Schematic layout of the 12 tribes of Israel camped around the tabernacle (Ralph F. Wilson)

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When the number of fighting-age men was counted, God spoke again to Moses and Aaron. The Lord commanded where the tribes would camp, in relation to the Tabernacle, giving the tribe of Levi prominence as keepers of the holy place. “spake”, dāḇar, has a number of meanings but appears in this instance to mean ‘put in order’. It implies actual speech, as in a conversation. On the other hand, the following word, “saying”, 'āmar, can mean ‘to say in your heart’. It probably means, then, that when God commanded Moses and Aaron, they believed and kept it in their minds and hearts as a matter of complete faith.

Verses 1-4

  1. “And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
  2. Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father's house: far off about the tabernacle of the congregation shall they pitch.
  3. And on the east side toward the rising of the sun shall they of the standard of the camp of Judah pitch throughout their armies: and Nahshon the son of Amminadab shall be captain of the children of Judah.
  4. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred.”

Everyone had to pitch their tents in a specific order. Twelve tribes were to be sub-divided into four areas, north, south, east and west. The boundaries of each of the four areas were to be marked by their own standard, deḡel, which was a banner or flag. Thus, each family kept to its own tribe, and three tribes were camped together in each of the four areas or segments. It appears that each tribe, too, might have had its own ‘ensign’ or mark/flag. And each tribe was overseen by its own captain, nāśî'. The captain was its ruler, or chief, governor. Also referred to as a prince. When Moses needed to speak to the tribes, he would call for each prince, who would then pass-on what was said to the people. A very efficient way to communicate quickly with such vast numbers.

Only the Levites could camp around the Tabernacle. All others had to camp “far off”,  neḡeḏ, from the Tabernacle. This can have several meanings in this context – in sight of; in front of; parallel to; opposite; at a distance. This more-or-less tells us that the tribes camped around all sides of the Tabernacle, but Levites camped closer.

The tribe of Judah comes first, its tents camped east of the Tabernacle – 74,600 people at that time. The tents were pitched as they would be found at a time of war, spreading outwards from the centre, the Tabernacle, presumably to protect it. Indeed, the word ‘captain’ and references speak of a war-like position. God chose each captain and related the name to Moses and Aaron. Judah’s captain was to be, at that time, Nahshon, son of Amminadab. Three are mentioned with this name, but here it is Amminadab the father-in-law of Aaron and ancestor of Jesus. His son, Nahshon, was fifth descendant of Judah, and became the first prince of Judah. His name is interesting, if not strange, because it means ‘enchanter’ (from the root, nāḥaš). Was this from an Egyptian occult connection? (I cannot tell. God knows, and would not allow an enchanter to be a prince over the people). The three tribes pitched next to each other were close kin.

Note that the number quoted is the “host”, ṣāḇā', which only refers to the number of fighting men listed in chapter one. If it was possible to also include mothers and fathers (not of fighting age), grandparents, siblings, etc., plus any servants, the actual number of people in just this one tribe could easily be over 300,000. We can think in a similar way for each tribe, which could presume a total number of Hebrews at 1.5 million or more. And their full camp measured perhaps 12 square miles (though I think it might have been much larger, to allow for cattle and sheep). Levites lived around the Tabernacle. It seems, the distance from the Levite pitches to the nearest non-Levite tents was at least half a mile… a kind of no-man’s land.

Verses 5-9

  1. “And those that do pitch next unto him shall be the tribe of Issachar: and Nethaneel the son of Zuar shall be captain of the children of Issachar.
  2. And his host, and those that were numbered thereof, were fifty and four thousand and four hundred.
  3. Then the tribe of Zebulun: and Eliab the son of Helon shall be captain of the children of Zebulun.
  4. And his host, and those that were numbered thereof, were fifty and seven thousand and four hundred.
  5. All that were numbered in the camp of Judah were an hundred thousand and fourscore thousand and six thousand and four hundred, throughout their armies. These shall first set forth.”

The tribe of Issachar pitched next to the tribe of Judah, still east of the Tabernacle. One can only imagine the massive area covered by all the tribes. Of Issachar there were 54,400 fighting men. Their prince or captain was to be Nethaneel, son of Zuar. Zuar assisted Moses and was chief of the tribe when they escaped Egypt. His name possibly means he was small of stature. His son, Nathaneel, was to be the tribal chief, having been a sub-chief already.

The tribe of Zebulun, numbering 57,400 fighting men, camped next to the tribe of Issachar. The chosen prince was to be Eliab son of Helon.

Verse 9 might appear to be odd, if not wrong. In chapter one we read that the number of fighting men in the tribe of Judah was 74,600. In chapter 2 verse 9, we are given a number of 186,400. There is no discrepancy. The three tribes closest in kin were camped next to each other. The total fighting men of Issachar and Zebulun were simply added together with those of Judah – thus making 186,400 men. The tribe of Judah was given the order to set its tents first.

Verses 10-13

  1. “On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Reuben according to their armies: and the captain of the children of Reuben shall be Elizur the son of Shedeur.
  2. And his host, and those that were numbered thereof, were forty and six thousand and five hundred.
  3. And those which pitch by him shall be the tribe of Simeon: and the captain of the children of Simeon shall be Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai.
  4. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were fifty and nine thousand and three hundred.”

The tribe of Reuben were told to pitch their tents to the south of both the Tabernacle and the tents of the Levites. There were 46,500 fighting-men, led by the prince of that tribe, Elizur, son of Shedeur. Reuben was the eldest son of Jacob and Leah. Elizur was one of the chiefs of the tribe until God (through Moses) chose him to be the primary chief, or prince. Also pitched to the south with Reuben, was the tribe of Simeon, second son of Jacob and Leah. These numbered 59,300 fighting men, led by prince Shelumiel, son of Zurishaddai, who took over from his father.

Verses 14-16

  1. “Then the tribe of Gad: and the captain of the sons of Gad shall be Eliasaph the son of Reuel.
  2. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were forty and five thousand and six hundred and fifty.
  3. All that were numbered in the camp of Reuben were an hundred thousand and fifty and one thousand and four hundred and fifty, throughout their armies. And they shall set forth in the second rank.”

Each side, North, South, East and West, contained the primary tribe plus two allied tribes. Thus, Reuben was sited with Simeon and Gad. The chosen prince of Gad was Eliasaph, son of Reuel. Reuel was a son of Esau, by Bashemath, sister of Ishmael. The number of fighting men was151,450. These were in “the second rank”, indicating their rank compared to the other two tribes.

Verse 17

  1. “Then the tabernacle of the congregation shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camp: as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards.”

The tribe of Levi was camped immediately around the Tabernacle, which was central to all the tents of the whole people. Like the other tribes, the Levites showed their origin and tribe by their standards/flags. We do not know exactly how many people there were, because they were not counted in the military census. But, we may reasonably suggest their number was similar to that of other tribes. Levi was the third son of Jacob and Leah.

Verses 18-21

  1. “On the west side shall be the standard of the camp of Ephraim according to their armies: and the captain of the sons of Ephraim shall be Elishama the son of Ammihud.
  2. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were forty thousand and five hundred.
  3. And by him shall be the tribe of Manasseh: and the captain of the children of Manasseh shall be Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur.
  4. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were thirty and two thousand and two hundred.”

To the West was allocated the main tribe of Ephraim, and the two closely allied families of Manasseh and Benjamin. The prince of Ephraim was Elishama, son of Ammihud. He led fighting men numbered at 40,500. Next came the tribe of Manasseh, eldest son of Joseph, led by prince Gamaliel, son of Pedahzur. His fighting men numbered 32,200.

Verses 22-24

  1. “Then the tribe of Benjamin: and the captain of the sons of Benjamin shall be Abidan the son of Gideoni.
  2. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were thirty and five thousand and four hundred.
  3. All that were numbered of the camp of Ephraim were an hundred thousand and eight thousand and an hundred, throughout their armies. And they shall go forward in the third rank.”

Joining Ephraim and Manasseh on the West side was the tribe of Benjamin, son of Jacob and Rachel, and brother to Joseph. The prince was Abidan, son of Gideoni. They had 35,400 fighting men. Benjamin was third in rank to the other two. Together, all three tribes had 108,100 fighting men.

Verses 25-28

  1. “The standard of the camp of Dan shall be on the north side by their armies: and the captain of the children of Dan shall be Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai.
  2. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were threescore and two thousand and seven hundred.
  3. And those that encamp by him shall be the tribe of Asher: and the captain of the children of Asher shall be Pagiel the son of Ocran.
  4. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were forty and one thousand and five hundred.”

To the north of the Tabernacle was the main tribe of Dan, fifth son of Jacob and Bilhah. The prince was Ahiezer, son of Ammishaddai. Ahiezer appears to have assisted Moses. His fighting men numbered 62,700. Next to the tribe of Dan was the tribe of Asher (son of Jacob and Zilpah), whose prince was Pagiel, son of Ocran. Their fighting men numbered 41,500.

Verses 29-31

  1. “Then the tribe of Naphtali: and the captain of the children of Naphtali shall be Ahira the son of Enan.
  2. And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were fifty and three thousand and four hundred.
  3. All they that were numbered in the camp of Dan were an hundred thousand and fifty and seven thousand and six hundred. They shall go hindmost with their standards.”

In the third rank under Dan, was the tribe of Naphtali. Its prince was Ahira, son of Enan. This tribe had 53,400 fighting men. Altogether, the tribe of Dan (that is, the three tribes associated with each other by family ties) had a total of 157,600 men of fighting age. Dan formed the rear formation of all the tribes in war.

Verses 32--34

  1. “These are those which were numbered of the children of Israel by the house of their fathers: all those that were numbered of the camps throughout their hosts were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.
  2. But the Levites were not numbered among the children of Israel; as the LORD commanded Moses.
  3. And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers.”

In total, the census showed a total number of fighting men to be 603,550. This was a vast number of soldiers at that time. Of course, with births and deaths, etc., the number would later change accordingly, but stayed at well over half a million warriors throughout the desert travels. Add all other members of the tribes and we have a figure that must surely have been up to 1.5 or even 2 million or more. The Levites remained outside the military census and did not formally join the fighters, because their sole task was to look after the Tabernacle and rites. Would they have fought off enemies if they got close to the Tabernacle? Probably, but as a reserve. All the people obeyed God in the matter of tent pitches and tribal flags. The whole episode is evidence of an incredibly organised tribal system, given order and ranks by God, through Moses. This order gave discipline and sense to what was to become God’s nation of Israel.

© 02 June 2024

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