Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Rules of Service, and Numbering of the Levites Qualified for Service. - After the adoption of the Levites for service at the sanctuary, in the place of the first-born of Israel, Moses and Aaron mustered the three families of the Levites by the command of God for the service to be performed by those who were between the ages of 30 and 50. The particulars of the service are first of all described in detail (vv. 4-33); and then the men in each family are taken, of the specified age for service (vv. 34-49). The three families are not arranged according to the relative ages of their founders, but according to the importance or sacredness of their service. The Kohathites take the lead, because the holiest parts of the tabernacle were to be carried and kept by this family, which included the priests, Aaron and his sons. The service to be performed by each of the three Levitical families is introduced in every case by a command from God to take the sum of the men from 30 years old to 50 (see Num 4:1-3, Num 4:21-23, Num 4:29 and Num 4:30).
Service of the Kohathites, and the number qualified for service. - Num 4:2, Num 4:3. "Take the sum of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi:" i.e., by raising them out of the sum total of the Levites, by numbering them first and specially, viz., the men from 30 to 50 years of age, "every one who comes to the service," i.e., who has to enter upon service "to do work at the tabernacle." צבא (Angl. 'host') signifies military service, and is used here with special reference to the service of the Levites as the militia sacra of Jehovah.
The service of the Kohathites at the tabernacle is (relates to) "the most holy" (see at Exo 30:10). This term includes, as is afterwards explained, the most holy things in the tabernacle, viz., the ark of the covenant, the table of shew-bread, the candlestick, the altar of incense and altar of burnt-offering, together with all the other things belonging to these. When the camp was broken up, the priests were to roll them up in wrappers, and hand them over in this state to the Kohathites, for them to carry (Num 4:5-15). First of all (Num 4:5, Num 4:6), Aaron and his sons were to take down the curtain between the holy place and the most holy (see Exo 26:31), and to cover the ark of testimony with it (Exo 25:10). Over this they were to place a wrapper of sea-cow skin (tachash, see Exo 25:5), and over this again another covering of cloth made entirely of hyacinth-coloured purple (as in Exo 28:31). The sea-cow skin as to protect the inner curtain, which was covered over the ark, from storm and rain; the hyacinth purple, to distinguish the ark of the covenant as the throne of the glory of Jehovah. Lastly, they were to place the staves into the rings again, that is to say, the bearing poles, which were always left in their places on the ark (Exo 25:15), but had necessarily to be taken out while it was being covered and wrapped up.
Over the table of shew-bread (Exo 25:23) they were to spread a hyacinth cloth, to place the plates, bowls, wine-pitchers, and drink-offering bowls (Exo 25:29) upon the top of this, and to lay shew-bread thereon; and then to spread a crimson cloth over these vessels and the shew-bread, and cover this with a sea-cow skin, and lastly to put the bearing poles in their places.
The candlestick, with its lamps, snuffers, extinguishers (Exo 25:31-37), and all its oil-vessels (oil-cans), "wherewith they serve it," i.e., prepare it for the holy service, were to be covered with a hyacinth cloth, and then with a wrapper of sea-cow skin, and laid upon the carriage. מות (Num 4:10 and Num 4:12), bearing frame, in Num 13:23 bearing poles.
So again they were to wrap up the altar of incense (Exo 30:1), to adjust its bearing poles; and having wrapped it up in such coverings, along with the vessels belonging to it, to lay it upon the frame.
The altar of burnt-offering was first of all to be cleansed from the ashes; a crimson cloth was then to be covered over it, and the whole of the furniture belonging to it to be placed upon the top; and lastly, the whole was to be covered with a sea-cow skin. The only thing not mentioned is the copper laver (Exo 30:18), probably because it was carried without any cover at all. The statement in the Septuagint and the Samaritan text, which follows Num 4:14. respecting its covering and conveyance upon a frame, is no doubt a spurious interpolation.
After the priests had completed the wrapping up of all these things, the Kohathites were to come up to carry them; but they were not to touch "the holy" (the holy things), lest they should die (see Num 1:53; Num 18:3, and comp. Sa2 6:6-7).
The oversight of the oil for the candlestick (Exo 27:20), the incense (Exo 30:34), the continual meat-offering (Exo 29:40), and the anointing oil (Exo 30:23), belonged to Eleazar as the head of all the Levites (Num 3:32). He had also the oversight of the dwelling and all the holy things and furniture belonging to it; and, as a comparison of Num 4:28 and Num 4:33 clearly shows, of the services of the Kohathites also.
In order to prevent as far as possible any calamity from befalling the Levites while carrying the most holy things, the priests are again urged by the command of God to do what has already been described in detail in Num 4:5-15, lest through any carelessness on their part they should cut off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites, i.e., should cause their destruction; viz., if they should approach the holy things before they had been wrapped up by Aaron and his sons in the manner prescribed and handed over to them to carry. If the Kohathites should come for only a single moment to look at the holy things, they would die. אל־תּכריתוּ, "cut ye not off," i.e., "take care that the Kohathites are not cut off through your mistake and negligence" (Ros.). "The tribe of the families of the Kohathites:" shebet, the tribe, is not used here, as it frequently is, in its derivative sense of tribe (Tribus), but in the original literal sense of stirps.
"This do to them:" sc., what is prescribed in Num 4:5-15 with reference to their service.
כּבלּע, "like a swallow, a gulp," is probably a proverbial expression, according to the analogy of Job 7:19, for "a single instant," of which the Arabic also furnishes examples (see A. Schultens on Job 7:19). The Sept. rendering, ἐξάπινα, conveys the actual sense. A historical illustration of Num 4:20 is furnished by Sa1 6:19.
(Note: According to Knobel, Num 4:17-20 have been interpolated by the Jehovist into the Elohistic text. But the reasons for this assumption are weak throughout. Neither the peculiar use of the word shebet, to which there is no corresponding parallel in the whole of the Old Testament, nor the construction of נגשׁ with את, which is only met with in Sa1 9:18 and Sa1 30:21, nor the Hiphil הכרית, can be regarded as criteria of a Jehovistic usage. And the assertion, that the Elohist lays the emphasis upon approaching and touching the holy things (Num 4:15; Num 8:19; Num 18:3, Num 18:22), and not upon seeing or looking at them, rests upon an antithesis which is arbitrarily forced upon the text, since not only seeing (Num 4:20), but touching also (Num 4:19), is described as causing death; so that seeing and touching form no antithesis at all.)
The service of the Gershonites is introduced in Num 4:21-23 in the same manner as that of the Kohathites in Num 4:1-3; and in Num 4:24-26 it is described in accordance with the brief notice and explanation already given in Num 3:24-26.
Their service was to be performed "according to the mouth (i.e., according to the appointment) of Aaron and his sons, with regard to all their carrying (all that they were to carry), and all their doing." - "And ye (the priests) shall appoint to them for attendance (in charge) all their carrying," i.e., all the things they were to carry. בּמשׁמרת פּקד, to give into keeping. The combination of פּקד with בּ and the accusative of the object is analogous to בּ נתן, to give into a persons' hand, in Gen 27:17; and there is no satisfactory reason for any such emendations of the text as Knobel proposes.
"Their charge (mishmereth) is in the hand of Ithamar," i.e., is to be carried out under his superintendence (cf. Exo 38:21).
Service of the Merarites. - Num 4:29 and Num 4:30, like Num 4:22 and Num 4:23. פּקד, to muster, i.e., to number, equivalent to ראשׁ נשׁא, to take the number.
Num 4:31 and Num 4:32, like Num 3:36 and Num 3:37. "The charge of their burden" (their carrying), i.e., the things which it was their duty to carry.
לכל־כּליהם: with regard to all their instruments, i.e., all the things used for setting up, fastening, or undoing the beams, bolts, etc.; see Num 3:36 and Exo 27:19.
Completion of the prescribed mustering, and statement of the number of men qualified for service in the three Levitical families: viz., 2750 Kohathites, 2630 Gershonites, and 3200 Merarites - in all, 8580 Levites fit for service: a number which bears a just proportion to the total number of male Levites of a month old and upwards, viz., 22,000.
"According to the commandment of Jehovah, they appointed them through the hand of Moses (i.e., under his direction), each one to his service, and his burden, and his mustered things (פּקדיו), i.e., the things assigned to him at the time of the mustering as his special charge (see Exo 38:21).