The people of Israel were a tribal people. Jacob (also known as Israel) was the nation’s founding father and he had twelve sons. Each of these sons became head of a tribe and these twelve tribes made up the nation.
One of the tribes was the tribe of Levi. God set apart the Levites for a special purpose. Numbers 1:47-53 describes how, following a census of the nation, the Levites were not to be listed in the same way as the other tribes. Instead, they were to be appointed ‘over the Tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it’ (v50). The Tabernacle was the central feature in the camp of Israel in the wilderness. It was the place of worship and sacrifice and the Levites were placed in charge of looking after it. The Levites had to camp immediately around the Tabernacle (v53) to provide a protective wall between the holy presence of God and His people.
The Tabernacle was not just the place where sacrifice and worship happened, it was the place where God’s presence dwelt. The Levites, therefore, were responsible for ensuring that God had a place where He could be in the midst of His people.
The Israelites lived in the desert and moved around so the Tabernacle had to move with them. It had to be taken down, transported and then set up again. The Levites were responsible for doing this. In order to achieve such a big task the tribe of Levi was subdivided into three families, the Kohathites, the Gershonites and the Merarites. Each family was given a particular set of responsibilities when it came to transporting the Tabernacle (see Numbers 4 for details).
The Kohathites (vv1-20) were the headliners, the big-hitters, the glory-boys. From the Kohathites came the family of Aaron who were the priests. These men were set apart for special service to God and were permitted to enter the Tabernacle to offer sacrifices. The Kohathites were appointed to be in the presence of God on behalf of the people. They were the intercessors. They were the ones who enabled the people of God to continue to be the people of God by providing a way of dealing with the sin of the nation.
When transporting the Tabernacle, the Kohathites were given responsibility for the holy items. The Ark of the Covenant, the altar, the lampstand, and the plates, bowls and other utensils used in sacrifices all came under their charge. All of these items had to be covered over by the priests and then the Kohathites had to carry these most sacred objects across the desert to the next place.
The Gershonites (vv21-28) were assigned to the carry the visible parts of Tabernacle such as the curtains, screens and hangings which made up the outer ‘walls’ of the Tabernacle. Beautifully crafted by Bezalel and his team, these huge fabrics were visible across the camp once the Tabernacle was erected. The Israelites would look at this every day and, upon seeing these incredible objects, would be reminded that God dwelt among them.
The Merarites (vv29-33) were responsible for carrying the ‘frames of the Tabernacle, with its bars, pillars and bases, and the pillars around the court with their bases, pegs, and cords, with all their equipment and accessories’ (vv31,32). These items provided the structure of the Tabernacle but were hidden from view. While people would comment on the curtains or altar, no one would even notice the tent pegs or pillar bases.
Each Levite was given a part to play in the task of transporting the Tabernacle and each person’s item was important. Someone carried the altar. Someone carried the incense. Someone carried the lampstand.
And someone carried the tent pegs.
Around the desert.
For 40 years.
For us in church life, it’s easy to feel overlooked and under-valued, especially in a society which emphasises status, visibility and impact. Maybe you wash the cups. Maybe you empty the bins. Maybe you print the newsletter. Maybe you keep track of the finances. Maybe you organise the cleaning rota. All these tasks, and many more, are not the up-front roles or the things people notice during Sunday worship. But they are important nonetheless.
The danger for the Merarites was that they thought their bit didn’t matter: I’m only carrying tent pegs. However, anyone who has been camping knows how crucial tent pegs are in the construction of a tent as without them the whole tent is unstable. The items the Merarites carried were as crucial to the worship life of Israel as any other.
Whatever God has given you to do, it is important that you do it. He doesn’t give out pointless tasks! In your role you might find yourself asking, ‘Would people even notice if I weren’t here?’ ‘My contribution makes no difference.’ ‘What God has given them to do is far more important than what He’s asked me to do.’
When you start thinking like this remember the Merarites.
They carried tent pegs for the glory of God.