The Israelites spent 40 years wandering through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.
That’s 40 years of setting up camp and taking down camp.
Forty. Years. Every time God told them to move, it was a process. Setting up. Taking down. Setting up. Taking down. Setting up…
And on and on and on.
I’m sure that got old fast. I get tired of setting up and taking down tents after just one camping trip, and that’s with a modern, lightweight tent held up by those fancy fiberglass rods that practically put themselves together. The Hebrew text isn’t super definitive on the point, but I feel confident in saying those weren’t the kind of tents the Israelites were using.
But you know who had it worse than the average Israelite?
The Levites. In addition to worrying about their own tents, they had to move the tabernacle—the ornately designed, beautifully crafted holy place that served as both a physical reminder of the presence of God and as the centerpiece of the Israelite camp. For forty years, the Levites were responsible for taking it apart and putting it back together. Every board, every socket, every curtain, every cord, every pillar—the Levites were the ones who had to load them up and make sure everything made it to the next campsite in the right order at the right time (Numbers 10:13-28).
Setting up. Taking down. Setting up. Taking down. Setting up…
* * *
The hyoid bone is not a bone we talk about very often—or ever, honestly. It’s not very big or very obvious, but I promise you, you’d notice if it went missing.
The hyoid is a unique bone because it isn’t directly anchored to the other bones of your skeleton. It’s the odd U-shaped bone you can feel at the top of your throat, and it’s technically floating—attached via ligaments to the muscles at the floor of your mouth, your tongue, your larynx, your epiglottis, and your pharynx.
All these attachments mean that your hyoid plays an important role in some everyday activities you probably don’t think twice (or even once) about doing—activities like swallowing, speaking, and breathing. (Like I said, you’d notice if it went missing.)
And yet, important as it is, when’s the last time you heard someone make a comment of appreciation about their hyoid bone? We talk about other, more “in the spotlight” bones and organs far more often—ribs, knees, lungs, neck, stomach, eyes, sometimes even smaller bits like metacarpals and little ear bones—but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the hyoid bone get any attention. In fact, I’ll be honest—until I started writing this blog, I didn’t even know what that bone was even called, much less what functions it performed.
But then, it doesn’t need me to know about it, does it? However much (or little) you know about your hyoid, it’s there, every day, doing its job and making sure you can do those simple little inconsequential things like breathing and swallowing.
* * *
When most of us talk about the Levites, we’re usually talking about the Levitical priesthood, but the priesthood is actually a much smaller sliver of a much larger pie.
Broadly speaking, the tribe of Levi can be subdivided into the primary family groups—the sons of Kohath (Kohathites), the sons of Gershon (Gershonites), and the sons of Merari (Merarites). Each of those family clans was responsible for part of the tabernacle when it was time to move camp. The Kohathites moved the holy items of the sanctuary (but only after the priests had covered them), the Gershonites took care of things like the curtains and screens, as well as the coverings of the tabernacle itself, and the Merarites were responsible for the structural elements of the tabernacle—all the boards, pillars, sockets, and bars that held everything together (Numbers 4:1-33).
The priests of the tabernacle—the ones who actually performed the sacrifices on behalf of Israel—were from a much narrower lineage. All the priests were sons of Moses’s brother Aaron, who was himself a Kohathite (Numbers 18:1, 7).
The rest of the tribe of Levi—the Gershonites, the Merarites, and the remaining Kohathites—were tasked with serving as support for the priests as they ministered before God on behalf of Israel (Numbers 18:2-6). But only the priests were allowed to come near “the articles of the sanctuary and the altar” (Numbers 18:3)—for anyone else, including the other Levites, it was a death sentence.
* * *
It’s not surprising that the priests tend to take the spotlight over their Levitical brethren. They were the ones who made the sacrifices that pointed toward the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They were the ones who interacted with the holy things inside the tabernacle. The high priest was the one who stood before the ark of the covenant on the day of Atonement to make intercession for God’s people.
In so many ways, they were the stars of the show. They were the intercessors; they were the judges; they were the middlemen between the nation of Israel and its God.
But the rest of the Levites?
Well, they were just the chumps who had to move the tabernacle.
How many sermons and articles have you encountered about the Levitical priesthood? A bunch, I’m sure. And how many focusing on the duties of the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites? One? Maybe two?
Honestly, if not for the rebellion of Korah, I’m not sure how long the Kohathites would have flown under my radar —and even that’s the story of a Kohathite who felt like he’d been given the short end of the stick.
* * *
These guys were the hyoid bone of Israel. They had a role to play, but when reading through the Old Testament, it’s easy to forget they were even there—or never notice them in the first place. Because they operated in the periphery of the Bible’s narrative, it’s easy to assume they never contributed anything particularly meaningful to the bigger picture.
At least, until we ask the question.
The big, obvious, sitting-right-in-front-of-us question:
What happens when there are no chumps to move the tabernacle?
What happens when the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites don’t show up to work?
The tabernacle stays where it is.
Sure, the whole rest of Israel can journey on to the next campsite, but what happens when there’s no altar for the offerings? No table for the showbread? No curtain for the ark of the covenant? No ark, period? No walls and no coverings for the entire tabernacle?
The priests might have been the ones in the spotlight, but the rest of the Levites were the ones who built the theater. Even though most of the Levites never came near the holy things of the tabernacle—never saw them uncovered, never interacted with them—they were completely indispensable to the continued functioning of that tabernacle. They had a role to play—and even though it wasn’t the most glamorous or front-and-center role, it was a role that made the entire operation possible.
Just like the hyoid.
* * *
The lesson here, which I’m hoping is obvious by now, isn’t really about the Levitical families that wandered the desert thousands of years ago, and it isn’t really about obscure skeletal components residing in our throats, either.
It’s about you. It’s about me.
We don’t all get to be the priests. Not at work, not at Church, not in our social circle, not even at home. We don’t all get to be the ones operating front-and-center where everyone can see, making obvious and unmistakable contributions to the community we’re part of.
Most of us are going to be operating in the background, behind the scenes. A lot of people might go their entire lives without being aware of what exactly we bring to the table.
Even if you had gone the rest of your life without knowing about it, the hyoid bone is still important. It’s still there, doing its job, helping you to speak, swallow, and breathe. You don’t need to acknowledge it for it to be an important part of your body. It just is, by the very nature of its contribution.
The same is true for you.
The body of Christ is “joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16).
You probably don’t know how every joint in your physical body works, and I guarantee you that there are some spiritual joints you’ve never even heard of—vital, contributing members of the body that you’ll never meet in this life.
And that’s okay.
It’s okay to be the hyoid. It’s okay to be a Kohathite, a Gershonite, or a Merarite. A lot of us are.
You’re still important. You still have value. You still contribute. We still need you.
Please keep doing what you’re doing.
Until next time,