Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
Take the sum of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, after their families, by the house of their fathers,IV.
(2) Of the sons of Kohath . . . —Kohath appears to have been the second son of Levi (Numbers 3:17), but the Kohathites here stand first because Moses and Aaron belonged to them, and it was their office to bear the Ark.
From thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, all that enter into the host, to do the work in the tabernacle of the congregation.(3) From thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old.—The previous census of the Levites was from a month old. The present census was with a view to the discharge of duties requiring a considerable amount of physical strength, and hence the prescribed age for entering upon these duties was fixed at this time at thirty, and limited to fifty. It has been supposed by some that five years were spent in preparation for the service, and that it is in this way that the apparent discrepancy between this verse and Numbers 8:24, where the age for entering upon the service is fixed at twenty-five, is to be reconciled. (See Note on Numbers 8:24.) In Eastern countries the strength fails at an earlier period than in colder and more temperate climates. Thirty was the age at which John the Baptist and our Lord entered upon their public ministry.
All that enter into the host.—Or, every one who enters upon the service. The word zaba, commonly rendered host, and used elsewhere to denote military service, is here used to denote the service of the sanctuary.
And when the camp setteth forward, Aaron shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the covering vail, and cover the ark of testimony with it:(5) Aaron shall come, and his sons . . . —Under ordinary circumstances the high priest himself might only enter the most holy place on one day in the year. At the time of the moving of the camp, however, the Divine Presence seems to have departed from the Holy of Holies, and to have ascended in the cloud which gave the signal for the removal.
The covering vail.—Better, the vail of the hanging or curtain—viz., that which separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. (Comp. Numbers 3:31.)
And shall put thereon the covering of badgers' skins, and shall spread over it a cloth wholly of blue, and shall put in the staves thereof.(6) And shall put in the staves thereof.—The staves had been removed whilst the Ark was being covered; otherwise they remained in their places (Exodus 25:15). (Comp. 2Chronicles 5:9.)
And upon the table of shewbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put thereon the dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls, and covers to cover withal: and the continual bread shall be thereon:(7) And covers to cover withal.—Better, and the cups for the drink-offering (or libation).
And the continual bread.—The shew-bread is so called because it was renewed every Sabbath day, and was continually before the face of the Lord even (as it appears from this verse) during the marches of the Israelites through the desert (Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:5).
And they shall spread upon them a cloth of scarlet, and cover the same with a covering of badgers' skins, and shall put in the staves thereof.(8) And cover the same.—Better, and cover it (the table).
And they shall put it and all the vessels thereof within a covering of badgers' skins, and shall put it upon a bar.(10) Upon a bar.—Better, upon a pole, or frame made for bearing. (Comp. Numbers 13:23, where the same word mot is rendered “a staff.”)
And upon the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue, and cover it with a covering of badgers' skins, and shall put to the staves thereof:(11) And shall put to the staves thereof.—Better, And shall put in the staves thereof, as in Numbers 4:6; Numbers 4:8; so also in Numbers 4:14.
And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth thereon:(13) And they shall take away the ashes from the altar.—In Exodus 27:3 we find a direction to make pans for removing the ashes from the brazen altar, and also to make all the brazen vessels mentioned in the next verse.
And they shall put upon it all the vessels thereof, wherewith they minister about it, even the censers, the fleshhooks, and the shovels, and the basons, all the vessels of the altar; and they shall spread upon it a covering of badgers' skins, and put to the staves of it.(14) The censers.—Better, the fire-pans, as in Exodus 27:3.
And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary, and all the vessels of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear it: but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kohath in the tabernacle of the congregation.(15) And all the vessels of the sanctuary.—No mention is here made of the laver (Exodus 30:18). The LXX. and the Samaritan text supply a statement respecting the covering and conveyance of the brazen laver. The clause in the LXX. is as follows :—“And they shall take a purple cloth, and cover the laver and its foot (or base), and they shall put it into a blue cover of skin, and put it on bars.” There is no sufficient ground. however, for supposing that the present Hebrew text is deficient in this place; and it seems more probable to suppose that the laver was not to be covered during its transport.
After that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear it.—Better, to bear, or carry—viz., the whole of the vessels of ministry which had been previously enumerated. The distinction between the service of the priests and that of the Levites in regard to the removal of the Tabernacle and its furniture is here clearly marked.
But they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die.—The word which is rendered “any holy thing” may here, as elsewhere, denote the sanctuary. This injunction is repeated in Numbers 18:3. We find in 2Samuel 6:6-7 an instance of the fatal result of the violation of this command by Uzzah, who being, as is most probable, a Levite, and of the family of Kohath, ought to have been acquainted with the law respecting the removal of the Ark. It is obvious that the Kohathites, as the immediate assistants of the priests, in regard to the vessels of the Sanctuary, were specially exposed to the risk of violating the law by touching the most holy things.
And to the office of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest pertaineth the oil for the light, and the sweet incense, and the daily meat offering, and the anointing oil, and the oversight of all the tabernacle, and of all that therein is, in the sanctuary, and in the vessels thereof.(16) The oil for the light.—Or, for the candlestick (Exodus 25:6).
The sweet incense.—Or, the incense of spices (Exodus 25:6).
The daily meat offering.—Better, the continual meat offering—i.e., the morning and evening minchah (Exodus 29:38-42).
The anointing oil.—i.e., “the oil of holy ointment” with which the tent of meeting, the vessels of the Sanctuary, and the priests were to be anointed (Exodus 30:23-31).
Cut ye not off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites from among the Levites:(18) Cut ye not off the tribe . . . —The word shebet (tribe) is here used in a very peculiar sense, and denotes one division only of the tribe of Levi. In this and the following verses the injunction already given (Numbers 5:15) is renewed, and Moses and Aaron are charged not to be guilty of such negligence in respect of it as might expose the Kohathites to death in consequence of their unlawful treatment of the holy things. Moses and Aaron might be said to do that which would be the result of their negligence. In like manner St. Paul enjoins the Roman Christians in these words: “Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15).
But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die.(20) But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered.—Better, But they shall not go in to see the holy things (or, the sanctuary) for a moment. The Levites were not per-mitted to enter the holy place in which the priests ministered, much less the Holy of Holies. Whether this rule was or was not relaxed at the time of the removal of the Tabernacle, as the prohibition against entrance into the Holy of Holies must have been in regard to the priests, the Levites were not permitted in any case to look upon the Ark and the other holy things until they were covered.
And they shall bear the curtains of the tabernacle, and the tabernacle of the congregation, his covering, and the covering of the badgers' skins that is above upon it, and the hanging for the door of the tabernacle of the congregation,(25) And the tabernacle of the congregation.—Better, And the tent of meeting. The mishkan or dwelling-place is distinguished in Numbers 3:25 from the ohel or tent which covered it. The curtains of the mishkan are represented in Exodus 26:6 as constituting the mishkan itself, the woodwork being apparently regarded as subsidiary to the curtains. These curtains were of fine-twined linen, while the curtains of the ohel or tent were of goats’ hair (Exodus 26:1; Exodus 26:7).
His covering.—i.e., the covering of rams’ skins, which is here distinguished from the outer covering of badgers’ skins (Exodus 26:14).
And the hanging for the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.—Better, the hanging (or covering) for the entrance of the tent of meeting (Exodus 26:36).
And the hangings of the court, and the hanging 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 all that is made for them: so shall they serve.(26) Which is by the tabernacle and by the altar round about.—Or, which are . . . The curtains or hangings enclosed the whole of the court.
This is the service of the families of the sons of Gershon in the tabernacle of the congregation: and their charge shall be under the hand of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest.(28) Under the hand of Ithamar.—It appears from Exodus 38:21 that Ithamar had been actively concerned in the construction of the Tabernacle. As the special duties of Eleazar, the eldest son of Aaron, had been already assigned (Numbers 4:16), so also are those of Ithamar, the younger son. These duties consisted in the superintendence of the Gershonites, as stated in this verse, and in the superintendence of the Merarites, as stated in Numbers 4:33.
And this is the charge of their burden, according to all their service in the tabernacle of the congregation; the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and sockets thereof,(31) The boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof . . . —The duty of the Merarites was to carry the heavier and more cumbersome parts of the Tabernacle and the court; and it is probably on this account that, in their case, the specific duties of each were assigned to them by name (Numbers 4:32). The description of the several portions of the Tabernacle and Court here enumerated is found in Exodus 26, 36.
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 reckon the instruments of the charge of their burden.(32) Ye shall reckon.—Better, ye shall assign or appoint. (See Note on the preceding verse.)
Even those that were numbered of them, were eight thousand and five hundred and fourscore.(48) Eight thousand and five hundred and fourscore.—This number of men between the ages of twenty and fifty bears a just proportion to that of all the males from a month old and upwards—viz., 22,000.