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B'Midbar/Numbers 3:45 Take the Levites in place of all the first-born of the Children of Israel
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The words in this text are almost identical to those in verse 41 - "and take the Levites for Me, the L-RD, in place of every first-born among the Israelite people" (B'Midbar 3:41, JPS) - and distinctly reminiscent of verse 12: "I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the first-born" (v. 12, JPS). Although all three verses use the verb , "to take", in the first caseHaShem is telling Moshe about His choice: He has chosen the Levites from among the other tribes of Israel, in place of all the firstborn sons who would traditionally have served as priests for their clans and families. In the second case, HaShem is telling Moshe what he will have to do: count and register all the firstborn sons in all the other tribes and then take - set apart - the Levites in their stead. In the third instance, our text, Moshe is being given an explicit command - is the Qal ms imperative form of the verb - "take!" the Levites. From an initial expression of choosing and warning of what he will have to do, Moshe is now told to perform the ritual - the physical enactment of G-d's (previous) choice.
Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew , 'take' to the Aramaic Pa'el ms imperative , "bring near". Onkelos reasons firstly that 'take' is a metaphor, since neither G-d nor Moshe actually grasped and lifted the tribe; secondly that 'take' is more appropriate for inanimate objects and is a degrading manner of speaking about humans; and thirdly that 'take' is more anthropomorphic than "bring near" when applied to G-d - the former implies a human-like grasping of the people, while the latter can be accomplished non-physically by words (Drazin and Wagner). Moshe will gather the Levites together for the ceremony by instruction, he will set them apart by his words and by ritual.
So where did this all begin? The firstborn were set apart for HaShem after the tenth plague - the death of the firstborn in Egypt, when He said, "Consecrate to Me every first-born; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine" (Shemot 13:2, JPS). But whereas the owner had a choice whether to redeem an animal - by offering another animal in its place - the Israelites were given no choice about their sons: "But from people, you are to redeem every firstborn son" (v. 12, JPS). Child sacrifice - of any child - was strictly forbidden; all sons must be redeemed. TheRamban points out, however, that by now there were "many firstborns in Israel who had not been redeemed ... since it had not yet been said who would 'redeem' them, for it was only now that the priests became sanctified, and Israel had not yet been commanded about the gifts of the priesthood. Thus the firstborn continued without restriction in their sanctity, and it is possible that they performed the Service of offerings, as our Rabbis have said (b. Zevachim 115b)."
The following block of verses in this parasha now explain what is to be done (B'Midbar 3:46-48). The extra firstborn sons from the other tribes over and above the number of Levites were redeemed at the cost of five shekels each, given to the priests for the Sanctuary. This ceremony is still preserved in Jewish tradition today in the ceremony called , and is almost certainly shown in Luke 2:22-32 where Yeshua is being blessed by Simeon in the Temple.
RabbiHirsch points out that the separation of the Levites for the service of the Sanctuary was more than just nominal, more than just a piece of ritual performed by Moshe in the wilderness; it was a matter of existence, of life and death. "For, with their entry into the service of the Sanctuary the Levites had to renounce all claim to any participation in the Land which was the national means of existence, and were dependent for their existence on that which the nation would have to separate out of their productive possessions for the care and upkeep of His Torah as an expression of fealty to G-d." Although they were granted some limited grazing rights around the cities (including the cities of refuge) that they were given in which to live, the Levites had no land-holding, no ancestral property that they could hold and farm, that would always return to them in the year of Jubilee. They were landless and apart from a bit of meat and milk that their own few animals might produce, they were without the means of large scale food production; they were dependent on the charity of the other eleven tribes, in tithes and offerings commanded and set apart for their support. Essentially, since they had no means of enforcing this provision, they were dependent on G-d for the roofs over their heads and the bread on their tables. By the Torah's wording that their animals 'redeemed' those of the other tribes (B'Midbar 3:45b), the rabbis determined that the firstborn animals of the Levites were exempt from belonging to HaShem and needing redemption (b. Bechorot 3b), a sign according to Hirsch, "that they were in the service of the Sanctuary with the whole of their persons and possessions, with 'life and property' kept alive in the whole tribe of Levi for all time."
To be chosen by G-d is an awesome thing. Moshe was chosen to bring our people out from Egypt. HaShem told him, "Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt" (Shemot 3:10, JPS), but Moshe tried several times to evade that choice, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" (v. 11, JPS), but HaShem insisted. Jeremiah too was chosen - "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5, ESV) - and tried to wriggle out of it, "Ah, Lord G-D! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth" (v. 6, ESV), before HaShem cut off his escape: "Do not say, 'I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak" (v. 7, ESV). Being chosen by G-d implies both calling and purpose: "On that day, declares the L-RD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the L-RD, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the L-RD of hosts" (Haggai 2:23, JPS). The Bible is very clear that G-d does not chose without aim and purpose; He is always intentional about His choice.
Twice within a few verses after the Last Supper, Yeshua tells the disciples that they have been chosen: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide" (John 15:16, ESV) and "because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (v. 19, ESV). The first time reminds the disciples that they did not choose to follow Yeshua; He chose them, called them, taught them and has now given them a job to do - to bear lasting fruit for the kingdom. Yeshua's choice was intentional and purposeful. The second time makes sure the disciples know that Yeshua's choice makes them separate, distinct from the rest of the world; they no longer depend for their existence on the world - as Peter had said only a few weeks before on the way up to Jerusalem, "Behold, we have left everything and followed You" (Matthew 19:27, NASB) - they have given up their land holding within the world and, like the Levites, are now dependent on G-d's provision.
But what about us? How and when are we chosen? Rav Sha'ul has the answer for this one: "[The Father] chose us in [Messiah] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless" (Ephesians 1:4, ESV). Once again, see that the choice is made by G-d and that it is purposeful and intentional. We have been chosen in Messiah from eternity past; chosen and called, so that we should be holy - another word for 'set apart' or 'consecrated' - and blameless, which here can be understood as "ritually clean" or 'pure'. Sha'ul explains that "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us" (vv. 7-8, ESV); G-d has paid the price of our redemption, He has forgiven our sin and poured His grace and favour upon us. Why - what is His purpose in all this largesse? "Those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Romans 8:29, ESV). G-d's purpose was that we should become like Yeshua, His Son, and by doing so, bring glory to Him.
And finally, to complete the picture, just like the Levites, who were given "all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting" (B'Midbar 18:21, NASB), we who believe in Yeshua have also been been given an inheritance: "In him we have obtained an inheritance" (Ephesians 1:11, ESV) which is "sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it" (vv. 13-14, ESV). You can't get any better than that.
Further Study: Ezekiel 44:28-30; 1 Corinthians 9:13-14; 2 Timothy 1:8-11
Application: Have you been taken and set apart for G-d so that you are sure both of your standing before Him and your inheritance in Him? Why not ask Him about His choice and be sure where you stand today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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