kadesh Barnea (Num. 10:11 – 19:22)
• Israel on the Plains of Moab (Num. 20:1 – 36:13)

Still another outline (the one followed here) is as follows:
• The Exodus Generation in the Wilderness (chaps. 1 – 25)
◦ The Israelites Prepare to Leave Mount Sinai (1:1 – 10:10)
◦ The Israelites Depart to Kadesh Barnea (10:11 – 14:45)
◦ The Israelites Journey to the Plains of Moab (15:1 – 22:1)
◦ The Israelites Are Confronted by Balaam the Prophet (22:2 – 25:18)
• The Second Generation Prepares to Enter the Promised Land (26:1 – 36:13)
◦ The Rules Concerning Inheritance (Num. 26:1 – 27:11)
◦ The Provision for Moses’ Successor (Num. 27:12 – 23)
◦ The Laws Concerning Offerings (Num. 28:1 – 29:40)
◦ The Laws Concerning Vows (Num. 30:1 –16)
◦ The LORD’s Judgment Against the Midianites (Num. 31:1 – 54)
◦ The Inheritance of the Eastern Tribes (Num. 32:1 – 42)
◦ The Review of the Journey to Canaan (Num. 33:1 – 56)
◦ The LORD’s Instructions Before Conquering Canaan (Num. 33:50 – 36:13)

There are two themes that flow from the book of Numbers. The first concerns the LORD’s infinite grace in light of the people’s many failures and transgressions. There is hardly a book in the Bible where the LORD had to exercise His grace to His people more often than this one. The book of Numbers contains a record of Israel’s failure after failure and the LORD’s gracious forgiveness after forgiveness. Even when He judged them, there was grace.

Second, and related to the first, the book stresses the importance of obedience. God chose the Israelites unconditionally; they were the LORD’s chosen people regardless of their behavior. However, He demanded obedience to show His people that their obedience results in blessing. God set forth a way of life for His people in the covenant He and the people entered into at Sinai (Exodus 19:5-8). The Ten Commandments made it clear that God would make the law, and that the pinnacle requirement of His law was for the people to respect and serve one another. The strong were to serve the weak. This was in stark contrast to the surrounding cultures, which centered around the strong exploiting the weak (Leviticus 18). God’s judgment brought discipline upon Israel in order to shepherd them toward living in harmony and service to one another.


Chapters 3 and 4 of Numbers concern the setting apart and organization of the Levites. They were selected to be the LORD’s possession, redeeming the firstborn of Israel. Each family was given the responsibility of taking care of various parts of the tabernacle and its furnishings.

The Levitical families were instructed to camp in a square immediately surrounding the tabernacle. This allowed them to serve as a buffer between God’s dwelling place and the rest of His people—the twelve tribes and their armies. This buffer served as both a protection of God’s holiness and a protection of the people from certain death if they tried to get too near to the tabernacle.

Numbers 3 can be outlined as follows:

  • The Family of Aaron and Moses (3:1 – 4)
  • The Levites Presented to Aaron (3:5 – 10)
  • The Levites Set Apart to the LORD (3:11 – 13)
  • The Census and Placement of the Levite Families (3:14 – 39)
    • The Families Summarized (3:14 – 20)
    • The Family of Gershon (3:21 – 26)
    • The Family of Kohath (3:27 – 32)
    • The Family of Merari (3:33 – 37)
    • The Family of Moses and Aaron (3:38)
    • The Final Count (3:39)
  • The Ransom of the Firstborn (3:39 – 51)
    • The Census Taken (3:40 – 43)
    • The Ransom Taken (3:44 – 51)

Verses 1 – 4 introduce the section of Numbers that concerns the appointment of the Levites to serve in the tabernacle and introduces their duties in that service. They also reaffirm that Aaron and his sons are priests before the LORD.

Now that the twelve tribes appointed to serve a military function have been counted and organized around the tabernacle, Moses then turned to the role(s) of the tribe of Levi. He started with the records of the generations of Aaron and Moses. Aaron is the brother of Moses, and both are from the tribe of Levi, who was the fourth son of Jacob, from his wife Leah. The word generations (Heb. “toledot”) is familiar in the books of Moses, especially Genesis (Genesis 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:19 et al.). In other English versions, it is translated “records” (NKJV), “account” (NIV), or “lineage” (NRSV). In Genesis, it is used to begin a new section of the book containing an account of a family lineage. Here, it concerns the family of Aaron and Moses (the Levites) being dedicated to serving the LORD in the tabernacle.

These instructions were given to Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. They involved the sons of Aaron, who were Nadab [“generous, noble”] the firstborn, and Abihu [“he is father”], Eleazar [“God has helped”] and Ithamar [“land of palms”]. This repeats what was stated in Exodus 28 – 29, that these are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to serve as priests. Aaron and his descendants were to be set aside to minister in the LORD’s presence.

By the time the Israelites reached the plains of Moab, on the eastern border of the Promised Land, and prepared to cross the Jordan River and enter the land, there were only two of Aaron’s four sons remaining alive. The reason is that Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord when they offered strange fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai. The story of their demise can be found in Leviticus 10:1 – 2. They died because they did not limit their activities to what the LORD commanded. They offered “strange fire” (possibly an unauthorized incense offering). They did “what the LORD had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:2). They apparently took matters into their own hands to prescribe worship, rather than strictly obeying the LORD. The LORD killed them as a result. Plus, they had no children, so there would be no descendants carrying on their line. As a result, Aaron’s remaining sons Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron.

Biblical Text

Now these are the records of the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. 2 These then are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. 3 These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to serve as priests. 4 But Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord when they offered strange fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron.