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Numbers 3:11-13

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Numbers 3:11
  • Numbers 3:12
  • Numbers 3:13

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)

The LORD declared that the Levites were to be set apart to become His possession instead of the firstborn.

Regarding another aspect of the role of the Levites, the Lord spoke to Moses. Here, He tells Moses that He has taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn. As a result of the tenth plague (death of the firstborn, Exodus 13:15), the LORD made the firstborn of Israel His possession (Exodus 13:2). Now, He wanted the Levites as His possession “instead of every firstborn,” or the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. Thus, the LORD declared that the Levites shall be Mine. God took all the Levites in place of the firstborn of each family throughout the tribes of Israel. In this way they also served a priestly function, standing in place of others as a sacrifice before the LORD.

The LORD again declared that all the firstborn are Mine. The basis of this was that on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from man to beast. To be “sanctified” meant to be set apart for a specific purpose. God set apart the firstborn of all Israel for special service to Him on the occasion of the Passover (Exodus 13:1-2). He then stated yet again that they shall be Mine, referring to the Levites, who were to serve the redemptive function of redeeming all firstborn of Israel, and serving in their place. It appears this function of the Levites only applied to the firstborn humans. The firstborn beasts were still required of Israel, in part to feed the Levites.

Biblical Text

11 Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Now, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be Mine. 13 For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the Lord.”

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