The descendants of Levi constitute three sub-tribes in Israel: the Gershonites, the Kohathites, and the Merarites. Each has a specific role to play in the dismantling and re-erection of the wilderness tabernacle. The Gershonites are in charges of the coverings and screens, the Kohathites with the interior furnishings, and the Merarites for the wooden frames and pillars and the metal sockets (Numbers 3:21-37).
When the tabernacle is set up, the Merarites form, the Gershonites cover, and the Kohathites fill. When the tabernacle is dismantled, the priests first cover all the furniture so that the Levites cannot see it (Numbers 4:1-14), and then the Levites get to work. First the Kohathites take out the furnishings, then the Gershonites strip away the coverings, and finally the Merarites take apart the frame (Numbers 4:15-33).
Form, cover, fill; empty, uncover, disassemble. Sounds familiar.
The Levitical tasks recapitulate the work of the creation week. God made an earth that was formless, empty and dark, and then spent six days lighting, forming, and filling it. Since the tabernacle is a microcosm, it’s not surprising that the Levites’ work resembles the creation week: Forming, covering, and filling.
And the disassembly of the tabernacle resembles the various decreations that occur throughout the Bible. When God judges a world, He empties it, strips away its protections, dismantles its physical and institutional structures. When Israel goes into exile, for instance, exiles are first taken away to Babylon, then Nebuchadnezzar breaches the walls of Jerusalem, and then he burns the temple and the palace to the ground.
Many of the writing prophets are priests (Jeremiah and Ezekiel explicitly, probably Isaiah too). They draw on their priestly experience to predict how Yahweh will dismantle an impenitent Israel.
The creation connection is reinforced in Numbers 3 by numerological patterns. The Gershonites are in charge of 7 items: tabernacle, tent, covering, doorway screen for tent, hangings, doorway screen for the court, and cords (3:25-26). The Kohathites also have responsibility for 7 items: ark, table, lampstand, altars, utensils, screen, all the service (3:31). The Merarites have 10 items on their list: frames, bars, pillars, sockets, equipment and service for the tabernacle (6), as well as pillars, sockets, pegs, and cords for the curtain (4) around the court (3:36-37). When we add all that up (7 + 7 + 10) we get a nice round 24, twice Israel’s tribes, the number of elders around the heavenly throne, and the number of the hours of the day. Perhaps: The dismantling of the tabernacle is a “day of Yahweh,” as is its re-erection.