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Numbers 2 consists entirely of God giving commandments as to how the Israelite camp should be arranged. From the NIV:

On the east, toward the sunrise, the divisions of the camp of Judah are to encamp under their standard. […]

The tribe of Issachar will camp next to them. […]

The tribe of Zebulun will be next. […]

All the men assigned to the camp of Judah, according to their divisions, number 186,400. They will set out first. […]

[The rest of the tribes are described]

So the Israelites did everything the Lord commanded Moses; that is the way they encamped under their standards, and that is the way they set out, each of them with their clan and family.

It seems strange to me that God would give explicit instructions as to who should be camped next to whom and the order they should be led, when God seems to be unconcerned with trivial details like that for the rest of the journey. For instance, he doesn't give city planning details for the cities that the Israelites eventually rule.

Considering the narrative of Numbers 2, why did God give instructions about the arrangement of the Israelite tribal camps? What purpose did that serve by having God command this arrangement, rather than leaving it up to the personal preference of the tribes to camp wherever they wanted to?

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  • Militarily, it's not a bad layout assuming they marched as they camped and were generally headed east. Judah, the largest, is in front. Dan, the second largest, is in the rear. The smaller tribes are between them. No idea if that was the point of the organization, but Numbers 1 suggests there was a military reason.
    – bradimus
    Oct 4, 2017 at 20:26
  • Just try to imagine the melee which would occur if there were no structure for millions of people to travel across the wilderness. Everything that God has decreed from creation to Armageddon, is not only structured but defined in procedure, so that all things progress God's purposed end. As far as your question the answer to why is in the following books of the Bible. All things progress in accordance with God's plan. Jesus explained that that plan was to increase the Kingdom of God in Heaven.
    – BYE
    Oct 6, 2017 at 11:34
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    I would like a community opinion on why a question like this was migrated from a doctrinal site to this site. My (apparently bad) understanding of this site's scope leads me to think that questions like "do commentators attribute significance to the placement of the tribes", "did the cardinal directions hold significance to the Israelites at the time", "does the text give us clues for the purpose of such an organization", "do traditional or historical attributes of the tribes or their eponymous progenitors explain or inform the positioning" are better fits. Not "Why did God do it?"
    – CWilson
    Oct 13, 2017 at 1:39
  • @CWilson My goal with this question was to understand the narrative, and the reasons that God might act in that way according to the narrative. The comments suggesting that it was for military readiness sound like a plausible explanation and I would consider accepting that if it were turned into an answer. Oct 13, 2017 at 2:16
  • @Thunderforge No, makes sense. I've been curious myself, and my limited understanding of Christianity.SE makes me think this was a great question. Was there a certain battle or terrain that God foreknew that caused him to place the 'armies' like this, were there certain casualties that needed to be prevented (or occur) that this placement would lead to, did this arrangement lead to certain inheritances being requested (e.g the half tribe of Dan requesting a north eastern location influence Judah's proximity to Jerusalem). It is the migration that is giving me a headache.
    – CWilson
    Oct 13, 2017 at 2:33

11 Answers 11

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If taken literally, that is, the tribes must camp specifically in one direction, when viewed from above, the encampment could be taken as forming a cross as shown in this diagram: 1

East-South-West-North

However, the individual totals can be depicted as shown, yet the totals along the two axis (see below) do not agree with this picture. The East/West axis (representing the upright) totals 294,500 and the North/South axis (representing the horizontal beam) totals 309,050. The horizontal representation should be longer than the vertical. In addition, if the encampment arrangement is patterned after the order when the people move, the tribe of Judah is misplaced: Judah leads out and should be furthest from the center, not the closest.

More practical would be to take the instructions to mean in the East, in the South, in the West, and in the North. Then the encampment could be pictured like this:

enter image description here Unlike the "cross" arrangement which places some tribes much further from the center, this arrangement has the benefit of locating everyone closest to the Tent of Meeting. It also fits how some events are described. For example, Aaron ran through the camp with incense (Numbers 16:46-47). Finally, when everyone moved, Judah could lead (Numbers 2:9) and the other tribes could follow in a single column, the most likely way of moving.

When a tribe's mother and birth order is factored, there is a distinct pattern:

enter image description here

The North and South groups are made from only first and second born except Rachel's; the West group is made from Rachel's first and second sons; the East group from Leah's fourth, fifth, and sixth sons. Thus, there are three groups of first and second born sons, and one group of fourth, fifth, and sixth sons which "face" Levi, the only third son.


Note:
1. For example Numbers 22:41. Image from Gracepoint Berekley Church

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    In what way is the second arrangement more practical? And is there a particular reason that God would want to arrange by birth mother in the third example? Nov 7, 2017 at 0:28
  • @Thunderforge I added an explanation. I like the cross concept, but the other is better for access to the Tent of Meeting. I'm sure there is a reason for the arrangement, but other than treating all of the first and second born sons "equally" I not sure what that meaning is. I think it is obvious birth order and mother plays a role in how the tribes are grouped. Maybe it is just to highlight the role of the women. While the emphasis is typically on the father (all have Jacob's DNA), the biological factors which distinguish the tribes are maternal. Nov 7, 2017 at 6:18
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If you do the math, you'll find that the greatest number of people were on one side of the tabernacle with the least amount of people directly opposite on the other side. The two remaining sides had roughly equal numbers. Thus, the view from the air would be the form of a cross! Pretty cool, huh? al

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I think the whole process indicates order. I am not sure the cross model is relevant. All tribes around the tabernacle seems more appropriate, with the order of breaking camp and movement. Rajaratnam Abel March 17, 2020.

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The cross model is very vital in the arrangement of the camp and the tribes. The reason being that at the center of the cross arrangement( where the Tabernacle/altar was stationed to be administered by the Levi) there was a revelation which foreshadowed the sacrificial offering that will be performed on the the cross of Calvary in which Jesus Christ will be the once and for all ultimate sacrifice. Secondly, the cross model and the pattern was a symbolic guarantee for there security against the attack of the enemies throughout their journey to the promise land. Their failure to maintain that specific pattern will make them vulnerable in my own opinion. Thirdly, the cross model of the pattern of the camp was an indication which foreshadowed that out of the tribes of Israel the sacrificial Lamb of God will come from within the tribes and this was Jesus Christ who came out of the tribe of Judah as the Lamb of God which took away the sin of the world.

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    Oct 4, 2021 at 0:17
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What the above poster that is shooting down the "Cross" theory is forgetting are the tribe of the Levites. They numbered 22,000. We dont find this out in Numbers 2. God keeps it hidden (Numbers 2:33 But the Levites were not numbered among the children of Israel; as the Lord commanded Moses.). HOWEVER....Numbers 3:40-43 we learn the Levites number...22,000. So now place the Tabernacle in the middle and generate the Levite tribe around that SHAPE....FACING the direction of movement (Judah). This causes the 22k to form a rectangle facing toward Judahs leg. This brings about a 4/5s ratio approximately.

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    – Community Bot
    Jan 4, 2023 at 15:20
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There is a viz on the tubee called Symbolisms Of The Cross In The Old Testament. You will find this as part of that.

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    – Community Bot
    Jan 4, 2023 at 15:20
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The cross was introduced by Constantine. The arrangement doesn't symbolize the cross of Chrisianity but the Tav of ancient Hebrew. His mark in the earth that also reveals His ultimate purpose and plan for humanity, through Yisrael.

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The reason for the encampment arrangement was because everything is affected by the universe and the zodiac. The signs each son of Jacob were born under and their meanings. Judah was the children of the light. 186,400 in the tribe of Judah,…speed of light 186,400mph , you think GOD doesn’t speak to us ?😂 Absolute Intelligence No one KNEW the speed of light then, except GOD. List each name and their sign Judah (Leo, Fire(spirit) Issachar (Taurus, Earth(us) Zebulon (Pisces, Water (fish, mind of CHRIST) The Spirit (of GOD) comes to Earth(us) to give us (the mind of)CHRIST.

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    Aug 22, 2023 at 20:26
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God gave instructions about the arrangement of the tribal camps to provide for orderliness, access to the tabernacle, and a layer of protection. Regarding the arrangement, the text of Numbers specifies that two tribes are "next to" (i.e., on either side of) the lead tribe in each quadrant. I suggest that the listed order of each of the two tribes should be understood, in each case, as first to the right hand, then to the left hand of the designated lead tribe as they face the tabernacle. Thus, on the East side, Num. 2:5 specifies “Those camping next to Judah shall be the tribe of Issachar;" (to Judah's right side). Num. 2:7 “Also camping next to Judah shall be the tribe of Zebulun;" (i.e., to Judah's left). On the opposite (West) side, with Ephraim as lead, Num. 2:20 specifies, “Those camping next to Ephraim shall be the tribe of Manasseh; (i.e., to Ephraim's right). Then, Num. 2:22 “Also camping next to Ephraim shall be the tribe of Benjamin (on Ephraim's left side, as they face the tabernacle). This same order was confirmed when the twelve tribes brought daily offerings at the dedication of the altar in Numbers 7.

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    Feb 13 at 15:14
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In my opinion it was for military purpose. Seeing the census was done for the people who could join the army too. In the 4 categories there consisted a tribe for fighters.1st Judah was good in numbers but also warin terms of praise and physical numbers were there. 2nd set out. Gad was a fighter tribe. 3rd tribe Benjamin. 4th Naphtali.

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    – Community Bot
    May 12 at 22:46
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Beyond the rather cool pictorial representations though, this layout brings to fore the discourse around God's desire for structure and order within the ranks the NT Church and the centrality of the Presence and Spirit of the God as symbolised by the Tabernacle to the daily existence and culture of the church, as symbolised by Isreal in this case. This is an issue we still struggle with in our worship services and church organisations today. How much say so do we give the leading and manisfestation of the Spirit relative to our own pre-conceived 'order of service'. Who is at the centre of our local Church structure, the ego and whims of the Senior Pastor or the Holy Spirit? With all the denominations and sects, where is the overarching governance Structure like in the early NT Church?

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  • Even if this is a reasonable conclusion, this post is not sufficient to show us how you got there. You start off with some flying leaps and don't include any hermeneutical evidence for why this OT passage is the way it is.
    – Caleb
    Sep 28, 2018 at 23:13

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