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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Numbers 2

 

 

Introduction

SECTION 1. THE PREPARATIONS TO GO FORWARD FROM SINAI WITH YAHWEH’S PROVISIONS RELATED THERETO (1:1-10:10).

The Mobilisation of the Army of Israel, and the Preparation of the Levites For Their Work of Bearing the Ark and Dwellingplace of Yahweh (1:1-4:49).

The first stage towards entry into the land had to be the mobilisation of the army of Israel, both of its fighting men, and of its ‘servants of the dwellingplace of Yahweh’. That is what is in mind in the first four chapters.

The description of this follows a general chiastic pattern indicated by the letters a to d and can be divided up as follows:

a The taking of the sum of the tribes and their responsibility (to war) (Numbers 1:1-46).

b The Levites’ responsibility for the Dwellingplace (Numbers 1:47-54).

c Positioning and arrangements for travel of the people (Numbers 2:1-32).

d The consecration of the priests to Yahweh (Numbers 3:1-4).

d The dedication of the Levites to the priests and to Yahweh (Numbers 3:5-13)

c Positioning and arrangements for travel of the Levites (Numbers 3:14-51).

b The priests’ responsibility for the Dwellingplace (Numbers 4:5-15).

a The taking of the sum of the Levites and their responsibilities (Numbers 4:1-4; Numbers 4:21-49).

Chapter 2 The Camp Of Israel.

In this chapter Israel are depicted as needing to be organised around the God’s ‘Dwellingplace’, (mishkan, often translated ‘the tabernacle’), in square formation in a similar way to the camp of the Egyptians around the tent of Rameses II. Encamped to the east of the Dwellingplace were to be Judah, with Issachar and Zebulun (all Leah tribes). On journeying these were seemingly to form the advance guard. To the south were to be Reuben with Simeon and Gad (two Leah tribes with Gad replacing Levi, compare Gad’s similar listing with the Leah tribes earlier (Numbers 1:24). These were to move off second, taking up a second line of defence. In the centre around the Dwellingplace were to be the priests and Levites. They were, as it were, the Dwellingplace’s special bodyguard. They were then to be followed up by Ephraim, with Manasseh and Benjamin, who encamped to the west but followed the Dwellingplace when on the march (Rachel tribes), and finally came Dan, with Asher and Naphtali (concubine tribes along with Gad), who encamped to the north, but followed up in the rear on marching.

The whole picture is of Yahweh’s ‘holy nation’. The people are seen as holy as they surround the Tent of Meeting. This will be followed in Numbers 3 by those who are even more holy, the Levites, set apart by Yahweh in holiness to replace the firstborn sons of Israel as servants of the Sanctuary, and to come between the people and the Sanctuary. The most holy are the priests, who alone can deal with holy things, approaching the altar to make offerings, applying the blood of the offerings, entering within the inner Sanctuary, the Holy Place (but not the Holy of Holies/‘Most Holy Place’). All this reflects Exodus and Leviticus.


Verses 1-15

Chapter 2 The Camp Of Israel.

In this chapter Israel are depicted as needing to be organised around the God’s ‘Dwellingplace’, (mishkan, often translated ‘the tabernacle’), in square formation in a similar way to the camp of the Egyptians around the tent of Rameses II. Encamped to the east of the Dwellingplace were to be Judah, with Issachar and Zebulun (all Leah tribes). On journeying these were seemingly to form the advance guard. To the south were to be Reuben with Simeon and Gad (two Leah tribes with Gad replacing Levi, compare Gad’s similar listing with the Leah tribes earlier (Numbers 1:24). These were to move off second, taking up a second line of defence. In the centre around the Dwellingplace were to be the priests and Levites. They were, as it were, the Dwellingplace’s special bodyguard. They were then to be followed up by Ephraim, with Manasseh and Benjamin, who encamped to the west but followed the Dwellingplace when on the march (Rachel tribes), and finally came Dan, with Asher and Naphtali (concubine tribes along with Gad), who encamped to the north, but followed up in the rear on marching.

The whole picture is of Yahweh’s ‘holy nation’. The people are seen as holy as they surround the Tent of Meeting. This will be followed in Numbers 3 by those who are even more holy, the Levites, set apart by Yahweh in holiness to replace the firstborn sons of Israel as servants of the Sanctuary, and to come between the people and the Sanctuary. The most holy are the priests, who alone can deal with holy things, approaching the altar to make offerings, applying the blood of the offerings, entering within the inner Sanctuary, the Holy Place (but not the Holy of Holies/‘Most Holy Place’). All this reflects Exodus and Leviticus.

Positioning and Arrangements for Travel of the People (Numbers 2:1 to Numbers 3:1).

Numbers 2:1

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses and to 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.” ’

All the children of Israel, man by man, were to encamp in their own ranks beneath the ensigns of their fathers’ houses, at some distance from (over against) the Tent of Meeting, but surrounding it.

Numbers 2:3-4

‘And those who 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 who were numbered of them, were threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred.’

Those who were to camp on the east side, towards the sunrising, were Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. Their chieftains’ names are again mentioned, and the numbering of their tribe. This was made up in the case of Judah of 74 families or military officers/mighty men and contained in all 6 ‘hundreds’ or military/social units.

The east was probably seen as the side from which most danger could come while they were encamped. This would come from the roving tribes of the people of the east. But when it came to journeying they would lead the way because of their strength.

We note here that while Reuben as the firstborn headed the list in chapter 1, here Judah takes the lead, as they will also in the final invasion (Judges 1:2). This may partly explain the disenchantment of the Reubenites revealed in the behaviour of Dathan and Abiram.

“Towards the sunrising” probably indicates the favour with which God looked on them, the priests would also be encamped on this side. They were the blessed of Yahweh. There may also be a reminder in this of Jacob’s blessing where the tribe of Judah were depicted as having a bright future, with Shiloh, the Coming One, coming from among them (Genesis 49:10 compare Numbers 24:17-19).

Numbers 2:5-6

‘And those who encamp next to 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 who were numbered of it, 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 who were numbered of it, were fifty and seven thousand and four hundred.’

Issachar and Zebulun, both Leah tribes, were to be joined with Judah in protecting the east, each numbered in the same way as before. And with Judah they would march ahead of the column behind the Ark (10:33-36) when journeying.

Numbers 2:9

‘All who 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.’

Thus the total number of guards to the east in ‘the camp of Judah’ were 185 ’lph (families/military leaders) and 14 military units. (185 ’lph and one ’lph of troops plus a portion making 186 ’lph and a portion). They were the first to set forth when the march began, and would lead the way.

We might in our day cavil at adding together a number of military leaders with a regiment in the same sum, but regularly in ancient days battles were fought between ‘champions’ with the remainder watching. The result would often be accepted by both parties for it indicated to all whose side the gods were on. Thus a champion could actually represent a regiment on his own. Consider Goliath in 1 Samuel 17.

Numbers 2:10-15

‘On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Reuben according to their hosts, and the prince of the children of Reuben shall be Elizur the son of Shedeur. And his host, and those who were numbered of it, were forty and six thousand and five hundred. And those who encamp next to him shall be the tribe of Simeon, and the prince of the children of Simeon shall be Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai. And his host, and those who were numbered of them, were fifty and nine thousand and three hundred. And the tribe of Gad: and the prince of the children of Gad shall be Eliasaph the son of Reuel. And his host, and those who were numbered of them, were forty and five thousand and six hundred and fifty.’

To the south of the Dwellingplace were to encamp the tribe of Reuben, assisted by Simeon and Gad. Again the numbers are given, and the names of their chieftains, as per chapter 1. Here Eliasaph’s father is named Reuel (‘friend of God’), contrast Deuel (‘one who knows God’) in Numbers 1. This may be an alternative spelling of his name (compare Paul and Saul). While it is true that in ancient Hebrew ‘d’ and ‘r’ were very similar, we must beware of too glibly just assuming a copyist’s error. We must remember that the copyist would have heard it read out a hundred times and more prior to becoming a copyist. He would know which it would be. The lesson for us from this name is that it is necessary for us to know God truly if we would be His friend.


Verse 16

‘All who were numbered of the camp of Reuben were a hundred thousand and fifty and one thousand and four hundred and fifty, according to their hosts. And they shall set forth second.’

The total force in the camp of Reuben was 150 ’lph (families/military leaders) with 14 ‘hundreds’ or military units and a special force of ‘fifty’. The special mention of the latter only the once may suggest that they were seen as especially valuable, or alternately that they represented the friendly aliens. They could possibly have been expert ‘slingers’. But it may simply be that the ‘fifty’ was added as signifying 5x10, the covenant number intensified, added to the tribe of Gad in the camp of the firstborn, thus indicating that all were within the covenant (a fifty was required if the number of 603,550 was to be obtained). Compare how a ‘thirty’ is added in the second numbering, in that case only to Reuben, while both a ‘fifty’ and a ‘thirty’ are added to the Levites (Numbers 4:36; Numbers 4:40). This is surely not merely coincidental.

These were to be the next to march after the camp of Judah, moving from their protective position on the south side of the Dwellingplace.


Verse 17

‘Then the tent of meeting shall set forward, with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps. As they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place, by their standards (or ‘in their ranks’).’

Once the two powerful groups had gone forward the Levites would go forward after them, carrying the Tent of Meeting and its furniture. The Ark, however, would have gone forward with the leading group (10:33-36), once the cloud had indicated that it was time to move (Numbers 9:15-23). The Ark was the symbol of the God of battle, God active on their behalf, the guarantee against dangers ahead. The Tent of Meeting was Yahweh’s earthly Dwellingplace while at rest, but would be folded up while on the march. Concentration would then be on the Ark in its blue (heavenly) covering.


Verses 18-23

‘On the west side shall be the standard of the camp of Ephraim according to their hosts, and the prince of the children of Ephraim shall be Elishama the son of Ammihud. And his host, and those who were numbered of them, were forty thousand and five hundred. And next to him shall be the tribe of Manasseh, and the prince of the children of Manasseh shall be Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur. And his host, and those who were numbered of them, were thirty and two thousand and two hundred. And the tribe of Benjamin, and the prince of the children of Benjamin shall be Abidan the son of Gideoni. And his host, and those who were numbered of them, were thirty and five thousand and four hundred.’

When encamped the Rachel tribes, with their weaker numbers, would protect the west. This was probably seen as the least dangerous side. On the march they would follow the Dwellingplace. Once again full details are given of them.


Verse 24

‘All who were numbered of the camp of Ephraim were a hundred thousand and eight thousand and a hundred, according to their hosts. And they shall set forth third.’

They consisted of 107 ’lph (families/military leaders) and 11 ‘hundreds’ or military units. On the march they followed behind the Levites who were bearing the Tent of Meeting and its furniture.


Verse 25-26

‘On the north side shall be the standard of the camp of Dan according to their hosts, and the prince of the children of Dan shall be Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai. And his host, and those who were numbered of them, were threescore and two thousand and seven hundred. And those who encamp next to him shall be the tribe of Asher, and the prince of the children of Asher shall be Pagiel the son of Ochran. And his host, and those who were numbered of them, were forty and one thousand and five hundred. And the tribe of Naphtali, and the prince of the children of Naphtali shall be Ahira the son of Enan. And his host, and those who were numbered of them, were fifty and three thousand and four hundred.’

When encamped Dan, Asher and Naphtali protected the way from the north. They remained in position until the march had begun, joining on to the rear, thus guaranteeing against attack from that direction while the preparations for marching were taking place.


Verse 31

‘All who were numbered of the camp of Dan were a hundred thousand and fifty and seven thousand and six hundred. They shall set forth hindmost by their standards.’

So, on the march they were at the rear of the advance, in order to protect the rear. The powerful tribe of Dan together with Asher and Naphtali consisted of 156 ’lph (families/military leaders) and 16 ‘hundreds’ (or military units).


Verse 32

‘These are those who were numbered of the children of Israel by their fathers’ houses. All who were numbered of the camps according to their hosts were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.’

Once again we have repeated the result of the numbering, six hundred ’lph, three ’lph five ‘hundreds’ and fifty. This might then translate into 598 ’lph (families/military leaders) and five ’eleph (military units) and five ‘hundreds’ (smaller military units), and a fifty. This would tie in with the above figures given for the tribes, and would seem to be designed to agree with the amount of the silver in the Sanctuary (Exodus 38:25-26).


Verse 33

‘But the Levites were not numbered among the children of Israel, as Yahweh commanded Moses.’

But the Levites were not included in this mobilisation. They were exempt from general military service. This has been stressed previously (Numbers 1:47-49). Here the fact is doubly emphasised. Their responsibility was to guard and serve Yahweh’s Dwellingplace at all times.


Verse 34

‘Thus did the children of Israel. According to all that Yahweh commanded Moses, so they encamped by their standards, and so they set forward, every one by their families, according to their fathers’ houses.’

Again it is stressed that Israel did exactly as Yahweh had commanded Moses (compare for the phrase Exodus 12:50; Exodus 16:34; Exodus 39:1; Exodus 39:5; Exodus 39:7; Exodus 39:21 and often; Leviticus 8:9; Leviticus 8:13 and often; Leviticus 16:34; Leviticus 24:23). At this stage they were fully obedient. They encamped by their standards (or in their ranks), and that is how they set forward, every one by their ‘families’, and according to their clans/tribes.

This emphasis reminds us that above all what God requires of us is obedience. As Jesus reminded us, it is no good saying ‘Lord’ Lord’, if we do not do the things that He says (Matthew 7:21).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 2:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/numbers-2.html. 2013.

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