April 08, 2007

Numbers 3-4: Nice work if you can get it

Today's reading is Numbers 3-4 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the numbers and duties of the Levite families.

It must have been nice to be a Levite in ancient Israel. They didn't need to go to war; they got to camp right near the tabernacle of God; and they only worked twenty years of their lives.

Let's backtrack just a moment and remind ourselves of the basics.

The Levites were the only tribe of Israel not counted in the census of Num. 1-2. Instead, they have their own census, recounted in Num. 3-4. The tribe of Levites is broken down into three main groups, corresponding to the three sons of Levi, the tribe's progenitor. These three groups are the Gershonites (from Gershon), the Kohathites (from Kohath) and the Merarites (from Merari). Altogether, the males of these families one month and older number 22,000. Each group has a leader, as we saw in the census for Num. 1-2.

Furthermore, each group was assigned a particular duty, which generally involved carrying the various instruments of the tabernacle. Without going into too much detail, the Gershonites were in charge mainly of the fabric implements, such as the hangings, curtains, and coverings. (Num. 3:25-26, Num. 4:24-26) The Kohathites were in charge of the big furniture: the ark, table, candlestick, and altars. (Num. 3:31, Num. 4:4-15) Finally, the Merarites were in charge of the infrastructure: bars, pillars, sockets, and so forth. (Num. 3:36-37, Num. 4:31-32) For a recap of all these various implements, refer back to the last half of Exodus, which describes them in far more detail than anyone could possibly want to know.

Let us examine, for a moment, these duties. The first thing we learn is that all the men aged 30-50 were supposed to serve in the tabernacle. (Num. 4:3, 4:23, 4:30) This might seem like a long time. However, we must also look at the number of men involved. At the time this census was taken, there were 8,580 Levite men aged 30-50. (Num. 4:48-49) Broken down, there were about 2,500-3,200 men of the appropriate age per family group. (Num. 4:35-36, 4:39-40, 4:43-44) So several thousand men were in charge of the various pieces of equipment associated with the tabernacle.

Remember that the duties of these men were, essentially, carrying around this equipment. The Gershonites and Merarites may even have needed to set up the various implements. (The Kohathites could not set up the various tabernacle furniture, on pain of death. That job was left to the sons of Aaron.) Surely, however, it did not take eight thousand men to set up the tabernacle. A few dozen would surely have sufficed to set up and take down everything within a few hours, or a day at most. Assuming the Levites had good carts, they may have needed a hundred or two people to carry everything, and this is probably a high-ball figure. We are therefore left with several thousand redundant men.

Furthermore, we don't know what the Levites did when the tabernacle was set up and stationary. Once everything was in place, the priests took over and conducted the actual business of God. The Levites were left to twiddle their thumbs and tell ghost stories, I suppose.

Speaking of redundant, we have no idea what the rest of the Levites did. I am speaking, of course, of the Levite men not aged 30-50 and all the Levite women. We have no real indication of what they did during their copious free time of not fighting and not serving at the tabernacle. One can only assume that they did something, but the text gives us no indication as to what this "something" might have been.

This leaves us, therefore, in the situation of having an entire tribe of people, potentially as many as 45,000 people, who were for the most part redundant. Only a fraction of them actually worked in the tabernacle, and only a fraction of them were probably working at any given time. The rest, most likely, got to gloat to the other tribes about their light workload and their exemption from war. Like the title says, it's a cushy life if you can get it.

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