×

Numbers 3:40-51

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 40 – 51 relate what was to take place for the Levites to replace the firstborn as the LORD’s possession. First, a census was taken of the number of firstborn males of the non-Levite tribes (verses 40 – 43). Then, the LORD declared the Levites as His. Because the number of non-Levite males was greater than the number of Levite males, a “ransom” was to be paid to the priests (verses 44 – 51).

The next thing the Lord commanded of Moses was to number every firstborn male of the sons of Israel from a month old and upward, and make a list of their names. The Hebrew word for “number” (“paqad”) can be translated “visit,” “look at,” or “inspect.” Moses was to inspect all of the non-Levite tribes for males one month and older in order to obtain their count. The reason for this was that the LORD told Moses to take the Levites for Me, I am the Lord. Taking the Levites for the LORD meant that they belonged to Him and were dedicated to lifetime service to Him.

The plan was for the Lord to have the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel. He was also to have the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the sons of Israel. The LORD wanted the Levites to be His possession as a redemption of all the firstborn of Israel.

The reason for this change was not given, but it could be that the LORD chose the Levites because they remained faithful to him during the episode with the golden calf (Exodus 32 – 34, especially Exodus 32:26 – 28). It is also likely a matter of practicality, as has been the case with God’s entire organization of Israel as a nation. This made a clear distinction between the policing function of the Levites, who were holy to the LORD, from the military function of the other tribes, which would likely minimize the potential for civil war. Any justice meted by the Levites would be considered as coming from the authority of God, avoiding a blood feud. This was the case in two episodes where Levites slew fellow Israelites; neither of these events started a civil war (Exodus 32:25-39; Numbers 25:7).

In obedience, Moses numbered all the firstborn among the sons of Israel, just as the Lord had commanded him. The result of Moses’ count of all the firstborn males by the number of names from a month old and upward was 22,273 (v. 43).

Many have questioned this number as being low. The number of Israelite males 20 years and older was numbered as 603,550 in Numbers 1:46. This would mean that there was one firstborn son counted for about every 27 males. Though many proposals have been given, one plausible explanation could be that the number “22,273” referred to those firstborn males born after the tribe of Levi was designated as set apart to the LORD, or perhaps after the redemption requirement was given after the first Passover in Egypt.

After the count of males was determined, again the Lord spoke to Moses(v. 44). He commanded Moses to take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel and the cattle of the Levites. The firstborn had been set aside to be sanctified unto the LORD after the LORD had delivered all the firstborn of Israel from the tenth plague, having the death angel “pass over” each doorpost sprinkled in blood (Exodus 13:1-2). Now God is redeeming each firstborn male by setting aside the Levites for His dedicated service. God’s statement that the Levites shall be Mine corresponds to God’s command in Exodus 13:1, “Sanctify to Me every firstborn, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel.” God will now substitute the Levites in place of the firstborn of Israel to serve Him. This is consistent with the biblical pattern of redemption. He can declare this because He is the Lord. He is the great Suzerain/ruler over Israel, who has entered into a covenant with His people. This is a redemptive provision that also brings order to the nation. So, now the male Levites were the LORD’s special possession, rather than the firstborn males of the other tribes.

The LORD then instructed Moses concerning the ransom of the 273 of the firstborn of the sons of Israel who are in excess beyond the Levites. The Levites numbered 22,000 (v. 39), leaving the excess of 273. The 22,000 were to be redeemed man for man with 22,000 male Levites. That left 273 firstborn unredeemed. God will now make provision for them in order to redeem these men from service in the sanctuary. This provision would maintain family unity while fully satisfying the legal requirement for the firstborn to be sanctified unto the LORD.

In order to sanctify the 273 firstborn who did not have a Levite male to substitute for them, the LORD required a ransom. The assigned ransom was for the people to pay five shekels apiece, per head. This had to be done in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs). This standard for the “shekel of the sanctuary” was first established in Exodus 30:13 as equaling twenty gerahs. A gerah was a unit of weight, equivalent to around 0.4 ounces (or 11.4 grams). This would make the sanctuary shekel’s weight around 8 ounces (over 226 grams) of silver. So, the “gerah” to be used for the ransom was based on the standard for a shekel used in the sanctuary. These shekels weighed more than the others. The average price for an ounce of silver in 2020 was a little less than US $21. So this ransom payment would be about US $165 in 2020 dollars. The global median annual income in 2020 was roughly US $1500, so this would be about a month of wages for the median income earner in 2020.

Once the ransom had been paid, Moses was to give the money, the ransom of those who are in excess among them, to Aaron and to his sons. The ransom thus went to the priests and supported the work and ministry of the sanctuary. This would be true whether the priests used the funds for their own support, or for temple service; a significant part of the tithe Israel was to pay was to support the sustenance of the Levites.

In response to the LORD’s command, Moses took the ransom money from those who were in excess, beyond those ransomed by the Levites. The ransom was collected from the firstborn of the sons of Israel he took the money in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary. The total of the ransom was 1,365 shekels. According to tradition, a lot was drawn to determine which families had to pay, and which were considered redeemed by the Levites.

Now that the ransom had been collected, Moses gave the ransom money to Aaron and to his sons, and he did this at the command of the Lord, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. Moses once again obeyed the word of the LORD explicitly. In this instance the people also obeyed the LORD’s command.

The concept of the ransom can be seen clearly in the New Testament. Jesus Christ offered Himself a “ransom for many” (Matthew 20:29; Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2:6).

Biblical Text

40 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Number every firstborn male of the sons of Israel from a month old and upward, and make a list of their names. 41 You shall take the Levites for Me, I am the Lord, instead of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the sons of Israel.” 42 So Moses numbered all the firstborn among the sons of Israel, just as the Lord had commanded him; 43 and all the firstborn males by the number of names from a month old and upward, for their numbered men were 22,273.

44 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel and the cattle of the Levites. And the Levites shall be Mine; I am the Lord. 46 For the ransom of the 273 of the firstborn of the sons of Israel who are in excess beyond the Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels apiece, per head; you shall take them in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money, the ransom of those who are in excess among them, to Aaron and to his sons.” 49 So Moses took the ransom money from those who were in excess, beyond those ransomed by the Levites; 50 from the firstborn of the sons of Israel he took the money in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary, 1,365. 51 Then Moses gave the ransom money to Aaron and to his sons, at the command of the Lord, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.