Two dangers face the Israelites as they leave Mount Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar: the risk of attack by an enemy in the wilderness, and the risk of annihilation by God.
They have already experienced both dangers. On their way from Egypt to Sinai the Amalekites attacked them, and the Israelites beat them off with the help of God.1 When they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to hear God speak, the earth quaked—and so did the Israelites.
And all the people were seeing the thunder and the flashes and the sound of the ram’s horn, and the mountain was smoking; and the people saw and they quaked and drew back and stood at a distance. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us and we will listen; but don’t let God speak to us, or else we will die!” (Exodus 20:15-16)
The Jewish day of Shavuot commemorates the revelation at Sinai, when the Israelites were terrified and God uttered the “ten commandments”. This holiday always falls the same week as the Torah reading Bemidbar, the first portion in the book of Bemidbar.
This Torah portion begins with God telling Moses to take a census of the men in all the tribes except Levi.2 The purpose of this census is to learn how many troops can be mustered in the event of a battle after the Israelites leave Mount Sinai and resume their journey to Canaan.
And all the [male] Israelites were mustered from the houses of their forefathers, from the age of twenty years and up, all who were going out in the tzava in Israel. (Numbers 1:45)
tzava (צָבָא) = army, unit of warriors, army service.
The qualifying phrase “all who were going out in the tzava” implies that the census counted only men aged 20 and over who were able to march and wield weapons.
Then God spoke to Moses saying: “However, the tribe of Levi you shall not muster, and you must not make a head count of them among the Israelites.” (Numbers 1:48-49)
In the second Torah portion of Numbers, Naso, there is a census of the three Levite clans.
And Moses and Aaron and the chieftains of the community enrolled the sons of the Kehatites by their families and by the house of their father, from the age of thirty years and over, up to the age of fifty years, all who were entering the tzava for the service of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 4:34-35)
The censuses of the Geirshonite and Merarite clans also count men aged 30 to 50, and also add “all who were entering the tzava for the service of the Tent of Meeting”.3
Why does the Torah call the Levites an army?
Before telling Moses to take a separate census for the tribe of Levi, God says:
“Assign the Levites over the Sanctuary of the Testimony and over all its equipment and over everything that belongs to it. They themselves shall carry the sanctuary and all its equipment, and they shall attend it, and they shall camp around the sanctuary. And when [it is time for] the sanctuary to pull out, the Levites shall take it down; and when [it is time for] the sanctuary to be pitched, the Levites shall erect it. And any unauthorized person who comes close must be put to death.” (Numbers 1:50-51)
Thus one of the duties of the Levites is to guard the tent-sanctuary and kill any unauthorized person who persists in coming too close to the tent, or even entering it.4 That is the military aspect of their service, but it is not the most dangerous.
“And the Israelites shall encamp, each man in his camp and each man at the banner for his troop. But the Levites shall encamp around the Sanctuary of the Testimony, and then there will be no fury against the community of Israelites; and the Levites shall guard the guardianship of the Sanctuary of the Testimony.” (Numbers 1:52-53)
Whose fury? When the Torah portions Bemidbar and Naso describe the duties of the Levites whenever the people break camp, it becomes clear that the fury would come from God.
First the priests (Aaron and his two surviving sons) must go inside the tent and wrap up the most holy items before anyone else can see them, and place them on carrying frames with poles. The holiest items are the ark, lampstand (menorah), the bread table, and the gold incense altar. The priests also wrap up the gold tools used for the rituals inside the tent.5
And Aaron and his sons shall finish covering the holy items and all the holy equipment when breaking camp, and after that the Kehatites shall come in to pick them up, so they do not touch the holy objects and die. These things in the Tent of Meeting are the burdens the Kehatites. (Numbers 4:15)
Each of the three clans in the tribe of Levi is responsible for carrying some part of the tent-sanctuary. The Kehatites must carry the most holy items, while the Geirshonites and Merarites carry the outside altar and the disassembled parts of the tent and the wall around it—cloth hangings, posts, planks, bars, pegs, sockets, and cords.
Certainly Betzaleil touched the holiest items when he hammered them out of gold in the book of Exodus.6 But later in the book of Numbers, God tells Aaron that the priests must not touch them, or they will be killed.7 Somehow the priests must light the menorah, lay bread on the table, and place coals and incense into the incense altar without touching their gold surfaces. And they must wrap these items in cloths without directly touching them.
In the first book of Samuel the ark sits for twenty years in the house of Avinadav at Kiryat Ye-arim. His son Elazar is consecrated as an ad-hoc priest to look after it.8 Then King David decides to move it to his new capital in Jerusalem. The ark is lifted up onto a new cart, and two other sons of Avinadav, Uzah and Achyo (presumably younger replacements for Elazar) walk beside it. Partway to Jerusalem, the oxen pulling cart stumble, and Uzah puts his hand on the ark to steady it.
And God’s anger flared up against Uzah, and God struck him down there … and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:7)
Uzah’s impulse is good, but nevertheless a divine power zaps him the instant he touches the ark.
No one in the bible is harmed from carrying the ark by its two poles, but touching the ark itself is deadly. The ark takes a circuitous route to Kiryat Ye-arim in the first book of Samuel. After the Philistines capture the ark in battle they bring it to their town of Ashdod, but everyone there is stricken with a plague. They send it on to Gath, then to Ekron, each time with the same result. So they load the ark onto a cart pulled by two cows and send it back into Israelite territory. The cows stop in a field near the town of Beit Shemesh, where seventy curious Israelites look inside. God strikes down every one of them.9
In the portion Bemidbar, the priests cover all the holiest items not only to prevent the Kehatites from touching them, but also to prevent these Levites from seeing them, even from the outside.
And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: “Do not cause the staff of the families of the Kehatites to be cut down from among the Levites! Do this for them, so they will live and not die: when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come in and assign each individual man his service and his burden. And they must not come inside [the tent] to look as the holy things are swallowed [by the wrappings], or they will die.” (Numbers 4:17-20)
In my post Bemidbar: Don’t Look I speculated that the Levites are not allowed a glimpse of the holiest items either because it might make them feel as powerful as the priests, or because it might make them treat the holy items (and therefore God) with insufficient reverence.
Transporting the wrapped-up holy things might be nerve-wracking for the Kehatites. They carry them by hand, not on carts. What if they stumble and drop something? What if one of the coverings slips off?
For the “armies” traveling north from Mount Sinai, guard duty is more dangerous than combat duty.
- Exodus 17:8-13.
- In the book of Genesis Jacob has twelve sons; Levi is his third son, and Joseph is his eleventh. In other books of the Torah eleven tribes are named after Jacob’s sons, but there is no tribe of Joseph; instead two tribes are named after Joseph’s two sons, Efrayim and Menashe. That makes thirteen tribes—but even in the Torah, the tradition is that there were twelve tribes of Israel. The solution in the first three portions of Numbers is that there are twelve tribes of Israel plus one tribe of Levi.
- Numbers 4:39, 4:43.
- See Numbers 25:6-8.
- Numbers 4:5-14. See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.
- Exodus 37:1-29.
- Numbers 18:3.
- 1 Samuel 6:21-7:2.
- 1 Samuel 6:10-20.