Numbers 3:1-16 • The Order of Priests


How do you move two million people? You move them in an orderly manner. When the Israelites came out of Egypt, there was no order to their exodus. In one sense, the exodus was a chaotic mass of people marching in no particular order. Thirteen months and a tabernacle later, the Hebrew nation is about to be led out into the wilderness toward the Promised Land. It is now time to get organized. The leaders have been chosen by God, the tabernacle has been designed by God, and now the marching and camping order will be designed by God.

The first ten chapters of Numbers involve preparations for moving out. Included in those preparations are instructions on moving the most sacred part of the camp – the tabernacle. The tabernacle is holy…it is where God meets man. It is so holy that improper handling or conduct in the tabernacle can result in death (Leviticus 10:1-2). The tabernacle must be handled carefully and according to God’s design. Once erected, service within the tabernacle may be conducted only by those chosen by God Himself.

This study focuses on God’s plan for moving, erecting and serving the tabernacle. Now that God has chosen Aaron as the high priest, He will now establish an order of priests to serve in the tabernacle.

Read verses 1:1-16

Q: Who is listed in verses 5-15, and what do they represent?

A: These are 10 sons of Jacob and 2 sons of Jacob’s son, Joseph. These names represent the 12 tribes of Israel. Note that Joseph’s sons, not Joseph himself, are named as tribes.

Q: What son of Jacob is missing from the list of tribes in verses 5-15?

A: Jacob’s son Levi is not named. Levi was the father of the Levites. Both Moses and Aaron are Levites.

Read verses 1:47-54

Q: There are two reasons God does not include the Levites in the census nor count them among the 12 tribes. What are they?

A: First, the census was organized according to those who could go to war (1:3). Women, those under the age of 20 and those unable “to go out to war” were not included in the census. Second, the Levites were called for a special assignment that excluded them from going to war.

Q: What was God’s purpose for excluding the Levites from the main census?

A: “But you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings and over all that belongs to it” (1:50).

Q: What, then, were the duties of the Levites?

Read verses 3:1-13

Q: In verse 6, who is the recipient of the Levites’ service?

A: Specifically, the Levites are to serve Aaron and his sons. But they are also serving God and serving the “whole congregation” in that they are performing the service of the tabernacle.

Q: Why has God chosen an entire tribe to serve Him in the tabernacle? (see verses 12-13)

A: He chose the tribe of Levi to serve in the tabernacle rather than the firstborn son of every family. This establishes what is called the Levitical priesthood.

Q: Therefore, who are the only men who could serve as priests in and around the tabernacle?

A: The Levites. This law was in effect through the time of Christ. After the destruction of Herod’s temple in 70 ad, all genealogical records were lost and no Jew today can identify himself as belonging to a specific tribe. This is problematic for those Jews today who wish to resume Levitical sacrifices…only a Levite may serve as a priest, and only a priest can perform ritual sacrifices. (There is one exception, but it goes beyond the scope of this study to present details.)

Q: How completely were the Levites given to Aaron; that is, to serve in the tabernacle?

A: Verse 9 states, “…they are wholly given…” That means the entire tribe and every member of it. It also means that is all the Levites are to do, to serve as mediators between God and the Israelites through the tabernacle, or later, the temple, sacrifices.

Read verses 3:14-16

Q: How did the numbering of the Levites differ from the census taken of the other tribes?

A: Unlike the other tribes which were numbered according to those who could go out to war, the Levite males are simply numbered, beginning at one month of age. This implies that Levites were set aside for life to serve in the priesthood.

Q: What, specifically, were the duties of the three families of the Levites?

A: (The answer to this is found in chapter 4.) They are as follows.

The duties were most likely based on the number of men required to do the tasks efficiently. Their numbers were as follows:

Q: What is the pattern that God has established by setting aside the Levites for serving as the priesthood?

A: The point is that God Himself chose those who would serve Him in the tabernacle, that place where God and man meet. That was their primary purpose for existence. There is an order to the priesthood, starting with Aaron the High Priest. Every Levite is a priest, and every priest has a specific part to play in the worship of God.

Overall Application

Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

— Hebrews 2:17

Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession;

— Hebrews 3:1

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him,

You are My Son,

Today I have begotten You”;

just as He says also in another passage

You are a priest forever

According to the order of Melchizedek.”

— Hebrews 5:1-6

Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; so it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.”

— Hebrews 8:1-5

And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture:

Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone,

And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”

This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve,

The stone which the builders rejected,

This became the very corner stone,”


A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”;

for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

— 1 Peter 2:4-10

and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

— Revelation 1:6

When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”

— Revelation 5:8-10

Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.

— Revelation 20:6

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

— Romans 12:1-2