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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 18

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The principal subject of this chapter is the prescription of tithes and their use as the support of the priests and Levites. There are three different sections of the Word of God that deal with the same subject:

(1) the passage before us

(2) Deuteronomy 15:5-6; Deuteronomy 15:11; Deuteronomy 15:18

(3) Leviticus 27:30-33

There is considerable variation in the laws which has been explained in various ways. This chapter gives a much more extensive list of the things to be tithed than the other accounts, and, of course, the critics immediately assign it to the post-exilic era, seeing it as an “insertion” by the priests of some later period when the greed and avarice of the priestly families had become more acute. This “explanation” is totally unacceptable, because, as Levertoff said, “There is no relation between Numbers 18 and post-exilic times when the priests were numerous (they were few here), and the Levites a mere handful (they numbered at this point many thousands).(F1) The Jewish scholars explained the variations as due to three different tithes: the First Tithe, the Second Tithe, and the Third Tithe (also called the Poor Tithe).(F2)

As a matter of fact, there is no fully satisfactory way of resolving the many questions that come up about these tithes. However, a number of observations are in order.

(1) One of the problems is that the tithes in this chapter are far more valuable than the ones listed in Deuteronomy, which is resolved in the supposition that this is the Master Law in Numbers, and that in Deuteronomy Moses scaled them down in anticipation of the hardships and poverty of Israel during the period of conquest.

(2) Late changes in the tithing laws, as cited by some of the prophets, derived from “changes” which the disobedient Israelites had made. These changes were most conspicuously noted by Christ himself with his reference to the “tithing of mint, anise, and cummin” (Matthew 23:23).

(3) This entire very complicated subject is one of considerable obscurity, “which with our present information cannot easily be cleared away.”(F3) The most practical “solution” of questions about all of these tithes is doubtless that of the Jews themselves who understood “three different tithes” in the instructions and enforced that view of the matter for centuries. After all, an apostle stated that, “The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). It is uniquely their problem, and there is no better solution available than theirs.

Verses 1-7

“And Jehovah said unto Aaron, Thou and thy sons and thy fathers’ house with thee shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary; and thou and thy sons with thee shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood. And thy brethren also, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of thy father, bring thou near with thee, that they may be joined unto thee, and minister unto thee: but thou and thy sons with thee shall be before the tent of the testimony. And they shall keep thy charge, and the charge of all the Tent: only they shall not come nigh unto the vessels of the sanctuary and unto the altar, that they die not, neither they, nor ye. And they shall be joined unto thee, and keep the charge of the tent of meeting, for all the service of the Tent; and a stranger shall not come nigh unto you. And ye shall keep the charge of the sanctuary, and the charge of the altar; that there be wrath no more upon the children of Israel. And I, behold, I have taken your brethren the Levites from among the children of Israel: to you they are a gift, given unto Jehovah, to do the service of the tent of meeting. And thou and thy sons with thee shall keep your priesthood for every thing of the altar, and for that within the veil; and ye shall serve: I give you the priesthood as a service of gift: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.”

“Bear the iniquity” (Numbers 18:1). “This means take the responsibility of preserving the ritual requirements, and to bear the responsibility for any violations.”(F4) In connection with this, note that in case any Levite touched the vessels of the sanctuary, not only would they die, but also would Aaron for not preventing it, “neither they nor ye” (Numbers 18:3). As Whitelaw said, however, this clause is very “difficult”(F5) to understand and probably has a more extended meaning than that of merely guarding the sacred area and vessels from pollution. Adam Clarke thought that it also included the responsibility for performing all the prescribed “atonements and expiations”(F6) that were required by the sins of the people brought before them. They were to understand that by Divine intervention they had received a most high and important office, but that it also carried the gravest responsibility, and that “They should not be high-minded, but fear.”(F7)

“These verses are a summary”(F8) of several instructions given in Leviticus, including those regarding the services of the Day of Atonement. The general trend of the passage “is in accord with Numbers 1:49-54; Numbers 3:5-10.”(F9)

Verses 8-20

“And Jehovah spake unto Aaron, And I, behold, I have given thee the charge of my heave-offerings, even all the hallowed things of the children of Israel; unto thee have I given them by reason of the anointing, and to thy sons, as a portion forever. This shall be thine of the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every oblation of theirs, even every meal-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. As the most holy things shalt thou eat thereof; every male shall eat thereof; it shall be holy unto thee. And this is thine: the heave-offering of their gift, even 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, as a portion forever; every one that is clean in thy house shall eat therof. All the best of the oil, and all the best of the vintage, and of the grain, the first-fruits of them which they give unto Jehovah, to thee have I given them. The first-ripe fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring unto Jehovah, shall be thine; every one that is clean in thy house shall eat thereof. Every thing devoted in Israel shall be thine. Everything that openeth the womb, of all flesh which they offer unto Jehovah, both of man and beast, shall be thine: nevertheless the firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts shalt thou redeem. And those that are to be redeemed of them from a month old shalt thou redeem, according to thine estimation, for the money of five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary (the same is twenty gerahs). 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 savor unto Jehovah. And the flesh of them shall be thine, as the wave-breast and as the right thigh, it shall be thine. All the heave-offerings of the holy things, which the children of Israel offer unto Jehovah, have I given thee, and thy sons and thy daughters with thee, as a portion forever: it is a covenant of salt forever before Jehovah unto thee and to thy seed with thee. And Jehovah said unto Aaron, Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any portion among them: I am thy portion and thine inheritance among the children of Israel.”

“By reason of the anointing” (Numbers 18:8). This does not refer to the priests who were, of course, `anointed,’ but rather to the gifts which had been `consecrated’ to them. Smick rendered this place, “I have given them for an anointed (or consecrated) portion.”(F10)

Note that in Numbers 18:10, certain sacrifices were to be eaten by males only, while others in Numbers 18:11, were for the entire households of the priests.

“The first-ripe fruits of all that is in their land” (Numbers 18:13). These words are clearly anticipatory of Israel’s entry into their land, which were intended to apply fully only after they truly possessed it. This explains why the more limited system of tithing, later given in Deuteronomy, probably was an “interim” provision to be observed during the long and never fully successful campaign to possess it.

“Of all” Plaut tell us that the Jews interpreted this to apply only to the seven principal fruits for which the land was famous: (1) wheat; (2) barley; (3) grapes; (4) figs; (5) pomegranates; (6) olive oil; and (7) dates (including honey).(F11)

“Surely redeem… redeem” (Numbers 18:15). There are two different words here in the Hebrew, the stronger one being applied to the redemption of humans, meaning that, under no circumstances could they fail to redeem a human. In the case of unclean animals, the owner might break the neck of any he did not wish to redeem.(F12)

“A covenant of salt” (Numbers 18:19) signified “an everlasting covenant.” It was founded upon the ancient understanding throughout all the East that one’s eating with a person established a binding and perpetual obligation between them. Behind this is the fact that all of the sacrifices offered unto God were “salted.” “All Hebrew sacrifices were mingled with salt (Leviticus 2:13, Mark 9:49).”(F13) “God… gave the kingdom… to David… by a covenant of salt” (2 Chronicles 13:5).

“Thou shalt have no inheritance… neither… any portion among them” (Numbers 18:20). The priests of Israel were expressly forbidden from becoming “the landed aristocracy” of Israel, which, of course, they later became. The rules were intended as a natural foil of their greed and avarice, but, alas, it came to pass in the times of Jesus that as a class of people, “they devoured widows’ houses” (Matthew 23:14 KJV).


There is no need to go into detail, listing all of these special bounties that were the perquisites of the priesthood. They were most sufficient, even to abundance, and, in addition to the gifts enumerated here, they received the temple tax, the skins of animals offered for sacrifice, and in addition, after entering Canaan, the Levites possessed forty-eight cities, each composed of a square of 4,000 cubits, plus 2,000 cubits around each of the forty-eight cities, a land base, of the best of the land, with a total of 53,000 acres of the total 11,264,000 acres in all of Canaan.(F14) It is an understatement that the priests and Levites were well supported. The five-shekel payment for the redemption of the first-born would have, alone, brought in a very considerable sum of money. In actual practice, the Jews multiplied this, as indicated by this description of such a ceremony:

When the child is thirty days old, the father presents the child before one of the descendants of Aaron, bringing a cup filled with both gold and silver coins.

Priest: addressing himself to the Mother, “Is this thy son?”

Mother: “Yes.”

Priest: “Hast thou never had another child, a male or a female, a miscarriage, or an untimely birth?” Mother: “No.”

Priest: “This being the case, the child, as first-born, belongs to me.”

Priest, then turning to the father, “If it be thy desire to have this child, thou must redeem it.”

Father: “I present thee with this gold and silver for this purpose.”

Priest: “Thou dost wish, therefore, to redeem the child?”

Father: “I do so wish to do.”

Priest, then turning to the assembly of friends and others gathered to witness the ceremony, “This child, as first-born, is mine, as it is written in [~Bemidbar] (Numbers 18:16). `Thou shalt redeem the first-born of a month old for five shekels,’ but I shall content myself with this exchange.” He then takes two gold coins (or thereabouts!) and returns the child to his parents.(F15)

The wisdom of God in thus providing abundantly for the support of the Divine system of worship which he gave to Israel is clearly visible, for without this there could have been no lasting respect for the Mosaic institution, and by the same token, the Church herself should abundantly maintain and support her servants. Nevertheless, as was pointed out by Butzer:

“It should not be difficult to see in these special privileges and prerogatives of the priestly class the seeds of its own undoing and its moral and spiritual deterioration. In time, this brought no end of evil fruit, against which the prophets thundered their warnings.(F16)

What is of even more concern to Christians now is that time and circumstances have done much to bring back the old system to the modern church.

In the early church, there was no special priesthood. The way to God was opened, through Christ, to every man with Christ alone as his High Priest. But, in time, a priestly class arose in the Christian church, with privileges and prerogatives strangely similar to those of the times of Aaron, and with the same seeds of its deterioration and decay. This brought on the great Reformation and the Protestant principle of the priesthood of every believer.(F17)

We must add, however, that the old ways die with great difficulty, and that now practically all churches of whatever name are again following the ways of the old Israel. The “Priestly System” again flourishes throughout the world, despite the names, titles, and patterns of their behavior varying considerably from those of the Great Apostasy.

Verses 21-24

“And unto the children of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they serve, even the service of the tent of meeting. And henceforth the children of Israel shall not come nigh the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin, and die. But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity: it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations; and among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the children of Israel, which they offer as a heave-offering unto Jehovah, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance: therefore I have said unto them, Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.”

(See Numbers 18:1 for a comment on “bear sin, or bear iniquity.”)

“The payment of tithes to the Levites is recognized in Nehemiah 10:37; Nehemiah 12:44, but here for the first time assigned to them as theirs.”(F18) Carson mentioned a “contradiction” in this with Deuteronomy 14:22-29, where for two years the tithes were eaten by the worshippers and the Levites.(F19) “Contradiction,” however, is far too strong a word for the variation. As we have seen, there were Divine adjustments to accommodate the extremely unusual circumstances of the conquest. Another instance is seen in Joshua, where the ark preceded the people into the Jordan, whereas, it was usually at the center of the camp of Israel.

The tithe was an ancient custom recognized by people of the greatest antiquity. Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek (Genesis 14), and Jacob vowed to give the tithe of all his possessions (Genesis 28:20-22). The N.T. states that “There he (Jesus) receiveth them (tithes)” (Hebrews 7:8).

Verses 25-32

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Moreover thou shalt speak unto the Levites, and say unto them, When ye take of the children of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then ye shall offer up a heave-offering of it for Jehovah, a tithe of the tithe. And your heave-offering shall be reckoned unto you, as though it were the grain of the threshing-floor, and as the fullness of the winepress. Thus, ye also shall offer a heave-offering unto Jehovah of all your tithes, which ye receive of the children of Israel; and thereof ye shall give Jehovah’s heave-offering to Aaron the priest. Out of all your gifts ye shall offer every heave-offering of Jehovah, of all the best thereof, even the hallowed part thereof out of it. Therefore thou shalt say unto them, When ye heave the best thereof from it, then it shall be reckoned unto the Levites as the increase of the threshing-floor, and as the increase of the winepress. And ye shall eat it in every place, ye and your households: for it is your reward in return for your service in the tent of meeting. And ye shall bear no sin by reason of it, when ye have heaved from it the best thereof: and ye shall not profane the holy things of the children of Israel, that ye die not.”

The Levites gathered it themselves.(F20) Note, however, that the Levite was in no manner exempt from the obligations incumbent upon all Israel; hence, they were to give a tithe of the tithe.

“That ye die not” (Numbers 18:32). Carson paraphrased the thought here as follows: “If they fail to give a tithe of the best they receive to the Lord, they will bear sin and die, because they are profaning the holy things by keeping for themselves what should be given to the priests.”(F21)

Keil’s comment on the regulations here is thus: These regulations were in perfect harmony with the true idea of the Israelite Kingdom of God. In heathen states where there was an hereditary priestly class, that class was generally a rich one and held a firm possession in the soil. The Levites received no such inheritance.(F22)

An example of the type of landed priesthood mentioned by Keil is that of Egypt, where, it will be remembered, when the Pharaoh took all the land from the people, there was a special exemption applied to the lands of the priests (Genesis 47:22).

One of the great lines in this whole chapter is, “I am thy portion and thine inheritance!” (Numbers 18:20). Happy indeed are they whose inheritance is the Lord, and that one of whom it may be said that the Lord is his inheritance is the only truly rich person on earth. It recalls the words of God Himself who said to Abraham, “Fear not, Abraham, I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward” (Genesis 15:1).

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 18". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-18.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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