From Slaves to Soldiers

Chapter 4

The standard pattern in Hebrew prose is a movement from the general to the specific, from the broad to the particular. This is demonstrated in chapters 1-4 of Numbers. The chapters have moved from the nation as a whole to the particular families of the one tribe that has the responsibility to maintain the symbols of Israel’s worship of Yahweh. Each chapter gets narrower in focus, with the central emphasis on the worship of Yahweh at the Tent of Meeting.

Yahweh told Moses to take a special census of the Levites, but this time he was to count those aged between thirty and fifty. The men selected for service were in the full maturity of their physical powers. Such men were needed, because the labor of the Levites would be difficult and demanding during the movements of the Israelites. It would be the men in this age group who did the actual work. The work detailed here concerned taking down the tabernacle and packing it for transport. Moses was to start with the Kohathites – all (the host צָבָא usually signified military service but was used here with special reference to the service of the Levites as those in active duty for Yahweh – a holy warfare[1], and a sacred charge) who entered the ministry to work in the Tent of Meeting. Thiers was a demanding and strenuous service. The Kohathites were in charge of the most holy things and when the camp was ready to move out Aaron and his sons, who were Kohathites and priests, were to go in and take down and pack the furniture and other sacred articles, because even the Kohathites who carried them were not allowed to see or touch them. A covering of soft cloth protected the articles from scratching, and a further covering of animal skin protected them from the weather. All articles were carried on either poles or boards. The chest had a special outer covering of blue over the chest that made it stunningly evident in the march. When the men from the tribe of Kohath came in they would not see the Chest of Atonement (the Ark of the Covenant), the table of bread, or the lamp. Aaron and his sons were to cover all these things, wrap them up, get them ready to carry and then the Kohathites who weren’t priests would come in and pick up the poles for transporting them and carry them without ever touching the instruments themselves. The priests were even instructed that the color of cloth that was to cover the table and its contents should be scarlet[2]. The bread was to be left on the table because it represented communion between Yahweh and his people – and that didn’t ever end, nor was it ever interrupted for travel. A blue[3] cloth was to cover the lampstand and its paraphernalia as was the gold altar. The cloths were covered with the skins to keep the dampness off and what couldn’t be transported with the poles alone was put on carrying frames. The ashes were to be removed and covered with a purple[4] cloth, placed on it all the articles used in ministering at the Altar covered with dolphin skins and carried by the poles.

The Levites needed to have a humble spirit. They were to bear and regard the sacred furnishings with respect. Prying curiosity was utterly and sternly prohibited. The paraphernalia of the sanctuary was always concealed from the Levites. The Holy of holies was a secret place where the priests could not enter. And even the high priest could only enter once a year after meticulous and meaningful groundwork. The human eye cannot see certain things – some realms in the universe are accessible only to Yahweh. Yahweh has to maintain reverence of holy things in men’s hearts because the corrupted human heart has a tendency to despise anything that is common. Therefore, we must be careful that nothing we do could make our own service for our God fruitless or bring it into contempt. Service to Yahweh should always be a thing of beauty like the God we represent. As children of the heavenly King – members of the royal family – we must behave ourselves with dignity and gentle power. We must display the fruit of the Spirit no matter what the situation we are faced with. We must let joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, and meekness rule every situation life offers us and obey Yahweh’s command to subdue and have dominion over our environment.

Yahweh told Moses and Aaron not to let anyone be destroyed from among the Levites but to protect them so they would live and not die when they came near the most holy things. To protect them Aaron, and his sons were to precede them into the Sanctuary and assign each man his task and what he was to carry. However, the Kohathites themselves were not to go in to look at the holy things, Yahweh told them not to even glance at them, or they would die. The priests prepared everything in the Tent of Meeting and the other Kohathites transported them without touching them. Aaron’s eldest surviving son Eleazar was in charge of all the Levites and supervised the work. He supervised the work of the Kohathites, since they carried the most holy things. Yahweh made special mention of the light, the fragrant incense, the regular Grain-Offering, and the anointing oil.

  1. Young pointed out that as the tribes had their appointed place around the tabernacle, and the three great natural divisions of the tribe of Levi had their appointed place in it. In the same way, our service to our Mashiach, Yeshua, corresponds to the division of the Levites. Yahweh has appointed some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers. No Levite could do the work of an anointed priest. The Kohathites were to bear the things of the holy place, but they were not to see them or prepare them for removal. There was a gulf of difference between Aaron and the noblest of the Kohathites, though they belonged to the same tribe. In the same way there is a difference between Yeshua ha Mashiach and even the best of his people. There is so much to link us to him, so much which reveals him as walking about on the same level, that we cannot be too careful to remember the differences between our services and the glorious peculiar service where Mashiach is Priest and Atonement in one[5].

Gershom was Levi’s oldest son. Yahweh told Moses to number the Gershonite men, from the age of thirty to fifty who would minister at the Tent of Meeting, by their tribes according to their ancestral families. They were to serve by carrying the heavy loads. The priest, Ithamar – Aaron’s son – was to supervise Gershom’s descendants and give them their assignments for lifting, carrying, and moving the substantial curtains of the Sanctuary and the Tent of Meeting, the four heavy coverings[6], the thick screens, the cords of pure gold, and the service equipment. Yahweh instructed the priest to assign each man specific items to carry.

Yahweh’s instructions for numbering and giving assignments of the Merarites corresponded to his instructions for the other two segments of the tribe of Levi. He assigned the frames of the dwelling to them along with its posts, crossbars, bases, and the equipment used to form the cloth wall that surrounded the outer courtyard and everything related to their use. Ithamar also supervised the Merarites service for Yahweh. The Merarites were in charge of not only the heaviest and most cumbersome things, but also some little things that the narrator especially mentioned. The completeness and perfection of great things is impossible apart from due attention to little things.

Yahweh is a God of specific details. He made allowance in the firstborn, and gave duties to all of the sons of Levi, instead of having the random firstborn of all of the tribes of Israel doing the work of the Sanctuary. He is also interested in all of the details of your life and my life. We are each a priest of the Living God and have work to do for him. He is interested in the work that he ordains us individually to do and has equipped us to do what he asks us to do through the gifts of his Spirit. We are his workmanship, created in Yeshua ha Mashiach for the good works he created us to do in the beginning[7]. We are being equipped as living stones in the building up of the body of Christ[8].

The total from the Kohathite clans who served in the Tent of Meeting on behalf of all the Israelites was about 2,750 not including the priestly family.

Moses, Aaron, and the leaders of Israel counted all the Levites by clan and family. All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to do the work of serving and carrying the Tent of Meeting numbered 8,580. Yahweh gave the command through Moses and they assigned each man his work and told him what to carry.

Summary of chapter 4

The Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites each had their service and burden. There is no human life in this world without burdens of some nature and extent. It is not simply always noticeable when someone is distressed, suffering, or saddled with problems. If we could read the inner history of the people whose life seems most pleasant, prosperous, and favored, we would find some secret sorrow, anxiety, or life-long disappointment. There is no sunshine without its shadow, no happy family without its trial or sorrow, and no individual life without a burden of some kind or other. All humans have burdens; but not all burdens are the same. The Kohathites’ duty and burden was “the most holy things,” consisting of the furniture of the sanctuary. The Gershonites duty and burden was the transport of the hanging, curtains, and coverings of the tabernacle, with “their cords, and all the instruments of their service.” The Merarites had the responsibility of the pillars, boards, bars, sockets, and the more solid parts of the tabernacle. The burden of the Merarites was much heavier than that of either the Kohathites or Gershonites but Yahweh directed them all. None of the burdens of human life falls by chance or accident. Yahweh is not the author of the burdens. Pain and poverty, sorrow and trial, are the offspring of sin. Nevertheless, Yahweh does regulate the burdens of humans. No trial happens to us without his consent, and he controls the extent and severity of every trial. Yahweh equipped the Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites to do the work he assigned to them and he will give you and me today the strength and ability to stay close to him and reflect his character to the world around us whether we are going through flood and fire, or floating on flowery beds of ease.

Prayer: Lord, you did not promise days without pain, laughter without sorrow, or sunshine without rain; but you did promise strength for the day, comfort for the tears, and light for the way. I have had many tears and sorrows, I have had questions for tomorrow, there have been times I did not know right from wrong. But in every situation, you gave me blessed consultation, that my trials come to only make me strong. Through it all, I have learned to trust you -more and more I have learned to trust in you. Through it all, I have learned to depend upon your Word. I have been to lots of places, I have seen many faces, there have been times I felt so all alone. But in my lonely hours, yes, those precious lonely hours, you let me know that I am your own. I thank you for the mountains, and I thank you for the valleys, I thank you for the storms you brought me through. For if I’d never had a problem, I wouldn’t know that you could solve them, I’d never know what faith in you could do[9].



Things to think about

  1. What shows that the central emphasis in the first 4 chapters of numbers is on the worship of Yahweh at the Tent of Meeting?
  2. What was the difference between the two censuses of the Levites?
  3. What was the significance of the word “host: in relation to the Levits?
  4. What can we learn about Yahweh from the information that the Kohathites who carried the “most holy” things could not look at them?
  5. What was the significance of the colors of the cloths that covered the items from the Tent of Meeting?
  6. What do you think humility has to do with Divine service?
  7. How does all the information about the duties of the Levites relate to you and me?



[1] II Corinthians 10:3-6 “The world is unprincipled. It’s dog-eat-dog out there! The world doesn’t fight fair. But we don’t live or fight our battles that way—never have and never will. The tools of our trade aren’t for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture. We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.”

[2] Blood, suffering, and sacrifice

[3] Holy Spirit, authority

[4] Royalty, wealth, prosperity



[7] Ephesians 2:1

[8] Ephesians 4:12

[9] From a song by Andrae Crouch