Are you the firstborn male in your family? If so, then back in Moses’ day, you would technically be considered the property of God. It all started with that final plague in Egypt when God killed all of the firstborn children in Egypt (including the firstborn of all their animals). Even though the Israelites spread blood over their doorways to make God’s plague pass them by, He still took possession of the firstborn as an offering to Himself—a fact He now emphasizes in Numbers 3.
“When you were in Egypt, I killed all the firstborn children of the Egyptians and took all the firstborn of Israel to be Mine, both animals and children. They are Mine. I am Yahweh.” (Num. 3:13)
As Christians today we talk about our lives no longer being our own after we have been redeemed. We find a similar theme here in Numbers. God is demanding payment for the fact that He saved them from Egypt and also as an act of reverence. From now on, every firstborn is to be given to Him—given over to death, if He so desires. But since God detests child sacrifice, He orders the Israelites to buy their firstborn children back with money. Also, God recognizes that certain animals, like donkeys, are more valuable than sheep. He gives the option for people to buy back their firstborn donkeys by sacrificing a lamb instead. But if they choose not to make the substitution, then the donkey’s neck must be broken (Ex. 13:13). Somehow, someway, God must get a life.
The firstborn laws were very serious business to God. In Numbers 3, there are over a million people sitting in the wilderness who have not yet done anything to satisfy God’s firstborn requirements. Moses is told to count every firstborn male that is at least one month old. The resulting number is 22,273. According to the firstborn laws, all of these males are God’s property and must be bought back with money if they are to continue on like normal. But rather than collect a mass offering, God has a different plan in mind.
At this point, there are only five priests to service all of Israel: Aaron and his four sons. The number quickly drops to three after God strikes the two oldest sons dead for disrespecting His instructions. Clearly three priests aren’t enough to manage all the work of caring for God’s holy things—the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, and all of the equipment needed for performing sacrifices and holy rituals. To remedy this problem, God announces that the tribe of Levi will be given to Aaron and his sons—becoming their servants in managing God’s holy things. There are three main family groups in Levi, descendants of Levi’s three sons Gershon, Kohath and Merari. God divides up all the holy tasks among these three groups, giving each one very specific instructions. If anyone touched a curtain that he wasn’t supposed to touch, or wandered into an area that he wasn’t supposed to be in or tried to do things out of God’s specified order, he would be struck down. It was both a great privilege and a frightening responsibility to be set apart to work for God as the Levites did.
God is a multi-tasker, and now that He has a whole tribe set aside to handle His special tasks, He is also going to use that tribe to deal with the firstborn son issue. Moses is told to count all the Levite males who are at least one month, regardless of their birth order. The total is 22,000. Well, this is a convenient number, and God announces that these Levite males which He has chosen for Himself will serve as substitutes for the firstborn males in Israel. There were 22,273 firstborns, which means there are only 273 males not covered by this special plan.
“Since there are 273 more firstborn sons than Levites, collect two ounces of silver for each of the 273 sons. Use the measure as set by the Holy Place, which is two-fifths of an ounce. Give the silver to Aaron and his sons as the payment for the 273 Israelites” (Num. 3:46-47).
That takes care of the people, now what about the animals? There are a lot of firstborns running around that haven’t yet been sacrificed. Instead of ordering the biggest barbecue in history to commence right then and there, God instead says that the animals of the Levites will substitute for the animals of the Israelites. Remember, everything Levite is now considered the permanent property of God.
Because this all sounds very strange, let’s use a modern analogy to help understand the principles. Suppose you buy a house outright—you pay the full amount in cash and now own your first piece of land. But then you get a notice from the bank saying that by law you have to give the house back to them simply because it is the first house you ever bought. Of course you find this news very upsetting, but then you receive a second notice from the bank saying that someone else has given up their property on your behalf. Because that other person lost ownership of their land, you now get to keep yours. The bank would be like God, and that other person would be like a Levite. It’s important to note that your debt hasn’t been forgiven, it’s been paid in full by someone else. Substitutionary payment is a huge theme with God. Centuries after those Levites paid the firstborn debt for all of Israel, Jesus would come and pay our debt for sinning against God—a debt which could only be satisfied by death.
Two important lessons emerge from this strange chapter about Levites and firstborns. First, we’re reminded that as the Creator of this world, God can seize anything He wants to at any time. Today God doesn’t demand to have our firstborn sons, but He does demand our time and attention. Some of us have received special instructions from Him about how He wants us to serve Him in our individual lives. Are we following those instructions to the letter? If you’re currently wrestling with convictions that you’re too afraid to face, ask the Holy Spirit to get your will aligned with His. Like the Levites, we don’t want to ignore God’s instructions or take part in activities that He’s told us to stay away from. The second lesson we learn is that God is a very dramatic Guy. Since the beginning of this world, He’s been inventing creative symbols and complex rituals for us to follow in our relationship with Him. Why does God go to all this trouble? Because it’s how He likes to operate. It’s part of His Personality to be theatrical, extreme and unpredictable. Breathing life into man, a forbidden piece of fruit that both illuminates and curses, the mark of Cain, an epic flood, turning water into blood, the Ark of the Covenant, a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites by night—God likes to be dramatic and if we want to be close to Him, we need to develop an appreciation for His unique style.