Friday, March 12, 2010

Firstborn Substitution

We are near the beginning of the book of Numbers. It began with God telling Moses to conduct a census of all of the Israelites except for the Levites. God then tells Moses how the Israelites should set up camp around the Tabernacle. Now it is time to get back to the Levites as we study Numbers 3.

Firstborn Substitution
Imagine that you were setting up your own religion. Maybe you would make it so that you and your family were the only ones who could serve as priests, thereby keeping all of the money and power in the family. Next, you may want a bunch of people to do all of the hard work for you, such as maintenance and transport of your holy things. Perhaps you would assign them such a duty as their sole purpose in life. They would effectively be your grunts, your muscle, your slaves. Well then, you would have liked being a priest for God!

Back when the census was taken in Numbers 1, God told Moses to exclude the Levites in the count. Now we discover why that is in Numbers 3.

God tells Moses that the entire tribe of Levi will work for Aaron and his sons (Numbers 3:5-9). In Numbers 3:9, God makes it clear that the Levites are given to the priests as possessions. Aaron and his sons now have a army of slave labor at their beck and call. The Levites would belong to the priests, and therefore could not be called out for the army to spill blood. This is why the Levites were not included in the census.

God goes on the emphasize that only Aaron and his sons are to be the priests, and that anyone else who goes to the sanctuary should be killed (Numbers 3:10). Thus Aaron and his family secured their place in society with an open license kill any would-be competitor.

As we had previously discussed in Exodus, God claimed all of the firstborn men and cattle for Himself, demanding that firstborn males must be taxed, er, redeemed, payable to the priests. Well now it seems that God, in His infinite knowledge and omniscience, has changed His mind on His own rules. In Numbers 3:11-13, God decides that He will claim all of the Levites in place of the firstborns.

God is the consummate accountant though. So He tells Moses to first count up all of the eligible male Levites (Numbers 3:14-15). Moses does so, finding 7500 in the Gershonite, 8600 in the Kohathite, and 6200 in the Merarite clans of the Levite tribe (Numbers 3:16-37). This totals 22300 Levites, except that in Numbers 3:39 the Bible tells us that it totals 22000 Levites, and we all know the Bible is infallible, so we should go with 22000.

Next, in Numbers 3:40-43 God tells Moses to count up all of the eligible firstborn Israelites. He does this, and comes up with 22273 firstborns.

Oops! There were too many firstborns. Not to worry though. Numbers 3:44-51 explains how God will settle the account. God tells Moses to collect 5 shekels from each of the families corresponding to the 273 extra firstborns. How Moses decided who had to pay, it does not say. According to God's will, Moses collects the roughly 35 pounds of silver redemption and gives it to Aaron. It is good to be the priest!

So God settled the account, and what a strange account it was! It showed a monetary exchange for redemption, an inability to count, and ultimately a cancellation of a rule which omniscient God had made just months prior. Go figure.

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