Given to Service: The Levites

One of the very first issues that the Book of Numbers deals with is the Levites and what they should do in order to make themselves ready to serve at the Tabernacle.

After this process of cleansing the Bible says:

“And after that the Levites shall go in to serve at the tent of meeting, when you have cleansed them and offered them as a wave offering. For they are wholly given to me from among the people of Israel.” (Numbers 8: 15-16)

In the original Hebrew the phrase ‘wholly given’ appears as ‘Netunim Netunim’ (נתונים נתונים – yes, that is right, the same word repeats twice. This phenomenon is not so rare in biblical Hebrew and can be found in other references in the Hebrew Bible. Usually, this kind of repetition is used as the superlative form in the Hebrew Bible and that is why it was translated to English as ‘wholly given’ – meaning, ‘given’ is the actual translation of the Hebrew word ‘Netunim’ and the English adverb ‘wholly’ came ‘to explain’ that the second time the SAME Hebrew word was used (‘netunim’) is for emphasis and for the superlative form.

The Hebrew root of the word ‘Netunim’ is N-T-N (נ-ת-נ) and the Hebrew learners among you probably recognize this root because of its basic verb form ‘La-Tet’ which means ‘to give.’ (לתת)

Interestingly, in Modern Hebrew the word ‘Netunim’ means ‘data’ – meaning ‘given information.’ From the same Hebrew root the word ‘Matan'{מתן} (which is used also as a common Hebrew name) and it simply means ‘gift’ or ‘present’ because a gift or a present is being given.

The Aramaic translation of the Torah, translates the word as ‘Mufrashin’ (מופרשין) which means ‘to be separated’ and by that it means that the Levites were separated from the others to serve at the Tabernacle. The Hebrew Bible uses the verb ‘to give’ (‘La-Tet’) once more in a similar sense, in the discussion of the cities of refuge as can be found in the Book of Joshua:

“And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they APPOINTED Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland.” (Joshua 20:8).

There, the original Hebrew word for ‘appointed’ is ‘Natnu.’ (נתנו)

Rashi, who is the most well-known Jewish Bible commentator (we mentioned him here couple of times before) interprets this Hebrew phrase in a very novel way. He sees the ‘double Hebrew expression’ as a ‘hint’ for the Levities’ two main duties: The first appearance of the word ‘Netunim’ talks about that the Levities were given over for the service of carrying the Tabernacle’s vessels, while the second appearance of this word means that the Levites were given over for the singing in the Temple.