Friday, March 19, 2010

How Many Levites Does It Take to Move a Tent?

Previously in Numbers, God decided that He will no longer require the Israelites to give Him their firstborn sons. Instead, He substituted the firstborns for the Levites, taking special care to ensure that the trade was fair. Now it is time to discuss what exactly the Levites will do for the priests.

How Many Levites Does It Take to Move a Tent?
There is a common expression for a scale of unbelievable degree: Biblical proportion. The Flood of Noah was a flood of Biblical proportion, for example. Who could imagine a flood so voluminous as to cover even the highest mountains all over the earth to a depth of greater than 20 feet (>6 meters) of water (Genesis 7:20)? This study covers another disproportionate episode, but in another sense.

Numbers 4 assigns the task of moving the Tabernacle to the Levites, and divides the labor among the three clans of the Levites.

The Kohathite clan is covered in Numbers 4:1-20. God tells Moses to count the Kohathites and assign them to the task of moving the most holy things (Numbers 4:1-4), but not until the priests completely cover up the holy things (Numbers 4:5-14).

You may be wondering why the Priests must first cover everything. It is because if a Kohathite touches any holy thing, God will kill that person (Numbers 4:15). They cannot even look directly at any holy thing without God killing them (Numbers 4:20). What else would you expect from a loving and merciful God?

Next, the Gershonite clan gets their assignment in Numbers 4:21-28. They will be counted as well, and will be assigned to move the curtains, ropes, and other coverings.

Let us take a small digression here. Numbers 4:25 mentions that one of the coverings is “hides of sea cows.” If you remember the study on clean and unclean things, you may recall that Leviticus 11:9-12 covers which lifeforms in the waters are considered clean. In short, it must have fins and scales. Anything else is considered detestable. Sea cows definitely do not have scales, so the holy Tabernacle is covered with the skins of detestable creatures! Quite a tangled web...

(Note that depending on which version of the Bible you have, “sea cow” could be interpreted as dugong, manatee, dolphin, porpoise, seal, badger, goat, or just plain leather. Modern scholarship and Hebrew sources lean towards some thick-skinned, detestable, sea creature.)

Back to the text at hand, and on to the last clan. Numbers 4:29-33 instructs Moses to count the Merarites and to assign them to carry the frames, crossbars, bases, tent pegs, et cetera.

From Numbers 4:34-49, we get the results of the census of the male clan members between the ages of 30 and 50 years old. There were 2750 Kohathites, 2630 Gershonites, and 3200 Merarites, for a grand total of 8580 Tabernacle movers. (Amazing that all counts end in “0!”)

In honor of the book of Numbers, let us run some numbers. Per Exodus 26, the Tabernacle was 30 by 9 cubits. Per Exodus 27, the Tabernacle was surrounded by a curtain-walled courtyard which was 100 by 50 cubits.

How long is a cubit? Cubits varied by location and era, but the sacred Jewish cubit seemed to be around 1.436 feet (0.4376 meters). Based on this conversion factor, the Tabernacle was 43.08 by 12.92 feet (13.13 by 3.94 meters), and its courtyard measured 143.6 by 71.8 feet (43.76 by 21.88 meters).

To put this in perspective, consider that the penalty area around the goal of a soccer field (football pitch) is 132 by 54 feet (40.23 by 16.46 meters), so the courtyard of the Tabernacle would be just a little bit larger.

Now try to imagine stuffing 8580 people into that courtyard space. Allotting the small area of 2 by 1 foot (0.6 by 0.3 meters) per person, you would need about 1 2/3 courtyards in order to do so. It is not that all of these Levite men would ever need to fit into the courtyard, but this illustration provides a reference point for pondering the quantity of these people.

You see, as described above, these Levites are responsible for moving the Tabernacle when necessary. The Tabernacle was not like a library, full of books or other items. Instead, the Tabernacle and its associated courtyard were mostly empty space. The majority of what needed to be moved was simply the curtain-walls and their supports. You have got an excessive amount of people for what needs to be moved, and the proportion is set to go further eschew as the Levites multiply from generation to generation. Compared to the required work, it is a labor force of Biblical proportions.

So how many Levites does it take to move a tent? 8580 sounds about right, at least to God. And the priests have the tough job of defining what each and every one of them must do individually (Numbers 4:19, Numbers 4:27, Numbers 4:32, Numbers 4:49).

OK. Michael, Raphael, and Hezekiah; you three carry this tent peg. Azrael, Obadiah, and Ahijah; you guys get this other tent peg...

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