1 - 2 The Camp
1 Now the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 2 “The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance.
Everything in battle revolves around the tabernacle that is the center of the army, here called “the tent of meeting” (cf. Num 1:50,53). The testimony of God in this world is given by the church, especially when the church meets. This is a particular target of the attacks of enemy. That is why it must be protected. To do this, each tribe must take its place around it. Every believer must know his place with regard to the coming together of God’s people.
To order the camp indicates the importance of the place that each tribe occupies. Every member of the tribe must know where that place is. It is important not only as a numbered person to belong to the army, but also to know what his place is in relation to the dwelling place of God. The counted protect the tabernacle.
God gives each tribe its own place. In this way He also gives us our own place around Himself (cf. 1Cor 12:18). We are called personally, Israel by tribe. Tribes cannot exchange tribes. Whoever belongs to a certain tribe cannot change tribe as he likes. The place that God gives us in His church, He gives us because He can best use us there.
Three tribes are linked together in a special way, under one standard. In this way, local churches are also connected in a special way by their location. It is also important to keep an eye on the people as a whole.
Standards hoisted in Christianity do not work unity, but divisiveness. There are those who raise a standard with the name of a human being or the name of a doctrine. All those who agree, gather under that standard. Every standard is a standard that distinguishes itself from others and that is not what God wants. There is only one center for God that He has set: the Lord Jesus, the true tabernacle, around whom He wants to gather His scattered children into one. The Lord Jesus is “outstanding above ten thousand” (Song 5:10).
Believers are not called to go through the wilderness on their own. God has not redeemed just individuals who all go their own way. All who are redeemed belong together. In the New Testament they together form the church. They are brought together in ‘tribes’. We can apply this to local churches.
But also as a local church we are not separate from other local churches. Nor should we forget that as a local church we only represent a part of that local church when we meet. The local church consists of all the true believers in that place, although there are some who delimit themselves by church walls. Yet they are part of it. We should also think about this when we come together as a church.
It is important to maintain unity as a tribe and unity with other tribes in the immediate vicinity and unity with all tribes of the whole people. That unity may not be a unity according to one’s own thoughts. It should be the unity of the whole people and not a sectarian one, looking only at their own tribe or the tribes that belong under the same standard. Sectarianism makes the unity smaller than the unity that God wants to make visible.
3 - 9 Those Who Camp on the East Side
3 Now those who camp on the east side toward the sunrise [shall be] of the standard of the camp of Judah, by their armies, and the leader of the sons of Judah: Nahshon the son of Amminadab, 4 and his army, even their numbered men, 74,600. 5 Those who camp next to him [shall be] the tribe of Issachar, and the leader of the sons of Issachar: Nethanel the son of Zuar, 6 and his army, even their numbered men, 54,400. 7 [Then comes] the tribe of Zebulun, and the leader of the sons of Zebulun: Eliab the son of Helon, 8 and his army, even his numbered men, 57,400. 9 The total of the numbered men of the camp of Judah: 186,400, by their armies. They shall set out first.
The tribes must camp in relation to the tabernacle according to the wind directions. The four standards lie in four directions from which the influences come from outside and which the people of God must face in the power of Him Who dwells in their midst.
The first side mentioned is the east side. On the east side is the entrance to the tabernacle and it is the side where the sun rises. These two aspects we can apply to (1) entering the sanctuary and (2) looking forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus.
These aspects may be expressed in the church, in the God’s people. The tribe of Juda takes the lead. Judah means ‘praise’. The spirit of praise is the spirit of power (2Chr 20:22). The main purpose of the meeting of the church is to praise and worship God, to offer Him sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. That should be the effect of every meeting.
On the east side Issachar and Zebulun have to camp as well. Together with Judah they are the fourth, fifth, and sixth son that Leah gave birth to Jacob. From the sins of Reuben, Simeon and Levi, the three older brothers (Gen 49:3-7), Judah becomes the first among his brothers (Gen 49:8). He becomes the royal line from whom the Messiah will be born (Gen 49:10; Rth 4:18-21). In the genealogy in Matthew 1 (Mt 1:1-16) we see that Nahshon, the leader of the tribe, is counted among the ancestors of the Lord Jesus (Mt 1:4).
10 - 16 Tribes on the South Side
10 “On the south side [shall be] the standard of the camp of Reuben by their armies, and the leader of the sons of Reuben: Elizur the son of Shedeur, 11 and his army, even their numbered men, 46,500. 12 Those who camp next to him [shall be] the tribe of Simeon, and the leader of the sons of Simeon: Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai, 13 and his army, even their numbered men, 59,300. 14 Then [comes] the tribe of Gad, and the leader of the sons of Gad: Eliasaph the son of Deuel, 15 and his army, even their numbered men, 45,650. 16 The total of the numbered men of the camp of Reuben: 151,450 by their armies. And they shall set out second.
The second side is the south side. South side is literally ‘the right side’. The right side speaks in the Scriptures of dignity of position. The Lord Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). In a spiritual sense this means that the believer who camps on the south side knows the position of the Lord Jesus. That believer also knows that this is his own position, because he is in Christ. God has “seated us with Him in the heavenly [places] in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6).
Reuben is the leader on that side. Reuben means ‘see, a son’. When the church meets, believers come together who know that they are sons of God and that they owe it to the Lord Jesus, the Son, Who is their life.
Then Simeon and Gad have to camp on the south side. Reuben and Simeon are the oldest sons of Leah. Levi is not counted. In his place comes Gad, the first son of Zilpa, the maid of Leah.
17 The Tribe of Levi
17 “Then the tent of meeting shall set out [with] the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps; just as they camp, so they shall set out, every man in his place by their standards.
After two of the four standards are set out, the tent of meeting is set out. The tent of meeting is the center of the people. That is what the whole people should be aiming for, from there come their marching orders.
First we talk about “camp”, then “set out”, but both actions take place in agreement with each other. There must be set out to continue travelling in the same way as the people have camped. One is not separate from the other. Both in worship and approaching God – for which they camp – as well as in defense and protection –which must happen when they set out with the camp – it is about the relationship of God with His people. In these activities the Levites have their own specific task. They are seen as inseparable from both services.
18 - 24 Tribes on the West Side
18 “On the west side [shall be] the standard of the camp of Ephraim by their armies, and the leader of the sons of Ephraim [shall be] Elishama the son of Ammihud, 19 and his army, even their numbered men, 40,500. 20 Next to him [shall be] the tribe of Manasseh, and the leader of the sons of Manasseh: Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur, 21 and his army, even their numbered men, 32,200. 22 Then [comes] the tribe of Benjamin, and the leader of the sons of Benjamin: Abidan the son of Gideoni, 23 and his army, even their numbered men, 35,400. 24 The total of the numbered men of the camp of Ephraim: 108,100, by their armies. And they shall set out third.
The third side is the west side. The three tribes that have their camp there are closest to the ark of the testimony. West side is literally ‘side of the sea’. This is the side that speaks of trials and difficulties in the life of the believer. In those trials they produce fruit for God (Gen 1:20-23). Life in connection with the tent of meeting also has its trials. Do we know them? Through these trials God wants to work fruit for Himself in the meetings.
Ephraim is the leader of this group of three. Ephraim means ‘double fertility’. It is a fitting ‘standard-bearer’ for the west side. With him Manasseh and Benjamin also camp on the west side of the tent of meeting. These three are descendants of Rachel, where we see that Joseph is represented by his two sons.
These three tribes are also mentioned in Psalm 80 (Psa 80:2). The psalmist asks God to lead them in the last days of Israel’s affliction and to reveal His power as in the days of Israel’s wilderness journey (Num 10:35).
25 - 31 Tribes on the North Side
25 “On the north side [shall be] the standard of the camp of Dan by their armies, and the leader of the sons of Dan: Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai, 26 and his army, even their numbered men, 62,700. 27 Those who camp next to him [shall be] the tribe of Asher, and the leader of the sons of Asher: Pagiel the son of Ochran, 28 and his army, even their numbered men, 41,500. 29 Then [comes] the tribe of Naphtali, and the leader of the sons of Naphtali: Ahira the son of Enan, 30 and his army, even their numbered men, 53,400. 31 The total of the numbered men of the camp of Dan [was] 157,600. They shall set out last by their standards.”
The north side is the darkest side, furthest from the sun. The north is literally ‘hiding’. This represents the gloomy side of the testimony of God on earth. The light of God cannot penetrate there. So it may be that through hidden sins there is no power to come together to the glory of God. The meetings do take place, but without conviction, out of pure habit.
The leader on this side is Dan. Jacob calls him in his blessing “a serpent” (Gen 49:17), by which he links Dan to the devil. The descendants of Dan, the Danites, have the doubtful honor of being the first to introduce idolatry early in the history of Israel (Jdg 18:30).
Together with Asher and Naphtali they set out last. They are all three sons of maids. Then Bilhah’s first son is the maid of Rachel. Asher is the second son of Zilpa, the maid of Leah. Naphtali is Bilhah’s second son.
32 - 34 All Is Done According to the Command
32 These are the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their fathers’ households; the total of the numbered men of the camps by their armies, 603,550. 33 The Levites, however, were not numbered among the sons of Israel, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 34 Thus the sons of Israel did; according to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so they camped by their standards, and so they set out, every one by his family according to his father’s household.
The number of Numbers 1 fighters counted is repeated here. It corresponds to the tribes. Every warrior has taken his place in his own tribe. Each tribe has taken its own position in relation to the tent of meeting under the standard appointed by God. When Balaam sees this order, he comes to the outcry: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Num 24:5).