Commentary on Numbers 2

Notes (NET Translation)

Chapter 2 specifies the arrangement of the Israelite camp as it travels through the wilderness.

1 The LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron:

2 “Every one of the Israelites must camp under his standard with the emblems of his family; they must camp at some distance around the tent of meeting.

Hebrew degel possibly originally meant a military banner [“standard” in NET]. This is supported by the Akkadian dagalu, “to look,” and diglu, “sight.” The meaning “banner” was later extended by association to include the army division, just as shevet and matteh, the two terms for “tribe,” were probably derived from the “rod” that served as the official tribal insignia (cf. 1:45; 14:17–18). The meaning “unit” better fits the context here, as verse 3 shows, and is supported by the Targums and the Septuagint as well as by Aramaic usage as evidenced from the Persian period by an ostracon from Arad (no. 12) and the papyri from Elephantine. It comprised a garrison of 1,000 men that lived together with their families and, as attested by the Aramaic documents of the Persian period, was an economic and legal unit as well as a military one. This situation corresponds closely to the makeup and function of the Israelite tribes in the wilderness, as depicted in the Book of Numbers. The meaning “military unit” is also present in the War Scroll from Qumran.1

The tent of meeting is at the center of a rectangular camp. Joshua 3:4 says a distance of 2,000 cubits (900 meters or 1,000 yards) should separate the ark from the non-Levitical tribes. The rabbis (Numbers Rabba 2:1) surmised this was the distance because it was the farthest walking distance permitted on the Sabbath, so all Israel could worship at the sanctuary.

In later Israel the war camp was arranged in the round (cf. 1 Sam. 17:20; 26:5–7). Assyrian reliefs of the first millennium also favor the circular shape. The closest parallel to Israel’s wilderness camp is the Egyptian camp of Ramses II (the probable Pharaoh of the Exodus). Pharaoh’s camp, like that of Israel, is also square in shape. Strikingly, his tent is in the center. Its walls clearly are thick, a remarkable fact since the camp, formed solely for the purpose of attacking the Hittite stronghold of Kadesh, was only temporary. But it must be remembered that Pharaoh was considered a god and his tent was a sanctuary (as is indicated in an illustration by the figures kneeling before his cartouche) and had to be protected against human and demonic defilement. Israel’s monotheistic faith abolished the world of the demons, but the residence of its God still required protection against human agents of defilement–a protection supplied by the Levitical cordon. Thus the possibility must be recognized that Israel’s camp of the Exodus was modeled upon a contemporary Egyptian pattern.2

The camp arrangement looks as follows:

Israelite Wilderness Camp Arrangement

3 “Now those who will be camping on the east, toward the sunrise, are the divisions of the camp of Judah under their standard. The leader of the people of Judah is Nahshon son of Amminadab. 4 Those numbered in his division are 74,600. 5 Those who will be camping next to them are the tribe of Issachar. The leader of the people of Issachar is Nethanel son of Zuar. 6 Those numbered in his division are 54,400. 7 Next will be the tribe of Zebulun. The leader of the people of Zebulun is Eliab son of Helon. 8 Those numbered in his division are 57,400. 9 All those numbered of the camp of Judah, according to their divisions, are 186,400. They will travel at the front.

The tent of meeting opened to the east. The east is the choicest position and is occupied by the Aaronides (and Moses) and the camp of Judah. The unit leaders (i.e., Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan) are in the center of the two other tribes in the unit. The tribal leaders in this chapter match the tribal leaders given in chapter 1.

10 “On the south will be the divisions of the camp of Reuben under their standard. The leader of the people of Reuben is Elizur son of Shedeur. 11 Those numbered in his division are 46,500. 12 Those who will be camping next to them are the tribe of Simeon. The leader of the people of Simeon is Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai. 13 Those numbered in his division are 59,300. 14 Next will be the tribe of Gad. The leader of the people of Gad is Eliasaph son of Deuel. 15 Those numbered in his division are 45,650. 16 All those numbered of the camp of Reuben, according to their divisions, are 151,450. They will travel second.

17 “Then the tent of meeting with the camp of the Levites will travel in the middle of the camps. They will travel in the same order as they camped, each in his own place under his standard.

Some Levites marched before the camp of Reuben and some after it (10:17-21). The arrangement of the Levites is given in chapter 3.

18 “On the west will be the divisions of the camp of Ephraim under their standard. The leader of the people of Ephraim is Elishama son of Amihud. 19 Those numbered in his division are 40,500. 20 Next to them will be the tribe of Manasseh. The leader of the people of Manasseh is Gamaliel son of Pedahzur. 21 Those numbered in his division are 32,200. 22 Next will be the tribe of Benjamin. The leader of the people of Benjamin is Abidan son of Gideoni. 23 Those numbered in his division are 35,400. 24 All those numbered of the camp of Ephraim, according to their divisions, are 108,100. They will travel third.

25 “On the north will be the divisions of the camp of Dan, under their standards. The leader of the people of Dan is Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai. 26 Those numbered in his division are 62,700. 27 Those who will be camping next to them are the tribe of Asher. The leader of the people of Asher is Pagiel son of Ocran. 28 Those numbered in his division are 41,500. 29 Next will be the tribe of Naphtali. The leader of the people of Naphtali is Ahira son of Enan. 30 Those numbered in his division are 53,400. 31 All those numbered of the camp of Dan are 157,600. They will travel last, under their standards.”

32 These are the Israelites, numbered according to their families. All those numbered in the camps, by their divisions, are 603,550.

33 But the Levites were not numbered among the other Israelites, as the LORD commanded Moses.

This verse refers back to 1:47-54 to explain the omission of the Levites.

34 So the Israelites did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses; that is the way they camped under their standards, and that is the way they traveled, each with his clan and family.

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Milgrom 1990, 11 
  2. Milgrom 1990, 340 
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