1 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 “The people of Israel shall camp each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ houses. They shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side. 3 Those to camp on the east side toward the sunrise shall be of the standard of the camp of Judah by their companies, the chief of the people of Judah being Nahshon the son of Amminadab, 4 his company as listed being 74,600. 5 Those to camp next to him shall be the tribe of Issachar, the chief of the people of Issachar being Nethanel the son of Zuar, 6 his company as listed being 54,400. 7 Then the tribe of Zebulun, the chief of the people of Zebulun being Eliab the son of Helon, 8 his company as listed being 57,400. 9 All those listed of the camp of Judah, by their companies, were 186,400. They shall set out first on the march.
10 “On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Reuben by their companies, the chief of the people of Reuben being Elizur the son of Shedeur, 11 his company as listed being 46,500. 12 And those to camp next to him shall be the tribe of Simeon, the chief of the people of Simeon being Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai, 13 his company as listed being 59,300. 14 Then the tribe of Gad, the chief of the people of Gad being Eliasaph the son of Reuel, 15 his company as listed being 45,650. 16 All those listed of the camp of Reuben, by their companies, were 151,450. They shall set out second.
17 “Then the tent of meeting shall set out, with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps; as they camp, so shall they set out, each in position, standard by standard.
18 “On the west side shall be the standard of the camp of Ephraim by their companies, the chief of the people of Ephraim being Elishama the son of Ammihud, 19 his company as listed being 40,500. 20 And next to him shall be the tribe of Manasseh, the chief of the people of Manasseh being Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur, 21 his company as listed being 32,200. 22 Then the tribe of Benjamin, the chief of the people of Benjamin being Abidan the son of Gideoni, 23 his company as listed being 35,400. 24 All those listed of the camp of Ephraim, by their companies, were 108,100. They shall set out third on the march.
25 “On the north side shall be the standard of the camp of Dan by their companies, the chief of the people of Dan being Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai, 26 his company as listed being 62,700. 27 And those to camp next to him shall be the tribe of Asher, the chief of the people of Asher being Pagiel the son of Ochran, 28 his company as listed being 41,500. 29 Then the tribe of Naphtali, the chief of the people of Naphtali being Ahira the son of Enan, 30 his company as listed being 53,400. 31 All those listed of the camp of Dan were 157,600. They shall set out last, standard by standard.”
32 These are the people of Israel as listed by their fathers’ houses. All those listed in the camps by their companies were 603,550. 33 But the Levites were not listed among the people of Israel, as the Lord commanded Moses.
34 Thus did the people of Israel. According to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so they camped by their standards, and so they set out, each one in his clan, according to his father’s house. – Numbers 2:1-34 ESV
Chapter one reveals that the 12 tribes of Israel comprised a large and formidable mass of humanity. For Moses to effectively lead this sizeable contingent of people he would need God’s power and presence, as well as means for organizing and orchestrating their movements and interactions. He was attempting to guide a massive number of former slaves a great distance across less-than-friendly terrain with the goal of settling them in a land occupied by hostile adversaries. And nobody understood the difficulty of Moses’ mission better than God. That’s why He provided Moses with very specific instructions designed to provide a sense of structure and decorum as they made their way to the promised land.
Then the Lord gave these instructions to Moses and Aaron: “When the Israelites set up camp, each tribe will be assigned its own area. The tribal divisions will camp beneath their family banners on all four sides of the Tabernacle, but at some distance from it.” – Numbers 2:1-2 NLT
God knew that the people would need structure and a constant reminder that He was to be the center of their lives. They owed their very existence to God and any hope they had of surviving the trip to Canaan was dependent upon His divine assistance. Despite their large army, without God’s help, they would never last long enough to fight a battle in Canaan. They would die off in the wilderness. So, God provided them with detailed instructions that were meant to be both practical and inspirational.
Whether they were on the march or setting up camp for the night, the tabernacle was to be the focal point of their lives. This large portable tent had been ordered and designed by God Himself and was to function as His dwelling place among the people of Israel. Ever since He had delivered them from their captivity in Egypt, God had repeatedly promised to live among them and be their God.
“Have the people of Israel build me a holy sanctuary so I can live among them. You must build this Tabernacle and its furnishings exactly according to the pattern I will show you.” – Exodus 25:8-9 NLT
“I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. And they will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.” – Exodus 29:45-46 BSB
Exodus 25-29 contains God’s detailed and exacting instructions regarding the design and construction of the tabernacle. Nothing was left to chance and there was a purpose behind every facet of its design. The tabernacle was to be a place of worship and sacrifice. In the Holy of Holies, God’s shekinah glory rested above the mercy seat which sat on top of the Ark of the Covenant. This “dwelling place“ of God was to be a constant reminder to the Israelites that He was among them. They did not worship an unseen and unapproachable God. He had chosen them to be His people and had graced them with the tangible proof of His presence.
But He was to remain at the center of their thoughts and at the heart of their community. When they set up camp, the tabernacle was to be strategically placed in the middle with each of the tribes located in their proper place around its perimeter. They served a God of order. There was no place for chaos and confusion among the people of Israel. The tribes were not free to set up their own rules or serve as their own gods. They answered to God Almighty.
“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.” – Philip J. Budd, Numbers. Word Biblical Commentary series
Even when traveling through the wilderness, the Israelites were to keep the disassembled tabernacle at the center of their column, with the tribes arranged in their proper order around it. They were to maintain their focus and dependence upon God at all times. Without Him, they were just another nation attempting to navigate a fallen world in their own strength and according to their own sinful desires.
The tabernacle was to be a constant reminder of their dependence upon and devotion to God. Even the repeated taking down, transport, and setting up of the tabernacle would be a powerful reminder of the centrality of God’s presence in their lives. With the constant requirement to maintain the dwelling place of God, it would be difficult to forget that He was the source of their power and the basis of their hope for the future.
God was invisible but not unknowable. He was transcendent but also immanent. His true dwelling place was in heaven but He had deemed to make His presence known among men on earth. God had chosen them and had graciously promised to dwell among them.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.