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God’s Word for You

Numbers 3:20b-26 The fabric of worship

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The following were the clans of the Levites according to their fathers’ houses. 21 From Gershon came the Libnite clan and the Shimeite clan. These were the Gershonite clans. 22 Those who were registered, counting all the males who were a month old and up, were 7,500. 23 The Gershonite clans camped behind the Dwelling on the west side. 24 The tribal chief of the father’s house for the Gershonites was Eliasaph son of Lael. 25 The duties of the descendants of Gershon in the Tent of Meeting involved the dwelling and the tent, its coverings, and the screen for the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, 26 also the hangings of the courtyard, and the screen for the entrance to the courtyard which surrounds the Dwelling and the altar, and its ropes—everything related to this work.

The main responsibility of the Gershonites can be stated in a single word: fabric. In fact, we can state the main responsibility for each of the three Levitical tribes with single-word summaries:

    Gershon: Fabric
    Kohath: Furniture
    Merari: Poles

These are simplifications. Both Gershon and Merari are commanded to care for a supply of ropes, for example, and these were separate ropes, necessary for different things. It might be tempting with such a three-fold division of one ministry to see a picture of the Trinity, but immediate errors pop up like weeds no matter how this is attempted, and we have to admit that it is wise not to make the association, no matter how enticing. Nevertheless, the responsibilities of the Levites do show us one primary attribute of God: His holiness. It was this that they were responsible for showing with everything that they did. This wasn’t a metaphor or an illustration; it was their actual function. God’s tabernacle was to remain holy and separate from the people. The tribe of Gershon cared for the fabric that made this possible.

The fabric was primarily woven goat hair, spun into a tough and durable linen that would last in the strong winds and extreme temperature changes of the desert. God had commanded Moses: “Make curtains of goat hair for the tent over the tabernacle—eleven altogether. All eleven curtains are to be the same size—thirty cubits long and four cubits wide” (Exodus 26:7-8). Another piece was the canopy: “Make for the tent a covering of ram skins dyed red” (Exodus 26:14a), and its rain cover: “and over that a covering of hides of sea cows” (Exodus 26:14b). There was also the special curtain to divide the holy place from the Holy of Holies: “A curtain of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked [woven] into it by a skilled craftsman” (Exodus 26:31). A similar curtain was made for the entrance of the tent (Exodus 26:36).

As for the courtyard, each of the long sides (north and south) was made up of curtains, a total of a hundred cubits long, but the length of the curtains is not specified. Since a twenty-foot curtain is mentioned in connection with the entrances, this would make sense as the length of the side-curtains around the courtyard. These curtains were five cubits tall (Exodus 27:18). A cubit, we remember, is the distance from a man’s elbow to his fingertip, approximately eighteen inches or half a yard. This made the curtains of the courtyard seven and a half feet tall, a hundred and fifty feet long and seventy-five feet wide.

The ropes commanded here are not the ropes that held up the posts, but the ropes that held up the fabric curtains from post to post, which we might think of as curtain rods, or better still, clothes lines.

These curtains needed to be cared for during the process of moving. It’s likely that the clan developed a method of rolling or folding the curtains for transport, and a special way of carrying them, probably but not necessarily involving pushcarts. The long curtains could, of course, have been carried by two or more men over the shoulder. There is no mention in the Scriptures about cleaning the tent curtains themselves. There was perhaps never a convenient time to do this on the journey. If a curtain needed to be replaced, this could easily happen since the whole courtyard was designed and built for easy assembly and disassembly. But on the other hand, the Lord did not permit the clothes or sandals of the Israelites to wear out during the sojourn. Moses said, “During the forty years that I led you through the desert, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet” (Deuteronomy 29:5). It would be natural to extend that thought to something more durable than shirts, dresses and sandals: tents and tent curtains.

A curtain does not protect in the way a stone wall might. The curtain of the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies (or Most Holy Place) was there to warn the priests never to pass into the room “which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant” which contained the gold jar of manna and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments (Hebrews 9:4). The curtain of the outer sanctuary was a simple reminder that only the priests were to enter during the course of their duties, and that certainly no “unauthorized fire” should ever be brought in (Leviticus 10:1-2). The outer curtains of the sanctuary or tabernacle courtyard helped to show the people where the sacrifices were taking place, and that they should not enter the courtyard apart from the business of worshiping the Lord. The boards and committees that take care of the physical structure of your church and its banners and altar cloths come close to the duties of the Gershonites. Perhaps this is part of your own service to God. Do it with joy and diligence, and know that when the congregation doesn’t notice what you do, it’s usually because you’re doing it right. Their focus is on Christ, and that’s just as it should be.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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