Numbers 4

The Word Made Fresh

1The LORD told Moses and Aaron, 2“Count the Kohathite men 3between the ages of thirty and fifty who are able to do their work at the meeting tent. 4Their duties will be to care for the most sacred items. 5Whenever you break camp to resume your journey, Aaron and his sons will take down the screen before the sanctuary and cover the sacred chest with it. 6Then they will secure the leather covering over it, and over that place a blue cloth.  Then they will insert the poles in the rings to carry it.

7“They will cover the table which holds the ‘bread of the presence’ with a blue cloth. Then they will set the plates, incense platters, bowls and pitchers for the liquid offerings on the blue cloth and place the daily bread on it. 8Then they will cover it with a crimson cloth and finally a leather cover, and then insert the carrying poles in the rings.

9“The lampstand with the lamps, the snuffers, the trays, and the oil containers they will cover with a blue cloth. 10Then they will cover it and all its utensils with a leather wrap and place it all on the carrying platform. 11They are to cover the golden altar with a blue cloth and cover that with leather; then insert its carrying poles in place. 12All the tools used in the sanctuary are to be wrapped in a blue cloth, covered with leather, and placed on the carrying platform.

13“The ashes from the altar are to be removed and a blue cloth spread over it, 14and then all the altar tools – firepans, forks, shovels, basins – are to be covered with a leather spread. Then they are to insert the carrying poles.

15“When Aaron and his sons have done all this and the camp has begun to move out, the Kohathites will come and carry all these things. But they must not touch the sacred items, or they will die. This is the complete list of the things the Kohathites are to carry.

16“Aaron’s son Eleazar will be responsible for the oil for the lamps, the sweet-smelling incense, the standard grain offering and the anointing oil. Eleazar is in charge of the sanctuary and all its contents.”

17Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 18“Don’t allow the Kohathites to be destroyed and eliminated from the Levites. 19Do this to keep them safe when they come in to handle the most sacred things: Aaron and his sons will assign each Kohathite a particular task, 20but the Kohathites must not look inside to even peek at the most sacred things, or they will die.”

21Then the Lord said to Moses, 22“Count the Gershonites in groups of their family trees. 23Count all who are between the ages of thirty and fifty years and are physically able to do the work. 24This will be their responsibility: 25to carry the curtains around the sanctuary and the meeting tent, the tent’s linen covering and the leather covering on top of that; the screen at the entrance of the meeting tent; 26the curtains around the outer court; the screen at the entrance of the courtyard that surrounds the sanctuary and the altar; the ropes and all the tools used in their maintenance. They will have sole responsibility for all these things. 27They will serve under Aaron and his sons and do whatever they are assigned to do. 28Aaron’s son Ithamar will be in direct charge of them.

29“Count the Merarites in groups of their family trees. 30Count all who are between the ages of thirty and fifty and are physically able to do the work. 31Their sole responsibility will be to carry the frames that surround the sanctuary with the bars, poles and bases; 32the poles surrounding the courtyard with their bases, pegs and ropes; along with all the equipment related to their maintenance. Assign each item to a particular individual. 33This shall be the responsibility of the Merarites, under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron.”

34So Moses and Aaron and the tribal leaders made a list of all the Kohathites, arranged in their family groups, 35all who were between the ages of thirty and fifty and were able to do the work. 36They numbered 2,750. 37This was the total of the Kohathites whom Moses and Aaron employed.

38They also listed the Gershonites 39between thirty and fifty years old who were able to do their work. 40They numbered 2,630. 41This was the total of the Gershonites whom Moses and Aaron employed.

42Then they made a list of the Merarites arranged in their family groups, 43all who were between thirty and fifty years old and able to do the work. 44They numbered 3,200. 45This was the total of the Merarites whom Moses and Aaron employed.

46All the Levites, arranged according to their ancestral lineage, employed by Moses and Aaron, 47 who were thirty to fifty years old and able to do the work, 48numbered 8,580. 49Moses assigned them to their various tasks of serving and carrying according to the LORD’s instructions.

Commentary

1-4: God speaks to both Moses and Aaron now (at verses 1 and 21). The instructions in this chapter have specifically to do with the tabernacle servants.

A separate census is ordered of the Kohath division of Levites between the ages of 30 and 50. This is the age at which the more important priestly duties are undertaken. Of course, the Gershon and Merari divisions are also numbered separately.

5-15: Meticulous instructions are given for moving the tabernacle. Only the priests, the sons (and future descendants) of Aaron, may touch the most holy things within the most holy place – the ark, the lamp stand, the incense altar, etc. – and are to carefully cover each item in a specific way. Once everything is covered the Kohathites are the ones among the Levites who will carry it to the next camp.

16: Eleazar is Aaron’s son who is appointed to be in charge of the operation (and who will become chief priest when Aaron dies).

17-20: The Kohathites are to be extremely careful not to look upon or directly touch any of the most holy things or they will die. It is not that they will be punished by execution, but that the act of getting too close to God is fraught with danger unless one is consecrated (ordained) to do so.

21-28: The specific tasks of the Gershonites are set forth. Basically, they are responsible for the curtains and other things that make up the roof and walls of the tabernacle.

29-33: The Merarites are assigned the structural elements of the tabernacle – clasps and hooks and poles and such.

34-37: Kohath has 2,750 men 30 to 50 years old.

38-41: Gershon has 2,630.

42-45: Merari has 3,200.

46-49: Altogether there are 8,580 Levites available for service in the tabernacle in the wilderness (this time the numbers add up correctly).

Takeaway

It is a serious thing to serve the LORD our God. The details we are given about the various classes of Levites at tedious and complicated. And, let’s be honest, boring. But I have to confess that there are times when I wish we were a little more deliberate and careful about the sacred objects in our sanctuaries.