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Numbers 3:38-39

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Numbers 3:38
  • Numbers 3:39

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)

Moses and Aaron and his sons are to camp on the east side of the tabernacle. This is symbolic of Christ to come.

The last group to be located in the camp was those who were to camp before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise. This was where Moses and Aaron and his sons were to camp. Since the entrance to the tabernacle was on the east side, this was a place of honor. This would place the family of Moses and Aaron as a buffer between the tabernacle and the camp of Judah. There is no mention of a number for the sons of Moses and Aaron, perhaps because they are numbered with the sons of Kohath, from whom they descended.

This was all symbolic of Christ who would come some 1500 years in the future. Judah became the lineage of King David, who became the lineage of the Messiah. The camp of Judah was situated on the east. Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy that a son of the house of David would sit on the throne of Israel forever (2 Samuel 7:13). Jesus is that son. Jesus is also the second Moses, fulfilling Moses’ prophecy that God would raise up someone from among Israel that was like Moses, but who would speak the word of God directly to the people (Deuteronomy 18:18). Jesus is also the entrance into the presence of God. Once inside the tabernacle, He is the veil that provides the way into the Holy of Holies. (Hebrews 10:19-20).

The presence of the camp of Judah, Aaron, and Moses on the eastern side, by the door of the tabernacle, reminds us that Jesus, the Messiah, is the Son of David, and the door to the true tabernacle is in heaven (John 10:9). God promised a redeemer for humanity immediately after humanity’s fall into sin and death (Genesis 3:15). Jesus fulfilled numerous specific prophecies made hundreds of years prior to His advent showing that He was the One anointed to take away the sins of the world (Luke 24:44-46). Some have said that Jesus fulfilled at least three hundred specific prophecies set forth in the Old Testament. The camp of Aaron and Moses was tasked with performing the duties of the sanctuary for the obligation of the sons of Israel. Not only were they to perform their priestly duties on behalf of the people, they also were to guard the entrance into the tabernacle. This was because the layman coming near was to be put to death. A “layman” was any person who was not a priest. Moses and Aaron and his family were to protect the holiness of the LORD. This prohibition apparently applied to the other Levites, who bordered the other three sides of the camp. They were allowed to be near the tent, to provide a buffer between the tabernacle and the people, but they were not allowed to approach the tabernacle as priests. They were only allowed to approach the tabernacle to disassemble, transport, and reassemble, and to perform other tasks helpful to the service of the priests.

The sons of Levi had already proven themselves as worthy to serve a policing function in Exodus, when they slayed those who betrayed the worship of God in the episode of the golden calf (Exodus 32:25-39). The sons of Levi will continue to prove themselves to be up to this task in Numbers 25:7, when one of the priests will slay an Israelite defiling the tabernacle with a woman of Moab.

In total, all the numbered men of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the command of the Lord by their families, every male from a month old and upward, were 22,000 (v. 39). This low number was evidence that the tribe of Levi was the smallest tribe in Israel.

This number “22,000” as a total census for the tribe of Levi does not agree with the total of the three numbers set forth in verses 22, 28, and 34, the sum of the census for each of the three sons of Levi, which is 22,300. The text is adamant about 22,300, stating in the remaining verses of this chapter that the males of Levi numbered 22,300.

Biblical Text

38 Now those who were to camp before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, are Moses and Aaron and his sons, performing the duties of the sanctuary for the obligation of the sons of Israel; but the layman coming near was to be put to death. 39 All the numbered men of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the command of the Lord by their families, every male from a month old and upward, were 22,000.

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