Heart of the Story: Gershon was the first son of Levi. To understand the Gershonites importance in Israelite history including duties in the Tabernacle and Temple, we must go back to the book of Numbers.
Levi was the third son of Jacob (Israel). When the census of Israelites was order in the Sinai Desert, God mandated that Levites not be counted as fighting men. Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. The names of the Gershonite clans were Labni and Shemei. When the Tabernacle was completed in the southern Sinai Desert, Eliasaph (son of Lael) was the leader of the Gershonites. 7,500 males one month old or over comprised the Gershonites.
God set aside the Levites to be in charge of the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and all accoutrement belonging in the Tabernacle. The Levites deconstructed the Tabernacle when the Israelites moved in the desert, carrying the Tabernacle and its furnishing, and set up the Tabernacle with the Israelites stopped. Gershonites eligible for this serve in the Tent of Meeting were between the ages of 30 and 50. The Gershonites undertook this service under the direction of Ithamar, son of Aaron
Specifically, the Gershonites had the responsibility to carry:
1) the curtains of the tabernacle, Tent of Meeting, the entrance to the Tent of Meeting,
the courtyard, and the entrance to the courtyard.
2) coverings and the outer covering of sea cows of the Tent of Meeting.
3) ropes and equipment for anything to do with the curtains and coverings.
When the Israelites camped, the Gershonites were on the West side of the Tabernacle. Because the Tabernacle was always set up so that its entrance faced east, the Gershonites were located behind the Tabernacle. The Most Holy of Holies part of the Tent of Meeting would have been backed into the Gershonite’s location! They were the last line of defense against armies invading the Israelite encampment and entering into the Most Holy of Holies through the back wall.
Conclusion: The Gershonites were Levites who had key responsibilities to when the Tabernacle was moved. At the same time, the Gershonites were not priests. Only Levites in the line of Aaron were priests. Other Levites were members of the Temple choir, teachers of the law, and scribes.
Copyright: December 30, 2015; Carolyn A. Roth