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Numbers 18-20 Listen
1 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.
2 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.
3 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.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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.
7 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.
This chapter and Leviticus 10:8 (see notes) are the only two occasions when God speaks to Aaron directly - not through Moses. After the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16 (see notes), the one who desired to assume the priesthood, it is appropriate to firmly establish who's who here. Verse 5 is probably a reference to that failed attempt, "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." As a matter of fact, Aaron's role was further validated in Numbers 17 (see notes) when his rod was the only one that budded. This chapter flows from the events of chapter 17.
Aaron and his sons were the only Levites who served as priests; the remaining Levites supported them in the priesthood. Look at Numbers 18:2, "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."
8 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.
9 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.
10 In the most holy place shalt thou eat it; every male shall eat it: it shall be holy unto thee.
11 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.
12 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.
13 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.
14 Every thing devoted in Israel shall be thine.
15 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.
16 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.
17 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.
18 And the flesh of them shall be thine, as the wave breast and as the right shoulder are thine.
19 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.
20 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.
21 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.
22 Neither must the children of Israel henceforth come nigh the tabernacle of the congregation, lest they bear sin, and die.
23 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.
24 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.
25 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
26 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.
27 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.
28 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.
29 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.
30 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.
31 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.
32 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.
When Korah, Dathan and Abiram tried to rebel against Moses, Moses was insistent that he had not lorded his position over them. In particular, he had taken nothing from them, not "so much as a donkey" in Numbers 16:15 (see notes). The remaining verses of this chapter clearly establish that the Levites will be supported by the rest of Israel with their tithes and other offerings. Twelve tribes, 600,000 men, would maintain the support of some 22,000 Levite men and their families. The wording in this chapter may seem confusing as to whom exactly is being referenced here, Aaron and his sons or all of the Levites. This passage regards all the Levites as we see in verse 6, "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." We get additional perspective on that from verses 20-21 where we see a transition in references from the "priests" to the "Levites." In other words, the Levites served as priest assistants. These verses pertain to the provisions of the Levites as a whole.
The Levites are to be supported by the various offerings brought by the people. Included were:
These arrangements formed a covenant of salt (verse 19), an indissoluble arrangement. "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." This "covenant of salt" is only referenced one other time in the Old Testament - II Chronicles 13:5 (see notes). It is apparently a reference to the preservation i.e. the permanence of a covenant.
The support of the Levites is in view beginning in verse 20 through the end of the chapter. They are to be supported by the other tribes. Verses 21-24 specifically refer to the tithe in Israel. Other laws regarding tithing are found in Leviticus 27:30–32 (see notes), Deuteronomy 12:17–19 (see notes), and Deuteronomy 14:22–29 (see notes).
1 And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
2 This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke:
3 And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face:
4 And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times:
5 And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn:
6 And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.
7 Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even.
8 And he that burneth her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even.
9 And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin.
10 And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever.
11 He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days.
12 He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean.
13 Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him.
14 This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days.
15 And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean.
16 And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.
17 And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel:
18 And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave:
19 And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even.
20 But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the LORD: the water of separation hath not been sprinkled upon him; he is unclean.
21 And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them, that he that sprinkleth the water of separation shall wash his clothes; and he that toucheth the water of separation shall be unclean until even.
22 And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even.
If this chapter was written directly upon the heels of the plague that killed 14,700 in Numbers 16 (see notes), as would appear to be the case, there were a lot of dead bodies lying around in the camp of Israel. To touch any one of them was to be ceremonially unclean. One would assume that many were lying dead in the vicinity of the tabernacle as well, since the rebellion of Numbers 16-17 took place on the south side there. The reason for putting this law here is found in verse 20; if anyone is unclean, he defiles the sanctuary. Moses had also mixed the blood of calves with hyssop, scarlet wool and water to sprinkle the people and the scroll of the covenant (Exodus 24:6-8, see notes), so this red heifer ceremony was not completely foreign to them. Mixed with water, the ashes of an unblemished red heifer, burnt in its entirety "outside the camp," imparted levitical purification (Hebrews 9:13, see notes). This red-heifer ritual was probably conducted to ceremonially clean up in the aftermath of Korah's rebellion. Again, perhaps because of Korah's attempt to usurp priestly authority, notice who's performing the red-heifer ritual here, Aaron's son Eleazar; it's a family thing. Probably this is to clearly establish among the Israelites who they might expect to see as the next High Priest.
Notice verse 2 says, "bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke:" These first 10 verses get frequent mention among Christian and Jewish scholars today. It is felt by many that a new temple built in Israel today must be purified just like this, with the ashes of a red heifer. While we have many red heifers that fit the criteria here in America, it apparently happens very rarely in Israel that a red heifer is born. When it appears that one is born in Israel, many take this as a sign that the Messianic kingdom is right around the corner. Perhaps the significance of this is taken out of context. The real significance of the red heifer was to use the ashes to ceremonially purify those who had contacted a dead body. They could not come into contact with the Tabernacle without this cleansing. So, it would appear that the object is the purification of the people, not the Tabernacle.
As you can see in this chapter, purification after contact with a dead body was absolutely mandatory. To decline the ritual cleansing was to "be cut off from among the congregation" (verse 20). Bring on the red heifer!
Here's the dividing point between the beginning of the 40-year wilderness wandering and the end of the wandering.
We've just traveled in time from the second year out of Egypt to the fortieth year between chapters 19 and 20. During that time, a whole generation of men have died off according to the decree of Numbers 14:26-38 (see notes). The events during this time are not recorded, but for a recap of where they were for those 38+ years, Moses lists the locations in Numbers 33 (see notes). It is in that passage that we see the time frame for this chapter as we note Aaron's death here in verses 22-29 and are told in Numbers 33:38-39 (see notes) that his death occurred in the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year.
1 Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.
2 And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.
3 And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!
4 And why have ye brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?
5 And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.
6 And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto them.
7 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
8 Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.
9 And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him.
10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?
11 And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.
12 And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.
13 This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them.
We've just jumped ahead 38+ years. This is substantiated in Numbers 33:36 (see notes) where we see that Kadesh, in the desert of Zin, was their destination at the end of their 38+ years of wandering. A generation has died off; entry into Canaan is imminent. The death of Moses' sister, Miriam, is recorded in verse 1. It is commonly believed that she is the sister identified in Exodus 2:4 (see notes) who kept an eye on Moses while he was floating in the river and subsequently fetched Moses' own mother to care for the child on behalf of Pharaoh's daughter. If that premise is correct, Miriam is pushing 130 years old at this point.
We have a whole new batch of adults following Moses, and now and they're thirsty. They issue a long, detailed complaint to Moses which, again, calls into question his leadership abilities in verse 3-5. Let's flashback to the incident with their parents back 40 or so years earlier. I refer to Exodus 17:3 (see notes), "And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?" You will recall that God told Moses to strike the rock with his rod. When he did, enough water for everyone gushed forth. However, God is specific on this occasion to tell Moses to speak to the rock. But in a fit of rage, Moses smacks the rock with his rod instead of just speaking to the rock as God commanded. He gets water, but some bad news from God as a result of his disobedience in verse 12, "And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them." The Hebrew word here is plural so as to be correctly understood, "Y'all shall not bring this congregation into the land," meaning Moses and Aaron. Don't feel too sorry for Moses; he is, after all, 120 years old at this point; Aaron is 123...and the last 40 years would have definitely been their most difficult. Later on in this chapter, Aaron dies.
"Meribah" in verse 13 is a transliteration from the Hebrew word meaning "to strive" or "to quarrel." The Hebrews did "strive" with Moses and Aaron on this occasion.
14 And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom, Thus saith thy brother Israel, Thou knowest all the travail that hath befallen us:
15 How our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers:
16 And when we cried unto the LORD, he heard our voice, and sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt: and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border:
17 Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country: we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, neither will we drink of the water of the wells: we will go by the king’s high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy borders.
18 And Edom said unto him, Thou shalt not pass by me, lest I come out against thee with the sword.
19 And the children of Israel said unto him, We will go by the high way: and if I and my cattle drink of thy water, then I will pay for it: I will only, without doing any thing else, go through on my feet.
20 And he said, Thou shalt not go through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.
21 Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border: wherefore Israel turned away from him.
The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, Jacob's brother. Jacob was the father of Israel. Thinking that since Jacob and Esau had patched things up several hundred years ago, Moses sends messengers to the Edomites requesting peaceful passage through their land. Obviously they've revived their bitterness over that whole soup thing between Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:27-34, see notes). Israel is headed up the east side of the Jordan from the Sinai Peninsula. Through Edom is a shortcut to their destination, but the Edomites refuse to let them pass through their land. As a result, they head northeast to pass around Edom on their way to Canaan. Israel would, over the next few centuries, have constant problems with the Edomites.
Note these later conflicts with the Edomites:
Later on, these prophets prophesied concerning Edom:
For an overview of the history of the Edomites, see the commentary on the Book of Obadiah by clicking here.
22 And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, journeyed from Kadesh, and came unto mount Hor.
23 And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in mount Hor, by the coast of the land of Edom, saying,
24 Aaron shall be gathered unto his people: for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the water of Meribah.
25 Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor:
26 And strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son: and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there.
27 And Moses did as the LORD commanded: and they went up into mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation.
28 And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount.
29 And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.
Here we have 8 verses detailing the death of Aaron and transference of his authority to his son, Eleazar. He is implicated in the anger-at-the-rock incident at Meribah along with Moses as the reason he must die, but he is 123 at the time. The ritual accompanying his passing is a little strange. And...verse 28 seems a little cold when it says, "Moses stripped Aaron of his garments." Of course, if Aaron were to die in those fancy high-priest clothes, I guess they'd be defiled. He received a great ceremony; they officially mourned for 30 days after his death. We get a perspective of the time frame from Numbers 33:38-39 (see notes), "And Aaron the priest went up into mount Hor at the commandment of the LORD, and died there, in the fortieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the first day of the fifth month. And Aaron was an hundred and twenty and three years old when he died in mount Hor." So...three go up into the mountain, and two come down - Moses and the new High Priest Eleazar.