Good morning! Today’s passage (Numbers 3-4) gives much more detailed instructions about the organization of the Levites, to accompany the description of the other tribes in yesterday’s reading.
Chapter 3 continues the formulaic and hierarchical style that biblical scholars have come to identify as a “Priestly” writer. Everything and everyone has its proper place in this understanding. If I understand the hierarchy right, it’s that Moses (with no descendants) is the head of Aaron, Aaron is the head of the priests , and the priests are the head of the Levites (through Aaron’s son Eleazar), and the Levites are the head of the rest of the Israelites. In addition to listing the various clans of the Levites, this chapter also gives the placement of each clan around the tabernacle and what piece of it each clan is responsible for. Note that Moses, Aaron and the rest of the priests are located just east of the tabernacle—the side closest to the rising sun, and the side typically associated with the divine presence. Note also that the Levites are understood to take the place of sacrificed firstborns from all the Israelites, and Levitical animals take the place of sacrificed firstborn animals. This is a Priestly attempt to resist the impulse to sacrifice firstborns, which was at least sometimes part of the custom for the Hebrews and other cultures in that region.
Leviticus 4 digs deeper into the genealogy and clan structure of the Levites, identifying the Kohathites, Gershonites and Merarites—each a clan supposedly descended from one of the sons of Levi. Remember that if we were trying to fit this genealogy into the original Genesis family of Jacob we would presume that over many years as slaves in Egypt, each tribal descendant carefully maintained knowledge of tribe and kin so that they could be easily separated into all these tribes and clans over a hundred years later. This seems unbelievable to me, since it’s hard enough to track genealogy back a hundred years now, and we have a highly-developed culture of writing and record-keeping. Regardless, each clan is given a discrete task to do regarding what they will take down, carry, and set-up when moving the tabernacle. Extra special care is to be exercised by the Kohathites who have responsibility for moving the Ark of the Covenant, because handling holy things is deadly business. (We’ll read later stories of what happens when it’s treated with anything less than utmost reverence.) Combining the intricate organization of the Levite clans around the tabernacle with the surrounding arrangement of all the tribes in chapters 2-3 from yesterday gives the impression of the Hebrew community as a meticulous organization that moves with clockwork precision. Can you picture it?? Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Numbers 5-6. Thanks for reading!