Book of Numbers Chapter Two Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
In this chapter, we will find that God had specific marching and camping orders for the various tribes of Israel, and you might wonder: Why divide them into tribes at all? Why weren't they just Israel, without any division? The answer is found later in Scripture, after Solomon, when the nation split in two. Judah and Benjamin, along with the Levites among them, would remain faithful to the Lord for a time as a nation to be called Judah, whereas the other tribes to the north who had lapsed into terminal idolatry, were captured and taken away. God knew this would happen, just as He knows what will happen to you tomorrow, next year and forever. We are divided into national and tribal groups because if certain nations fall into idolatry, which may take the form of the love of money, power, false religion or atheism, a kind of self love—those across national or tribal boundaries may be spared for a time.
God's marching and encampment orders start with the tribe of Judah, in Verses 1-4:
"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. 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." Each tribe had a "standard," a "banner" or flag which identified them. Jerome Prado, in his commentary on the Book of Ezekiel, stated that Judah's flag had a green field because Judah's precious stone on the high priest's breastplate was an emerald, green in color.
According to Aben Ezra, a Jewish historian and scholar, the forefront of Judah's flag was a lion, which is consistent with Genesis 49:9-10, where Judah was compared to a "lion's whelp"—out of his tribe would come the Messiah, seen in Revelation 5:5 as Jesus Christ, the Messiah, called in that place, "the Lion of the tribe of Judah." "Nahshon" (KJV Nasson) is named as Judah's leader in the wilderness. His sister, Elisheba, married Moses' brother Aaron (Exodus 6:23), and Nahshon is listed in Matthew 1:4 and Luke 3:32, as a human ancestor of Jesus, "the Lion of the tribe of Judah."
Judah's tribe was to the east, pointing the nation in that direction like the tip of a sword, and with Judah were the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun. The three tribes retained separate entities, except that Judah was senior to the other two, as in Verses 5-9: "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 total seems to be "off" by 70,000, except when you consider Exodus 3:13, where the Lord informs us: "All the firstborn are Mine" and as Rabbi Corey Sylvester pointed out, the unredeemed firstborn were likely excluded from the count. These three armies of Israel, led by the tribe of Judah, were to be the shock troops intended to meet enemies first in battle.
The tribe of Reuben was the senior tribe to the south, as seen in Verses 10-16: "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." Reuben was the first son of Jacob, also known as Israel, but the tribe that went by his name was to be second in the order of attack, protecting the southern flank. According to Aben Ezra and other scholars, the image on Reuben's flag was a man. As in these verses, the army of Reuben was to be augmented by the soldiers of Simeon and Gad.
In the center of the nation Israel was the Tabernacle containing the Ark of the Covenant, which was surrounded by the Tribe of Levi, a tribe who served the Lord, the Tabernacle and the nation, as seen in Verse 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." If the nation was attacked, and it would be, the tribe of Levi was to be the last line of defense, but they were ordinarily not in the line of direct fighting.
Verses 18-24: "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." Leadership of the tribes to the west was assigned to the tribe of Ephraim. The man Ephraim, now gone from this earth as were the others, was the son of Joseph by an Egyptian wife, and was Jacob's grandson. The tribes to fight with Ephraim were men of the tribe of Manasseh, descended from Joseph's other son, Manasseh, and also Benjamin, who was Joseph's full brother by Jacob and Rachel.
The tribe of Dan was to be the key tribe to the north, and this grouping of tribes is seen in Verses 25-31: "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." Dan's standard was said to picture an eagle, though the prophesy about Dan in Genesis 49:16-18, was that he and his tribe would be "a serpent by the way, a viper by the path." Eagles attack and eat serpents, and perhaps that is meant here. The tribe of Dan was to lead two other tribes, which were Asher and Napthali. Dan was the son of Rachel's maid, Bilhah. Asher and Napthali were both sons of Zilpah, Leah's maid.
Verse 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." That's a formidable army in any time and place, and it should be interesting to us all that God can take one man, Abraham, and one woman, Sarah, and build a nation out of them. He is God and He can do anything. He is good, and even if we don't understand what He is doing, He will bring good out of it all.
Verses 33-34: "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." Just as God had commanded Moses, the Levites were not part of the census of fighting men, and the people did form into four major groups as God instructed for encampments and marches. Just as the Lord directed, they did it—for now. The danger is that those who respond to the Lord in faith, will then lapse into legalism. We must ALWAYS look to the Lord from the perspective of TRUST in Him. Circumstances change and He is the One who knows what must be done.
If Aben Ezra was accurate about the images on the flags of the four key tribes of Israel at that time, Judah, Reuben, Ephraim and Dan, those flags depict a lion, a man, an ox and an eagle. Someone who actually SAW a cherub, the prophet Ezekiel, writing in Chapter 1 of his book, described a being far different from the little cherubs with wings on today's greeting cards. These were and are large, powerful, incredible beings, and each one of them has the face of a lion, a man, an ox and an eagle (Ezekiel 1:10).
Father, we surrender to Your will. We accept it that You have marching orders for all of us, and see that we are to act according to Your command. Please open our eyes and show us the way we should go. Enable us to understand and give us hearts that respond. In Jesus Name. Amen.