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B'Midbar/Numbers 3:36 And the assignment of the responsibility of the sons of Merari was the planks of the Tabernacle, and its bars, and its pillars and its sockets, and all its stuff and all its service.
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Our text contains some of the most widely used and flexible words or roots in the Hebrew Bible. Due to the range of meanings that each word can exhibit, some care is needed to bring together the particular meanings that apply in this particular context. The verse starts with , a two-word construct. The first word, , is the construct form of the feminine singular noun from the root . The root has meanings from "to visit, examine, look after, appoint" to "to punish, review, muster"; the noun has at least four strands of meaning: 1. care or providence; 2. visitation or punishment; 3. oversight, office or charge; 4. custody or prison (Davidson). The second word, , the absolute of the construct, is also a feminine singular noun - from the root , "to keep, watch, guard or observe". This noun too has several strands of meaning: 1. place of watching, station, post; 2. observance, performance; 3. charge, law, rite, usage (Davidson). In modern usage, perhaps the most recognisable meaning might be "duty of care", thus starting the verse: "The duty of care for the sons of Merari ..."
The verse ends with two 'all' phases: and . is a wonderful catch-all word, with at least five meaning groups: 1. vessel, utensil; 2. boat, skiff; 3. implement, tool; 4. weapons, arms; 5. equipment, clothing, dress (Davidson). Here it has the idea of the delightfully vague modern colloquialism, 'stuff'. is another feminine singular noun - this time from the root , "to work, labour, cultivate, serve, worship" (Davidson) - often having the idea of service or employment, particularly religious service or worship. In this verse, we could see it as being whatever it took to put the 'stuff' up, take it down again and carry it around.
The sons of Merari are the third (and last) group of Levites to be assigned their duties after the Gershonites and the Kohathites. The sons of Gershon were assigned, "the tabernacle, the tent with its covering, the screen for the entrance of the tent of meeting, the hangings of the court, the screen for the door of the court that is around the tabernacle and the altar, and its cords -- all the service connected with these" (B'Midbar 3:25-26, ESV). The sons of Kohath are were assigned, "the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister, and the screen; all the service connected with these" (v. 31, ESV), while the sons of Merari were assigned, "the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories; all the service connected with these; also the pillars around the court, with their bases and pegs and cords" (vv. 36-37, ESV). At a casual reading, this might be compared to the road crews that accompany rock bands and groups on tour. First there are van loads of lightning equipment, the microphones, speakers and sound equipment, not to mention the musical instruments, drums and percussion. Then there are the stage sets, smoke machines, costumes and the equipment for special effects and dramatic scenes. Last of all come the stands - for microphones and instruments not being used - and the several dozen boxes of miscellaneous toot - spare cables, batteries, meters, gaffer tape, odd connectors, mains leads, distribution panels - without which no concert or gig could ever take place, but which have all the glamour of the leftovers from last week's table-top sale. The sons of Merari might be forgiven for feeling that they had been hardly done by.
While the assignments for all three clans use the word , only that of the sons of Merari uses the additional word .Hirsch comments that "this assignment is specially stressed and called to obviate the idea that the objects entrusted to their care are merely those that are left over and of no special importance ... It was no less than the others a special charge entrusted to them, and the objects of their care no less required being appointed to their special office." All the Levites were to exercise care in the carrying out of their duties: to handle the fixings and furniture of the Tabernacle with appropriate diligence and skill so that nothing was broken, screwed in the wrong way, dropped upside down, torn or damaged. On the contrary, everything associated with the service of G-d was to be done with precision and due reverence, as for G-d Himself. Surely, that went without saying. Only the sons of Merari were enjoined with a specific "duty of care" over their charges, because without the planks, cords, pegs, sockets and stands, the Tabernacle could never have been put up.
When David reconfigured the service of the Levites around a fixed temple location in Jerusalem, the duties of assembling, packing and carrying were translated into those of musicians and singers: "David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy. So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brothers Asaph the son of Berechiah; and of the sons of Merari, their brothers, Ethan the son of Kushaiah" (1 Chronicles 15:16-17, ESV). The sons of Merari were still there and included equally in these jobs and others: "And Hosah, of the sons of Merari, had sons: Shimri the chief (for though he was not the firstborn, his father made him chief), Hilkiah the second, Tebaliah the third, Zechariah the fourth: all the sons and brothers of Hosah were thirteen. These divisions of the gatekeepers, corresponding to their chief men, had duties, just as their brothers did, ministering in the house of the L-RD" (26:10-12, ESV). Gatekeepers, singers and musicians were just as essential a part of the Temple service as the priests who offered the sacrifices and their commitment was recognised in the sharing of all the available jobs.
After years of abuse and neglect by kings who did not serveHaShem, when King Hezekiah carried out his religious reforms, he summoned the Levites to clear out the rubbish and set the Temple in order: "Then the Levites arose, Mahath the son of Amasai, and Joel the son of Azariah, of the sons of the Kohathites; and of the sons of Merari, Kish the son of Abdi, and Azariah the son of Jehallelel; and of the Gershonites, Joah the son of Zimmah, and Eden the son of Joah; and of the sons of Elizaphan, Shimri and Jeuel; and of the sons of Asaph, Zechariah and Mattaniah; and of the sons of Heman, Jehuel and Shimei; and of the sons of Jeduthun, Shemaiah and Uzziel. They gathered their brothers and consecrated themselves and went in as the king had commanded, by the words of the L-RD, to cleanse the house of the L-RD" (2 Chronicles 29:12-15, ESV). The sons of Merari are listed by name and took equal share in the work. Years later, Ezra refused to return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile to re-establish the service of G-d without the sons of Merari to complete the roles in the sanctuary: "And by the good hand of our G-d on us, they brought us a man of discretion, of the sons of Mahli the son of Levi, son of Israel, namely Sherebiah with his sons and kinsmen, 18; also Hashabiah, and with him Jeshaiah of the sons of Merari, with his kinsmen and their sons, 20" (Ezra 8:18-19, ESV). For the Temple service to function properly, the jobs had to be filled by the right people, so that everything was done correctly and in the right order by people who were willing to serve in those roles.
Rav Sha'ul writes about the parts of the body in the same way: "The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But G-d has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another" (1 Corinthians 12:22-25, ESV). As members of the Body of Messiah, we all have our place - whether of more or less apparent honour or comeliness - and are to care for each other in such a way that there is no division among us, from those who lead the worship and preach the sermons, to those who hand out the books and make the tea.
Further Study: Romans 12:15-18; Philippians 2:1-4
Application: Are you known and honoured in the place where you serve in your local expression of the Body of Messiah? Have you faithfully served - whether putting out the chairs or helping with the cleaning or the washing up - so that you may care for others and be cared for in your turn?
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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