SECTION 1. THE PREPARATIONS TO GO FORWARD FROM SINAI WITH YAHWEH’S PROVISIONS RELATED THERETO (1:1-10:10).
The Mobilisation of the Army of Israel, and the Preparation of the Levites For Their Work of Bearing the Ark and Dwellingplace of Yahweh (1:1-4:49).
The first stage towards entry into the land had to be the mobilisation of the army of Israel, both of its fighting men, and of its ‘servants of the dwellingplace of Yahweh’. That is what is in mind in the first four chapters.
The description of this follows a general chiastic pattern indicated by the letters a to d and can be divided up as follows:
a The taking of the sum of the tribes and their responsibility (to war) (Numbers 1:1-46).
b The Levites’ responsibility for the Dwellingplace (Numbers 1:47-54).
c Positioning and arrangements for travel of the people (Numbers 2:1-32).
d The consecration of the priests to Yahweh (Numbers 3:1-4).
d The dedication of the Levites to the priests and to Yahweh (Numbers 3:5-13)
c Positioning and arrangements for travel of the Levites (Numbers 3:14-51).
b The priests’ responsibility for the Dwellingplace (Numbers 4:5-15).
a The taking of the sum of the Levites and their responsibilities (Numbers 4:1-4; Numbers 4:21-49).
Chapter 4 The Tasks of the Levites.
In this chapter the special tasks allotted to the priests and to each of the sub-tribes of Levi are described, and the number of Levites between thirty and fifty (those special numbers again) who were available for the tasks.
The Priests’ Responsibility for the Dwellingplace (Numbers 4:1-15).
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,’
It is stressed that what we have are the words of Yahweh as given to Moses and Aaron. Aaron was included here (and in Numbers 4:17, contrast Numbers 4:21) because he has a special responsibility in respect of this particular section of what is being described.
“Take the sum of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, all that enter upon the service, to do the work in the tent of meeting.”
The command is now given to obtain the sum of ‘the sons of Kohath’, which includes the priests who were ‘sons of Kohath’. The sum is of those who are between thirty and fifty years old. The priests would have overall responsibility for the Dwellingplace and perform the priestly service with respect to it. The remainder of the Kohathites, and the other Levites were the ones who would do the heavy work with regard to the bearing of the Dwellingplace. Again it is by their families (clans) by their father’s houses (wider families) Numbering seems always to be done in terms of these.
This in this context would seem to suggest that priesthood also began at thirty years old. That was not, however, true for the High Priesthood which began on the death of the previous High Priest and lasted until death (Numbers 35:25-28).
“This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting, concerning the most holy things.”
The service of the sons of Kohath with respect to the holy things of the Sanctuary was now to be described. The priests were themselves sons of Kohath. Their responsibility for packing the holy things ready for going forward is described first, and then the responsibility of the remainder of the sons of Kohath.
“When the camp sets forward, Aaron shall go in, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen, and cover the ark of the testimony with it, and shall put on it a covering of dolphin skin, and shall spread over it a cloth all of blue, and shall put in its staves.”
When preparations were to be made for the camp to go forward Aaron and his sons were to go into the Sanctuary. They were to take down the screen and cover the Ark of the Testimony with it. This may suggest that the veil was taken down and laid on it in such a way that they ensured that their eyes did not fix themselves on the uncovered Ark, ever being held between them and the Ark. The High Priest would know exactly where it was. But it is not necessarily so. Then a further covering of dolphin skins was to be put on it, after which it was covered with a further cloth of blue. Its staves were then to be put through the rings so that it could be carried.
The covering with the veil was the reminder that Yahweh was always behind the veil, His throne unseeable by naked eye. The cloth of blue was a reminder that they were dealing with things which were beyond the blue heavens (compare Exodus 24:10; 1 Kings 8:27). Or it may be that the purpley blue was a representation of royalty (compare Esther 8:15). Indeed both may have been in mind, heavenly royalty. The staves were a reminder that it could not be touched, while enabling it to be carried. It should be noted that this is the only item where the blue cloth is put outside the dolphin skin. This is probably because it was intended to make a declaration of heavenliness and royalty even as it was carried forward. We can see this as confirmation of the fact that the Ark was not carried with the other items of furniture but led the way before the advancing tribes (Numbers 10:33-36). It was not just carried, but carried where it would be looked on as the symbol of Yahweh’s presence.
“And on the table of showbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put on it the dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls and the cups with which to pour out, and the continual bread shall be on it.”
Next came the table of showbread. This was then covered with a blue cloth, again with heavenly or royal connections. After that all its accoutrements were placed on the cloth, including the twelve loaves of bread that represented all the tribes before Yahweh. It may be that they were wrapped up for safety in the blue cloth, but we are not told so.
“And they shall spread on them a cloth of scarlet, and cover the same with a covering of dolphin skin, and shall put in its staves.”
The whole was then covered with a scarlet cloth. This may well have represented the blood of atonement. These cloths would demonstrate that God’s people were both heavenly or royal and in reception of atonement. The whole was then to be covered with a (weatherproof) covering of dolphin skin, after which the staves for carrying it were to be slotted in.
“And they shall take a cloth of blue, and cover the lampstand of the light, and its lamps, and its snuffers, and its fireholders, and all its oil vessels, with which they minister to it, and they shall put it and all its vessels within a covering of dolphin skin, and shall put it on the frame.”
The lampstand and its accoutrements came next. They were all covered with a cloth of blue, followed by a covering of dolphin skin. This was then put on a frame for carrying.
“And on the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue, and cover it with a covering of dolphin skin, and shall put in its staves.”
Next came the golden altar of incense. On this was spread a cloth of blue, followed by a covering of dolphin skin. Then the carrying staves would be put in.
“And they shall take all the vessels of ministry, with which they minister in the sanctuary, and put them in a cloth of blue, and cover them with a covering of dolphin skin, and shall put them on the frame.”
All the vessels used in the inner Sanctuary would then be placed on a cloth of blue, probably wrapped over, covered with a dolphin skin. They were then placed on a carrying frame.
The fact that all these were covered with a cloth of blue appears to confirm that the idea is of heavenly connections. Day by day they gazed at a blue sky ‘beyond’ which was the heavenly dwellingplace of Yahweh. It was natural that a blue cloth would speak to them of that heavenly dwellingplace. While the purpley blue might by itself indicate royalty, royalty is indicated by other colours, and it must be considered unlikely that all the colours pointed to the exactly the same idea.
“And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth on it, and they shall put on it all its vessels, with which they minister about it, the firepans, the flesh-hooks, and the shovels, and the basins, all the vessels of the altar; and they shall spread on it a covering of dolphin skin, and put in its staves.”
Once the whole contents of the inner Sanctuary had been dealt with attention would turn to the bronze altar. The ashes were to be taken away and properly dealt with, and then a purple cloth laid on it. After this all its accoutrements and vessels would be placed on the cloth before it was covered in dolphin skin. Then the carrying staves would be put in. If we are to see this purple cloth as indicating royalty it might confirm more strongly that the blue cloth indicated the heavens.
The removal of the ashes demonstrates that it was expected that sacrifices would be carried out on the wilderness journey (there were ashes there). We are not told how the permanently lit fire was to be packed and carried (Leviticus 6:12-13). Later it was believed that it was covered with a large copper vessel. It may, however, be that it was allowed to go out while on the wilderness journey, just as the continual whole burnt offerings might sometimes not be offered.
The Taking of the Sum of the Levites and their Responsibilities (Numbers 4:15-49).
The Responsibility of the Sons of Kohath (Numbers 4:15-20).
‘And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary, and all the furniture of the sanctuary, as the camp is set forward, after that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear it. But they shall not touch the sanctuary, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting.’
All the priests’ work having been done, the furniture was then in a state in which the Levites of the tribe of Kohath could approach and lift it so as to carry it. But they were not to touch ‘the sanctuary (or ‘the holy thing’)’ lest they die. They could go so far but no further. By ‘the holy thing’ may actually be meant the Ark for this ‘holy thing’ is said to have been covered. Or it may be a term which refers to all the holy things which were covered seen as a whole.
The furniture was the only thing carried by hand. While the remainder would be carried in ox carts, the furniture was too holy for that. All these careful provisions stressed the otherness of Yahweh, and His distinctness. While He could be approached when it was done in the right way, He was being revealed as the One Who was not easily available to man. He was the One of Whom man must beware.
‘And the charge of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall be the oil for the light, and the sweet incense, and the continual grain offering, and the anointing oil, the charge of all the tabernacle, and of all that is in it, the sanctuary, and its furniture.’
Eleazar had supreme overall control of all this and himself was responsible for the holy oil for the lamp, the sweet incense, the continual grain offering (probably the daily grain offering which would need to be in readiness) and the anointing oil. All these would be especially holy and would need to be to hand for priestly service. He also had overall control of the Sanctuary and its contents. It was a solemn responsibility.
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Do not cut off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites from among the Levites, but thus do to them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach to the most holy things. Aaron and his sons shall go in, and appoint them every one to his service and to his burden, but they shall not go in to see the sanctuary (‘or ‘what is holy’) even for a moment, lest they die.” ’
Indeed so seriously had all this responsibility to be taken, a responsibility which would involve danger for the Kohathites if wrongly carried out, that a special word was added by Yahweh. Aaron and the priests were carefully to supervise all that was done, giving instructions as necessary, and allocating the Levites’ responsibilities. They were especially to ensure that the Kohathites did not see any of the holy things uncovered, even for a moment. So important was this that if they failed in this duty it could result in the destruction of the whole sub-tribe of Kohath. If they approached the holy things too early it could only result in death. The aim in all this was to be as a reminder that Yahweh was ‘wholly other’, was not of this world, and was therefore a warning that this mundane world could not have direct contact with Him in His earthly revelation of Himself. Approach to Him was only possible once His methods of approach had been carried through by means of offerings and sacrifices, incense, and the worshipful approach thus far and no further of His chosen mediators, the Aaronic priests. The way into the Holiest was not yet revealed (Hebrews 9:8).
The Responsibility of the Sons of Gershon (Numbers 4:21-28).
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the sum of the sons of Gershon also, by their fathers’ houses, by their families, from thirty years old and upward until fifty years old you shall number them, all who enter in to wait on the service, to do the work in the tent of meeting.” ’
Yahweh’s next command was to take the sum of the Gershonites. Again it was to be done by their father’s houses (‘thousands?’) and by their families (‘hundreds’?). All males who were between 30 and 50 who were fit for service were to be numbered, those who could respond to the call to work in the Tent of Meeting.
“This is the service of the families of the Gershonites, in serving and in bearing burdens.”
The way in which the Gershonites were to serve was now listed. It was stressed that their service included the bearing of heavy burdens.
“They shall bear the curtains of the tabernacle, and the tent of meeting, its covering, and the covering of dolphin skin that is above upon it, and the screen for the door of the tent of meeting, and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the door of the gate of the court, which is by the tabernacle and by the altar round about, and their cords, and all the instruments of their service, and whatever shall be done with them. In these things shall they serve.”
It was their responsibility to carry the Dwellingplace itself with its curtains and accoutrements, its door screen and gate screen, and its dolphin skin covering. Elsewhere we learned that the Levites were to dismantle the Dwellingplace when a journey was to begin and re-erect it at the next stop (Numbers 2:51). Probably all three sub-tribes assisted with this dismantling and erecting.
“At the commandment of Aaron and his sons shall be all the service of the sons of the Gershonites, in all their burden, and in all their service; and you shall appoint to them in charge all their burden.”
All their service and work and burden bearing was to be done under the authority of Aaron and his sons who were to direct who would do what.
“This is the service of the families of the sons of the Gershonites in the tent of meeting, and their charge shall be under the hand of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest.”
So the service of the ‘families’ of the sons of the Gershonites has been made clear. And while about their activity, and on the march, they were under the supervision and control of Ithamar, the son of Aaron ‘the Priest’ (the High Priest).
The Responsibility of the Sons of Merari (Numbers 4:29-33).
“As for the sons of Merari, you shall number them by their families, by their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old and upward even to fifty years old shall you (thou) number them, every one who enters on the service, to do the work of the tent of meeting.”
The sons of Merari who were between 30 and 50 and able to serve were also to be listed by their families and by their father’s houses for the work of the Tent of Meeting. The same had been true also for the other sub-tribes. In this respect they were all equal and acceptable.
“And this is the charge of their burden, according to all their service in the tent of meeting, the boards of the tabernacle, and its bars, and its pillars, and its sockets, and the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pins, and their cords, with all their instruments, and with all their service. And by name you shall appoint the instruments of the charge of their burden.”
Their responsibility was to look after all the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the Tent of Meeting without which it could not be erected and hold together. They may not have seemed important compared with the furniture of the Dwellingplace but it could not be erected without them.
“And by name you shall appoint the instruments of the charge of their burden.” The sons of Merari were the only ones who were to be allotted their charge by name. Looking after the nuts and bolts was a very important job, and none must go astray. Thus different members of the ‘hundreds’ would each be allotted his own area of responsibility in order to ensure that nothing went astray.
“This is the service of the families of the sons of Merari, according to all their service, in the tent of meeting, under the hand of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest.”
So this was their service and responsibility. Like the Gershonites they too were under the control and authority of Ithamar.
This reminds us that all of us are allocated different tasks in our service for God, and while our task may seem to be small it is vital that it be done properly and in a right spirit. For if one nut or bolt is missing the whole will be blemished. Blessed indeed is the church where every member fulfils his or her responsibility prayerfully and believingly.
The Assessment or ‘Numbering’ of the Levites.
‘And Moses and Aaron and the princes of the congregation numbered the sons of the Kohathites by their families, and by their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old and upward even to fifty years old, every one who entered on the service, for work in the tent of meeting, and those who were numbered of them by their families were two thousand seven hundred and fifty. These are they who were numbered of the families of the Kohathites, all who served in the tent of meeting, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of Yahweh by Moses.’
This numbering was a mobilisation for service. The first to be ‘numbered’ were the males between 30 and 50 years old of the Kohathites. They came in at two chieftains (or ‘families’) and seven ‘hundreds’ (or fathers’ houses) of men to serve and a fifty. In the light of the addition of the fifty in the listing of the tribes (Numbers 1:25) the addition of this fifty is probably intended to stress the connection of all three sub-tribes with the covenant. If the significance of the ‘two ’lph’ is two families we may probably see a combination of clans, Amram and Izehar, together with Hebron and Uzziel (Numbers 3:19). But for this reason we are probably to read ‘chieftains’.
The mention of them as working in the Tent of Meeting may just suggest that they were permitted to do so, but possibly only once the sacred furniture was packed up. This would enable the carrying out of much needed repairs. Note that all was in accordance with Yahweh’s command to Moses.
‘And those who were numbered of the sons of Gershon, their families, and by their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old and upward even to fifty years old, every one who entered on the service, for work in the tent of meeting, even those who were numbered of them, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, were two thousand and six hundred and thirty. These are they who were numbered of the families of the sons of Gershon, all who served in the tent of meeting, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of Yahweh.’
The second to be numbered were the Gershonites. Their 30-50 year old males ready for service came to two chieftains (or ‘families’) and six ‘hundreds’ (or ‘father’s houses’) of men to serve, and a thirty. In line with the mention of a thirty in the listing of the tribes in Numbers 26:7 this may indicate the completeness of the three sub-tribes for their task. Again we note that all was in accordance with the command to Moses.
‘And those who were numbered of the families of the sons of Merari, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old and upward even to fifty years old, every one who entered on the service, for work in the tent of meeting, even those who were numbered of them by their families, were three thousand and two hundred. These are they who were numbered of the families of the sons of Merari, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of Yahweh by Moses.’
The final ones to be numbered were the sons of Merari. Their thirty to fifty year olds ready for service amounted to three chieftains (or ‘families’) and two ‘hundreds’ (fathers’ houses) of men to serve. The fact that the number of ’lphs in no case tie in with the number of clans would favour translating ’lph as ‘chieftain’.
‘All those who were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron and the princes of Israel numbered, by their families, and by their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old and upward even to fifty years old, every one who entered in to do the work of service, and the work of bearing burdens in the tent of meeting, even those who were numbered of them, were eight thousand and five hundred and fourscore.’
We note here that the princes of Israel had been involved with Moses and Aaron in the numbering. All the tribes were concerned with the efficient and faithful service of the Sanctuary, and were to have their part in their appointment. The full total of those who entered into the work of service and the work of bearing burdens in respect of the Dwellingplace came in total to eight ’lph and five ‘hundreds’ and eighty. The eight ’lph would be made up of the six chieftains and two ’lph of ten ‘hundreds’ each, making together eight ’lph. The remaining five ‘hundreds’ and the eighty made up the balance to achieve the sum total of the three totals of the clans. The ‘eighty’ was simply the necessary result of having a fifty and a thirty.
‘According to the commandment of Yahweh they were numbered by Moses, every one according to his service, and according to his burden. Thus were they numbered by him, as Yahweh commanded Moses.’
Again it is stressed (twice) that this was done at Yahweh’s command to Moses., mobilising the sons of Levi for the service they had to perform and the burdens they would have to bear as they looked after the Tent of Meeting when it was on the move.
Among the lessons we learn from these chapters is the importance of organisation and planning in our service for God, and the recognition that there is a need for each of us to play our part, however small it may seem. There were three strata. The priests at the top, the most holy, to whom the Levites looked; the Levites in the middle, the next most holy, to whom the people looked; and the armies of Israel at the bottom, who were still holy while not being as holy as the other two. ‘Outside’ were the resident aliens who had not yet merged with a tribe. This was not a question of righteousness or lack of it, but of the position that God had placed them in. We will see shortly that if Israelites wished to improve their ‘holiness’ God had provided a way by which this could be done, the way of the Nazirite, which could by choice be permanent or temporary.
But it should be noted that all were necessary to the ongoing of God’s purposes in and for Israel. Just as the Dwellingplace furniture and coverings were nothing without the nuts and bolts, so the priesthood and the Levites would have achieved nothing without the soldiers. God had a place for all.
We may see the priesthood as representing the activity of our Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf, offering Himself for us and interceding on our behalf; the Levites as those called by God to act on His behalf as His servants; and the men-at-arms as representing the whole people of God. And yet in another sense we have all been made priests that we may serve at the heavenly Sanctuary with sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany