If the other tribes of Israel were counted for military duty, we are now told about the duties of the Levites for which they will also be counted. They are responsible for safeguarding the Tabernacle and its utensils, and making sure none of the rest of the Children of Israel come to any harm by getting too close to the Tabernacle and God’s glory.
God tells Moses that He had sanctified the firstborn male of each family when he passed over them during the tenth plague. God now says He appoints the Levites to serve Him in their place. For that purpose, they need to be counted, as do all the qualifying firstborns. The Levites, however, are counted from one month of age, rather than twenty years.
The Levite tribe consists of three families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari. Gershon is to encamp in the west and is responsible for the fabrics of the outer structure of the Tabernacle. Moses counts 7,500 members. Kehat, in the southern part of the camp, numbers 8,600, and is responsible for the Holy vessels of the Tabernacle. Merari camps in the north, and its 6,200 members are responsible for the planks, pillars, sockets, bars, pegs and ropes which make up the frame of the Tabernacle. Moses and Aaron encamp in the eastern portion of the Levite zone, between the entrance of the Tabernacle and the camp of Judah.
God then orders Moses to count the firstborns from the age of one month and up, and exchange their roles, so that the Levites minister in the Tabernacle. Since there are 273 more firstborns than Levites, God orders they be redeemed by the payment of five silver shekels to Aaron and his sons, a practice still in place today.
The Israel Bible points to an unusual verse at the beginning of the passage. The chapter opens by promising to list the children of Moses and Aaron, but goes on only to identify Aaron’s sons. We know, though, that Moses has two sons, as well. The Sages teach that the sons of Aaron were considered Moses’s children, too, for while Aaron gave them physical life, Moses, as their teacher, gave them spiritual life.
Virtual Classroom Discussion
Why do you think the Levites merited to serve God in place of the firstborns?