Numbers 2 – The Camp of Israel
A. The tribes of Israel arranged around the tabernacle.
1. (1-2) The command to arrange around the tabernacle.
And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: “Everyone of the children of Israel shall camp by his own standard, beside the emblems of his father’s house; they shall camp some distance from the tabernacle of meeting.”
a. Everyone of the children of Israel shall camp by his own standard: Israel had been on this Exodus journey for more than a year and had assembled in just about any way they had pleased. But now, ready to enter into the Promised Land, they had to take the next step in organization: Ordering themselves.
i. Balaam described the beauty and order of the camp of Israel in Numbers 24:5-6: How lovely are your tents, O Jacob! Your dwellings, O Israel! Like valleys that stretch out, like gardens by the riverside, like aloes planted by the LORD, like cedars beside the waters.
ii. “There is a sense in which the orderliness of these early chapters of Numbers is akin to the orderliness of Genesis 1. As God has created the heavens and the earth and all that fills them with order, beauty, purpose, and wonder, so he constitutes his people with order, beauty, purpose, and wonder.” (Allen)
iii. “In the War Scroll from the Qumran caves, distinguishable standards were to be carried by each division within the ancestral tribe.” (Cole)
b. They shall camp some distance from the tabernacle of meeting: At the center of this order was the tabernacle itself. The tribes would arrange themselves in a square to the east, south, west, and north in relation to the tabernacle. Since the tabernacle was symbolically the presence of God with them, this meant all order in Israel began by being centered around God Himself.
i. “The Egyptian army under Rameses II (13th century B.C.) adopted this formation in camp. They camped in a square with the royal tent in the middle. Likewise Israel’s king dwelt in the centre of his armies in the tent of meeting.” (Wenham)
ii. “The Hebrew word order of Numbers 2:2 stresses the role of the individual in the context of the community; each one was to know his exact position within the camp. A more literal translation, following the studied order of the Hebrew original, follows: Each by his standard, by the banners of their father’s house, the Israelites will encamp; in a circuit some way off from the Tent of Meeting they will encamp. The repetition of the verb ‘will encamp’ is for stately stress. Here is the meaning of the individual in Israel, and here is the significance of his family.” (Allen)
iii. Some distance: “Partly out of reverence to God and his worship, and the portion allotted to it, and partly for caution, lest their vicinity to it might tempt them to make too near approaches to it.” (Poole)
2. (3-9) The tribes camped to the east of the tabernacle.
“On the east side, toward the rising of the sun, those of the standard of the forces with Judah shall camp according to their armies; and Nahshon the son of Amminadab shall be the leader of the children of Judah.” And his army was numbered at seventy-four thousand six hundred. “Those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Issachar, and Nethanel the son of Zuar shall be the leader of the children of Issachar.” And his army was numbered at fifty-four thousand four hundred. Then comes the tribe of Zebulun, and Eliab the son of Helon shall be the leader of the children of Zebulun.” And his army was numbered at fifty-seven thousand four hundred. All who were numbered according to their armies of the forces with Judah, one hundred and eighty-six thousand four hundred; these shall break camp first.”
a. On the east side, toward the rising of the sun: In the arrangement of the tribes, God started with the east side. In our western world, we normally orient things toward the north. In the ancient Near East, things were arranged toward the east, toward the rising of the sun.
i. “The placement on the east is very significant in Israel’s thought. East is the place of the rising of the sun, the source of hope and sustenance. Westward was the sea. Israel’s traditional stance was with its back to the ocean and the descent of the sun.” (Allen)
ii. “The front is eastward, and Judah has the post of honour in the van.” (Watson)
iii. “Judah encamped foremost. It was fit the lion should lead the way…. This order in their march showed the principality that should continue in this tribe till Shiloh came. Judah herein also was a type of Christ, who is ‘the Captain of the Lord’s host,’ (Joshua 5:14) and ‘of our salvation,’ (Hebrews 2:10) and goeth before his heavenly armies.” (Trapp)
b. On the east side, toward the rising of the sun, those of the standard of the forces with Judah shall camp according to their armies: Judah was first, and closest to the tabernacle itself. The tribes of Issachar and Zebulun followed in order after Judah. These tribes would order themselves after the standard (the banner or flag) of Judah, which is sometimes considered to bear the image of a lion.
i. Different sources cite different emblems or figures on these standards. Keil and Delitzsch admit “Neither the Mosaic law, nor the Old Testament generally, gives us any intimation as to the form or character of the standard,” and claim that rabbinical tradition describes the images on each standard. “According to rabbinical tradition, the standard of Judah bore the figure of a lion, that of Reuben the likeness of a man or of a man’s head, that of Ephraim the figure of an ox, and that of Dan the figure of an eagle.” However, they give no reference to any ancient rabbi, citing only the 16th-century Roman Catholic commentator Jerome de Prado.
ii. Adam Clarke, quoting Johann Jacob Scheuchzer (a Swiss physician and Bible commentator, 1672-1733), says that the “Talmudists” claim the four figures of a lion, a man, a calf, and an eagle for the standards of the four groups of tribes – but Clarke provides no citation.
iii. Louis Ginzberg in his Legends of the Jews gives a list without citation: “Judah’s standard bore in its upper part the figure of a lion, for its forefather had been characterized by Jacob as ‘a lion’s whelp’…. Reuben’s standard had in its upper part the figure of a man, corresponding to the mandrakes that Reuben, forefather of this tribe, found, for this plant had the form of a manikin…. In the standard of Ephraim was fashioned the form of a fish, for Jacob had blessed the forefather of this tribe by telling him to multiply like a fish…. Dan’s standard contained the form of a serpent, for ‘Dan shall be a serpent by the way,’ was Jacob’s blessing for this tribe.” Ginzberg also gives a second list (without citation) of a figure or image representing each tribe.
iv. The 1675 Portuguese book Thesouro de Nobreza (Thesaurus of Nobility) gives the coats of arms of many noble families both of its time and from history. The first chapter of the book is titled “Weapons of the Tribes of Israel” and it presents an imagined coat of arms for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Later in the book it pictures imagined coats of arms for Joshua, David, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, King Arthur, and many others.
v. “Jewish tradition suggests that the tribal banners corresponded in color to the twelve stones in the breastpiece of the high priest (Exodus 28:15-21). Further, this tradition holds that the standard of the triad led by Judah had the figure of a lion, that of Reuben the figure of a man, that of Ephraim the figure of an ox, and that of Dan the figure of an eagle (see the four living creatures described by Ezekiel 1:10; cf. Revelation 4:7). These traditions are late, however, and difficult to substantiate historically, as the Torah does not describe the nature or designs of the banners of Numbers 2.” (Allen)
vi. With no reference or citation, Morgan wrote: “On the east – that is, fronting the entrance – the standard-bearing tribe was Judah, with its symbol of a lion of gold on a field of scarlet…. On the west, Ephraim’s standard was a black ox on a field of gold…. On the south, Reuben bore the standard on which was a man on a field of gold…. On the north, Dan was the standard-bearing tribe, his symbol being an eagle of gold on a field of blue.”
vii. In summary, we don’t have firm biblical evidence for what appeared on the standard (the banner or flag) of Judah or any of the other tribes, though many figures have been suggested.
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c. And Nahshon the son of Amminadab shall be the leader of the children of Judah: God recognized a specifically called leader (Nahshon) for the tribe of Judah, and for each of the tribes following. The order and organization God called Israel to embrace required leadership, with leaders both recognized by God and respected by the people.
i. “Without this pattern, apart from this order, the Hebrews would have remained a mob—large, disorganized, unruly, and bound for disaster. With this pattern, and the discipline and devotion it implied, was the opportunity for grand victory.” (Allen)
d. One hundred and eighty-six thousand four hundred: The total number of available soldiers among the eastward tribes was 186,400.
e. These shall break camp first: There was an order to the encampment and for the marching of the tribes. They were to move as an orderly army, not as a random mob.
i. “This whole chapter is very full of interest as revealing the orderliness of the Divine arrangements. This host of God was not a mob, lacking order. It was a disciplined company.” (Morgan)
3. (10-16) The tribes camped to the south of the tabernacle.
“On the south side shall be the standard of the forces with Reuben according to their armies, and the leader of the children of Reuben shall be Elizur the son of Shedeur.” And his army was numbered at forty-six thousand five hundred. “Those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Simeon, and the leader of the children of Simeon shall be Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai.” And his army was numbered at fifty-nine thousand three hundred. “Then comes the tribe of Gad, and the leader of the children of Gad shall be Eliasaph the son of Reuel.” And his army was numbered at forty-five thousand six hundred and fifty. “All who were numbered according to their armies of the forces with Reuben, one hundred and fifty-one thousand four hundred and fifty; they shall be the second to break camp.”
a. On the south side shall be the standard of the forces with Reuben according to their armies: On the south side of the tabernacle Reuben was the first tribe and set closest to the tabernacle itself. Then the tribes of Simeon and Gad followed in order. The tribes ordered themselves after the standard of Reuben, which is sometimes considered to bear the image of a man.
b. One hundred and fifty-one thousand four hundred and fifty: The total number of available soldiers among the southward tribes was 151,450.
4. (17) The tribe in the middle, with the tabernacle: Levi.
And the tabernacle of meeting shall move out with the camp of the Levites in the middle of the camps; as they camp, so they shall move out, everyone in his place, by their standards.
a. With the camp of the Levites in the middle of the camps: The priestly tribe was in the middle of the camps, closest to the tabernacle and surrounded by the other tribes.
i. “There is a sense here of the progressive manifestation of the presence of God in the midst of the people. First he is on the mountain of Sinai; then he comes to the tent without the camp; then he indwells the tent in the midst of the camp. One day he would reveal himself through the Incarnation in the midst of his people (John 1:1-18); and, on a day still to come, there will be the full realization of the presence of the person of God dwelling in the midst of his people in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1-4).” (Allen)
b. So they shall move out, everyone in his place, by their standards: Apparently, this was not only the way Israel was to make their camp, but also, the way they were to order their march. The taking of Canaan would not be accomplished by a mob but by an organized and orderly group.
5. (18-24) The tribes camped to the west of the tabernacle.
“On the west side shall be the standard of the forces with Ephraim according to their armies, and the leader of the children of Ephraim shall be Elishama the son of Ammihud.” And his army was numbered at forty thousand five hundred. “Next to him comes the tribe of Manasseh, and the leader of the children of Manasseh shall be Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur.” And his army was numbered at thirty-two thousand two hundred. “Then comes the tribe of Benjamin, and the leader of the children of Benjamin shall be Abidan the son of Gideoni.” And his army was numbered at thirty-five thousand four hundred. “All who were numbered according to their armies of the forces with Ephraim, one hundred and eight thousand one hundred; they shall be the third to break camp.”
a. On the west side shall be the standard of the forces with Ephraim according to their armies: Ephraim was first, and closest to the tabernacle itself on the west side. Following the tribe of Ephraim were the tribes of Manasseh and Benjamin. The tribes ordered themselves after the standard of Ephraim, which is sometimes considered to bear the image of a calf.
b. One hundred and eight thousand one hundred; they shall be the third to break camp: The total number of available soldiers among the westward tribes was 108,100.
6. (25-31) The tribes camped to the north of the tabernacle.
“The standard of the forces with Dan shall be on the north side according to their armies, and the leader of the children of Dan shall be Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai.” And his army was numbered at sixty-two thousand seven hundred. “Those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Asher, and the leader of the children of Asher shall be Pagiel the son of Ocran.” And his army was numbered at forty-one thousand five hundred. “Then comes the tribe of Naphtali, and the leader of the children of Naphtali shall be Ahira the son of Enan.” And his army was numbered at fifty-three thousand four hundred. “All who were numbered of the forces with Dan, one hundred and fifty-seven thousand six hundred; they shall break camp last, with their standards.”
a. The standard of the forces with Dan shall be on the north side according to their armies: Dan was first and closest to the tabernacle itself on the north side. Following the tribe of Dan were the tribes of Asher and Naphtali. The tribes ordered themselves after the standard of Dan, which is sometimes considered to bear the image of an eagle.
b. All who were numbered of the forces with Dan, one hundred and fifty-seven thousand six hundred: The total number of available soldiers among the northward tribes was 157,600.
7. (32-34) Summary: Israel’s order around the tabernacle.
These are the ones who were numbered of the children of Israel by their fathers’ houses. All who were numbered according to their armies of the forces were six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty. But the Levites were not numbered among the children of Israel, just as the LORD commanded Moses. Thus the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses; so they camped by their standards and so they broke camp, each one by his family, according to their fathers’ houses.
a. These are the ones who were numbered of the children of Israel by their fathers’ houses: The total of 603,550 available soldiers were ordered around the tabernacle. This was the number of men available as soldiers among the tribes of Israel, excluding the tribe of Levi.
b. So they camped by their standards: Each tribal group was arranged after the standards of the tribes, and they broke camp and marched in that same order.
i. “In the marching forth from Mount Sinai, the tribes dutifully and faithfully adhere to these instructions for orderly encampment, assembly and disassembly of the tabernacle, and disembarkment on the journey through the wilderness.” (Cole)
ii. “This verse also speaks of significant order—a major accomplishment for a people so numerous, so recently enslaved, and more recently a mob in disarray. The text speaks well of the administrative leadership of Moses, God’s reluctant prophet, and of the work done by the twelve worthies who were the leaders of each tribe.” (Allen)
1. God is a God of order; here, before Israel can take the Promised Land, He requires they order themselves also. Not only is it more efficient and useful, but it is also simply more like God – ordered and organized.
a. There is a limit to what we can be and what we can do for the LORD without order and organization. It isn’t that order and organization are requirements for progress in the Christian life; they are progress in the Christian life, becoming more like the LORD.
b. Nothing is accomplished in God’s kingdom without order and organization. While it may sometimes seem that things progress randomly or chaotically, this is only how it appears to us. Behind the scenes, God always moves with order and organization, though we often cannot perceive it.
2. God orders things according to His wisdom, not our wisdom. In the arrangement of the tribes, He did not place the largest tribes closest to the tabernacle (as if bigger is always better); Ephraim, the closest westward tribe, was the third smallest tribe. Nor did the LORD place all the large tribes on the outward perimeter for greatest protection (Benjamin, the second smallest tribe, is on the outer perimeter). God always works with order and organization, but the reasons for God’s order and organization may not always make sense to us.
a. Our resistance to God’s order and organization is almost always the product of simple selfishness – wanting to do things our own way, instead of the LORD’s way. For hundreds of years, the Israelites lived as slaves in Egypt, and slaves don’t need to worry much about order and organization. They are told what to do and often have no personal investment in the success of their work. In contrast, free men must be taught the principles of order and organization, and they must submit to these principles.
3. Everything was positioned in relation to the presence of God in the tabernacle. God could have described where the tribe of Judah was in relation to the tribe of Dan, but He did not. The reference point was always God Himself.
a. It is hard to underestimate the trouble people get into in their walk with God because they position and measure themselves in reference to other people instead of God. God is to be our focus, not other people.
4. The tribes of Israel camped around four banners, which are sometimes considered to bear the images of a lion (Judah), a man (Reuben), a calf (Ephraim), and an eagle (Dan). If the standards did bear these images, we find a remarkable correspondence with the four creatures surrounding the throne of God in Revelation.
a. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. (Revelation 4:7)
b. God’s order is never arbitrary or just made up on a whim. It is after His heavenly pattern. We must always accept God’s order and organization, even when we don’t understand it.