Numbers 18 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

Numbers 18
Pulpit Commentary
And the LORD said unto Aaron, Thou and thy sons and thy father's house with thee shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary: and thou and thy sons with thee shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood.
Verse 1. - The Lord spake unto Aaron. This clear and comprehensive instruction as to the position and support of the sons of Aaron on the one hand, and of the Levites on the other, may very naturally have been given in connection with the events just narrated. There is, however, no direct reference to those events, and it is quite possible that the only connection was one of subject-matter in the mind of the writer. That the regulations which follow were addressed to Aaron directly is a thing unusual, and indeed unexampled. The ever-recurring statement elsewhere is, "the Lord spake unto Moses," varied occasionally by "the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron" (as in Numbers 2:1; Numbers 4:1; Numbers 19:1); but even where the communication refers to things wholly and peculiarly within the province of Aaron, it is usually made to Moses, and only through him to his brother (see e.g., Numbers 8:1-3). This change in the form of the message may point to a later date, i.e., to a time subsequent to the gainsaying of Korah, when the separate position of Aaron as the head of a priestly caste was more fully recognized than before, and he himself somewhat less under the shadow of his greater brother. Thou and thy sons and thy father's house with thee shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary. Aaron's father's house, according to the analogy of Numbers 17:2, 3, 6, was the sub-tribe of the Kohathites, and these had charge (to the exclusion of the other Levites) of the sanctuary, or rather sacred things (הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, as in Numbers 10:21. Septuagint, τῶν ἁγίων). See on Numbers 4:15. This mention of the Kohathites in connection with the sanctuary is an incidental proof that these instructions were given in view of the wanderings in the wilderness, for after the settlement in Canaan no Levites (as such) came into contact with the sacred furniture. It is not easy to define exactly the meaning of "shall bear the iniquity (תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת־עַון) of the sanctuary." The general sense of the phrase is, "to be responsible for the iniquity," i.e., for anything which caused displeasure in the eyes of God, "in connection with the sacred things and the service of them;" hence it meant either to be responsible for such iniquity, as being held accountable for it, and having to endure the penalty, or as being permitted and enabled to take such accountability on oneself, and so discharge it from others. This double sense is exactly reflected in the Greek word αἴρειν, as applied to our Lord (John 1:29). The priests, therefore (and the Kohathites, so far as they had anything to do with the sanctuary), were responsible for all the unholiness attaching or accruing to it, not only by reason of all offences committed by themselves, but by reason of that imperfection which clung to them at the best, and made them unworthy to handle the things of God. In a further and deeper sense they might be said to be vicariously responsible for all the iniquity of all Israel, so far as the taint of it affected the very sanctuary (see on Exodus 28:38; Leviticus 16:16). The iniquity of your priesthood. The responsibility not only for all sinful acts of omission and commission in Divine service (such as those of Nadab and Abihu, and of Korah), but for all the inevitable failure of personal holiness on the part of those who ministered unto the Lord. This responsibility was emphatically recognized and provided for in the rites of the great day of atonement.
And thy brethren also of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of thy father, bring thou with thee, that they may be joined unto thee, and minister unto thee: but thou and thy sons with thee shall minister before the tabernacle of witness.
Verse 2. - Thy brethren also of the tribe of Levi. The Levites generally, as distinguished from the Kohathites in particular (see on chapter 3). That they may be joined unto thee. וְילָּווּ, a play upon the name Levi (see on Genesis 29:34). But thou and thy sons with thee shall minister before the tabernacle of witness. The Hebrew has only וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶי אִתָּך, which may be rendered, "And thou and thy sons with thee (shall be)," &c., or more naturally read with what goes before, "that they may minister unto thee; both thee and thy sons with thee," &c. The Septuagint and the Targums appear to favour the former rendering, but it is not evident what distinction could be drawn between priests and Levites as to the mere fact of being before the tabernacle.
And they shall keep thy charge, and the charge of all the tabernacle: only they shall not come nigh the vessels of the sanctuary and the altar, that neither they, nor ye also, die.
Verse 3. - They shall keep thy charge, &c. See on Numbers 3:7, 8. That neither they, nor ye also, die. This warning does not seem to refer to the danger of the Kohathites seeing the sacred things (Numbers 4:15), but of the other Levites coming near them; the further warning, "nor ye also," is added because if the carelessness or profanity of the priest led to sacrilege and death in the case of the Levite, it would be laid to his charge (cf. Numbers 4:18).
And they shall be joined unto thee, and keep the charge of the tabernacle of the congregation, for all the service of the tabernacle: and a stranger shall not come nigh unto you.
Verse 4. - A stranger. וֶר, i.e., one not a Levite, as in Numbers 1:51.
And ye shall keep the charge of the sanctuary, and the charge of the altar: that there be no wrath any more upon the children of Israel.
Verse 5. - That there be no wrath any more upon the children of Israel. As there had been ill the case of Korah and his company, and of the many thousands who had fallen in consequence.
And I, behold, I have taken your brethren the Levites from among the children of Israel: to you they are given as a gift for the LORD, to do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation.
Verse 6. - I have taken your brethren the Levites. See on chapter Numbers 3:9; 8:19.
Therefore thou and thy sons with thee shall keep your priest's office for every thing of the altar, and within the vail; and ye shall serve: I have given your priest's office unto you as a service of gift: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.
Verse 7. - Shall keep your priests' office for everything of the altar, and within the vail. That the Levites were made over to Aaron and his sons to relieve them of a great part of the mere routine and drudgery of their service was to be with them an additional and powerful motive for doing their priestly work so reverently and watchfully as to leave no excuse for sacrilegious intrusion. The altar (of burnt offering) and "that within the vail (cf. Hebrews 6:19) were the two points between which the exclusive duties of the priesthood lay, including the service of the holy place. A service of gift. A service which was not to be regarded as a burden, or a misfortune, or as a natural heritage and accident of birth, but to be received and cherished as a favour accorded to them by the goodness of God.
And the LORD spake unto Aaron, Behold, I also have given thee the charge of mine heave offerings of all the hallowed things of the children of Israel; unto thee have I given them by reason of the anointing, and to thy sons, by an ordinance for ever.
Verse 8. - And the Lord spake unto Aaron. The charge and responsibility of the priests having been declared, the provision for their maintenance is now to be set forth. The charge, מִשְׁמֶרֶת, as in verse 5, &c.; but here it means "the keeping" for their own use (cf. Exodus 12:6). Mine heave offerings. תְּרוּמֹתָי. The possessive pronoun marks the fact that these did not belong to the priest in the first instance, although they naturally came to be looked on as his perquisites (cf. 1 Samuel 2:16), but were a gift to him from the Lord out of what the people had dedicated. The word terumoth must here be understood in its widest sense, as including everything which the Israelites dedicated or "lifted" of all their possessions, so far as these were not destroyed in the act of offering. Of all the hallowed things. The genitive of identity: "consisting of all the hallowed things." By reason of the anointing. Rather, "for a portion," לְמָשְׁחָה (see on Leviticus 7:35). The Septuagint has εἰς γέρας, "as an honour," or peculium.
This shall be thine of the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every oblation of theirs, every meat offering of theirs, and every sin offering of theirs, and every trespass offering of theirs, which they shall render unto me, shall be most holy for thee and for thy sons.
Verse 9. - Reserved from fire, i.e., from the sacrificial altar. Every oblation of theirs. As specified in the following clauses. The burnt offering is not mentioned because it was wholly consumed, and only the skin fell to the priest. The sin offerings for the priest or for the congregation were also wholly consumed (Leviticus 4:12, 21), but the sin offerings of private individuals, although in no case partaken of by the offerers, were available for the priests (Leviticus 6:26), and this was the ordinary case.
In the most holy place shalt thou eat it; every male shall eat it: it shall be holy unto thee.
Verse 10. - In the most holy place thou shalt eat it. בְּקֹדֶשׁ הַדָקֹּשִׁים. Septuagint, ἐν τῷ ἀγίῳ τῶν ἁγίων. This expression is somewhat perplexing, because it stands commonly for the holy of holies (Exodus 26:33). As it cannot possibly have that meaning here, two interpretations have been proposed.

1. That it means the court of the tabernacle, called "the holy place" in Leviticus 6:16, 26; Leviticus 7:6, and there specified as the only place in which the meat offerings, the sin offerings, and trespass offerings might be eaten. There is no reason why this court should not be called "must holy," as well as "holy;" if it was "holy" with respect to the camp, or the holy city, it was "most holy" with respect to all without the camp, or without the gate.

2. That the expression does not mean "in the most holy place," but "amongst the most holy things," as it does in Numbers 4:4, and above in verse 9. A distinction is clearly intended between the "most holy things," which only the priests and their sons might eat, and the "holy things," of which the rest of their families might partake also. It is difficult to decide between these renderings, although there can be no doubt that the "most holy" things were actually to be consumed within the tabernacle precincts.
And this is thine; the heave offering of their gift, with all the wave offerings of the children of Israel: I have given them unto thee, and to thy sons and to thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: every one that is clean in thy house shall eat of it.
Verse 11. - And this is thine. Here begins a second list of holy gifts which might be eaten at home by all members of the priestly families who were clean; they included

(1) all wave offerings, especially the wave breast and heave shoulder of the peace offerings;

(2) all first-fruits of every kind;

(3) all that was devoted;

(4) all the first-born, or their substitutes. The first and third must have been very variable in amount, but the second and fourth, if honestly rendered, must have brought in a vast amount both of produce and of revenue. With all the wave offerings. Rather, "in all the wave offerings," as in verse 8.
All the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the firstfruits of them which they shall offer unto the LORD, them have I given thee.
Verse 12. - All the best. Literally, "all the fat" (cf. Genesis 45:18).
And whatsoever is first ripe in the land, which they shall bring unto the LORD, shall be thine; every one that is clean in thine house shall eat of it.
Every thing devoted in Israel shall be thine.
Verse 14. - Everything devoted. כָּל־חֵרֶם. Septuagint, πᾶν ἀνατεθεματισμένον, all deodands, or things vowed (see on Leviticus 27:28).
Every thing that openeth the matrix in all flesh, which they bring unto the LORD, whether it be of men or beasts, shall be thine: nevertheless the firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts shalt thou redeem.
And those that are to be redeemed from a month old shalt thou redeem, according to thine estimation, for the money of five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs.
Verse 16. - From a month old. Literally, "from the monthly child," as soon as they reach the age of one month. According to thine estimation. See on Leviticus 5:15; 27:2-7. It would seem that the priest was to make the valuation for the people, since each first-born or firstling was separately claimed by God, and had to be separately redeemed; but at the same time, to prevent extortion, the sum which the priest might assess was fixed by God. For the money of five shekels. About seventeen shillings of our money (see Numbers 3:47). It is extremely drill cult to estimate the number of first-born, but it is evident that in any case a large income must have accrued to the priests in this way. No value is here set upon the firstlings of unclean beasts; in the most usual ease, that of the ass, the rule had been laid down in Exodus 13:13; and in other cases it was apparently left to the discretion of the priests, subject to the right of the owner, if he saw fit, to destroy the animal rather than pay for it (see Leviticus 27:27).
But the firstling of a cow, or the firstling of a sheep, or the firstling of a goat, thou shalt not redeem; they are holy: thou shalt sprinkle their blood upon the altar, and shalt burn their fat for an offering made by fire, for a sweet savour unto the LORD.
Verse 17. - But the firstling of a cow, &c. Only those things which were not available for sacrifice could be redeemed; the rest must be offered to him that claimed them. The first-born of men belonged partially to both classes: on the one hand, they could not be sacrificed, and therefore were redeemed with money; on the other hand, they could be dedicated (being clean), and therefore had been exchanged for the Levites.
And the flesh of them shall be thine, as the wave breast and as the right shoulder are thine.
Verse 18. - The flesh of them shall be thine, as the wave breast and as the right shoulder are thine. This is on the face of it inconsistent with the direction given in Deuteronomy 15:19, 20, that the flesh of the first-lings should be eaten by the offerers in the holy place (cf. also Deuteronomy 12:17, 18). Two explanations have been proposed.

1. That the firstlings were given to the priest in the same sense as the peace offerings, i.e., only as regarded the breast and shoulder, while the rest went to the offerer. This, however, does obvious violence to the language, and is not supported by the Septuagint.

2. That as the priest was bound to consume the firstlings with his family, and could not sell them, he would be certainly disposed to invite the offerer to join him in the sacred meal. This may have been usually the case, but it was entirely within the option of the priest, and could scarcely be made the basis of a direct command, like that of Deuteronomy 15:19, still less of an indirect assumption, like that of Deuteronomy 12:17, 18, that the firstlings stood upon the same footing as free-will offerings and heave offerings. It is easier to suppose that the law was actually modified in this, as in some other particulars.
All the heave offerings of the holy things, which the children of Israel offer unto the LORD, have I given thee, and thy sons and thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: it is a covenant of salt for ever before the LORD unto thee and to thy seed with thee.
Verse 19. - All the heave offerings of the holy things. Those, viz., enumerated from verse 9. It is a covenant of salt for ever. Septuagint, διαθήκη ἀλὸς αἰωνίου (cf. 2 Chronicles 13:5). Salt was the natural emblem of that which is incorruptible; wherefore a binding alliance was (and still is) made by eating bread and salt together, and salt was always added to the sacrifices of the Lord (Leviticus 2:13; Mark 9:49).
And the LORD spake unto Aaron, Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any part among them: I am thy part and thine inheritance among the children of Israel.
Verse 20. - Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land. The priests had of necessity homes wherein to live when not on duty, but they had no territory of their own in the same sense as Jews of other tribes. I am thy part and thine inheritance. Septuagint, ἐγὼ μερίς σου καὶ κληρονομία σου. This is not to be explained away, as if it meant only that they were to live "of the altar." Just as the priests (and in a lesser sense all the Levites) were the special possession of the Lord, so the Lord was the special possession of the priests; and inasmuch as all the whole earth belonged to him, the portion of the priests was, potentially in all cases, actually for those who were capable of realizing it, infinitely more desirable than any other portion. The spiritual meaning of the promise was so clearly felt that it was constantly claimed by the devout in Israel, irrespective of their ecclesiastical status (cf. Psalm 16:5; Lamentations 3:24, &c.).
And, behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, even the service of the tabernacle of the congregation.
Verse 21. - All the tenth. The tithe of all fruits and flocks had been already claimed absolutely by the Lord (Leviticus 27:30, 32). It is probable indeed that the giving of tithes had been more or less a matter of obligation from time immemorial. Abraham had paid them on one memorable occasion (Genesis 14:20), and Jacob had vowed them on another (Genesis 28:22). From this time forth, however, the tithes were formally assigned to the maintenance of the Levites, in return for their service.
Neither must the children of Israel henceforth come nigh the tabernacle of the congregation, lest they bear sin, and die.
Verse 22. - Lest they bear sin, and die. לָשֵׂאת חֵטְא לָמוּת. Septuagint, λαβεῖν ἀμαρτίαν θανατηφόρον. In the sense of incurring sin, and the consequent wrath and death.
But the Levites shall do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they shall bear their iniquity: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations, that among the children of Israel they have no inheritance.
Verse 23. - And they shall bear (יִשְׂאוּ) their iniquity. The Levites were to take the responsibility of the general iniquity so far as approach to the tabernacle was concerned. They have no inheritance. Like the priests, they had homes and cities, and they had pasturages attached to these cities, but no separate territory.
But the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer as an heave offering unto the LORD, I have given to the Levites to inherit: therefore I have said unto them, Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.
Verse 24. - As an heave offering. This means nothing more than an "offering" apparently. It is not to be supposed that any ritual was observed in the giving of tithes.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Verse 25. - And the Lord spake unto Moses. This part of the instruction alone is addressed to Moses, probably because it determined a question as between priests and Levites to the advantage of the former, and therefore would not have come well from Aaron.
Thus speak unto the Levites, and say unto them, When ye take of the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then ye shall offer up an heave offering of it for the LORD, even a tenth part of the tithe.
Verse 26. - Ye shall offer up an heave offering of it for the Lord, even a tenth part of the tithe. Thus the principle of giving a tenth part of all to God was carried out consistently throughout the whole of his people.
And this your heave offering shall be reckoned unto you, as though it were the corn of the threshingfloor, and as the fulness of the winepress.
Thus ye also shall offer an heave offering unto the LORD of all your tithes, which ye receive of the children of Israel; and ye shall give thereof the LORD'S heave offering to Aaron the priest.
Verse 28. - Ye shall give thereof the Lord's heave offering to Aaron the priest. The Levites tithed the people, the priests tithed the Levites. At this time the other Israelites were nearly fifty times as numerous as the Levites, and therefore they would have been exceptionally well provided for. It must be remembered, however, that the Levites would naturally increase faster than the rest, not being exposed to the same dangers; and still more that tithes are never paid at all fully or generally, even when of strict legal obligation. A glance along the history of Israel after the conquest will satisfy us that at no time could the people at large be trusted to pay their tithes, unless it were during the ascendancy of the Maccabees, and afterwards under the influence of the Pharisees (cf. Malachi 3:9, 10). The Levites, indeed, appear in the history of Israel as the reverse of an opulent or influential class. It was no doubt much easier for the sons of Aaron to obtain their tithes from the Levites; and as these were very numerous in proportion, and the tithes themselves were only a part of their revenues, the priests should have been, and in later times certainly were, sufficiently rich. If they were devout they no doubt spent much on the service of the altar and of the sanctuary.
Out of all your gifts ye shall offer every heave offering of the LORD, of all the best thereof, even the hallowed part thereof out of it.
Therefore thou shalt say unto them, When ye have heaved the best thereof from it, then it shall be counted unto the Levites as the increase of the threshingfloor, and as the increase of the winepress.
Verse 30. - Thou shalt say unto them, i.e., to the Levites. When they had dedicated their tithe of the best part, the rest was theirs exactly as if they had grown it and gathered it themselves.
And ye shall eat it in every place, ye and your households: for it is your reward for your service in the tabernacle of the congregation.
And ye shall bear no sin by reason of it, when ye have heaved from it the best of it: neither shall ye pollute the holy things of the children of Israel, lest ye die.
Verse 32. - Ye shall bear no sin. עָלָיו לֹא־תִשְׂאוּ. They would not incur any guilty responsibility by enjoying it as and where they pleased. Neither shall ye pollute the holy things of the children of Israel, lest ye die. This seems to be the tree translation, and it conveyed a final warning. See Leviticus 22:2 for one very obvious way in which the Levites might pollute "holy things."

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