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Wednesday, July 17th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 2

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter details the layout of the camp of the Israelites in the wilderness, featuring the tabernacle in the center and the twelve tribes with their armies under the various standards deployed around it, yielding the symbolism of God (whose presence was symbolized by the tabernacle) always in the midst of His people. Even in the order of marching the centrality of the tabernacle was maintained. The strongest forces were placed in the vanguard where Judah and his hosts led the way and in the rearguard where Dan and his divisions were placed last in the line of march (Numbers 2:31). “From the position of Numbers 2:17, it is to be understood that the first two `standards’ are to precede the tent of meeting and the last two to follow it.”(F1)

Here again we are confronted with the fourfold repetition (after the manner of the 15th century B.C. literary style) of instructions regarding the deployment of the four primary divisions of Israel’s forces under Judah, Dan, Reuben and Ephraim, the four accounts differing only in the names, numbers, and sectors of their deployment. We shall quote the passage as it pertained to Judah and present an abbreviated outline of all four.

Verses 1-34

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, The children of Israel shall encamp every man by his own standard, with the ensigns of their fathers’ houses: over against the tent of meeting shall they encamp round about. And those that encamp on the east side toward the sunrising shall be they of the standard of the camp of Judah, according to their hosts: and the prince of the children of Judah shall be Nahshon the son of Amminadab. And his host and those that were numbered of them, were threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred. And those that encamp next unto him shall be the tribe of Issachar: and the prince of the children of Issachar shall be Nethanel the son of Zuar. And his host, and those that were numbered thereof, were fifty and four thousand and four hundred. And the tribe of Zebulun: and the prince of the children of Zebulun shall be Eliab the son of Helon. And his host, and those that were numbered thereof, were fifty and seven thousand and four hundred. All that were numbered of the camp of Judah were a hundred thousand and fourscore thousand and six thousand and four hundred, according to their hosts. They shall set forth first.”

The balance of the chapter, in the same terminology, describes the great camps on each of the four cardinal points of the compass, enumerated here in clockwise rotation East - South - West - North.


The host of JUDAH, Issachar, and Zebulun numbering 186,400.

Commanders: Nahshon, Nathanel, and Eliab.

Place in line of march… FIRST.


The host of REUBEN, Simeon and Gad numbering 151,450.

Commanders: Elizur, Shelumiel, and Eliasaph.

Place in line of march… SECOND.


The host of EPHRAIM, Manasseh, and Benjamin numbering 108,100.

Commanders: Elishama, Gamaliel, and Abidan.

Place in line of march… THIRD.


The host of DAN, Asher, Naphtali numbering 157,600.

Commanders: Abiezer, Pagiel, and Ahira.

Place in line of march… LAST.

A diagrammatic presentation of this is also given in the latter part of Numbers 1.

There are a number of things of very great interest in these verses, and one of these is the use of the word “standards” in Numbers 2:2-3; Numbers 2:10; Numbers 2:17-18; Numbers 2:25; Numbers 2:31; Numbers 2:34. The use of this word in close connection with the word “ensigns” would certainly appear to suggest a flag or banner of some kind, but, beginning with G. B. Gray (1903) in International Critical Commentary, persistent efforts have been made to render the word as “company, or companies.”(F2) It is regrettable that the Broadman Commentary continues this error by the allegation that, “In the second chapter, the word `standard’ should be interpreted as division or armed unit.”(F3) As John Marsh noted, however, “The evidence (for this change) is inconclusive.”(F4) Wilson’s Dictionary of O.T. words gives no other meaning than “flag, or banner, of the larger kind,”(F5) as distinguished from lesser flags such as ensigns of the fathers’ houses. The Torah, as translated from the Masoretic Text (1962) renders the word “standard,”(F6) as is also the case in the Interlinear Hebrew English O.T.(F7)

A related question with reference to this is, “What, actually, were those `standards’ of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan”? Traditions, of course, are, in no sense, dependable, but the traditions associated with these `standards’ appear to find partial corroboration in the near-universal impression that certain passages in Ezekiel and in Revelation are a reflection of them. According to Jewish expositors, “The standard of Judah was a lion (Revelation 5:5), that of Reuben was a man, that of Ephraim was an ox (Deuteronomy 33:17), and that of Dan an eagle.”(F8) As Whitelaw said, “If we could be sure of this, we would have the origins of the `living creatures’ in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:26; Ezekiel 10:1) and in Revelation (Revelation 4:4-11). However, the traditions of the Jews are too fluctuating to carry any weight. The Targums of Jerusalem assign the lion to Judah, the stag to Reuben, and the young man to Ephraim, and a serpent to Dan!”(F9) Jamieson quoted still other Jewish writers to the effect that “The banners, or standards, were distinguished by their colors, the colors of each tribe being the same as that of the precious stone representing that tribe in the breastplate of the High Priest.”(F10) The only trouble with that is that we do not know exactly what those were!

“It is God’s delight to do things in an orderly way. The sun, moon, and stars operate according to a fixed pattern… even comets are not erratic wanderers, but move with precision.”(F11)

This chapter reveals that God had an orderly and systematic plan for the encampments and movements of Israel in the wilderness, and so it is also for his Church in our own times.

Any extensive reading of current writings on these chapters reveals all kinds of objections, none of which are of any value. One such unbelieving comment was noted by Ward, i.e., that it is impossible to find a space big enough in the vicinity of Sinai for such a deployment as that here presented, but, as he wisely pointed out, “There are many areas in that vicinity to provide ample space for what God commanded.”(F12)

Another objection by critics seeking to late-date Numbers affirms that the quadrangular arrangement of the tribes of Israel by Moses actually indicated a time comparable to that of Alexander the Great (4th century B.C.). However, “It is now known that Rameses II, contemporary with Moses, used this same arrangement in his Syrian campaign.”(F13)

In regard to the twelve commanders listed in the summary above, it is of interest that in each case these are the same as the twelve princes who assisted Moses in the taking of the sum of the people, also, presumably, the chief of each division with two subordinate commanders in each instance was the one associated with the four quadrant leaders, Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan, namely, Nahshon, Elizur, Elishama, Abiezer.

Another interesting observation with reference to this deployment was seen by Wade in certain discriminations made with reference to which of the wives of Jacob was the maternal ancestor: “Those deployed on the east were the children of Leah; those on the south were from Leah and Zilpah (Leah’s maid); on the west were the descendants of Rachel, and those under Dan on the north were children of either Bilhah (Rachel’s maid) or of Zilpah (Leah’s maid).”(F14) Oddly enough, this corresponds roughly to the deployment of his sons upon the occasion when Jacob went forth to meet Esau. Before leaving this chapter, we wish to cite an occasion for humor. The liberal, critical commentator, Lindsay B. Longacre, writing in Abingdon’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible, referred to Numbers as a “late book,” dating from post-exilic times, giving many references to the imaginary documents so frequently mentioned by the critics; and then, he told us what this chapter teaches, as follows:

“The tribes are given their places with reference to the tabernacle, which holds the central place of honor and security. FOUR tribes are placed east of the tabernacle; FOUR south, FOUR west, and FOUR north, with the tribe of Levi next to the tabernacle (Numbers 2:17). The disposition of Levi, however, is not clear.”(F15)

Of course, we have made our own share of glaring mistakes, but something about this one carries an amazing amusement. If one wonders where Professor Longacre got all those “documents” mentioned, maybe he got them from the same place he got the SIXTEEN TRIBES of Israel! It has the utility of giving us another metaphor for some of the outlandish so-called “discoveries” of critical enemies of the Bible.

The position of the Levites as custodians of the tabernacle has been left somewhat out of sight just here, but the next chapter will deal with that subject in detail.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 2". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-2.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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