Numbers 3:40-51 is a little difficult to understand, even when read in the modern translations. First, God demands another census, but this time, every firstborn male in every tribe over the age of 1 month is to be counted; the total comes to 22,273.
Then, God re-explains how all the firstborn sons of the Israelites belong to him and must be anointed, but only 22,000 get to be anointed with oil. The remaining 273 must be redeemed at the cost of five shekels apiece. This comes out to 1,365 shekels or 15 kilograms of silver. And can you guess who gets the money? Aaronís family, of course. After all, that anointing oil isnít cheap! And if they actually had to pay for it, theyíd know!
Now, I understand how a census works, and I understand paying someone for a service (even if that service is useless), but the part I donít get is why God is demanding that any firstborn beyond the combined offspring of Moses and Aaron, must be paid for. Itís about as silly as current tax laws, but at least we get bridges and police officers out of the deal! What do the Israelites get, other than a glob of oil in the face?
To find an answer I turn to biblical commentators. According to the commentary of Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Moses would fill a jar with 22,273 slips of paper (must have been a big jar!) and 273 of the slips were marked in such a way that the picker would know that he would have to pay the tax. How they convinced a 2-month-old baby to pay the tax is not explained, nor do they explain why the tax is expected to be shouldered by only a few rather than dividing it evenly among the non-priestly Israelites. They also donít explain why the census on the firstborn isnít rounded to the nearest 100, when the total offspring of Moses and Aaron clearly is, or are we to believe that the sum of Moses and Aaronís male offspring conveniently ended with a 00?
Thanks for nothing commentators! Weíre still left with the big questions, why do they have to do this at all? Was it just pure greed, or was there something more sinister going on? Was this tax created to ensure that the Levites would always be better-off than the rest of the Israelites, even when their numbers are dwarfed by the competition? Whatever the reason, I find it pathetic, and well below the actions of any god worth admiring, let alone worshiping.