“For all the firstborn among the people of Israel are mine, both humans and animals; on the day I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I set them apart for myself. But I have taken the Levites in place of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and I have given the Levites to Aharon and his sons from among the people of Israel to do the service of the people of Israel in the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, so that no plague will fall on the people of Isra’el in consequence of their coming too close to the sanctuary.”-Numbers 8:17-19
We are continuing on with are study of the initiation rites for the Levites (the common non-priest Levites that is).
Last time we discussed how they had to “shave” (really meaning “cut”) their hair, be sprinkled with purification water and then be dunked in a MIKVAH.
Moving on, we are now told that two bulls are to be offered up on behalf of the community and then that the Israelites are to lay hands on the Levites, an action that was to take place “before the Lord“.
Do you recall what “before the Lord” means?
“Before the Lord” means it is to take place “in front of” or “nearby“ the Tabernacle.
It is NOT to take place inside the Sanctuary tent, and no way is it to take place inside the Holy of Holies.
Another obvious point is that where it says the “the people of Israel will lay their hands on the Levites“, it certainly doesn’t mean that the whole population of around 2 or 3 million people laid their hands on the Israelites.
It was just the elders who served as lay leaders and representatives for the people who laid their hands on the Israelites.
This act of laying on of hands was a demonstration of SUBSTITUTIONARY SACRIFICE.
It actually demonstrated two things.
First, it showed that the Levites were being offered up as SUBSTITUTE for all the firstborn sons of Israel.
Second, it signified the transfer of responsibility from the 12 tribes to the now separated (from Israel) tribe of Levi.
Remember God divides, separates, and elects people, groups, and nations unto Himself for His Divine Purposes.
Let’s take a look at the Hebrew word being used here for this “laying on of hands” action.
You may be surprised but the word being used is KIPPUR.
That’s right it’s the same root word as used for YOM KIPPUR.
Do you recall what KIPPUR means?
It means “atonement“.
In this passage it is presented as AL KIPPUR which would best translate into English as “on behalf of“.
Think of it like this.
The two bulls being offered up are a KIPPUR or “atonement” for the Levites.
And in turn, the Levites are to be a KIPPUR or “atonement” for the Israelites.
However, to be honest with you, I personally have trouble translating KIPPUR as “atonement” in this context because the God of Israel does NOT under any circumstances tolerate human sacrifice.
Think about it.
The Levites weren’t going to be slaughtered, placed on an altar and burned up as a sacrifice, right?
I much prefer the word “substitute” instead of “atonement“.
Don’t get me wrong.
I’m not saying KIPPUR doesn’t mean “atonement“, I believe it most certainly does.
But this word can have different shades of meaning.
For example, there is an offshoot of the word KIPPUR called KAPPARAH.
This carries the idea of a ransom being paid to release or free somebody.
I’m well aware that eyes may glaze over and that many may scoff when exposed to parts of Scripture like this that seem primitive and as ancient things done in ancient times that don’t really have direct relevance to us today.
However, nothing could be further from the truth.
This procedure of the Israelites being substituted by the Levites who are in turn are substituted by the bulls is a precise picture of how God’s justice system works.
It also serves to paint a compelling picture of the suffering that Rabbi Yeshua incurred on our behalf.
CONNECTING THIS TEACHING TO THE NEW TESTAMENT
“For the Messiah himself died for sins,
once and for all,
a righteous person
on behalf of unrighteous people,
so that he might bring you to God.
He was put to death in the flesh
but brought to life by the Spirit”
-1 Peter 3:18