The Kohathites were one of the four main divisions of the Levites in the Old Testament, descended from Kohath who was a son of Levi. The Kohathites played an important role in the worship and service of the Tabernacle during Israel’s time in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt.
In your study of God’s word, you may have come across references to the Kohathites without fully understanding who they were and the significance of their role. Gaining insight into the Kohathites provides a deeper appreciation for God’s detailed instructions regarding the transportable Tabernacle and its service during Israel’s journey to the Promised Land.
This blog post will provide a comprehensive overview of the Kohathites, examining:
- The family line of Kohath
- Their duties and service related to the Tabernacle
- Key events involving the Kohathites
- The legacy and lasting impact of this group
After reading this guide, you will have a solid understanding of the historical background, responsibilities, and biblical importance of the Kohathite Levites. Equipped with this knowledge, you can better grasp the ceremonial details and tribal organization found in parts of the Torah and Hebrew Bible.
Let’s begin uncovering the meaningful role of the Kohathites in God’s plan and purpose for the nation of Israel.
The Family Line of Kohath
To understand the Kohathites, we must first look at their family heritage. Kohath was one of four sons born to Levi, son of the patriarch Jacob (Genesis 46:11, Exodus 6:16). Kohath’s brothers were Gershon, Merari, and Jochebed.
Levi stands as one of the twelve tribes of Israel, with the Levites comprising the priestly tribe. During the Exodus, God set apart the Levites for tabernacle service rather than military pursuits (Numbers 1:47-53). This honored status flowed from Levi’s actions against idolatry as recorded in Exodus 32.
As a son of Levi, Kohath inherited priestly responsibilities along with his brothers Gershon and Merari. Each son formed an eponymous clan known as the Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites. Of Kohath’s four sons (Exodus 6:18), Amram became most prominent as the father of Aaron, Moses, and Miriam (Exodus 6:20). Aaron served as the first high priest and his descendants (known as the Amramites) led Israel’s worship.
Therefore, the Kohathites traced their duties back to Kohath, son of Levi, and onto Amram, father of Aaron the high priest. This priestly pedigree molded their role regarding the Tabernacle for generations to come.
Tabernacle Duties and Service
The Kohathites bore special responsibilities pertaining to Israel’s place of worship – the portable Tabernacle constructed at Mt Sinai. When on the move during the Exodus, the Kohathites were charged with carrying the most sacred furnishings of the Tabernacle after it was disassembled (Numbers 3:27-32).
The Ark of the Covenant
Their chief duty involved the transport of the Ark of the Covenant (Numbers 3:31). The Ark represented the earthly throne and presence of God dwelling among His people. Due to its extreme holiness, Kohathites carried the Ark on poles rather than directly touching it (Exodus 25:12-15). Handling this sacred object incorrectly could result in death, as seen in 1 Chronicles 15:2, 13-15.
Besides the Ark, Kohathites bore responsibility for other Tabernacle items such as the menorah, altar of incense, table for the showbread, and the inner curtains and veil (Numbers 3:31, 4:4-5). Each relic was covered by Aaron the high priest before the Kohathites set out on a journey (Numbers 4:5-6). They took great care while moving these holy objects per God’s instructions.
Division of Labor
This distribution of duties displayed God’s orderly arrangement for transporting the Tabernacle. Kohathites carried the most holy furnishings. Gershonites were in charge of curtains, coverings, and the outer courtyard (Number 3:25-26). Merarites transported the structural frame, sockets, pillars, and pegs of the Tabernacle (Numbers 3:36-37).
Ongoing Maintenance & Assembly
In addition to transport, Kohathites played a role in the care and maintenance of the Tabernacle. They regularly inspected the sacred furnishings to ensure against mildew or other damage from storage (Numbers 4:4). During Tabernacle setup, the Kohathites were “keepers of the charge of the sanctuary” (Numbers 3:38 NKJV), assisting the high priests with proper placement of furnishings in the Holy Place and Most Holy Place.
This honored custodial role for the holiest of Tabernacle objects highlights the special trust God placed in the Kohathites.
Key Events Involving Kohathites
Beyond their routine duties, Kohathites took part in several momentous occasions in Israel’s wandering the wilderness and entry into Canaan. Their presence at these events underscores their integral part in worship and the religious life of God’s covenant nation.
Transporting the Ark Across the Jordan
In Joshua 3, the Kohathites faithfully carried the Ark of the Covenant ahead of the Israelites as they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. The parting of the waters that allowed Israel to walk on dry ground (Joshua 3:17) mirrored God’s prior miracle at the Red Sea after the Exodus. The Kohathites’ careful transport of the Ark provided a continuation between Israel’s first act of divine deliverance and their final entrance into Canaan.
Marching Around Jericho
In Joshua chapter 6, God instructs Israel to silently march around Jericho once daily for six days, and seven times on the seventh day. As with the crossing of the Jordan, the Kohathites bore the Ark of the Covenant ahead of the procession per God’s command. On the seventh day, the priests blew their trumpets, the people shouted, and the walls of Jericho miraculously collapsed allowing Israel to destroy the city (Joshua 6:20). The presence of the Ark – carried by the Kohathites – was vital to securing this victory.
Transferring the Ark to Jerusalem
After King David captured Jerusalem to establish as his royal city, one of his first priorities was to move the Ark of the Covenant there from nearby Kiriath Jearim (1 Chronicles 13:6). However, in David’s initial attempt, the Kohathites placed the Ark on an ox cart rather than carrying by poles as mandated (1 Chronicles 15:13). This improper transport led to God striking Uzzah dead for his irreverence in steadying the ark (1 Chronicles 13:10). This sober event reinforced the importance of Kohathites handling the Ark precisely as God required.
Temple Construction and Service
King Solomon later arranged for the Kohathites to play an integral part in constructing the stationary Temple in Jerusalem to replace the portable Tabernacle (1 Chronicles 23:12; 2 Chronicles 34:12). The Kohathites also continued their duties from the Tabernacle era by supplying skilled musicians and singers to lead Temple worship (1 Chronicles 6:31-32). When the Temple was dedicated, they joyfully fulfilled their role in the inauguration celebrations while transporting the Ark into its new resting place in the Most Holy Place (2 Chronicles 5:4-6, 12-13).
The Legacy and Impact of the Kohathites
This priestly clan of Kohathite Levites left an indelible mark on Israel’s history through their faithful service spanning the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, settlement in Canaan, and into the days of the monarchy.
Partnership with Aaron’s Descendants
While Aaron’s descendants held the high priesthood, the Kohathites worked in partnership with them in carrying out priestly functions. This cooperation was essential for proper worship and reverence toward God who dwelt symbolically in the Tabernacle and later the Temple. Kohathites were keepers of the holiest relics that facilitated God’s presence with His people.
Custodians of God’s Dwelling Place
By transporting the Tabernacle and Temple furnishings, Kohathites acted as custodians and stewards of the meeting place between God and His people. Their work allowed Yahweh to “dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8 NKJV) within the portable Tabernacle as Israel conquered Canaan. In doing so, they enabled the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to be present with His chosen nation.
Models of Obedience and Stewardship
The severe consequences suffered by Uzzah for mishandling the Ark reflected the gravity of the Kohathite duties. This cultivated an attitude of obedience, diligence, and stewardship within the Kohathites as they operated according to God’s strict protocols. Their meticulous service provides an example for handling sacred matters with reverence and awe.
Foreshadowing Eternal Redemption
In a broader sense, the Kohathites’ custodianship of the Tabernacle and its relics – especially the Atonement Cover (Mercy Seat) atop the Ark of the Covenant – foreshadowed Christ’s eternal redemption through sacrifice. As Hebrews 9 explains, the entire Tabernacle system pointed toward Christ as the ultimate high priest entering God’s presence in the heavenly temple to atone for sins forever (Hebrews 9:11-12, 23-28). The Kohathites’ work enabled this symbolic foretelling to function, reiterating the importance of their role in God’s redemptive plan.
Conclusion & Key Takeaways
In summary, gaining insight into the Kohathites enriches our understanding of God’s specific instructions fororganized, ceremonial worship in the Old Testament. As we’ve seen, key takeaways include:
- Kohathites descended from Kohath, a son of Levi, conferring priestly duties to them
- They bore responsibility for transporting and maintaining the most sacred Tabernacle furnishings including the Ark of the Covenant
- Kohathites faithfully carried out their duties during pivotal events like the crossing of the Jordan and the battle of Jericho
- Their service continued at the Temple in cooperation with the high priestly line of Aaron
- They acted as custodians and stewards of God’s dwelling place among His people.
- Their example highlights principles of obedience, diligence, and reverence in handling holy things.
- Their role foreshadowed Christ’s redemptive work as eternal high priest in God’s presence
The Kohathites provide a window into God’s detailed orchestration of Israel’s religious practices, while also giving glimpses of His ultimate plan of salvation through Jesus. I hope this overview has helped to biblically answer the question – who were the Kohathites? May we all strive to serve God as faithfully and reverently as this clan did through generations.