Having numbered the other tribes, we now turn to the Levites. First, we are reminded that the sons of Aaron are Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. All of them were consecrated to serve as kohanim along with their father. However, only Eleazar and Ithamar actually served because of the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Bring forth the tribe of Levi and present them before Aaron the kohen, that they may serve him (Numbers 3:5-6).” In this moment, another clear level of hierarchy is established within the camp. Aaron and his sons serve God, and the Levites serve them. I can’t imagine how this wouldn’t foster resentment eventually. It’s one thing to be serving God and thereby being separate from the people in some way, exempt from work, but to have your tribal obligation to be serving the priests seems unsustainable to me. The Levites will be in charge of the vessels of the Tent of Meeting, and the charge of the Israelites, and Aaron will be in charge of them.
“As for Me I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel in place of all the firstborns among the children of Israel who have opened the womb, and the Levites will be Mine. For all the firstborns are Mine; since the day I smote all the firstborns in the land of Egypt, I sanctified for Myself all the firstborns of Israel, both man and beast they shall become Mine, I am the Lord (Numbers 3:12-13).” Throughout Bereshit, firstborn sons were shown to be receiving a special birthright. Now, they are explicitly designated for God as a result of the tenth plague in Egypt. As Levi wasn’t the first born, I’m not clear on what the exact connection is between his tribe and the firstborns, but the text seems to make a clear link.
Now, in a parallel to the counting of the people and their tent designations, the Levites are counted and we are told where each clan camped. We are also told what each family was responsible for within the tabernacle.
Towards the end of the chapter, we get the explanation for my earlier confusion about the link between the Levites and the firstborns. If it hadn’t been for the Levite responsibilities, these roles would have been designated to the first sons of all of the tribes. Now, however, we redeem the first sons, exempting them from this obligation, which has gone to the priests. This is a custom that extends until today, although now it is symbolic, rather than the actual buying back of a child or animal.