The Lord gives the Levitical Families specific assignments pertaining to their tabernacle service.
The focus now turns to the three Levitical families and their responsibilities. The clans are listed; not by their birth order, but by the sanctity of the objects they oversaw. The many details here stress that God wanted to emphasize the holiness and sacredness of the contents of the sanctuary.
Levitical Families Duties of the Sons of Kohath
Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: “Take a census of the sons of Kohath from among the children of Levi, by their families, by their fathers’ house, from thirty years old and above, even to fifty years old, all who enter the service to do the work in the tabernacle of meeting.
“This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tabernacle of meeting, relating to the most holy things: When the camp prepares to journey, Aaron and his sons shall come, and they shall take down the covering veil and cover the ark of the Testimony with it. Then they shall put on it a covering of badger skins, and spread over that a cloth entirely of blue; and they shall insert its poles.
Numbers 4:1-6 (NKJV)
The Lord did not delegate to Moses or Israel the privilege of self-organization, at least in broader terms. Although the two brothers, Moses and Aaron, do figure prominently as servants and spokesmen for Yahweh, they were to enact only what the Lord said. Here they are to take a census. The census of the present chapter both complements and differs from the one in preceding chapter. The first census pertained to general duties of the Levitical families, and it registered all males one month old and above. The present census enrolled all males from thirty to fifty years of age who come to serve in the work in the Tent of Meeting. Harrison describes these as “working Levites”.
We might describe the Kohathite family as the elite family among the Levitical families. To the Kohath tribe fell the responsibility of guarding, maintaining, and transporting the sacred furniture of the tabernacle, or most holy things.
The Lord first gave the Kohathites directions for transporting the furniture of the tabernacle. Only the priests (or Aaron and his sons) were to venture into the holy places of the tabernacle. Once there, they were first to cover the sacred vessels such as the ark of the Testimony. The cover was made out an animal skin over which went another blue cloth. Apparently the carrying poles remained in the vessels at all times (see Exod. 25:15; 1 Kings 8:8).
“On the table of showbread they shall spread a blue cloth, and put on it the dishes, the pans, the bowls, and the pitchers for pouring; and the showbread shall be on it. They shall spread over them a scarlet cloth, and cover the same with a covering of badger skins; and they shall insert its poles. And they shall take a blue cloth and cover the lampstand of the light, with its lamps, its wick-trimmers, its trays, and all its oil vessels, with which they service it. Then they shall put it with all its utensils in a covering of badger skins, and put it on a carrying beam.
“Over the golden altar they shall spread a blue cloth, and cover it with a covering of badger skins; and they shall insert its poles. Then they shall take all the utensils of service with which they minister in the sanctuary, put them in a blue cloth, cover them with a covering of badger skins, and put them on a carrying beam. Also they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it. They shall put on it all its implements with which they minister there—the firepans, the forks, the shovels, the basins, and all the utensils of the altar—and they shall spread on it a covering of badger skins, and insert its poles. And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is set to go, then the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them; but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die.
“These are the things in the tabernacle of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry.
“The appointed duty of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest is the oil for the light, the sweet incense, the daily grain offering, the anointing oil, the oversight of all the tabernacle, of all that is in it, with the sanctuary and its furnishings.”
Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: “Do not cut off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites from among the Levites; but do this in regard to them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint each of them to his service and his task. But they shall not go in to watch while the holy things are being covered, lest they die.”
Numbers 4:7-20 (NKJV)
The Kohathites were to employ a similar procedure for the table of the Presence with the special provision that the bread was to remain on the table even during transport. They were likewise to cover the lampstand and its accessories with a blue cloth and animal skin (leather).
Next the men were to place a similar cover over the gold altar, or altar of incense, along with any remaining articles used in the sanctuary service. To aid the transporting of the latter, they used a carrying frame.
Although the bread was to remain on the table during the journeys that followed, the Kohathites were allowed to clean the ashes from the bronze altar of sacrifice. The altar utensils went with the altar wherever it traveled and were wrapped in leather.
The final note to this family came as a reminder and a warning. Only the qualified Kohathite men could handle the sacred furniture of the tabernacle, but even they could neither touch nor even look upon those items if the priests did not first properly cover them. Should they violate this last they would have to pay with their lives.
The Moody Bible Commentary
Holman Old Testament Commentary – Numbers