God’s Word for You
Numbers 4:1-6 The Ark is covered
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, June 8, 2021
The Duties of the Kohathites
4 The Lord told Moses and Aaron 2 to take a census of the descendants of Kohath among the Levites, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, 3 from thirty years old to fifty years old, everyone eligible for the service of performing the tasks at the Tent of Meeting.
Thirty was the age at which a priest began his service. This seems to be what was on Ezekiel’s mind when he was beginning his book of prophecy (“If only I were in Jerusalem, I would be starting my service as a priest…,” see Ezekiel 1:1). Later, God would say that men serving in the tent of meeting could be twenty-five (Numbers 8:24) but the best way to understand the difference in the same book is that candidates for the priesthood started their hands-on training at twenty-five, but didn’t enter actual service until they were thirty. At fifty, they retired, but older men were still permitted to assist, giving directions and advice (Numbers 8:26) but they were not supposed to do the hot, hard work of sacrifice.
4 This is the work for the descendants of Kohath at the Tent of Meeting: to take care of the most holy things. 5 When the camp sets out, Aaron and his sons are to go into the Dwelling. They are to take down the veil that screens the ark, cover the Ark of the Testimony with it, 6 put a covering made from the hides of sea cows over it, spread a solid blue cloth over that, and insert its poles.
This is the only time in the Bible where we have a description of how the Ark of the Covenant (Ark of the Testimony) and the Most Holy Place were prepared for traveling. In Exodus 40:17-21 we have the report of how Moses first set the Ark in the tent with the Ten Commandments inside. Here there are four main points to consider, and then perhaps four questions to be asked:
1, The Ark was to be covered with its own special curtain. This was the very large curtain, 15 feet by 15 feet, that blocked anyone from entering into the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 9:3). We might ask: Since Aaron and his sons (that is, the high priest and the men who might one day become high priest) had to cover the Ark, would the sons get a glimpse of the ark while they did this? The earlier command is that they were not to approach the ark whenever they wanted to (Leviticus 16:2). There is no command or warning not to look at it. However, it’s possible that they could take down the curtain and place the curtain over the ark without looking at it much if at all. The curtain was treated with as much reverence and care as the Ark itself.
2, The Ark and its curtain were covered with the waterproof hide of sea cows. Sea cows or dugongs are close relatives of manatees; more distantly they are related to seals, walruses, and sea lions. They are unclean animals, which means that they could not be eaten or used for sacrifice, but like donkeys and camels, it was permitted to work with them and kill them for their hides (Exodus 9:3; 1 Samuel 27:9; Mark 1:6). Sea cows are mentioned in the Bible only in connection with these coverings for the Tabernacle, the Ark, and the other items. We understand that this was to derive a waterproof covering to keep the holy items dry, but perhaps also as an added degree of security for transport, since this thick covering would be difficult to penetrate by a sandstorm or by a curious rodent.
3, The Ark, its curtain, and its waterproof covering, were all in turn covered with a special blue cloth for public carrying. This covering could not be mistaken for the other coverings, which were supposed to be dyed red while the Tabernacle was set in place (Exodus 25:5). The blue cloth would have been quite striking. Most of the other articles were wrapped and carried with the hide of the sea cows as the outer layer: this was true for the accessories (Numbers 4:10), the gold altar (Numbers 4:11), the dishes, forks, shovels and pans (Numbers 4:12), the big bronze altar of the sacrifices (Numbers 4:14), and even the tent curtains in general (Numbers 4:25). But the Ark’s additional blue covering set it apart from everything else.
4, The poles were inserted for carrying. The rings that the carrying poles went through were secured in such a way that the heavy weight of the ark, the Ten Commandments, and the heavy, solid gold cover, would not put a strain on the rings. God commanded about them: “Cast four gold rings for it [the Ark] and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other” (Exodus 25:12). The word translated “feet” there, pa’amoth, is only poetically “feet.” More specifically, the word means “anvils” or heavy platforms, which makes perfect sense when one thinks of the Ark resting on these things at all other times. They could not possibly have been as delicate as the clawed feet of an old-fashioned bathtub or even the feet of a sofa, since the Ark would have weighed more than a ton. Without reinforcement, I wonder whether the solid gold atonement cover might have crushed the rest of the Ark. If the pa’amoth “anvils” were actually reinforcing “straps” that went in a U-shape all around the Ark, then the whole thing would have been more solid, and the rings for carrying could have been set up quite high, just under the cover, which (a) would still follow the text of Scripture, and (b) would also make the Ark less top-heavy and unwieldy for carrying. Even for as many as six or eight men, it must have been quite a burden. I would imagine that the Levites who carried it would have had to work in shifts.
Why was the Ark covered with its own curtain? This was undoubtedly to keep them together, because their importance was interconnected. For the safety of the people, they were not to be separated. Therefore this was a gospel command.
Why were the hides of unclean animals used in connection with such holy things? The hides themselves were not unclean. No one in Israel was forbidden from wearing the hide of any particular animal, as we see in the cases of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21), the Old Testament prophets (Zechariah 13:4) and John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4). The hides of sea cows were surely for protection against the elements, and perhaps especially rain.
In what way was the special blue cloth a preaching of the law? It was the law because it set apart the Ark with the strong, sharp, and powerful reminder that anyone approaching the Ark would be put to death.
In what way was the special blue cloth a preaching of the gospel? By setting apart the Ark in this way, the people were reminded that God was present with them, and there was no mystery where the Ark was.
Like the priests and Kohathites who cared for and carried the Ark, we remember that our congregations today exist in the physical world, that churches, schools, and people have physical needs, but that the spiritual needs of our congregations must always come first. We preach Christ crucified, and we preach a tabernacle curtain torn in half and no longer necessary. We rejoice that we have direct access to God because of the work of Jesus. God’s church is no longer separated by the curtain. God’s people are not shielded from water and the elements, but blessed and saved through Holy Baptism. And God’s people are dressed, not in a blue cloth wrapped by priests and carried with poles, but wrapped in the robe of Christ’s righteousness because our sins have been carried away on the poles of the cross. We are forever forgiven.
Pastor Timothy Smith