SPIRITUAL LEADERS BEAR HEAVY RESPONSIBILITIES BUT FIND THE LORD TO BE THEIR PORTION (OVER AND ABOVE GENEROUS COMPENSATION FOR THEIR SERVICE)
Having validated the special role of the Aaronic priesthood and punished the usurpers who were not content with their divinely appointed ministry roles, the Lord now spells out the distinctive role and support for the priests and Levites. It seems strange to begin this discussion with a warning about the liability and heavy responsibility that falls on the shoulders of spiritual leaders. Yet that somber tone is balanced with an emphasis on both the privilege of service and the expectation for financial and material support in full-time ministry. At the heart of the passage is the promise that in the absence of any claim to material inheritance, spiritual leaders can rest in the Lord as their portion. The text concludes with a reminder that even full-time ministers are not exempt from their obligation to render their appropriate offerings to the Lord.
Raymond Brown: The sudden transition from lengthy narrative (16:1–17:12) to priestly regulations is closely related to what has just gone before. The main point at issue in the disruptive conduct of Korah and his colleagues was the distinction between priests and the Levites. So, following the visible sign, this passage consists of God’s authenticating word, repeating the distinction between priests and Levites so that there could be no possible misunderstanding concerning their respective and well-defined roles.
Dennis Cole: Following the vindication of the Aaronic priesthood, the role of the Aaronic priests and the Levites as guardians of the Holy Place takes on additional significance. The holiness and purity of the sanctuary may be at risk should a people become rebellious and attempt to usurp the power of the divinely ordained priesthood or endeavor to present impure or unclean sacrifices in the realm of the holy.
I. (:1-7) DISTINCTION BETWEEN ROLE OF PRIESTS AND LEVITES
“So the LORD said to Aaron,”
Wiersbe: the people of Israel were terrified even to have the tabernacle in their camp. “Are we going to die?” they cried (17:13, NIV). Actually, God’s presence in their camp was the distinctive mark of the people of Israel (Ex. 33:1-16), for Israel was the only nation to have the glory of the Living God present with them and going before them (Rom. 9:4).
God spoke expressly to Aaron (Num. 18: 1, 8, 20) and thereby elevated his high priestly ministry even more. The Lord made it clear that it was the responsibility of the priests to minister to the tabernacle and protect it from defilement, and it was the responsibility of the Levites to assist the priests in their tabernacle ministry. As long as the priests and Levites obeyed this rule, there would be no judgment sent to the people (v. 5).
A. (:1) Summary of the Liability Vested in the Levites and Aaronic Priests
1. Levites (Kohathites) Liable for Sanctuary Violations
“You and your sons and your father’s household with you shall bear the guilt in connection with the sanctuary;”
“your father’s household” — Dispute whether reference is to entire Levitical clan or only the Kohathite branch.
Brueggemann: The English translations apply it to the sacred space, in which case “house of your fathers” means the entire Levitical tribe with their general Tabernacle responsibilities; however, some commentators think “sacred objects” is meant here (Ashley 1993:338; Milgrom 1989:146), in which case “house of your fathers” refers only to the Kohathites, who carried the sacred objects.
2. Aaronic Priests Liable for Priesthood Violations
“and you and your sons with you shall bear the guilt in connection with your priesthood.”
Timothy Ashley: The charge comes, first, to Aaron and his sons, i.e., the Aaronic priesthood. To this group is added your father’s house (bêṯ-’āḇîkā). Most scholars see this expression as a reference to the whole tribe of Levi. But the pl. bêṯ ’āḇôṯ usually means a subdivision smaller than the clan (mišpāḥâ). Occasionally the expression is a synonym for the full tribe (Num. 17:17–18, 21 [Eng. 2–3, 6]). In the sing., as here, it means “tribe” only in 17:17 (Eng. 2), because of the play on the word maṭṭeh, “rod, tribe,” in that passage. In the discussion of the census of the Levitical families in 3:14–37, the sing. designates the three Levitical groups: the Gershonites (3:24), the Kohathites (3:30), and the Merarites (3:35). It seems a sound conclusion that, except where the context demands otherwise for clarity, the term in either the sing. or the pl. indicates a tribal subunit. Thus your father’s house here should probably be identified as Aaron’s family group, the Kohathites. This identification gains weight when it is realized that v. 2 brings the whole tribe of Levi into the picture prefixed with the words and also (weḡam). In 4:1–20 it is the Kohathites who cooperate with the priests in the preparation and carrying of the holiest things. This identification also agrees with the task assigned here for the holy objects, which, as in 10:21, is the proper translation of hammiqdāš.
To bear the guilt (nāśā’ ‘āwōn) means to bear the divine punishment growing out of that guilt. The particular subject matter at hand is encroachment on the sanctuary and the wrath it causes to break out (17:27–28 [Eng. 12–13]). Thus v. 1a states that the priests and the Kohathites are to bear guilt for future Israelite trespass against the holy objects. But only the Aaronic priests will bear the guilt for future encroachment on the priesthood (v. 1b).
B. (:2-6) Details of the Distinctive Role of the Levites vs. the Aaronic Priests
1. (:2-4) Duties of the Levites
a. (:2) Fellowship in Ministry
“But bring with you also your brothers, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, that they may be joined with you and serve you, while you and your sons with you are before the tent of the testimony.”
b. (:3) Obligations and Restrictions
“And they shall thus attend to your obligation and the obligation of all the tent, but they shall not come near to the furnishings of the sanctuary and the altar, lest both they and you die.”
Timothy Ashley: The penalty for failure to stop encroachment on the sacred vessels and the altar is death at the hand of God. The Qal of the verb mût (“to die”) is used of death by divine agency. This penalty might seem strange since the punishment for offenses that have a disastrous effect on society is usually death by human agency. But once a person breaks through the protective guard of Levites and priests, no one could stop the offense without endangering himself and the community in the process; hence only God could carry out the death sentence. The ones upon whom this death comes are they (the antecedent for which must be “the Levites”—all of them) and you (the antecedent for which is not just Aaron, since it is pl., but all the priests). Encroachment by a single Levite, then, would bring the death of the whole group of priests and Levites. This principle is harsh, but prior to this time such encroachment (without intercession) would bring the death of the whole community (e.g., the plague in 17:6–15 [Eng. 16:41–50]).
c. (:4) Privileges and Exclusions
“And they shall be joined with you and attend to the obligations of the tent of meeting, for all the service of the tent; but an outsider may not come near you.”
“outsider” = non-Levite
Gordon Wenham: It is the Levites’ duty to guard the tent of meeting (3–4), so that no unauthorized person may draw near and provoke God’s wrath on the nation. But the Levites in their turn are precluded from undertaking specifically priestly jobs, such as entering the tent of meeting or officiating at the altar. It is the priests’ task to guard against such trespass by the Levites, which would again provoke judgment (5, 7). Trespassers caught by the priests must be executed (7).
2. (:5-6) Contrast Between the Role of the Aaronic Priests and the Levites
a. (:5) Superior Role of the Priests
“So you shall attend to the obligations of the sanctuary and the obligations of the altar, that there may no longer be wrath on the sons of Israel.”
b. (:6) Supportive/Subordinate Role of the Levites
“And behold, I Myself have taken your fellow Levites from among the sons of Israel; they are a gift to you, dedicated to the LORD, to perform the service for the tent of meeting.”
Raymond Brown: It was the Levites’ subservient and supportive role, to assist Aaron and his sons (2), that Korah and his friends found objectionable; yet the willingness to submit to others is an essential component of spiritual leadership. It minimizes the possibility of domineering dictatorship.
Theirs was an accountable role: They are to be responsible to the priests (3) for their work in connection with the Tent of the Testimony (2). They were meant to be not adventurous initiators but compliant servants of the will of God. Submissiveness in service can be realized only if we take Jesus as our primary role model. As the surrendered Son he was totally submissive in his obedience to the Father, and as the exemplary Servant he was voluntarily submissive in love for his disciples.
It was also a restricted role. The restraint operated on two levels. It was restricted in that they must not assume the priests’ responsibilities; they must not go near the furnishings of the sanctuary or the altar. If they inadvertently undertook a task intended exclusively for the priesthood, both they and the priest would die (3). It was restricted too in the sense that neither could non-Levites undertake the Levites’ duties. Their work was to protect the Tent from careless or indifferent intruders.
It was, furthermore, a privileged role, for they were the Lord’s choice gift to the priests: ‘I have selected your fellow Levites from among the Israelites as a gift to you, dedicated to the LORD to do the work at the Tent of Meeting’ (6). The Lord knew that the priests would need reliable helpers able to undertake some of the exacting physical jobs, particularly when the Tent of Meeting had to be moved on from one place to another. It demanded people strong enough to dismantle the Tent and its portable courtyard, and to arrange for its careful transportation and erection at the next site.
Ministry in any form is a subservient activity. It is not an opportunity for arrogant self-display. The servant is God’s gift to his people, a strong shoulder to lean on, not a rod for their backs. Paul took this idea, of the church’s servants as God’s loving gift, as the concept of ministry he outlined to the first-century churches. Grace ‘has been given’ to us all in the wide range of variously gifted and uniquely equipped servants with whom he enriches the life of his people.
C. (:7) Summary of the Priority Role of the Aaronic Priests
1. Perform Your Priestly Responsibilities
“But you and your sons with you shall attend to your priesthood for everything concerning the altar and inside the veil, and you are to perform service.”
2. Appreciate the Privilege of Priestly Service
“I am giving you the priesthood as a bestowed service,”
MacArthur: Even though the priesthood demanded much, the priests were to view it as a gift from the Lord.
Ronald Allen: The frightful obligations of the priests and the Levites and their responsibilities were balanced in the sense of the importance and honor of the work they did in the presence of God (v. 5). The divine vantage point is that they should regard their service of the priesthood as a gift – a gift that is priceless (v. 6). The gift was to the priests; they of all men were able to approach the Holy Place and minister before the Lord (v. 7). The Lord’s gift of the priesthood was also to the people; that there was a legitimate priesthood was an act of God’s mercy. The priests have a dual identity. On their shoulders rests the protection of the nation before God. The weight of that responsibility must be enormous. But the priests were also the most privileged persons in the community, for they could draw near to God.
3. Guard Against Any Non-Aaronic Usurpers
“but the outsider who comes near shall be put to death.”
Raymond Brown: The priests were also reminded of their exclusive obligations. Aaron knew only too well that, earlier, two of his sons had grieved God by offering ‘unauthorised fire … contrary to his command’. Moreover, at a later stage in their history, other priests were to fail him by their inconsistent lifestyle or their rejection of his word, so these repeated regulations were necessary. Like the supportive order of Levites, the priesthood also was a gift. They had a clearly defined responsibility in defending the Tent from willful, irreverent rebels who, like Korah, Dathan and Abiram, might be indifferent to God’s Word. King Uzziah of Judah arrogantly grasped a censer as Korah had done before him, and he too came under the stern hand of God’s judgment.
II. (:8-19) SUPPORT OF THE AARONIC PRIESTS VIA VARIOUS OFFERINGS
“Then the LORD spoke to Aaron,”
A. (:8) Summary Regarding Offerings for the Support of the Priests
“Now behold, I Myself have given you charge of My offerings, even all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, I have given them to you as a portion, and to your sons as a perpetual allotment.”
Timothy Ashley: Based on the fact that the priests (as well as the Levites) have been given new and dangerous responsibilities to forbid encroachment and to be responsible for it on pain of death in vv. 1–7, God grants the priests special dues in order to compensate them in vv. 8–20. At the end of the unit (v. 20) a further theological rationale is added for these priestly contributions; the priests have no territorial inheritance in the land of Canaan. God himself (and the gifts that normally accrue to him) are their inheritance. These gifts to the priests are broken down into the categories of “most holy,” which may only be eaten by the priests themselves within the sacred precincts (vv. 9–10), and “holy,” which may be eaten by any ceremonially clean member of the priests’ families in any ceremonially clean place (i.e., outside the sanctuary, vv. 11–19). The main point of the unit is the assignment of these dues, not a statement on the performance of offerings
Dennis Cole: The passage commences with a formal introduction, utilizing the formula for divine revelatory instruction, wayĕdabbēr YHWH ʾel- (“then Yahweh instructed …”), here used in one of the rare occurrences where Moses is not included as one of the recipients of the instruction. Then in a general statement the responsibility and perquisite compensation for the priesthood is described. In a simple chiastic structure utilizing two common usages of the verb nātan (“to give”), emphasis is placed on the personal decision of the Lord to bless the Aaronic lineage with the keeping of his tribute, those contributions made to him by the Israelites. The first use of nātan carries the meaning of appointment or putting someone in charge of a specific responsibility. God had placed under the charge of the Aaronic priesthood all the holy things of the Israelites (kol-qādĕšê bĕnê-yiśrāʾēl), that is, all of their sacred offerings. In the second use of nātan emphasis is placed on the giving of the tribute for compensatory provision for the priests, supplying their sustenance.
The phrase used to describe the general responsibility of the priests in regard to these gifts is mišmeret tĕrûmōtāw, generally translated “service of my presentation offerings.” The question arises as to the nature of this service. Is it one of guardianship, preservation, oversight, or simply keeping? A variety of the derived meanings of the verbal form šāmar may apply at the various points in the process. In a general overview an individual or community group presented the tribute to the priests in the sanctuary, during which it came under their supervision. They performed or supplied oversight to certain required ritual acts with various portions of the given offering: assuring and guarding the sanctity of the offerer, offering, and sacred precinct, and then they were allowed to keep designated portions of many of the offerings as compensation for their services. Hence a broad range in usage may be in view.
B. (:9-18) Details Regarding Offerings for the Support of the Priests
1. (:9-10) Portions of the Regular Sacrifices
“This shall be yours from the most holy gifts, reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, even every grain offering and every sin offering and every guilt offering, which they shall render to Me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons. As the most holy gifts you shall eat it; every male shall eat it. It shall be holy to you.”
Ronald Allen: Something was regarded as holy, not because of some mysterious inner quality, but because it has been presented to the Lord for his use.
2. (:11-13) Portions of the Wave Offerings and First Fruit Offerings
“This also is yours, the offering of their gift, even all the wave offerings of the sons of Israel; I have given them to you and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual allotment. Everyone of your household who is clean may eat it. All the best of the fresh oil and all the best of the fresh wine and of the grain, the first fruits of those which they give to the LORD, I give them to you. The first ripe fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the LORD, shall be yours; everyone of your household who is clean may eat it.”
Ronald Allen: The concept that God gets “the best of the first” is a constant in the worship texts of the Bible. The oil and the wine mentioned in this verse are not the dregs but the finest of the firstfruits. In giving the first and best to the Lord, believers are affirming with confidence that there will be something left for their own needs.
3. (:14) Devoted Things
“Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.”
4. (:15-18) Firstborn Offerings
a. (:15a) General Instruction
“Every first issue of the womb of all flesh, whether man or animal, which they offer to the LORD, shall be yours;”
b. (:15b-16) Redemption Instructions
1) Redemption Scope: Applies to Man and Unclean Animals
“nevertheless the first-born of man you shall surely redeem, and the first-born of unclean animals you shall redeem.”
2) Redemption Price
“And as to their redemption price, from a month old you shall redeem them, by your valuation, five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs.”
Ronald Allen: Seemingly, the reason for paying a redemption price for the firstborn of man and unclean animals and the sacrifice of the firstborn of clean animals was to provide a perpetual reminder that conception, birth, and life are gifts of God.
c. (:17-18) Redemption Exclusions
“But the first-born of an ox or the first-born of a sheep or the first-born of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle their blood on the altar and shall offer up their fat in smoke as an offering by fire, for a soothing aroma to the LORD. And their meat shall be yours; it shall be yours like the breast of a wave offering and like the right thigh.”
Raymond Brown: The primary intention was not to provide meals for the priesthood but to please the Lord. Once again we meet the phrase we have come across earlier, about gifts offered as an aroma pleasing to the LORD (17). With the exception of the burnt offering, the greater part of those sacrificial animals and all the cereal offerings were to meet the physical needs of the priests and their families. The Lord wanted his people to know that he derived immense pleasure from the assurance that his servants were provided with life’s necessities. The primary purpose of Christian giving is not to support the workers but to glorify the Lord.
C. (:19) Summary Regarding Offerings for the Support of the Priests
“All the offerings of the holy gifts, which the sons of Israel offer to the LORD, I have given to you and your sons and your daughters with you, as a perpetual allotment. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the LORD to you and your descendants with you.”
III. (:20) UNIQUE PORTION FOR THE PRIESTHOOD = Heart of the passage
“Then the LORD said to Aaron,”
A. Stated Negatively – Not Tied to Land Ownership
“You shall have no inheritance in their land, nor own any portion among them;”
B. Stated Postively – Tied to Special Relationship with the Lord“I am your portion and your inheritance among the sons of Israel.”
Timothy Ashley: This verse provides a further theological rationale for the fact that the priests receive these dues. As already suggested, their added guard duty in vv. 1–7 is one reason for the change in these contributions. The one put forth here is that the priests (represented by Aaron) have no land inheritance in Canaan; their inheritance is Yahweh himself. Just as the other Hebrews will be supported from their share (ḥēleq), so the priests will be supported by theirs, i.e., Yahweh. Although one must be careful not to limit this rationale to the dues, one may suppose that they were the tangible sign that the priests had Yahweh for their share. In this way the priests would be made to depend on God rather than on the land.
IV. (:21-24) SUPPORT OF THE LEVITES VIA TITHES
“And to the sons of Levi,”
A. (:21) Purpose of the Tithe = to Support the Levites for Their Service
“behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting.”
Gordon Wenham: The tithe is a payment in return for their service in the tent of meeting (21, 31), i.e. their work of dismantling, carrying and erecting the tabernacle. It is a recognition of the dangers inherent in their occupation: by dealing with such holy things they may be subject to divine judgment, and they protect the people from that risk (22–23). Finally, the tithe compensates the Levites for their lack of inheritance in the land: whereas the other tribes had large tracts of land assigned to them to settle in, the Levites were given only forty-eight villages, scattered throughout the land (24; 34:16–35:8; Josh. 13–21).
Wiersbe: The Jews were obligated to pay three different tithes: a tithe to the Levites (vv. 21-24), a tithe “eaten before the Lord” (Deut. 14:22-27), and a tithe every three years that was given to the poor (Lev. 27:28-29).
B. (:22-23a) Privilege and Liability of Service Belongs Exclusively to the Levites
1. (:22) Warning Against Usurpers
“And the sons of Israel shall not come near the tent of meeting again, lest they bear sin and die.”
2. (:23a) Focus on the Levites – Privilege and Liability Belong to Them
“Only the Levites shall perform the service of the tent of meeting,
and they shall bear their iniquity;”
Dennis Cole: Note chiastic structure:
H No Inheritance of Land (v. 20b)
I Tithe Inheritance for the Levites (v. 21)
D´´´ Levite Service (vv. 22–23)
I´ Tithe Inheritance for the Levites (v. 24a)
H´ No Inheritance of Land (v. 24b)
At the focal point of this section is the reiteration of the critical and dangerous role the Levites served on behalf of the Israelite community. During the wilderness journey the three clans of the Levites and the Aaronic priests would camp in the immediate vicinity of the four sides of the sanctuary, between it and the three other tribes that were encamped on the perimeter. They acted first as a positional barrier between the holy geo-central position of the Tent of Meeting and the community at large, ensuring its sanctity by guarding against encroachment by unauthorized persons, including any unclean persons of their own Levite clans. As stated previously in vv. 2–5, they would bear the consequences of sin and iniquity against the sanctuary, so that no longer—as had happened as a result of the recent Korah rebellion—would anyone die because of such a violation of the holy precinct of the Tent of Meeting. This responsibility was to be a perpetual one, such that they were to be solely dedicated to the Lord and not encumbered by the territorial responsibilities of their Israelite brothers. This was their inheritance, as Yahweh’s inheritance, in the present and in days to come, when Yahweh would bring Israel into the land of their inheritance.
C. (:23b-24) Perpetual Practice
“it shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations,”
1. (:23b) No Land Inheritance
“and among the sons of Israel they shall have no inheritance.”
2. (:24a) Reliance Upon Tithes
“For the tithe of the sons of Israel, which they offer as an offering to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance;”
3. (:24b) No Land Inheritance
“therefore I have said concerning them,
‘They shall have no inheritance among the sons of Israel.’”
V. (:25-32) SUPPORT OF THE LEVITES INCLUDES THEIR RESPONSIBILITY OF TITHING TO THE LORD
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,”
Brueggemann: Verses 25–32 treat the Levitical obligations to the priesthood. They received a tithe from all the Israelites, and in turn, they gave a tithe to the priests, as though it were produce from their own fields and vineyards (18:26). The remainder belonged to the Levites. Their families could eat it anywhere they wanted, not just at the Tabernacle. Rather than being an expressly cultic meal, it was their “compensation” for Tabernacle service (18:31). They were “not [to] be considered guilty” for eating food offered to the Lord; nonetheless, they were to remain “careful not to treat the holy gifts of the people of Israel as though they were common” (18:32). The sanction against violating this holiness required death (18:32). The Israelites’ offerings were to be without blemish; in turn, the Levites’ offerings were to be “the best portions of the gifts” that Israel gave them (18:29). Postexilic failure to meet this requirement led to punishment (Mal 1:6–8).
A. (:26-29) Responsibility of the Levites to Tithe
1. (:26) Give a Tithe of the Tithe
“Moreover, you shall speak to the Levites and say to them, ‘When you take from the sons of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present an offering from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe.’”
Timothy Ashley: At the end of this chapter the author makes it clear that, just as every ordinary Israelite was required to bring a tenth of his or her produce to Yahweh, so the Levite had to do so. Since Yahweh had granted the people’s tithes to the Levites, the Levites’ tithes would go to the priests.
2. (:27) Give and It Will Be Reckoned as the Fruits of Your Own Labor
“And your offering shall be reckoned to you as the grain from the threshing floor or the full produce from the wine vat.”
3. (:28) Give to the Priest … to the Lord
“So you shall also present an offering to the LORD from your tithes, which you receive from the sons of Israel; and from it you shall give the LORD’s offering to Aaron the priest.”
4. (:29) Give the Best of the Best
“Out of all your gifts you shall present every offering due to the LORD, from all the best of them, the sacred part from them.”
Ronald Allen: The instruction of this section, which Moses is to relate to the Levites, is impressive: those who make their living by contributions for the Lord’s work shall themselves be responsible for giving to the Lord as well. There is a tendency, then and now, for persons to believe that if their lives are spent in the Lord’s work, then they are exempt from contributing to that work.
B. (:30-32) Right of the Levites to Partake of the Remainder of the Offering
1. (:30) Belongs to You as If You Had Labored for It
“And you shall say to them, ‘When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be reckoned to the Levites as the product of the threshing floor, and as the product of the wine vat.’”
2. (:31) Belongs to You as Compensation for Your Levitical Service
“And you may eat it anywhere, you and your households, for it is your compensation in return for your service in the tent of meeting.”
Timothy Ashley: Once this holy portion is set aside and given as a contribution to the priests, the rest is looked upon as a wage in exhange for your work in the tent of meeting, i.e., it is not holy and may be consumed anywhere by the Levite’s whole family.
3. (:32) Belongs to You Without Sin or Guilt
a. As Long as You Tithed the Best of It
“And you shall bear no sin by reason of it,
when you have offered the best of it.”
b. As Long as You Have Not Profaned the Offerings
“But you shall not profane the sacred gifts of the sons of Israel,
lest you die.”
Timothy Ashley: When the Levites follow the divine regulation and set aside the tithe of the tithe, consecrating this portion to the use of the priests (v. 29), then there is no penalty for consuming the remainder outside the sacred precincts. But if this consecrated portion is not removed, then by consuming it as a non-priest and by consuming it outside the sacred precincts (into which the Levites cannot go in any case), then the Levites are polluting holy things, which is a capital offense (i.e., encroachment).