Numbers 4:3—How can the age for Levitical service be 30, when Numbers 8:24 says 25, and Ezra 3:8 says 20?
Problem: According to Numbers 4:3, at 30 years of age a Levite would “enter the service to do the work in the tabernacle of meeting.” However, Numbers 8:24 states, “this is what pertains to the Levites: From twenty-five years old and above one may enter to perform service in the work of the tabernacle of meeting,” and Ezra 3:8 says that Levites “from twenty years old and above” were appointed to oversee the work of rebuilding the house of the Lord. Is there a contradiction between these passages?
Solution: First, there is a distinction made in the text between the type of service which is rendered in each case. In Numbers 4:3 the passage talks about anyone entering into the service to perform the business (melakah, business or occupation) of the tabernacle. Numbers 8:24 is referring to those who come “to perform service in the work (baabodath, meaning work or labor) of the tabernacle.” The difference indicates that the younger men, referred to in Numbers 8:24, were probably apprentices who engaged in the manual labor while in training. Later they were admitted to the official service of the tabernacle business at age 30 according to Numbers 4:3.
Second, Ezra 3:8 specifically states that these Levites were appointed “to oversee the work of the house of the Lord.” This was not the official service of the tabernacle. Rather, this was the work of overseeing the rebuilding of the temple. Also, due to the fact that the number of Levites who had returned from the captivity was, according to Ezra 2:40 and Nehemiah 7:43, only 74, it was necessary to employ them at a younger age to have a sufficient number to oversee the work. Also, David employed the Levites from age twenty, and he did so because, “They [the Levites] shall no longer carry the tabernacle, or any of the articles for its service” (1 Chron. 23:26). Apparently the work of transporting the tabernacle from place to place in the wilderness journeys required a more mature and stronger person. This practice, apparently begun by David, was followed down to Ezra’s time.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.