Numbers 3&4: Levite Duties

Numbers 3 and 4 describe the duties and census results for each Levite clan.


Photocredit: Chugh
The Levites camp in the center of everything, just outside of the tabernacle walls. Essentially they acted as the first line of defense between the Israelites and the holy tabernacle. The direction of their camps were also based on family. The descendants of Gershon camped to the West, Merari's progeny camped to the North, and the descendants of Kohath (minus Moses and the priestly lineage) camped to the South. Moses, Aaron, and their families, camped to the East. Each of these families were also assigned special duties. Despite descending from Jacob's 3rd born son, the Levites are declared the firstborn of Israel by God.

Descendants of Kohath

Age Range Number of Kohathites
1 month old and up 8,600
30 - 50 years old 2,750
Kohath has 4 sons, one of whom fathers Moses, Aaron and Miriam. In total there are 8,600 males over 1 month old in the progeny of Kohath at the time of the census. (Please see the note in Census Report on this total) Elizaphan, son of Uzziel is appointed chief of the Kohathites, while Eleazar (Aaron's son and future High Priest) is made chief of all Levites. As a family, their responsibility is for the ark, altars, table, candlestick, and vessels of the sanctuary. It seems as they they are responsible for all holy objects, thus placing them in the highest esteem.

The number of sons of Kohath from the ages of 30-50 years old was 2,750. Since they were in charge of the holy objects, special instructions were given to them. Before they could touch the items, Aaron had to cover them properly. The ark was to be covered with the vail, the badgers' skins, and a cloth of blue. The staves were to be placed in the ark's rings and then the Kohathites could touch it. The table of shewbread had to be covered in a blue cloth with the dishes, cutlery, etc. placed atop; a scarlet cloth was to cover the dishes, and badgers' skins were placed over that. Also in need of covering with a blue cloth and badgers' skin was the candlestick with the lamp, tongs, snuff-dishes, and oil vessels. The golden altar was to be covered in the manner as well. Ashes from the altar were placed in a purple cloth. Censors, flesh-hooks, and other vessels were placed with the ashes. If the Kohathites touched any of these objects uncovered, they would die.

Eleazar's Duties

As the son of Aaron and on course to become the next high priest, Eleazar was given special duties. These duties included the handling of the oil for the lamp, incense, daily meat offering, and anointing oil. It makes sense that God would give Eleazar management roles and specific duties to carry out to prepare him for the role of High Priest. Top

Descendants of Gershon

Age Range Number of Gershonites
1 month old and up 7,500
30 - 50 years old 2,630
Gershon's 2 sons produce 7,500 males that are at least 1 month old at the time of the first census. Eliasaph, son of Lael, is chosen as chief of the house. They are charged with the tabernacle itself: the tent, the covering, badgers' skins, curtains, the hangings for the door, and for the court, as well as, the cords that held the coverings together.

Ithamar, Aaraon's other son (and thus a Kohathite), was appointed to oversee their tasks. I wonder if Aaron was required to ask the Gershonites for the badgers' skins to cover the holy objects? It seems that if they were keeping track of the badgers' skins, there would be interplay there.

Descendants of Merari

Age Range Number of Merari's Descendants
1 month old and up 6,200
30 - 50 years old 3,200
The 2 sons of Merari give birth to 6,200 males over 1 month old. Leadership is given to Zuriel, son of Abihail. The descendants of Merari are responsible for the boards, bars, pillars, sockets, and vessels from the tabernacle. The sons of Merari were also supervised by Ithamar. Top

Census Report

Numbers 3:40-51 details God's appointment of the Levites as the first born of Israel (replacing the actual firstborn). In total, there were 22,273 first born males. Numbers 3:39 tells us there were only 22,000 Levite males, however, and we learn that the extra 273 firstborns had to be ransomed with money.

The Number of Levite Males

The problem is that if you add 6,200 + 8,600 + 7,500 you don't get 22,000. The sum of these numbers is 22,300. Not only is this different than the sum given, but it makes a ransom unnecessary. The issue may stem from verse 28; the addition of only one letter in the original Hebrew changes the total of sum of the Kohathites to 8,300 instead of 8,600.[1][5] Another suggestion is that 300 of the Levites were firstborns themselves. As such they could not redeem anyone.[2][5] The source which explains the latter solutions leans to it because the scribes who translated the Hebrew to Greek, and further from to English would have been aware that these numbers did not sum to 22,000 and did not see an issue with the value. This implies they understood something we do not which made this conflict easily reconcilable.

Too Low?

Some believe the number of first borns is too low given the number of males in the nation. If there are 603,550 males and on only 22,273 first borns, it implies that each male has on average 27 brothers. Many possibilities are neglected in this opinion, however. For starters, when they count the "firstborn of the males" does this mean firstborn males or male firstborns? Since there is a 50-50 chance of a family having a daughter as the firstborn, we could expect only about 301,775 of the males to have a male firstborn in their family. This would create and average of about 13 brothers. Also, it is suggested that only able bodied men able to go to war were counted (Numbers 1:45), which would mean some of the men may have had elderly or disabled brothers that were not included in the census. Others cite the possibility that these firstborns are only the firstborns since leaving Egypt. The issue of redeeming the firstborns is related to the "matrix" that is opened by God at the time of the last plague in Egypt. Matrix is equated to womb by scholars and most Bible resources[3][4] and likely represents God opening the womb of Israel as a nation. Thus only those born after He opened the matrix (at the onset of the last plague in Egypt) would be subject to redemption. We cannot be sure since the Bible does not explicitly say, but as shown above, there are plenty of explanations for the numbers given.


  1. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible. pg. 235. 2014
  2. Riddle, J. "Numbers 3:28, 39 and the Infallibility of Scripture". Stylos. July 2008
  3. "Matrix". Bible Hub. 2016
  4. Kapusta, Philip P."Matrix". A King James Dictionary. 2016
  5. "Numbers 3:39 Commentary". Bible Hub. 2016

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