Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentNUMBERS 2
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 Num. 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.
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. 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 that were numbered thereof, were forty and six thousand and five hundred. And those that encamp next unto 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 that 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 that were numbered of them, were forty and five thousand and six hundred and fifty. All that 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. 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. 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 that were numbered of them, were forty thousand and five hundred. And next unto 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 that 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 that were numbered of them, were thirty and five thousand and four hundred. All that 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. 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 that were numbered of them, were threescore and two thousand and seven hundred. And those that encamp next unto 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 that 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 that were numbered of them, were fifty and three thousand and four hundred. All that 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. These are they that were numbered of the children of Israel by their fathers' houses: all that were numbered of the camps according to their hosts were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty. But the Levites were not numbered among the children of Israel; as Jehovah commanded Moses. Thus did the children of Israel; according to all that Jehovah commanded Moses, so they encamped by their standards, and so they set forward, every one by their families, according to their fathers' houses.
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 Num. 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 Num. 2:2,3,10,17,18,25,31,34. 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 (Ezek. 1:26; 10:1) and in Revelation (Revelation 4:4-16). 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.
Footnotes for Numbers 2
1: Martin Noth, Numbers, A Commentary, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), p. 25.
2: George Buchanan Gray, International Critical Commentary, Numbers (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1903), p. 18.
3: John Joseph Owens, Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, Numbers (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), p. 89.
4: John Marsh, Interpreter's Bible, Numbers (New York: Abingdon Press, 1955), p. 149.
5: William Wilson, Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies (McLean, Virginia: MacDonald Publishing Company), p. 417.
6: The Torah, from the Masoretic Text, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962), p. 244.
7: John R. Kohlenberger III, The New International Version Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 363.
8: Thomas Whitelaw, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 2, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 12.
10: Robert Jamieson, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957), p. 95.
11: Fred M. Ward, Teachers' Bible Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972), p. 94.
13: R. K. Harrison, as quoted by Carson in The New Layman's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 243.
14: George Woosung Wade, Peake's Commentary on the Bible, Numbers (London: T. C. and E. C. Jack, Ltd., 1924), p. 214.
15: Lindsay B. Longacre, Abingdon Bible Commentary on the Old Testament, Numbers (New York: Abingdon Press, 1929), p. 299.