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(Num 4:21 - 7:89)

B'Midbar/Numbers 4:24   This is the work of the families of the Gershonites: to work and to carry.


The Hebrew root - to work, serve, worship (Davidson) - appears twice in this short verse. The first is the second word - , a feminine singular noun (in its construct state) meaning "work, labour, employment, service". The word starts a three word construct chain which is translated by inserting "the" and "of" between the words as necessary, so [the] work [of the] families [of] the Gershonites. The second appearance is the fifth word - , a Qal infinitive construct, meaning "to work" or "to worship". The last word in the verse - - is a noun from the root , to lift or carry, meaning "a lifting or carrying, a burden or load", but also used for the lifting of the voice in song, for example in the phrase - "the leader of the singing" (1 Chronicles 15:27, NASB). This means that the verse as a whole has a variety of readings depending on which meanings are used:

the work of the families of the Gershonites: to worship and to sing
the worship of the families of the Gershonites: to work and to porter

Rabbi Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch comments that "everything they receive to carry, they are not accept as mere mechanical porters but a demand is made to their intelligence and their consciousness; it is an office which is to carried out with the conscious care of a warden." This is a pointer to the level of devotion or kavanah that is demanded of those who are involved in any aspect of the ministry of The Name ...

HaShem: literally, Hebrew for 'The Name' - an allusion used to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the so-called 'ineffable' name of G–d
HaShem at the Tabernacle. Jacob Milgrom suggests that 'labour' is simply 'packing': "Avodah for the Geshonites and Merarites is limited to dismantling and assembling the Tabernacle", and that 'carrying' is simply porterage. The Who Is ...

Sforno: Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550 CE), Italian rabbi, philosopher and physician; born in Cesena, he went to Rome to study medicine; left in 1525 and after some years of travel, settled in Bologna where he founded a yeshiva which he conducted until his death
Sforno, on the other hand, sees the duality of meaning, explaining that "'serving' refers to when they are encamped and 'carrying burdens' to when they are on a journey". Historically, we can see from the later accounts of Israelite history that the Levite role of service moved from transport into the area of worship and service within the structure of a central shrine.

Once the Tabernacle had become stationary, the role of the Gershonites as porters became redundant. When the ark was brought into Jerusalem, "the Levites carried the ark of G-d on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the L-RD. 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" (1 Chronicles 15:15-16, ESV). The Chronicler records that the Levites were reorganised as musicians, singers, door and gate-keepers and other officers within the operation of the sanctuary: "For David said, 'The L-RD, the God of Israel, has given rest to His people, and He dwells in Jerusalem forever. And so the Levites no longer need to carry the tabernacle or any of the things for its service' ... their duty was to assist the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of the L-RD, having the care of the courts and the chambers, the cleansing of all that is holy, and any work for the service of the house of G-d. Their duty was also to assist with the shewbread, the flour for the grain offering, the wafers of unleavened bread, the baked offering, the offering mixed with oil, and all measures of quantity or size. And they were to stand every morning, thanking and praising the L-RD, and likewise at evening, and whenever burnt offerings were offered to the L-RD on Sabbaths, new moons, and feast days, according to the number required of them, regularly before the L-RD. Thus they were to keep charge of the tent of meeting and the sanctuary, and to attend the sons of Aaron, their brothers, for the service of the house of the L-RD" (1 Chronicles 23:25-32, ESV). Leading the worship became their regular position right through into the formal building of the Temple: "The sons of Levi: Gershom, Kohath, and Merari ... of Gershom: Libni his son, Jahath his son, Zimmah his son ... These are the men whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the L-RD after the ark rested there. They ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting until Solomon built the house of the L-RD in Jerusalem, and they performed their service according to their order" (1 Chronicles 6:16-32, ESV).

How do we understand our role within the group to which we belong? Many churches have choirs, some have worship bands; most Messianic congregations have bands, worship leaders and singers. Surely they are acting in the Levite role. If you are part of a house-fellowship, meeting in people's homes, you probably don't need someone to put the chairs out, but larger churches and synagogues may often have one or more people who do just that: putting out the chairs and the bulletins, making sure that everyone has somewhere to sit. Levites again! Whether you rent, share or own a building for services, there is always the need to clean up and make sure that the sanctuary or room that you use is tidy, that there's water available during services, drinks afterwards and - if you do this - food for the Shabbat Oneg or other shared meals. More Levite functions. The Levites serve G-d by serving the congregation; they serve Him directly and indirectly; they are facilitators and connectors, bringing G-d and the people together for worship, study and work. All who undertake the work of the congregation are serving and worshipping G-d in he capacity of Levites.

Hirsch's comment about intentionality applies just as much today as it did to the Gershonites who carried the furniture of the Tabernacle. They were given solemn charge of the poles, curtains, tent-pegs and coverings for the Tabernacle; their brothers the sons of Merari were given solemn charge of the similar items for the courtyard that formed the curtilage of the Tabernacle. They were charged by Aharon and his son Itamar to take appropriate care of the items that they packaged and carried; that care required them to think about what they were doing, to invest energy and time to ensure that nothing was dropped or damaged, that nothing got left behind. Even more so, in their service of worship, they are to "consider before whom they stand" (b. Berachot 28b) and give of their best in music and song, to praise G-d and to lead the people in that praise and worship.

We should similarly accept it as a solemn charge to perform our role within the local body and do it to the best of our ability. Rav Sha'ul said, "That is, everything you do or say, do in the name of the Lord Yeshua, giving thanks through him to G-d the Father" (Colossians 3:17, CJB); and then just a few verses later, "Whatever work you do, put yourself into it, as those who are serving not merely other people, but the L-rd" (v. 23, CJB). We all need to take our share as producers and not be content to be just consumers.

Further Study: Psalm 84:2,10; 1 Corinthians 10:31

Application: Do you contribute to the life of your local congregation? If not, why not ask the L-rd what He would like you to do. If you are already involved, how can you improve your level of service to bless both G-d and the other people there?

© Jonathan Allen, 2011

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