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The placement of the tribes ch. 2
The twelve tribes excluding the Levites camped in four groups of three tribes each on the tabernacle’s four sides. The Levites camped on all four sides of the tabernacle but closer to the sanctuary than the other tribes (Numbers 2:17). This arrangement placed Yahweh at the center of the nation geographically and reminded the Israelites that His rightful place was at the center of their life nationally and personally.
"The Egyptians characteristically placed the tent of the king, his generals, and officers at the center of a large army camp, but for the Israelites another tent was central: the sanctuary in which it placed God to dwell among his people. From him proceeds the power to save and to defend, and from this tent in the middle he made known his ever-saving will." [Note: B. Maarsingh, Numbers: a practical commentary, p. 15.]
"This picture of the organization of Israel in camp is an expression of the author’s understanding of the theology of the divine presence. There are barriers which divide a holy God from a fallible Israel. The structure of the tent itself and the construction of the sophisticated priestly hierarchy has the effect, at least potentially, of emphasizing the difference and distance between man and God. This is valuable to theology as a perspective, but requires the compensating search for nearness and presence. The . . . author sought to affirm this in and through his insistence that God is to be found, tabernacled among his people, at the center of their life as a community." [Note: Budd, p. 25.]
The tribes to the east and south marched ahead of the tabernacle, whereas those on the west and north marched behind it while Israel was in transit. The tabernacle faced east (i.e., "orient") to face the rising sun, as was customary in the ancient world.
"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 . . ." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:17. Cf. Ezekiel 1:10; Revelation 4:7.]
The early Christians used these same symbols to represent the four Gospels. They used a lion to stand for Matthew, an ox for Mark, a man for Luke, and an eagle for John. These animals symbolize aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ that each evangelist stressed.
God evidently arranged the tribes in this order because of their ancestry.
|Judah, Issachar, Zebulun||Descendants of Leah|
|Reuben, Simeon, Gad||Descendants of Leah and her maid Zilpah|
|Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin||Descendants of Rachel|
|Dan, Asher, Naphtali||Descendants of the maids Bilhah and Zilpah|
"It will be seen from this arrangement that the vanguard and rearguard of the host had the strongest forces-186,400 and 157,600 respectively-with the smaller tribal groupings within them and the tabernacle in the center." [Note: James Philip, Numbers, p. 43.]
Moses did not explain the relationship of the tribes that camped on each side of the tabernacle to one another. Some scholars believe they were as my diagram above indicates while others feel that Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan were in the center of their groups. [Note: E.g., Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History, p. 152; and Ashley, p. 74.]
"Further, 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. The ancient Hebrews were not a sea-faring people like the Phoenicians and the Egyptians. For Israel the place of pride was on the east. Hence there we find the triad of tribes headed by Judah, Jacob’s fourth son and father of the royal house that leads to King Messiah." [Note: Allen, p. 715.]
". . . the Genesis narratives devote much attention to the notion of ’the east,’ a theme that also appears important in the arrangement of the tribes. After the Fall, Adam and Eve, and then Cain, were cast out of God’s good land ’toward the east’ (Numbers 3:24; Numbers 4:16). Furthermore, Babylon was built in the east (Genesis 11:2[, 9]), and Sodom was ’east’ of the Promised Land (Numbers 13:11). Throughout these narratives the hope is developed that God’s redemption would come from the east and that this redemption would be a time of restoration of God’s original blessing and gift of the land in Creation. Thus, God’s first act of preparing the land-when he said, ’Let there be light’ (Numbers 1:3)-used the imagery of the sunrise in the east as a figure of the future redemption. Moreover, God’s garden was planted for humankind ’in the east’ of Eden (Numbers 2:8), and it was there that God intended to pour out his blessing on them.
"Throughout the pentateuchal narratives, then, the concept of moving ’eastward’ plays an important role as a reminder of the Paradise Lost-the garden in the east of Eden-and a reminder of the hope for a return to God’s blessing ’from the east’-the place of waiting in the wilderness. It was not without purpose, then, that the arrangement of the tribes around the tabernacle should reflect the same imagery of hope and redemption." [Note: John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, pp. 371-72.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 2". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20