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Merari was patriarch of one of three main branches of Levites, Israel’s priestly tribe. As the youngest son of Levi, Merari accompanied his father and his grandfather Jacob when the latter took his family to Egypt. There Merari and his relatives were reunited with Jacob’s son Joseph.
More important, the family was spared from the famine that had brought the entire region to its knees. Nothing else is known about Merari, aside from the fact that he made the journey from Canaan to Egypt. His descendants, however, played a vital role during Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness on their way back to the Promised Land.
The sons of Merari were given responsibility for much of the tabernacle’s structure. Also known as the Tent of Meeting, the tabernacle had to be large enough to accommodate the Levites’ priestly duties, yet portable enough to suit the Israelites’ nomadic lifestyle.
Among the pieces that the Merarites looked after were forty-eight wooden frames (each of them fifteen feet long), fifteen crossbars, and ninety-six silver bases for the frames. It was the Merarites’ job to keep these pieces in good condition and ensure their safe transit from place to place. In Moses’ day, more than three thousand of Merari’s descendants actively participated in caring for God’s tabernacle.
Centuries later, when a permanent meeting place had been established in Jerusalem, King David appointed some of Merari’s descendants to be professional singers, employed to make music in praise of God.
The Merarites were singled out for honorable service yet again when two other kings, Hezekiah and later his great-grandson Josiah, ordered the temple to be purified of pagan instruments.
In Hebrew, Merari’s name means “bitter.” Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, chose a form of this name for herself when she returned to her hometown of Bethlehem after a famine decimated her family (see Ruth 1:20).