The Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites were three clans of the Levite tribe in Israel (Numbers 26:57). Each clan was comprised of descendants of the man from whom the clan received its name. Kohath was the father of the Kohathites, Gershon the father of the Gershonites, and Merari the father of the Merarites. Kohath, Gershon, and Merari were the three sons of Levi and grandsons of Jacob (Genesis 46:11). Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were Kohathites (1 Chronicles 6:2–3).
The Levites filled the priestly roles in Israel and bore the responsibility of caring for the tabernacle. The Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites had specific roles within the Levite culture. The Kohathites, for example, had charge of caring for the objects associated with the sanctuary: “This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting: the most holy things” (Numbers 4:4–14). The Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Showbread, and other holy items were the responsibility of the Kohathites (Numbers 10:21; 1 Chronicles 9:32). The Gershonites took care of the decorations in the sanctuary—curtains, ropes, and coverings (Numbers 4:24–26). The Merarites had the task of maintaining and carrying from place to place the pillars, bases, frames, pegs, and cords that created the structure of the tent of meeting. Since the Israelites were often on the move, the tent of meeting often had to be taken up and moved. Each clan had its responsibility to the sanctuary of God.
The sanctuary objects that the Kohathites transported were to be carried on their shoulders with poles made for that purpose (Numbers 7:9; cf. Exodus 25:26–28). The Gershonites and Merarites, however, were given ox carts to help with the transport of their items; the Gershonites received two carts and four oxen, and the Merarites received four carts and eight oxen (Numbers 7:6–8).
As Levites, the Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites did not receive a specific territory in the Promised Land. Rather, they were given cities and pasturelands from among the territories of the other tribes by the command of the Lord (Joshua 21:2). The Kohathites received thirteen cities from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon and ten cities from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Dan. The Gershonites received thirteen cities from Isaachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Manasseh. The Merarites got twelve cities from Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun. The distribution of the cities was decided by the drawing of lots (Joshua 21:1–8), and six of the Levites’ cities were designated as cities of refuge.