Numbers 3:11-13 – The Levites as Substitutes for the Firstborn


Numbers 3:11-13


God accepts the Levites as substitutes for the firstborn of Israel, who properly belong to God because they were spared in the Exodus.


God’s right to the firstborn sons of Israel is anchored in the story of the Exodus. Since God spared Israel’s firstborn, God says that they “shall be mine.” In some ancient religious practices, this might have meant human sacrifice, but God rejects that option and orders instead that the firstborn be “redeemed” or bought back (see Exodus 13:11-16; Numbers 18:15-16). Here in Numbers 3, God accepts the Levites, a tribe not included in the census for service for war or in the distribution of land, as “substitutes” for Israel’s firstborn (see also 3:40-51).This may be part of the basis for the Levitical priesthood. Special attention should be paid to the mismatch of the numbers of Israelite firstborn and Levites. The 273 unaccounted for Israelites were redeemed for five shekels each. The lack of blood sacrifice to redeem humans is a noteworthy contrast to neighboring cultures. The Levites represent the firstborns at the tabernacle, rather than being sacrificed in their place.

The exodus narrative, picked up here in Numbers, gives a historical basis for the common offering to God of all first fruits (for example, Exodus 23:19; Numbers 18:13; Deuteronomy 18:4). Returning to God the first fruits of creation acknowledges that all belongs to God and is graciously given by God. Some have seen the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac as another indication that, though once people thought the sacrifice of a firstborn child was appropriate, God will instead “redeem” the child through another form of sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-19).