1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: 2 “Take a census of the Kohathite branch of the Levites by their clans and families. 3 Count all the men from thirty to fifty years of age who come to serve in the work at the tent of meeting.
The previous chapter gave an account of the whole tribe of Levi. These passages give an account of the men who were in their prime for service (between the ages of 30 and 50). We can see here that there were branches of the main tribes, and these were accounted and given specific tasks within the Levites charge of caring for the tabernacle.
While fighting ages were counted from 20 and up, God required only those in their prime for his service – mature enough that they were not in danger of doing something childish and still youthful enough to do the labor needed. 1Timothy 3:6-10 confirms this in that those who are called to minister could not be new converts. Ministry requires a steadiness and good judgement that only comes from time with God and experience. We must learn before we can teach. They were able to discontinue service at the age of fifty, since carrying the tabernacle was not an easy task.
The following is the description of the work to be done and how it was to be done.
4 “This is the work of the Kohathites at the tent of meeting: the care of the most holy things. 5 When the camp is to move, Aaron and his sons are to go in and take down the shielding curtain and put it over the ark of the covenant law. 6 Then they are to cover the curtain with a durable leather,[a] spread a cloth of solid blue over that and put the poles in place.
God had appointed that no-one could enter the most holy place, only Aaron once a year with a cloud of incense. Yet, of course, someone would have to go in if they were to dismantle the tabernacle and move it to the next place. So, in order to move the tabernacle Aaron and his sons had to go and take the shielding curtain down and lay it over the ark of the covenant. Since the curtain shielded the most holy place from the holy place, it makes sense that it would shield those who carried the ark as well. For further protection, they were to cover it with a second layer of leather and then a third layer of blue cloth. The coverings protected the ark from the elements as they traveled in addition to protecting those whose job it was to carry it. When it was all covered, it was safe to put the poles into place and take it on their shoulders.
7 “Over the table of the Presence they are to spread a blue cloth and put on it the plates, dishes and bowls, and the jars for drink offerings; the bread that is continually there is to remain on it. 8 They are to spread a scarlet cloth over them, cover that with the durable leather and put the poles in place.
A similar manner of covering process was done with the table of the Presence – note that all of the items that God said must stay on the table still remained on the table during transport. Again, poles were used to carry the table.
9 “They are to take a blue cloth and cover the lampstand that is for light, together with its lamps, its wick trimmers and trays, and all its jars for the olive oil used to supply it. 10 Then they are to wrap it and all its accessories in a covering of the durable leather and put it on a carrying frame.
The lamp stand, lamps, and all the accessories were covered first and then wrapped and placed upon their own carrying frame.
11 “Over the gold altar they are to spread a blue cloth and cover that with the durable leather and put the poles in place.
12 “They are to take all the articles used for ministering in the sanctuary, wrap them in a blue cloth, cover that with the durable leather and put them on a carrying frame.
13 “They are to remove the ashes from the bronze altar and spread a purple cloth over it. 14 Then they are to place on it all the utensils used for ministering at the altar, including the firepans, meat forks, shovels and sprinkling bowls. Over it they are to spread a covering of the durable leather and put the poles in place.
All of the heavier items had poles designed for carrying, while the smaller Items were wrapped and placed on separate carrying frames, each as God designed.
15 “After Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy furnishings and all the holy articles, and when the camp is ready to move, only then are the Kohathites to come and do the carrying. But they must not touch the holy things or they will die. The Kohathites are to carry those things that are in the tent of meeting.
All of the wrapping and covering and preparing of the holy things had to be done by Aaron and his sons. No-one else could do this work or they would die. Only when the holy things had been properly prepared and secured were the Kohathites able to do their job of carrying these things to the next camp.
16 “Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest, is to have charge of the oil for the light, the fragrant incense, the regular grain offering and the anointing oil. He is to be in charge of the entire tabernacle and everything in it, including its holy furnishings and articles.”
Eleazar (now the oldest of Aaron’s sons) is appointee to oversee the Kohathites. It was his job to make certain that nothing was left behind or misplaced.
17 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 18 “See that the Kohathite tribal clans are not destroyed from among the Levites. 19 So that they may live and not die when they come near the most holy things, do this for them: Aaron and his sons are to go into the sanctuary and assign to each man his work and what he is to carry. 20 But the Kohathites must not go in to look at the holy things, even for a moment, or they will die.”
Even though it was already known, God reminds Aaron and Moses that the holy things were not to be considered lightly. It was their responsibility to make certain that none of the Kohathite tribe die due to carelessness in the handling of the most holy items.
21 The Lord said to Moses, 22 “Take a census also of the Gershonites by their families and clans. 23 Count all the men from thirty to fifty years of age who come to serve in the work at the tent of meeting.
24 “This is the service of the Gershonite clans in their carrying and their other work: 25 They are to carry the curtains of the tabernacle, that is, the tent of meeting, its covering and its outer covering of durable leather, the curtains for the entrance to the tent of meeting, 26 the curtains of the courtyard surrounding the tabernacle and altar, the curtain for the entrance to the courtyard, the ropes and all the equipment used in the service of the tent. The Gershonites are to do all that needs to be done with these things. 27 All their service, whether carrying or doing other work, is to be done under the direction of Aaron and his sons. You shall assign to them as their responsibility all they are to carry. 28 This is the service of the Gershonite clans at the tent of meeting. Their duties are to be under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron, the priest.
Aaron’s son, Ithamar was put in charge of the Gershonites who were charged with carrying all of the fabric and ropes for the tabernacle. Every man would be given specific pieces that were his responsibility, and Ithamar was to make certain that nothing was misplaced.
29 “Count the Merarites by their clans and families. 30 Count all the men from thirty to fifty years of age who come to serve in the work at the tent of meeting. 31 As part of all their service at the tent, they are to carry the frames of the tabernacle, its crossbars, posts and bases, 32 as well as the posts of the surrounding courtyard with their bases, tent pegs, ropes, all their equipment and everything related to their use. Assign to each man the specific things he is to carry. 33 This is the service of the Merarite clans as they work at the tent of meeting under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron, the priest.”
Ithamar was also in charge of the Merarites. These men were to carry the wood and metal portions of the tabernacle and the courtyard. Again, each one had specific parts to carry and they were responsible for those pieces, while Ithamar was in charge of making sure that each man did his job and nothing went missing. He had to do an inventory each time they moved.
The Numbering of the Levite Clans
34 Moses, Aaron and the leaders of the community counted the Kohathites by their clans and families. 35 All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to serve in the work at the tent of meeting, 36 counted by clans, were 2,750. 37 This was the total of all those in the Kohathite clans who served at the tent of meeting. Moses and Aaron counted them according to the Lord’s command through Moses.
38 The Gershonites were counted by their clans and families. 39 All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to serve in the work at the tent of meeting, 40 counted by their clans and families, were 2,630. 41 This was the total of those in the Gershonite clans who served at the tent of meeting. Moses and Aaron counted them according to the Lord’s command.
42 The Merarites were counted by their clans and families. 43 All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to serve in the work at the tent of meeting, 44 counted by their clans, were 3,200. 45 This was the total of those in the Merarite clans. Moses and Aaron counted them according to the Lord’s command through Moses.
46 So Moses, Aaron and the leaders of Israel counted all the Levites by their clans and families. 47 All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to do the work of serving and carrying the tent of meeting 48 numbered 8,580. 49 At the Lord’s command through Moses, each was assigned his work and told what to carry.
Thus they were counted, as the Lord commanded Moses.
The work of carrying the tabernacle was a huge responsibility as well as being a huge physical burden. These men (8,580) had to be sober-minded and diligent to be given the care of the house of the Lord. They took this responsibility with great seriousness, as they should.
Numbers 4:6 Possibly the hides of large aquatic mammals; also in verses 8, 10, 11, 12, 14 and 25