Friday, June 26
Leviticus 24: The material in this chapter is varied, including both rubrics (verses 1-9) and even a narrative with a legislative and penal purpose (verses 10-23). Moreover, the material in this section interrupts what would seem to be a logical transition from the annual calendar in chapter 23 and the multi-annual calendar in chapter 25. For this reason some have suggested that this chapter was inserted at a later stage in the Bible’s textual history.
Although reasonable as a conjecture, this suggestion does not explain why such an insertion was made at precisely this improbable place in the text. That is to say, why should we presume that an unexpected lack of logical sequence in the text comes from a later hand? Why presume that all unexpected components in the text were added later? If someone is to blame for a perceived failure to respect the sequence, why must this alleged person be later than the original writer?
It may be the case that the reflections on time in chapter 23 prompted attention to the lighting of the vigil lamps, which served to measure time, in this chapter (verses 2-4). If this is the case, the present text need not have come from a different hand.
From a consideration of the vigil lamps the author proceeds to another point of regular observance, the Bread of the Presence (lehem happanim), which was set out continually, like the vigil lamps, “before the Face of the Lord” (verses 5-9). This bread, distributed in twelve loaves to represent Israel’s twelve tribes, symbolized the unity of God’s Holy People. The bread was set out every Sabbath, the older loaves being eaten by the priestly family. We further note that this bread pertained to the “everlasting covenant.”
The Christian reader of this text may reflect that for many centuries it has been customary in Christian parish churches to preserve on the altar both a burning lamp and the Eucharist Bread of the Presence.
Suddenly in verses 10-16 these rubrics are interrupted by a narrative that introduces another point of the moral law, namely blasphemy. This seemingly disparate element is actually related to the theme of the Lord’s holiness in a particularly striking way. This is the sole narrative in the Holiness Code.
Since the offender in this story was partly a foreigner, the Sacred Text goes on to stipulate that Israel’s law of retribution pertains also to foreigners who live in their midst (verses 17-22). This connection is demonstrated in the fact that the narrative itself is not completed until after these stipulations (verse 23).
Saturday, June 27
Leviticus 25: According to a prescribed hierarchy of time, both the land and the ownership of the land were to be given a regular season of rest and restoration, these periods of rest in analogy to the weekly day of rest provided for the people and animals that worked the land. Thus, every field was to be given a rest during every seventh year, a period called the “sabbatical year,” or “year of Sabbath” (verses 2-7). In addition, every year following seven-times-seven years (that is, 49 years) was the period when every field must be returned to the ownership of the family to whose inheritance it originally belonged. This fiftieth year of restoration was called the Jubilee (verses 8-55). Both of these customs served to remind Israel that they land belonged to God, and they themselves were only given the use of it (verse 23).
In the custom of the sabbatical year the Israelites were to learn that the land must not be fully exploited. That is to say, the land had an existence of its own. It did not exist solely for human exploitation (verses 4-5). Israelite history indicates that these provisions were sometimes ignored (26:34-35; Jeremiah 34:4), as were nearly all the provisions of the Mosaic Law. In times of religious renewal, nonetheless, the rule of the sabbatical year was taken seriously and restored (cf. Nehemiah 10:31; 1 Maccabees 6:49,53).
As for the difficulty and potential danger incurred by letting the land lie fallow for a year, God’s people were to trust in His provision for those who obey Him (verses 18-22).
The Fiftieth Year, the year of the restoration of property, was called the Jubilee, a name derived from the ram’s horn (yobel) that was blown to mark it (verse 9). It is worth observing that this year began on the Feast of the Atonement, a fact suggesting how the first day of the year, Rosh Hashanah, eventually became identified with the autumnal feast that we examined in 23:23-25.
The Jubilee was the occasion on which all alienated farmland and village homes, whether held in surety or in payment of a debt, was to be returned to the family that originally inherited it. Ideally, thus, no family could lose its proper inheritance for more than half a century. This humane and democratic provision guaranteed a certain measure of political and social equality. In an era when all wealth was based on the holding of real estate, no family could become too poor, nor any family too rich, if all real estate had to revert to its original owner within fifty years. The land would necessarily be divided according to a rough equality, and hence wealth would be divided in the same way. This was the reason that respect for inherited family property would mean so much to the Bible’s social prophets, such as Elijah (1 Kings 21:1-19) and Micah (Mica 2:2).
The Jubilee rule pertained only to inherited pasture, farmland, woods, and village homes, not to property in walled cities (verses 29-30). Special provision was made for the Levites, who did not inherit land separately, as did the other tribes (verses 32-34).
Besides the land, the law of the Jubilee pertained to the freedom of those whom poverty had forced into slavery (verses 35-43). The people, like the land, belonged to the Lord (verse 55).
Sunday, June 28
Leviticus 26: Here at the end of the Code of Holiness come the blessings promised to those who observe these statutes (verses 3-13) and the curses of those who don’t (verses 14-39). The repetition of the hypothetical “if” (’im), found eight times in this chapter, shows hat the decision is still in doubt.
The blessings and curses are preceded by an introductory admonition about idolatry and the Sabbath (verses 1-2).
The promised blessings have to do with agriculture, the tilling of the Land of Promise (verses 3-5), peace (verse 6), victory in battle (verses 7-8), offspring and prosperity (verses 9-10), and the continued presence of God in fidelity to His covenant (verses 11-13). These blessings are conditioned on a double “if” (verse 3). This section begins with Israel “walking” in the Lord’s commandments and finishes by the Lord “walking” in the midst of Israel (verses 3,12).
On the other hand, if Israel walks contrary to God, God will walk contrary to Israel (verses 21,23,27,28). The curses, which occupy a list much longer and more detailed, are arranged in an ever more emphatic progression, from sickness, sorrow, and hunger (verse 16), to foreign occupation (verse 17), famine (verse 20), and then all of these plagues together (verses 23-26). Israel will be punished sevenfold for its offenses (verses 18,21,24,28).
The curses begin with Israel not hearkening to God (verses 14,18,21,27) and end with God not hearkening to Israel. Instead of the abundant harvest of the Promised Land, the people will be reduced to such penury that they will resort to cannibalism (verse 29; cf; Deuteronomy 28:53; 2 Kings 6:28-30; Jeremiah 19:9; Ezekiel 5:10).
After this, Israel will be carried away into exile from the Land itself (verse 33). Taking an image from the previous chapter, the Lord threatens to place the whole Promised Land into an indefinite Sabbath (verses 34-35). Instead of eating in the Promised Land, Israel will be consumed in a foreign land (verse 38).
If, finally, Israel repents, the Lord will remember His
covenant (verses 40-42), and Israel will be restored (verse 44; Ezekiel 16:53-63).
Monday, June 29
Leviticus 27: This appendix to the Code of Holiness treats of substitutions and redemptions for offerings vowed to the Lord. Such offerings might include a person’s labor for the service of the sanctuary, to be redeemed for a price commensurate with the age and condition of the person (verses 1-8).
Such offerings also included animals, certainly, greater value attaching to those animals appropriate for sacrifice (verses 9-13). Indeed, these latter could not be redeemed at all.
Property of all kinds could be vowed, particularly real estate. As in the case of an unclean animal, such property could be redeemed at the increase of a double tithe (one-fifth) of its value (verses 14-16,19). Since such an offering of property involved an alienation of it, the actual worth of the offering was affected by the date of the next jubilee year (verses 17,18,21,23,24).
Firstborn animals, belonging to the Lord as a matter of course, could not be redeemed if they were animals fit for sacrifice. In the case of other animals, redemption was based on the same double-tithe we saw in the case of property (verse 27).
Finally, all goods wee to be tithed for the sake of the worship, the support of its ministers (verses 31-33; Numbers 18:21,24), and the care of the poor (Deuteronomy 26:12).
Tuesday, June 30
Numbers 1: Here begins the first census in the Book of Numbers (chapters 1 through 4). These opening verses (1-16) provide the list of leaders, from each tribe, who will supervise the first census.
Like the bible's various prophetic books, Numbers begins with a precise chronological reference that contains no fewer than three ordinal numbers: “Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai in the tabernacle of testimony, on the first day of the second month in the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt” (verse 1).
The book begins, then, with a date, indicating that thirteen months have elapsed since the first Passover.
The second verse, in turn, requires a census, a counting “according to the number of their names” (bemispar shemoth). Verse 3 then specifies the ages by the computation of the years, “from twenty years old and above.” Thus, there are three different uses of numbers in the first three verses of this book, and a sustained interest in calculation sets its tone.
After these introductory verses, the rest of the chapter has three parts: first, a list of the tribal leaders who will conduct the survey of the tribes (verses 5-19; second, the results of the survey itself (verses 20-46); third, an explanation why the Levites are not included in this census (verses 47-54).
The large and central part of this chapter is first census, which is a clearly made for military purposes, since it concentrates on the males eligible for warfare.
Besides this practical function served by this census, it is legitimate to inquire about the theological significance of the book’s beginning with four whole chapters dedicated to this theme. Why does the Word of God go to the trouble of providing a list of the totals of each of Israel’s tribes? If, as the Apostle says, all these things were written for our instruction, what lesson did the Holy Spirit intend when He caused these lists to be recorded three millennia ago?
I believe we may consider three points in this respect:
First, this opening census confirms a truth about the biblical God—namely, that He accounts for all things. If not a sparrow falls to the ground without His notice, certainly He knows each Israelite that faltered in the wilderness. This census, accordingly, is a record of His judgments, and as such it symbolizes and prefigures the inspection to be made at the end of time, when the thrones are set and the books are opened.
Second, these numbers of the various tribes serve to memorialize those who perished in the Wilderness. The God who numbers the very hairs of our heads did not permit to be obliterated from memory those who had witnessed His wonders in Egypt and Sinai. They were, after all, the eye-witnesses of the great deeds of Redemption, the magnalia Dei: the plagues visited on Egypt, the deliverance at the Red Sea, the giving of the Law, the falling of the Manna, and all the rest. This was the people that saw the Nile turned to blood, and whose nostrils were offended by the rotting carcasses of a million frogs. These were the people—recorded by their fathers’ houses—that observed the first Passover in the land of their captivity.
Although these six hundred thousand were counted unworthy to enter the Promised Land, the Lord in His mercy deigned to enter them into the Sacred Scriptures.
Third, these lists serve to replace the tombstones of those who died in the desert. Though they all lay in myriad unmarked tombs, their memory is enshrined here in letters more lasting than stone. During the more than three thousand years that have elapsed since the last of them succumbed to the heat and fatigue of the wilderness, their memory has survived through the patient labor of Jewish and Christian copyists.
Thus, the reader of the Book of Numbers enters this story, as it were, through the arched gateway of a cemetery, to stroll among the tombs and observe this vast company at rest in their serried ranks. If he reads the text closely, he may hear the voice of the recording angel, who reports to the Almighty, “All present and accounted for, Sir.”
In the final part of the chapter (verses 47-54) Moses is instructed not to calculate the house of Levi with the rest of the tribes, because they are not to fight within the army. The Levites will have a census of their own in chapter 3.
It is traditional to see in these verses the origin of the custom of clerical exemption from military service, an exemption naturally giving rise to moral reflections on the incompatibility of the military and clerical professions. To assess the value and pertinence of such reflections, it will be useful to look at certain features of this exemption:
First, the reason given for releasing the ministers of the altar from military service is the fact that they are already occupied with carrying the tabernacle and its appurtenances, chiefly the Ark of the Covenant. As the soldiers march with their weapons in hand, the priestly tribe is busy handling the instruments of worship and sacrifice.
As we shall see in the next chapter, the tabernacle of testimony is to be borne in the very center of the marching troop, and the Levites are to surround it as a sort of cordon of protection. They are not armed, but they are charged with protecting this very center of Israel’s life and identity.
This “clerical exemption” from military service is, therefore, a symbolic provision, indicating the correct structure and order of Israel’s existence. It is literally hieratic in nature, expressing less an ethical principle than a sacramental intuition.
Second, because of its sacramental symbolism, the clerical exemption from combat is far from absolute in practice. Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this limitation comes during the period of the Maccabees, when a priestly family actually leads the forces of Israel against its oppressors.
Third, although the Levites were not charged to fight against Israel’s enemies, they certainly do, on occasion, fight against the Israelites! Indeed, the Book of Exodus already told how, in the incident of the golden calf, the Levites slaughtered a large number of their fellow citizens in order to preserve the moral integrity of the people (32:26-29), and in chapter 25 of the present book Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, will lead a similar bloody assault for the same purpose. Indeed, the second census will not be conducted until after that purging. Thus, the biblical exemption of the Levites from military service in no way suggests so
me affinity between the clerical ministry and pacifism.
Indeed, the memory of Levi himself would render such an affinity improbable. We recall that he was a patriarch overly disposed to spill blood (Genesis 34:25-31). At the very end of his life, Jacob lamented the bellicose disposition of Levi and Simeon (Genesis 49:5-7). In sum, there is scant biblical evidence for the suggestion that “priests don’t fight.”
Wednesday, July 1
Numbers 2: As the Israelite tribes journeyed through the wilderness, they really marched. Which is to say, they walked in martial ranks, both of these words derived from the name Mars, the Roman god of war. We speak of that era as a period of “wandering” in the desert, but this wandering was marked by an internal structure of great cohesion and purpose. The wandering Israelites were—as God's people must ever be—a company of warriors.
Consequently, the organization of Israel in the desert was arranged along martial lines, an arrangement that should not surprise us, in light of the military interest of the census in the preceding chapter. As in any military expedition, it was imperative to know just where the various forces were stationed and where it was feasible, if need be, to deploy them. We find this imperative at play in the present chapter.
Indeed, it seems to have been the major determining factor of Israel's physical organization. Whereas the previous chapter had recorded the troop strength of each tribe, the present chapter strategically distributes that strength. In addition, each tribe was answerable to a single commander, identified in every instance (verses 3,5,7,10,12,14,18,20,22,25,27,29). No good military leader would be satisfied with less organization.
The military formation was elaborate: The Tabernacle of God's presence, Israel's theological hearth, was placed in the center (verse 2), and around it all the tribes were gathered in assort of square, for its protection (Compare Ezekiel 48:30-35). The priests and Levites, naturally, were positioned nearest to the Tabernacle, the care of the latter being their chief charge.
In fact, the strategic position of each large unit was made visible by its corresponding ensign, each of which served as a symbol of every soldier's position and direction on the field (verses 2,3,10,17,18,25,31,34; cf. 1:52). Later rabbinic sources suggested attractive features of these flags. Thus, Ibn Ezra pictured each flag as bearing an image symbolic of a particular tribe, much as we find in Jacob’s prophecies in Genesis 49: a lion for Judah, a serpent for Dan, a ship for Zebulon, and so forth. Equally attractive was Rashi’s suggestion that the colors of the flags corresponded to the twelve precious stones on the pectoral mounting worn by the high priest. He also cited older Jewish sources, according to whom the twelve tribes took the same formation around the Tabernacle as their corresponding Twelve Patriarchs assumed when they carried the funeral bier of Jacob.
As the people marched eastward, with the entrance of the Tabernacle facing forward, the foremost troop was formed by the largest of the tribes, Judah, flanked by Zebulon and Issachar (verses 3-9). Directly behind this large formation marched Aaron and the other priests, forming the immediate front guard of the Tabernacle (3:38).
To the south of the Tabernacle, forming the right flank of Israel’s total force, were placed the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Simeon (verses 10-16). To their immediate left, forming the southern guard of the Tabernacle, marched the Koathite Levites (3:29).
To the west, directly behind the Tabernacle, were the Gershomite Levites (3:23), behind whom marched, as the rear guard of the whole force, the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin (verses 18-24).
On the north side, forming the left flank of Israel’s force, were the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, and Asher (verses 25-31), directly south of whom, guarding the north side of the Tabernacle, marched the Merarite Levites (3:35).
If the overall arrangement of Israel served a military purpose, this arrangement did not exclude further theological considerations. Among the tribes, such a consideration is arguably clearest in the case of Judah, destined to be the royal tribe (Genesis 49:8-12), from which, in due course, the Messiah would come. Judah, accordingly, is placed to the east (verse 3), the direction of the rising sun, blessed with its myriad attendant symbolisms.
Thursday, July 2
Numbers 3: We may distinguish four parts in the present chapter: First, there is a small listing of the Aaronic family itself, the priestly household, to whose service the rest of the Levitical tribe is assigned (verses 1-4). Second, there is a general description of the duties of the Levites (verses 5-13). Third comes an initial and large census of the tribe of Levi verses 14-39). Fourth, there is given an outline for the financial provision for the Levites (verses 40-51).
In this chapter too, of course, the preoccupation is with “numbers” (verses 15,16,22,28,34,39,40,42), a preoccupation carried over, at the end, to financial considerations (verses 47-50).
First, this chapter speaks of Aaron’s sons (verses 1-4), a discourse that must include, and even start with, the tragedy attendant on the unfaithful ministry of the two oldest of those sons, Nadab and Abihu (verse 4), whose sin is recounted in Leviticus 10:1-2 and Numbers 26:61. This tragedy was a very sobering experience for Israel and served to brace the spirits of the remaining priests. For instance, when we consider the later zeal of Phineas the nephew of Nadab and Abihu, it is reasonable to think that zeal to come, in part at least, from his fearful reaction to the tragedy of his uncles. In any case, Nadab and Abihu died without offspring, leaving only Eleazar and Ithamar to carry on the Aaronic line.
We recall that Nadab and Abihu perished for their failure to observe the correct ritual. They had done a thing “unauthorized” (zara). Their punishment stands as a perpetual warning with respect to the Lord’s views on private liturgical innovation. The Levites’ custody of the instruments of worship (verse 10) was intended to guarantee that that sort of thing did not happen again.
An important aspect of this ministry is that of custodianship (shamar mishmeret, “guard duty”) over the precincts of the sanctuary. Indeed, this component of the ordained ministry remains perpetually valid for the People of God, those charged to stand guard over the gifts of God. These gifts include, first of all, the Gospel itself, which must be protected against heresy, but also included are the Sacraments and the actual texts of Holy Scripture. During times of persecution the Christian Church sees a special malice in the sin of the traditores, those who hand over either the Sacred Scriptures, the liturgical books, or the sacred vessels of the altar to the enemies of God.
Just as the first fruits of all products pertained by right to the service of God, the sons of Levi were thought of as being the first born sons of Israel and therefore pertained entirely to God's service (verses 11-12,41,45-46). This analogy indicates that there was a sacrificial quality to the lives of those who served in the sanctuary, which was the place of sacrifice.
The Levites, the non-Aaronic members of the Levitical tribe, were “given” to assist Aaron and his sons in the ministry. This term “given,” netunim, became the name of certain ministers within the Levitical order at the time of the restoration of the Temple after the Babylonian Captivity (Ezra 2:43,58,70; 7:7,24; 8:17,20; Nehemiah 3:26,31; 7:46,60,73; 10:28; 11:3,21), but here the term appears to refer to all the Levites, who are also said to be “given” to the Lord (8:16).
The early Christians thought of their own order of deacons (diakonoi = ”servants”) as the New Testament's correspondence to
the Old Testament order of Levites (cf. Clement of Rome 40.1-5).
Third, there is the census of Levi (verses 14-39), the clerical family that marched closest to the Tabernacle of the divine presence. The census of the Levites is twofold: First, there is a counting of all the males of at least one month in age (verses 14-39), and, second, a census of those Levites, who, having reached the age of thirty, are qualified to participate in the Levitical ministry (4:1-49).
There are two reasons children are included in this initial census: First, unlike the census in the previous chapter, this census has nothing to do with military service. Second, because the tribe of Levi did not defect when all the other adults in Israel did, in the incident of the golden calf, the Levites did not fall under the “death curse” imposed on the rest of Israel’s adults. Hence, when they are counted, the children are counted too.
This initial census of the Levites divides their three groups (verse 17), assigning specific duties to each. Unlike chapter 4, which stresses the “labor” (‘aboda) of the Levites, the present census concentrates on their “guard duty” (mishmeret). Of these two censuses, the present one is the larger, since in principle all Levites stood guard. Contrast the totals of these two censuses by comparing 3:39 with 4:48.
This census first traces the descendents of Levi (verses 18-20), a lineage corresponding to Exodus 6 and later reflected in 1 Chronicles 5 and 23.
Each division of the tribe of Levi was assigned to carry and care for specified instruments for the worship in the Tabernacle (verses 25-26,31,36-37). Like the other tribes, which were divided into four groups to form a square around the Tabernacle, the sons of Levi were divided into four to form a small square inside the larger one (verses 23,29,35,38). This arrangement itself is symmetric and related to the theme of numbers.
In this last reference (verse 38) we observe that among the sons of Levi, Moses and Aaron and his sons occupied the position of honor, to the east, nearest the tribe of Judah. This arrangement would eventually be expressed by the establishment of the Temple in the tribe of Judah, so that this latter tribe, but especially its king, would become the chosen protectors of the priesthood. This will become a large theme in the Book of Chronicles.
This census reminds us that the Old Testament priesthood was one of biological inheritance, in which sons succeeded and were trained by their fathers. This ministry was one of trust and duty and included the safeguarding of the instruments and appointments for the maintenance of Israel's sacrificial cult (verse 8).
The fourth part of this chapter (verses 40-51) provides for the physical maintenance of the Levites and their families. Although this provision is set in the context of the Desert, it references to money indicates that a later setting is presumed, perhaps the period of the Judges, Saul, and David—after the Conquest but before the Temple. This is one of several places in the Pentateuch where the subject matter presupposes a social context later that Moses.
In this arrangement, the Levites are portrayed as replacing—substituting for—the firstborn sons among the other tribes. The established ransom of the firstborn sons (cf. Exodus 13:2; 22:29-30; 34:19-20; Leviticus 27:26-27) is applied to these Levites who “stand in for” them in the service of God (verses 11-13,40-43).
When the calculations are made, it is found that the sum of Israel’s firstborn sons is 273 higher that thee sum of the Levites (compare verses 39 and 43). This surplus number is taken to represent the Aaronic household (verses 44-51).
When the lives of these firstborn are “redeemed,” that redemption is calculated in terms of a tax of five shekels per head in support of the Levitical families (cf. 18:15-18). The actual value of these shekels at the time is wholly a matter of speculation, nor is there any indication how the tax was collected.
Beyond these details, the principle involved is very clear: Because the Levites ministered on behalf of Israel, Israel as a whole assumed their support as a duty. This is a highly specialized instance of what sociologists call “the division of labor”: Because the labor of the Levites, which is the detailed subject of the next chapter, removed them from the opportunity to support their families in other ways, the whole congregation of Israel was obliged to see to their sustenance.
Obviously this principle is also maintained in the New Testament ministries of the Apostles and their missionary teams (1 Corinthians 9:1-14).
Friday, July 3
Numbers 4: The duties of the Levitical ministry were apportioned among their three clans. The tasks in this chapter all had to do with carrying the Tabernacle and its myriad instruments and appointment from place to place. Each time the Israelites moved away, the Tabernacle had to be disassembled and packed up, and each time Israel arrived at a new place, it was necessary to reassemble everything again.
Accordingly, this chapter breaks into four sections. The first three treat of the duties of the three Levitical families, the heirs of Levi’s three sons: Kohath (verses 1-20), Gershon (verses 21-28), and Merari (verses 29-33). The fourth section (verses 34-49) is a summary of the Levitical census.
In the distribution of the labor, the first place is given to the Kohathites, the descendents of Levi's second son (Exodus 6:16). The primacy of this clan was surely determined by the fact that Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron, belonged to it (Exodus 6:18,20), so it was more closely related to the priestly family itself (verses 2-4).
The task of the Kohathites was to carry the sacred vessels associated immediately with the ritual of the Tabernacle. Even this, however, they were unable to do until everything had been properly wrapped and prepared by the priests themselves, according to a very detailed prescription (verses 5-14). Only under the careful supervision of Eleazar, the older of Aaron's two remaining sons, could the Kohathites presume to carry this great burden (verse 15).
The task of the sons of Kohath, then, was plain and uncomplicated: They were simply to bear the burden of Israel’s holiness, embodied in the tabernacle and its contents. Theirs was a patient labor. Indeed, they were explicitly prohibited from looking at the things they carried on their shoulders; in addition, all these things were to be covered over and concealed from view.
The Kohathites thus represent all of those human souls who bear through history the mystery of holiness that abides among the People of God. Such saints are keenly aware of the mystery they carry, even though they may spend their lives without the leisure or opportunity to gaze upon the beauty they bear. These myriad Kohathites, who carry through their lives the hidden core of God’s presence among us, form the very backbone of Christian history. Without them, in fact, there would be no Christian history, precisely because they are the ones who carry it. Without the children of Kohath, the People of God would long ago have perished in the wilderness.
The next place in the Levitical order was held by the Gershonites (verses 21-28), the descendants of Levi's eldest son, who were charged with carrying the various drapes, veils, and hangings of the Tabernacle. Ithamar, Aaron’s younger son, supervised this work.
The clan of Merari, Levi's youngest son, was to carry the more solid parts of the Tabernacle, the sections made of wood and metal (verses 29-33). This task was also to be supervised by Ithamar.
In the instructions given to the sons of Gershon and Merari, we see nothing of the sense of caution directed to the Kohathites. The reason for this is obvious: The Gershonites and Merarites carry the various components of the Tabernacle itself, not the items concealed within the Tabernacle. That is to say, the burdens carried by these two families are not dangerous to look upon; they do not represent the sacred mysteries but are simply the coverings of those mysteries. Consequently, the vocations of these two tribes are not thought of as especially “dangerous,” whereas the vocation of the Kohathites is constantly surrounded with peril.
This consideration indicates, I believe, the symbolism of the vocation of the Gershonites and Merarites: Inasmuch it stands a further step removed from proximity to what is intrinsically holy, it is safer in the sense of more secular, as it were, and less spiritual. In other words, it runs a smaller spiritual risk.
Another example of vocations may illustrate this difference: If we think of a road builder, it is obvious that his calling is spiritually less dangerous than that of a poet or musical composer. The road builder merely lays down a path over which men and their animals will walk. What he accomplishes may be—and sometimes will be—of great significance, but it does not directly touch the human soul. The musical composer and the poet, on the other hand, directly and immediately touch the human soul. They give structure to the way human beings look at the world, thus conferring shape to the spiritual shape to those who listen to their poetry and music.
The same distinction is discernible if we compare the vocations of the teacher and the longshoreman. The teacher may be damned forever to hell for offenses a longshoreman will never be in a position to commit.
In summary, the more “spiritual” a person’s calling, the greater spiritual risk he runs. By such a standard, the most dangerous vocations in the world are those of governing and pastoring. This is why ancient thinkers, from the likes of Cicero and St. John Chrysostom, were careful to caution those who would either govern or pastor.
After the duties of each of the Levitical clans are listed, the fourth and final part of this chapter (verses 34-49) gives the census of each clan and the total of all of them.