Bamidbar–To Schlep and Protect

They [the Levites] shall perform guard duty for him [Aaron] and for the whole community outside the Tent of Meeting, doing the labor [avodah] of the Tabernacle.   (Num. 3:8)

In good ol’ Sesame Street fashion, this drush is brought to you by the letter M, for Milgrom, as in Jacob Milgrom, the contemporary master-scholar of the Priestly laws.  My translation reflects his thorough and detailed understanding of these texts.  (Compare the JPS rendering of the same verse, “They shall perform duties for him and for the whole community before the Tent of Meeting, doing the work of the Tabernacle”: a vague translation that simply tells you that the Levites are involved with sacred things.)

Milgrom shows that, in connection with the Tabernacle, mishmeret always means “guard duty,” referring to the Levitical cordon around the Tabernacle that guards it from incursion by unauthorized laity.  This is seen as an important benefit, since even an accidental trespass could elicit divine wrath.  The Levites—as opposed to the priests—are forbidden access to the inner shrine, and so “before the Tent of Meeting” needs to be taken literally: before, but not within.

The end of the verse is easy to misunderstand, since avodah in the post-exilic period is often a general term for the activity of worship, the sacrifices and liturgy of the Temple (e.g., in the beginning of Avot, avodah is said to be one of the three pillars on which the world stands).  But in Numbers, Levitical avodah has the specific meaning of physical labor—the packing, lifting and transporting of the Tabernacle itself and its sacred furnishings– which is why it, unlike guard duty, is reserved for those between 30 and 50 (cf. Num. 4:23ff)  Thus, this verse both summarizes the responsibility of the Levites with regard to the Tabernacle and underlines their subordination to the priests.

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