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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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NUMBERS 4

This chapter might well be titled "Instructions regarding the Moving of the Tabernacle." It details the marshalling of the three families of the Levites, their organization for the purpose, the appointment of their specific duties, the enumeration of what each group was detailed to do, and the appointment of appropriate commanders. The first part of the chapter reveals what had to be done before the moving process was initiated, the preparatory work to be done by Aaron and his sons.


 
Verses 1-16
And Jehovah spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, 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. This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting, [about] the most holy things: when the camp setteth 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 thereon a covering of sealskin, and shall spread over it a cloth all of blue, and shall put in the staves thereof. And upon the table of showbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put thereon the dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls and the cups wherewith to pour out; and the continual bread shall be thereon: and they shall spread upon them a cloth of scarlet, and cover the same with a covering of sealskin, and shall put in the staves thereof. And they shall take a cloth of blue, and cover the candlestick of the light, and its lamps, and its snuffers, and its snuffdishes, and all the oil vessels thereof, wherewith they minister unto it: and they shall put it and all the vessels thereof within a covering of sealskin, and shall put it upon the frame. And upon the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue, and cover it with a covering of sealskin, and shall put in the staves thereof: and they shall take all the vessels of ministry, wherewith they minister in the sanctuary, and put them in a cloth of blue, and cover them with a covering of sealskin, and shall put them on the frame. And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth thereon: and they shall put upon it all the vessels thereof, wherewith 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 upon it a covering of sealskin, and put in the staves thereof. 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. 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 meal-offering, and the anointing oil, the charge of all the tabernacle, and of all that therein is, the sanctuary, and the furniture thereof.

The sons of Kohath…
(Numbers 4:2). Despite the fact of Kohath's not being the oldest of the sons of Levi, he takes precedence here because both Moses and Aaron were of this branch of the family, and to them went the honor of moving the most holy things (Numbers 4:4).

To do the work in the tent of meeting…
(Numbers 4:3). The Hebrew phrase from which this rendition comes signifies military service, and is used here with special reference to the service of the Levites as the sacred militia (militia sacra) of Jehovah.F1 John Marsh thought the terminology here reflects the change after the exile from a monarchy to a theocracy,F2 but, on the contrary, it reflects the conditions of the theocracy that existed long before the monarchy arose. In fact, the true theocracy existed only before the monarchy, the monarchy being, de facto, a rejection of the theocracy. The status of Israel after the exile was not that of God's wife, but that of God's slave, as evident in Hosea, third chapter.

From thirty years old and upward…
(Numbers 4:3). This minimal age of thirty was reduced to twenty-five in Num. 8:23-26, probably for the purpose of allowing a five-year apprenticeship. To question the accuracy of this account on the basis of 1 Chr. 23:24-27, where the age was reduced to twenty, is unacceptable. The Jews of the whole temple era departed in many particulars from the Word of God.

A covering of sealskin…
(Numbers 4:6). The actual meaning of the word here rendered sealskin is not known.F3 Plaut gave dolphin as a reasonable guess. Orlinsky also preferred dolphin skins.F4 The KJV has badger skins, and the RSV has goatskins. Sea-cow is the rendition favored by Keil and Whitelaw.F5 The perspective here is of those times of Israel's habitation of the Nile delta and their wilderness journeys close to the Red Sea. Evidently, some marine creature was the source of these skins. Certainly, there is not anything here that favors a date after the exile,F6 as suggested by Gray.

When the camp setteth forward…
(Numbers 4:5). These words, along with Num. 4:15, make it clear that before the Kohathites could even TOUCH any of the sacred furniture, Aaron and his sons were required to make it ready.

The Ark. This was to be covered by the veil that screened off the Holy of Holies. This was to be covered with the skin covering, and over that there was to be placed a cloth of blue, a color that would be exposed during the march, making the ark easily identified.

The Table. This was to include all the articles usually used in connection with it, and the whole was to be covered with a cloth of scarlet, with a skin covering over all.

The Candlestick. This was to include snuff dishes, etc., with all vessels pertaining to it, the whole to be covered with a cloth of blue, with a skin covering over all.

The Golden Altar. A cloth of blue was to be spread over this with a sealskin over all.

The Great Bronze (Copper) Altar. The ashes were to be removed and all of the shovels, vessels, flesh-hooks, etc., connected with service at the altar were to be placed around it, the whole to be covered with a purple cloth, with a skin covering over all.

And put in the staves thereof…
(Numbers 4:6,8,11,14). This recurring instruction shows that preparatory to wrapping and covering the sacred articles with the colored cloths and skin coverings, the staves were to be first removed. This is a variation of the instruction pertaining to the times when the various articles were properly installed to fulfill their normal function. During those times, the staves were not to be taken out (Exo. 25:15ff). Critical scholars are really hard pressed for something to criticize when they make a contradiction out of this variation, as did both Gray and Noth.F7 The very commandment to wrap (or cover) each article with cloth, the staves being conspicuously omitted in each commandment, inherently carries with it the instruction that the staves were to be first removed. The commandment to put them in, repeated four times, proves this. There is no contradiction here, the various instructions applying to different situations. In their normal placement, the staves were to be left in, when made ready for travel, they were removed (necessarily) for the wrapping, and replaced for the purpose of their transportation.

Such things as the holy oil of anointing, the sweet incense, the oil for the light, and other similar essences, including the meal-offering, were not to be moved even by the Levites, but were to be transported by Eleazar himself.

When all of these preparations were carefully made, then, and then only were the Kohathites permitted to enter and remove the sacred furniture.

It is a matter of wonder and amazement that no instructions were here given for the transporting of the great bronze laver, certainly one of the principal features of the whole complex, stationed near the door and the great bronze altar. The Septuagint (LXX) adds the following to Num. 4:14.

"And they shall take a purple cloth and cover the laver and its foot, and they shall put it into a blue cover of skin, and put it on bars."F8

Most of the scholars do not allow the validity of this, but its appearance also in the Samaritan Version raises some possibility that the passage is authentic. If it is, the omission from the Masoretic Text would be accounted for, as Carson said, "on the basis of a scribal accident."F9

And the charge of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest…
(Numbers 4:16). It is not specifically stated here that Eleazar was over the Kohathites; but, it appears from a comparison of Num. 4:16,28 and Num. 4:33 that the ministry of the Kohathites were superintended by Eleazar, and that of the Gershonites and the Merarites by Ithamar.F10


 
Verses 17-20
And Jehovah spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, Cut ye not off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites from among the Levites; but thus do unto them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach unto 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 even for a moment, lest they die.

The meaning of this somewhat ambiguous passage was given thus by Keil:

"In order to prevent as far as possible any calamity from falling upon the Levites while carrying the most holy things, the priests are again urged by the command of God to do all that has already been prescribed (Numbers 4:5-15), lest through any carelessness on their part they should cut off the tribes of the families of the Kohathites, i.e., cause their destruction through their approaching the holy things before they had been properly wrapped by Aaron's sons."F11


 
Verses 21-28
And Jehovah spake unto 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 shalt thou number them; all that enter in to wait upon the service, to do the work in the tent of meeting. This is the service of the families of the Gershonites, in serving and in bearing burdens: they shall bear the curtains of the tabernacle, and the tent of meeting, its covering, and the covering of sealskin 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 whatsoever shall be done with them: therein shall they serve. 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 ye shall appoint unto them in charge all their burden. 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.

All that enter in to wait upon the service…
(Numbers 4:23). Literally, this is, `to war the warfare.' The same phrase is rendered in Num. 4:3, `enter into the host to do the work.' The language is military. The service of God is a sacred warfare.F12

The Levites were not to look, even for a moment, (Numbers 4:20) upon the sacred furniture or the sanctuary itself. The words from which "even for a moment" are rendered have the meaning of "even as long as it takes to swallow."F13 Orlinsky gave the meaning here as, "They shall not witness the dismantling of the sanctuary."F14

The duties of the Gershonites included their bearing the curtains and the tent of meeting, the covering of the tent, the exterior sealskin covering, the screen for the door of the tent, the screen for the door of the gate of the court, together with cords, instruments, etc., connected therewith. Whereas all of the sacred articles assigned to the Kohathites were to be carried by hand, using the staves repeatedly mentioned, the Gershonites were provided wagons for the transportation of the far heavier loads assigned to them.

Dummelow pointed out that:

"The curtains of the tabernacle and of the court were of great weight, and two ox-wagons were required for their transport. The Merarites, charged with the even heavier transport of the framework of the tabernacle were given four ox-wagons for the purpose (Numbers 7:7)."F15


 
Verses 29-33
As for the sons of Merari, thou shalt number them by their families, by their fathers' houses; from thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old shalt thou number them, every one that entereth upon the service, to do the work of the tent of meeting. And this is the charge of their burden, according to all their service in the tent of meeting: the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and the sockets thereof, 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 ye shall appoint the instruments of the charge of their burden. 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.

Num. 4:32 here indicates that all of the assignments for the handling and transport of the vast amount of material in the tabernacle were made on an individual and personal basis, "by name." The need for this appears in the fact that some would have chosen lighter burdens than were appropriate, and that others might have sought to handle or carry the more sacred items, leading to strife and jealousies unless all such decisions had been taken out of the hands of the Levites and made the responsibility of the priests.

Num. 4:34-49 of this chapter give the detail of the numbering of the families of the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites, repeating over and over again the same formula. Num. 4:34-36 show what is repeated.


 
Verses 34-49
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 unto fifty years old, every one that entered upon the service, for work in the tent of meeting: and those that were numbered of them by their families were two thousand seven hundred and fifty. These are they that were numbered of the families of the Kohathites, all that did serve in the tent of meeting, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of Jehovah by Moses. And those that were numbered of the sons of Gershon, their families, and by their fathers' houses, from thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old, every one that entered upon the service, for work in the tent of meeting, even those that were numbered of them, by their families, by their fathers' houses, were two thousand and six hundred and thirty. These are they that were numbered of the families of the sons of Gershon, all that did serve in the tent of meeting, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of Jehovah. And those that were numbered of the families of the sons of Merari, by their families, by their fathers' houses, from thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old, every one that entered upon the service, for work in the tent of meeting, even those that were numbered of them by their families, were three thousand and two hundred. These are they that were numbered of the families of the sons of Merari, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of Jehovah by Moses. All those that 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 unto fifty years old, every one that entered in to do the work of service, and the work of bearing burdens in the tent of meeting, even those that were numbered of them, were eight thousand and five hundred and fourscore. According to the commandment of Jehovah they were numbered by Moses, every one according to his service, and according to his burden: thus were they numbered of him, as Jehovah commanded Moses.

For our purpose, it is sufficient here merely to give a summary of what is presented in the balance of the chapter by this extensive repetition: There were numbered of the Kohathites 2,750, and of the Gershonites 2,630, and of the Merarites 3,200, yielding a total of 8,580.

It is clear enough that the Levites, who were commissioned as workers charged with many responsibilities connected with the sacred tabernacle and its furnishings, were not, in any sense, priests, despite the privileged and protected status they enjoyed. The critical notion that all of this arrangement resulted from the designs of a priesthood in post-exilic times to DOWNGRADE the Levites is unacceptable. The futile efforts to bolster this opinion usually include references to situations long after Moses' time in which Levites indeed served as priests, or performed priestly duties. However, arguments based on the practice of the Israelites in subsequent centuries prove nothing, for it is written that, "Jeroboam made priests of all the people, that were not of the sons of Levi" (1 Kings 12:31). What we have revealed in this chapter is the way it was intended by God Himself from the very beginning of the priesthood of Israel. Note the recurrence of the clause, "And Jehovah spake unto Moses!" Until the critics are able to delete these words from our Bibles, they are powerless to write their own. In many ways, even in the building of the Temple itself, there were wholesale violations of God's Word by the whole nation of Israel in subsequent centuries.


Footnotes for Numbers 4
1: C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), p. 25.
2: John Marsh, Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 2, Numbers (New York: Abingdon Press, 1955), p. 159.
3: W. Gunther Plaut, Torah, A Modern Commentary (Philadelphia: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1979), p. 32.
4: Harry M. Orlinsky, Notes on the New Translation of the Torah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969), p. 226.
5: Thomas Whitelaw, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 2, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 24.
6: George Buchanan Gray, International Critical Commentary, Numbers (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1903), p. 34.
7: Martin Noth, Numbers, A Commentary, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), p. 42.
8: Sir Launcelot C. L. Brenton, The Septuagint Version Greek-English (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), p. 176.
9: T. Carson, New Layman's Bible Commentary, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 244.
10: F. C. Cook, Barnes' Notes, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983. Reprint of the John Murray publication in London, 1879), p. 189.
11: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p. 26.
12: F. C. Cook, op. cit., p. 190.
13: John Joseph Owens, Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, Numbers (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), p. 96.
14: Harry M. Orlinsky, op. cit., p. 226.
15: J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 104.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=nu&chapter=004>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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