Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
The generations of Aaron and Moses, Num 3:1-4. The tribe of Levi to minister to the Lord under Aaron and his sons, Num 3:5-10. They are taken in the place of the first-born, Num 3:11-13. Moses is commanded to number them, Num 3:14-16. Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, the names of the three heads of families of the Levites, Num 3:17. Of Gershon and his family, Num 3:18-21. Their number, 7,500, Num 3:22. Their place behind the tabernacle, westward, Num 3:23. Their chief, Eliasaph, Num 3:24. Their charge, Num 3:25, Num 3:26. Of Kohath and his family, Num 3:27. Their number, 8,600, Num 3:28. Their place, beside the tabernacle, southward, Num 3:29. Their chief, Elizaphan, Num 3:30. Their charge, Num 3:31. The chief of the Levites, Eleazar, son of Aaron, Num 3:32. Of Merari and his family, Num 3:33. Their number, 6,200, Num 3:34. Their chief, Zuriel, they shall pitch beside the tabernacle, northward, Num 3:35. Their charge, Num 3:35-37. Moses and Aaron to encamp before the tabernacle, eastward, Num 3:38. The amount of all the males among the Levites from a month old and upwards, 22,000, Num 3:39. Moses is commanded to number the first-born, Num 3:40; and to take the Levites and their cattle, instead of the first-born of man and beast among the Israelites, Num 3:41. Moses numbers the first-born, who amount to 22,273, Num 3:43. As the first-born were 273 more than the Levites, Moses is commanded to take from the people five shekels apiece for them, Num 3:44-47, which is to be given to Aaron and his sons, Num 3:48. Moses does accordingly, and finds the amount of the money to be 1,365 shekels, Num 3:49, Num 3:50, which is given to Aaron and his sons, Num 3:51.
The generations of Aaron and Moses - Though Aaron and Moses are both mentioned here, yet the family of Aaron alone appears in the list: hence some have thought that the word Moses was not originally in the text. Others think that the words ואלה תלדות veelleh toledoth, these are the generations, should be rendered these are the acts, or transactions, or the history of the lives, as the same phrase may be understood in Gen 2:4; Gen 6:9. However this may be, it is evident that in this genealogy the family of Aaron are alone mentioned, probably because these belonged to the priesthood. Moses passes by his own family, or immediate descendants; he gave no rank or privilege to them during his life, and left nothing to them at his death. They became incorporated with the Levites, from or amongst whom they are never distinguished. What a strong proof is this of the celestial origin of his religion! Had it been of man, it must have had the gratification of some impure passion for its object; lust, ambition, or avarice: but none of these ever appear during the whole of his administration amongst the Israelites, though he had it constantly in his power to have gratified each. What an essential difference between the religion of the Pentateuch and that of the Koran! The former is God's workmanship; the latter is a motley mixture of all bad crafts, with here and there a portion of heavenly fire, stolen from the Divine altar in the Old and New Testaments, to give some vitality to the otherwise inert mass.
Nadab and Abihu died - See the notes on Leviticus 10 (note).
Bring the tribe of Levi near - The original word הקרב hakreb is properly a sacrificial word, and signifies the presenting of a sacrifice or offering to the Lord. As an offering, the tribe of Levi was given up entirely to the service of the sanctuary, to be no longer their own, but the Lord's property.
The charge of the whole congregation - They shall work for the whole congregation; and instead of the first-born.
All the instruments - The tabernacle itself and all its contents: see all described, Num 3:25, Num 3:26, Num 3:31, Num 3:36, Num 3:37. The Levites were to perform the most common and laborious offices. It was their business to take down, put up, and carry the tabernacle and its utensils; for it was the object of their peculiar care. In a word, they were the servants of the priests.
Aaron and his sons - shall wait on their priest's office - It was the business of the priests to offer the different sacrifices to God; to consecrate the shew-bread, pour out the libations, burn the incense, sprinkle the blood of the victims, and bless the people. In a word, they were the servants of God alone.
I have taken the Levites - instead of all the first-born - The Levites are taken for the service of the sanctuary in place of the first-born. The first-born were dedicated to God in commemoration of his slaying the first-born of the Egyptians, and preserving those of the Israelites. Even the cattle of the Levites were taken in place of the first-born of the cattle of the rest of the tribes. See Num 3:45. Several reasons have been assigned why God should give this honor to the tribe of Levi in preference to all the others, but they do not seem to me to be conclusive. Their zeal in destroying those who had corrupted the worship of God in the business of the golden calf, Exo 32:28, has been thought a sufficient reason. A better reason is, that this was the smallest tribe, and they were quite enough for the service. To have had a more numerous tribe at this time would have been very inconvenient. Aaron, says Mr. Ainsworth, being in his priesthood a type of Christ, all these rites are fulfilled in him. For unto Christ God gave children, Heb 2:13. And they are a congregation of first-born, whose names are written in heaven, Heb 12:23, being of God's own will begotten by the word of truth, that they should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures, Jam 1:18, to whom he also gives the first-fruits of his Spirit, Rom 8:23. These wait on and follow the Lamb, being first-fruits unto God and to the Lamb, Rev 14:4; and Christ hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father, that we may serve him day and night in his temple, Rev 1:6; Rev 7:15.
A month old and upward - The males of all the other tribes were numbered, from twenty years and upward; had the Levites been numbered in this way, they would not have been nearly equal in number to the firstborn of the twelve tribes. Add to this, that as there must have been first-born of all ages in the other tribes, it was necessary that the Levites, who were to be their substitutes, should be also of all ages; and it appears to have been on this ground, at least partly, that the Levites were numbered from four weeks old and upward.
Moses numbered them - Though Moses and Aaron conjointly numbered the twelve tribes, yet Moses alone numbered the Levites; "for as the money with which the first-born of Israel, who exceeded the number of Levites, were redeemed, was to be paid to Aaron and his sons, Num 3:48, it was decent that he, whose advantage it was that the number of the first-born of Israel should exceed, should not be authorized to take that number himself." - Dodd, from Bishop Kidder.
Seven thousand and five hundred - Perhaps originally ר resh, 200, instead of ך caph, 500; see the following note Num 3:39 (note).
Which Moses and Aaron numbered - The word ואהרן veaharon, "and Aaron." has a point over each of its letters, probably designed as a mark of spuriousness. The word is wanting in the Samaritan, Syriac, and Coptic; it is wanting also in eight of Dr. Kennicott's MSS., and in four of De Rossi's. Moses alone, as Houbigant observes, is commanded to take the number of the Levites; see Num 3:5, Num 3:11, Num 3:40, Num 3:44, and Num 3:51.
All the males - were twenty and two thousand - This total does not agree with the particulars; for the Gershonites were 7,500, the Kohathites 8,600, the Merarites 6,200, total 22,300. Several methods of solving this difficulty have been proposed by learned men; Dr. Kennicott's is the most simple. Formerly the numbers in the Hebrew Bible were expressed by letters, and not by words at full length; and if two nearly similar letters were mistaken for each other, many errors in the numbers must be the consequence. Now it is probable that an error has crept into the number of the Gershonites, Num 3:22, where, instead of 7,500, we should read 7,200, as ך caph, 500, might have been easily mistaken for ר resh, 200, especially if the down stroke of the caph had been a little shorter than ordinary, which is often the case in MSS. The extra 300 being taken off, the total is just 22,000, as mentioned in the 39th verse.
All the first-born males - were twenty and two thousand two hundred and threescore and thirteen - Thus we find there were 273 first-born beyond the number of the Levites. These are ordered, Num 3:46, to be redeemed; and the redemption price is to be five shekels each, Num 3:47, about 15s. And this money, amounting to 1,365 shekels, equal to 204 15s. English, he took of the first-born of Israel, Num 3:50. But how was this collected among 22,273 persons? Rabbi Solomon Jarchi says, "to prevent contention, Moses took 22,000 slips of parchment, and wrote on each a son of Levi, and 273 others, on which he wrote five shekels; then he mixed them in a basket, and each man took out one; those who drew the slips on which five shekels were written, paid the money; the others went free." This is a most stupid and silly tale, for such a mode of settlement never could have been resorted to by an intelligent people. It would have been much more simple to have paid it out of a general fund; and it is very likely that in this way the expense was defrayed. This species of redeeming of men is referred to by St. Peter, Pe1 1:18, Pe1 1:19 : "Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation, received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious (τιμιω αἱματι, valuable) blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot," etc. And it is not the first-born only which are thus redeemed, for he, by the grace of God, tasted death for Every man; Heb 2:9. Reader, give glory to God that such a ransom has been paid for thy soul, and see that, redeemed from thy vain conversation, thy empty, fruitless, and graceless observances, on which thou hast built thy hopes of salvation, thou walk in newness of life, giving thy whole soul with thankfulness unto the Father who hath translated thee from darkness, and placed thee in the kingdom of his beloved Son. To Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever! Amen.