In the last chapter, each Levite clan was assigned a specific duty in the care and transportation of the tabernacle. In this chapter, we veer off in a totally different direction and… assign each Levite clan a specific duty in the care and transportation of the tabernacle. Brace yourselves, badger skins are coming.

We start off with yet another census, this time to determine how many Levites are between the ages of 30 and 50 – “all who can enter the service” (v.3). We’ll get through the breakdown in a moment, but the total comes out to 8,580, and the Bible’s total actually matches for once!

Kohathites:

There are 2,750 Kohathites in charge of transporting the inner sanctuary stuff, such as the ark, the special table, the lampstand, the altar, etc.

Where's the dolphin skin?

Where’s the dolphin skin?

Aaron and his sons must prepare all the inner sanctuary stuff by wrapping it in a complex (and very fashionable) arrangement of goatskins, blue clothes, and scarlet clothes (full details provided in excruciating detail). Once this is one, the Kohathites get to actually do the transporting.

Hopefully, Aaron&sons do a good job, because if any of the wrappings slip and a Kohathite accidentally touches one of the objects, he dies.

The Kohathites are supervised by Aaron’s son Eleazar who, in turn, is responsible for transporting the oil for the light, the incense, the “continual cereal offering,” and the annointing oil.

Gershonites:

There are 2,630 of these guys, and they are responsible for the main tent stuff. They are under the oversight of Aaron’s son Ithamar.

Descendants of Merari:

There are 3,200 descendants of Merari of the right age, and they are responsible for all the foundation. They are under the oversight of Ithamar as well.

Goatskin, badger skin, and dolphin skin

My Bible, the RSV, has things wrapped in cloth and goatskin, but the Hebrew text must be a bit less clear as to what animal’s skin is supposed to be used. Whatever the word is, the King James Bible translates it as “badger skin” and whatever Bible David Plotz is using as it as “dolphin skin” (the New American Standard Bible uses “porpoise skin”).

Apparently, we just don’t know the word being used. The word seems to refer to a badger, but these are considered unclean and therefore probably wouldn’t have been used to cover the holy relics. The word is close to an Arabic word meaning porpoise or dugong. The word is also similar to an Egyptian word meaning “fine leather” (the animal being unspecified).

So it seems that translators are pretty much just winging it.

As a side note, A Skeptic’s Journey finds it “suspicious” that the holy items are never to be witnessed by anyone other than Aaron and his descendants, and that the punishment for sneaking a peak is death. He asks, “what did the priests have to hide?”

I think that’s the wrong question.

It’s not about having something to hide, but rather about drawing a distinction between the sacred and the profane (“profane” doesn’t mean “bad,” by the way. It just means worldly or mundane). By keeping the sacred hidden, they are separating it from the experience of normal people. And, of course, by giving themselves permission to see/touch/experience the inner sanctuary, they are solidifying their association with the sacred – a very useful tool for anyone who wants to maintain power.

The actual objects in the inner sanctuary are mundane – a table, a lamp, a box… None of these have any inherent sacredness. They are made sacred by being separated from the mundane – by not using the sacred lamp to read the latest Dan Brown novel, you are removing it from the world of ordinary lamps. This sacredizing of purpose is amplified by keeping the objects hidden and surrounding them with mystery.

Am I making any sense?