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Numbers 4:1-15

Context
The Service of the Kohathites

4:1 1 Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 4:2 “Take a census 2  of the Kohathites from among the Levites, by their families and by their clans, 4:3 from thirty years old and upward to fifty years old, all who enter the company 3  to do the work in the tent of meeting. 4:4 This is the service of the Kohathites in the tent of meeting, relating to the most holy things. 4  4:5 When it is time for the camp to journey, 5  Aaron and his sons must come and take down the screening curtain and cover the ark of the testimony with it. 4:6 Then they must put over it a covering of fine leather 6  and spread over that a cloth entirely of blue, and then they must insert its poles.

4:7 “On the table of the presence 7  they must spread a blue 8  cloth, and put on it the dishes, the pans, the bowls, and the pitchers for pouring, and the Bread of the Presence must be on it continually. 4:8 They must spread over them a scarlet cloth, and cover the same with a covering of fine leather; and they must insert its poles.

4:9 “They must 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. 4:10 Then they must put it with all its utensils in a covering of fine leather, and put it on a carrying beam. 9 

4:11 “They must spread a blue cloth on the gold altar, and cover it with a covering of fine leather; and they must insert its poles. 4:12 Then they must take all the utensils of the service, with which they serve in the sanctuary, put them in a blue cloth, cover them with a covering of fine leather, and put them on a carrying beam. 4:13 Also, they must take away the ashes from the altar 10  and spread a purple cloth over it. 4:14 Then they must place on it all its implements with which they serve there – the trays, the meat forks, the shovels, the basins, and all the utensils of the altar – and they must spread on it a covering of fine leather, and then insert its poles. 11 

4:15 “When Aaron and his sons have finished 12  covering 13  the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is ready to journey, then 14  the Kohathites will come to carry them; 15  but they must not touch 16  any 17  holy thing, or they will die. 18  These are the responsibilities 19  of the Kohathites with the tent of meeting.

1 sn The chapter has four main parts to it: Kohathites (1-20), Gershonites (21-28), Merarites (29-33) and the census of the Levites (34-49).

2 tn Heb “lift up the head.” The form נָשֹׂא (naso’) is the Qal infinitive absolute functioning here as a pure verb form. This serves to emphasize the basic verbal root idea (see GKC 346 §113.bb).

sn The census of chapter 3 was to register all male Levites from a month old and up. It arranged the general duties of each of the tribes. The second census of Levites now will focus on those between 30 and 50 years of age, those who were actually in service. These are the working Levites. The duties here will be more specific for each of the families. The Kohathites, although part of the ordinary ministry of Levites, were a special group chosen to handle the most holy furnishings. J. Milgrom shows three aspects of their service: (1) skilled labor (מְלָאכָה, mÿlakhah) or “work,” (2) physical labor (עֲבֹדָה, ‘avodah) or “service,” and (3) assisting the priests (שָׁרֵת, sharet) or “ministering” (see his Studies in Levitical Terminology, 1:60-70).

3 tn The word “company” is literally “host, army” (צָבָא, tsava’). The repetition of similar expressions makes the translation difficult: Heb “all [who] come to the host to do work in the tent.”

4 tn The Hebrew text simply has “the holy of holies,” or “the holy of the holy things” (קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים, qodesh haqqodashim). The context indicates that this refers to all the sacred furnishings.

5 tn The Hebrew text uses the infinitive construct in an adverbial clause of time; literally it says “in the journeying of the camp.” The genitive in such constructions is usually the subject. Here the implication is that people would be preparing to transport the camp and its equipment.

6 tn The exact meaning of the Hebrew word here is difficult to determine. The term תַּחַשׁ (takhash) has been translated “badgers’ [skins]” by KJV. ASV has “sealskin” while RSV uses “goatskin”; NEB and NASB have “porpoise skin,” and NIV has “hides of sea cows.” This is close to “porpoise,” and seems influenced by the Arabic. The evidence is not strong for any of these meanings, and some of the suggestions would be problematic. It is possible the word is simply used for “fine leather,” based on the Egyptian ths. This has been followed by NRSV (“fine leather”) and NLT (“fine goatskin leather”) along with the present translation. See further HALOT 1720-21 s.v. תַּחַשׁ.

7 sn The Hebrew actually has the “table of faces,” and this has been traditionally rendered “table of shewbread.”

8 tn The Greek has “violet” instead of blue. This is also the case in vv. 8, 10, and 14.

9 tn The “pole” or “bar” (מוֹט, mot) is of a different style than the poles used for transporting the ark. It seems to be a flexible bar carried by two men with the implements being transported tied to the bar. The NEB suggests the items were put in a bag and slung over the bar, but there is no indication of the manner.

10 tc The Greek text has “and he must place the cover upon the altar” instead of “and they must take away the ashes from the altar.” The verb is the Piel form; its nuance seems to be privative, i.e., stating that the object is deprived of the material – the ashes are removed. This is the main altar in the courtyard.

11 tc For this passage the Greek and Smr have a substantial addition concerning the purple cloth for the laver and its base, and a further covering of skin (see D. W. Gooding, “On the Use of the LXX for Dating Midrashic Elements in the Targums,” JTS 25 [1974]: 1-11).

12 tn The verb form is the Piel perfect with a vav (ו) consecutive; it continues the future sequence, but in this verse forms a subordinate clause to the parallel sequential verb to follow.

13 tn The Piel infinitive construct with the preposition serves as the direct object of the preceding verbal form, answering the question of what it was that they finished.

14 tn Heb “after this.”

15 tn The form is the Qal infinitive construct from נָשָׂא (nasa’, “to lift, carry”); here it indicates the purpose clause after the verb “come.”

16 tn The imperfect tense may be given the nuance of negated instruction (“they are not to”) or negated obligation (“they must not”).

17 tn Here the article expresses the generic idea of any holy thing (R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 19, §92).

18 tn The verb is the perfect tense with a vav (ו) consecutive, following the imperfect tense warning against touching the holy thing. The form shows the consequence of touching the holy thing, and so could be translated “or they will die” or “lest they die.” The first is stronger.

19 tn The word מַשָּׂא (massa’) is normally rendered “burden,” especially in prophetic literature. It indicates the load that one must carry, whether an oracle, or here the physical responsibility.



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