Many think the book of Numbers is difficult to read. It has long lists of difficult-to-pronounce names that seem to mean very little in the story Bible. However, we know that every word God has written is important. So we should be asking ourselves, why did God have Moses provide such great detail about the people of each tribe? We can understand that a census was done to count the people for military service, but why was it necessary to record it for posterity?
What can we learn from God’s meticulous record in the Book of Numbers?
A Remez in Numbers
There’s a remez recorded in Numbers and, when you see it, you’ll never why the list of names and the number of the people is so important.
What’s a remez? In Jewish hermeneutics (interpretation of Scripture), a remez is a hidden message, or a deeper meaning. It’s said to be a “treaure” found below the surface of, or behind, the words. (See below for other remezes in the Bible.)
The remez in the book of Numbers is found in the numbering of the people of Israel. God commanded this as they wandered in the wilderness. It’s interesting to note that in Hebrew, the name of the book is BaMidbar, which means “in the wilderness.” But, as the book was translated from Hebrew into Greek and Latin, the translators focused on the two censuses recorded in the book and chose a name to reflect that. In Greek, the book is known as Arithmoi, in Latin Numeri, and in English we title it Numbers.
Counting the People
The book begins with God ordering a census of the people. We are told they were to number all who would be able to fight:
Num 1:2-3 “Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male individually, from twenty years old and above; all who are able to go to war in Israel. You and Aaron shall number them by their armies.
After God instructed Moses to number the men for military service, He told Moses that the people were to camp around the Tabernacle according to their tribe (Numbers 2).
God was very specific in His instructions. The 12 tribes were to be divided into four camps around they would pitch their tents around the Tabernacle.
- Judah, along with Issachar and Zebulon, would camp to the east of the Tabernacle.
- Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin, would be to the west.
- Dan, Naphtali and Asher set up camp on the north side of the Tabernacle.
- Reuben, Simeon and Gad on the south side.
- The house of Levi, the priestly tribe, camped surrounding the Tabernacle.
Numbers, Chapter Two – The Camps of Israel
Further instructions from God, required that each of the “lead” tribes would be represented “by his own standard.”
Numbers 2:2 Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father’s house: far off about the tabernacle of the congregation shall they pitch.
A “standard” is a flag or banner that represents a troop. It was meant to be a sign, and in English we commonly use the term “ensign.” An ensign is defined as “a flag that is flown (as by a ship) as the symbol of nationality and may also be flown with a distinctive badge added to its design.”  (Watch for our Got Questions? next week. We’ll explain the significance of these ensigns.)
Following the instructions about the camps, Numbers chapter two lists each tribe, reveals the number of people in each tribe, and assigns the position they were to camp around the Tabernacle (North, South, East, West). Let’s add the numbers that God has recorded:
EAST Side of the Tabernacle
On the east was the camp of Judah, which included the tribe of Judah, whose ensign was a Lion. Judah was the largest of all the tribes (74,600), the tribe of Issachar, the least in number (4,400), and Zebulon (57,400). Together this camp numbered 186,400. (Numbers 2:3-7)
SOUTH Side of the Tabernacle
On the south was the camp of Reuben, whose ensign was a man. Numbering 46,500, and including Simeon (59,300) and Gad (45,600) this camp totaled 151,400. (Numbers 2:10-16)
WEST Side of the Tabernacle
Directly opposite on the west side was the camp of Ephraim, whose ensign was an ox. Ephraim numbered 40,500 and along with Manasseh (32,200) and Benjamin (35,400) the camp totaled 108,100. (Numbers 2:18-24)
NORTH Side of the Tabernacle
To the north was the camp of Dan, whose ensign was an eagle. At 157,600 it was close in size to the camp of Reuben on the south by the count of Dan (62,700), Naphtali (53,400), and Asher (41,500). (Numbers 2:25-31)
The tribe of Levi was unnumbered by Moses at that time (Levites were exempt from military duty), and their position was different from that of the other tribes.
“In the Middle of the Camps”
Surrounding the Tabernacle, “in the middle of the camps,” was the priestly tribe of Levi. Perhaps this was a position that represented the priestly tribe “standing” between the people and God. They were not numbered with the people, but were numbered “by their fathers’ houses, by their families…every male from a month old and above” (Num 3:15), “according to the word of the LORD” (Num 3:16).
The Gershonites numbered 7,500 and camped to the west. The Merarites 6,200 (camped north), and the Kohathites 8,600 (camped south). The family of Moses and Aaron were not numbered, so the total surrounding the Tabernacle would have likely been in excess of 22,300.
An Amazing Revelation
Note that Moses was instructed that the camps were to be set on the cardinal directions, of north, south, east and west, around the Tabernacle. That means they were not to camp northeast, northwest, southeast, or southwest around the Tabernacle.
With the tribes camping according to God’s specific instructions, an amazing revelation appears when the camp is viewed from God’s perspective (from Heaven looking down):
1 Cor 10:11 Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
In this prophetic pattern, we see God’s grace revealed. Even in God’s prescribed design of the manner in which Israel would camp around the Tabernacle, the House of Meeting (with God), pointed to a future meeting with their Messiah and His final sacrifice that would fulfill the levitical system of sacrificial atonement.
The Israelites wandered in the wilderness, but found rest when they camped around the Tabernacle. We also wander in the wilderness, in a land that is not our home, and we must remember to rest, to “pitch our tents,” and to meet with God.
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