The Levites being granted to Aaron to minister to him, they are here delivered to him by tale, that he might know what he had, and employ them accordingly. Observe,
I. By what rule they were numbered: Every male from a month old and upward, Num. 3:15. The rest of the tribes were numbered only from twenty years old and upwards, and of them those only that were able to go forth to war; but into the number of the Levites they must take in both infants, and infirm; being exempted from the war, it was not insisted upon that they should be of age and strength for the wars. Though it appears afterwards that little more than a third part of the Levites were fit to be employed in the service of the tabernacle (about 8000 out of 22,000, Num. 4:47, 48), yet God would have them all numbered as retainers to his family; that none may think themselves disowned and rejected of God because they are not in a capacity of doing him that service which they see others do him. The Levites of a month old could not honour God and serve the tabernacle, as those that had grown up; yet out of the mouths of babes and sucklings the Levites’ praise was perfected. Let not little children be hindered from being enrolled among the disciples of Christ, for such was the tribe of Levi, of such is the kingdom of heaven, that kingdom of priests. The redemption of the first-born was reckoned from a month old (Num. 18:15; 16), therefore from that age the Levites were numbered. They were numbered after the house of their fathers, not their mothers, for, if the daughter of a Levite married one of another tribe, her son was not a Levite; but we read of a spiritual priest to out God who inherited the unfeigned faith which dwelt in his mother and grandmother, 2 Tim. 1:5.
II. How they were distributed into three classes, according to the number of the sons of Levi, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, and these subdivided into several families, Num. 3:17-20.
1. Concerning each of these three classes we have an account, (1.) Of their number. The Gershonites were 7500. The Kohathites were 8600. The Merarites were 6200. The rest of the tribes had not their subordinate families numbered by themselves as those of Levi; this honour God put upon his own tribe. (2.) Of their post about the tabernacle on which they were to attend. The Gershonites pitched behind the tabernacle, westward, Num. 3:23. The Kohathites on the right hand, southward, Num. 3:29. The Merarites on the left hand, northward, Num. 3:35. And, to complete the square, Moses and Aaron, with the priests, encamped in the front, eastward, Num. 3:38. Thus was the tabernacle surrounded with its guards; and thus does the angel of the Lord encamp round about those that fear him, those living temples, Ps. 34:7. Every one knew his place, and must therein abide with God. (3.) Of their chief or head. As each class had its own place, so each had its own prince. The commander of the Gershonites was Eliasaph (Num. 3:24); of the Kohathites Elizaphan (Num. 3:30), of whom we read (Lev. 10:4) that he was one of the bearers at the funeral of Nadab and Abihu; of the Merarites Zuriel, Num. 3:35. (4.) Of their charge, when the camp moved. Each class knew their own business; it was requisite they should, for that which is every body’s work often proves nobody’s work. The Gershonites were charged with the custody and carriage of all the curtains and hangings and coverings of the tabernacle and court (Num. 3:25; 26), the Kohathites of all the furniture of the tabernacle—the ark, altar, table, etc. (Num. 3:31; 32), the Merarites of the heavy carriage, boards, bars, pillars, etc., Num. 3:36, 37.
2. Here we may observe, (1.) That the Kohathites, though they were the second house, yet were preferred before the elder family of the Gershonites. Besides that Aaron and the priests were of that family, they were more numerous, and their post and charge more honourable, which probably was ordered to put an honour upon Moses, who was of that family. Yet, (2.) The posterity of Moses were not at all dignified or privileged, but stood upon the level with other Levites, that it might appear he did not seek the advancement of his own family, nor to entail any honours upon it either in church or state; he that had honour enough himself coveted not to have his name shine by that borrowed light, but rather to have the Levites borrow honour from his name. Let none think contemptibly of the Levites, though inferior to the priests, for Moses himself though it preferment enough for his sons to be Levites. Probably it was because the family of Moses were Levites only that in the title of this chapter, which is concerning that tribe (Num. 3:1), Aaron is put before Moses.
III. The sum total of the numbers of this tribe. They are computed in all 22,000, Num. 3:39. The sum of the particular families amounts to 300 more; if this had been added to the sum total, the Levites, instead of being 273 fewer than the first-born, as they were (Num. 3:43), would have been twenty-seven more, and so the balance would have fallen the other way; but it is supposed that the 300 which were struck off from the account when the exchange was to be made were the first-born of the Levites themselves, born since their coming out of Egypt, which could not be put into the exchange, because they were already sanctified to God. But that which is especially observable here is that the tribe of Levi was by much the least of all the tribes. Note, God’s part in the world is too often the smallest part. His chosen are comparatively a little flock.