In chapter 1 we read that the Lord commanded Moses to take a census and to count the number of Israelite men over the age of twenty who could serve in the army. And the total came to over 600,000. Since only men were counted, the total number of Israelites including women and children would have been much greater than that; and it was a reminder that the Lord was keeping the promise which he made to Abraham to make his descendants like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, too many to count.
If in chapter 1 the Lord commanded Moses to count the people, in chapter 2 he commands Moses to arrange the people. He commanded Moses to make sure the people were arranged in a certain way whenever they were camped and whenever they were on the move. We were saying on Sunday evening that the Lord is not a God of disorder, but of order; and everything is to be done in a fitting and orderly way. Well, in the chapter we once again see how the Lord is a God of order, because he commanded Moses to arrange and order the tribes in a certain way. They weren’t to camp higgedly-piggedly; they weren’t to camp in whatever way they wanted; when they set off on their journey, they weren’t to march in any old order. No, the Lord wanted them to arrange themselves in a particular order.
Verses 1 and 2
In verses 1 and 2 we have the introduction to this chapter: the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron to tell them that the Israelites were to camp around the Tent of Meeting. So, when they camped somewhere, the Tabernacle was to be at the centre of their camp. And the Lord reminded them to put their own tents at ‘some distance’ from the Lord’s tent. After all, the Lord is holy and they are not; they could become unclean in various ways; and they could only approach the Lord when they were clean and with the right sacrifices. Anyone who came too close to the Lord without bringing the right sacrifices, would die. Therefore, when they were camped, they needed to keep their distance from the Tabernacle. And, according to the Lord, each man was to camp under his standard with the banner of his family. The standard was probably a kind of flag which represented the tribe; and the banner was another kind of sign which represented the families or clans within a tribe.
Verses 3 to 31
From the following verses we learn that there were to camp around the Tabernacle with three tribes on the each side. So, there were to be three tribes on the east side; three tribes on the south side, three tribes on the west side, and three tribes on the east side.
The east side is mentioned first because the sun rose in the east and the entrance of the Tabernacle faced the east. The east side therefore was the primary position; and the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun were positioned there. The tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad were positioned on the south. The tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin were on the west. That left the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naphtali on the north side.
If you compare the list of tribes in this chapter with the list in chapter 1, you’ll notice that the order in which they’re listed is slightly different. Gad — one of the tribes descended from Jacob’s concubine Bilhah was moved up to be grouped with Reuben and Simeon. And Reuben — who was Jacob’s firstborn son — who was mentioned first in chapter 1, has now been relegated to fourth place. Meanwhile Judah — who was Jacob’s fourth son — is given first place. We’ll think about why that was important in a moment.
So far I haven’t mentioned the tribe of Levi. That’s because they were given a special position in the camp. Look with me at verse 17 where it tells us that the Levites were to camp in the middle of the camp around the Tabernacle. So, the Tabernacle was at the centre; around the Tabernacle were the Levites; and around them were the 12 tribes of Israel, with three tribes on each side, forming a square. Furthermore, from verse 17, we learn that the order in which they camped was also to be the order in which they set out to travel. So, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun went first; Reuben, Simeon and Gad went second; the Levites were in the middle, carrying the Tabernacle; then Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin came next; Dan, Asher and Naphtali came at the end. The Levites were placed around the Tabernacle, because they had been chosen by God to look after the Tabernacle and to guard it.
Verses 32 to 34
In the closing verses the total number of men who were counted is mentioned. You’ll remember from last week that this is the total number of men who could serve in the army. The Levites were not counted, because they were not to serve in the army, but they were to serve in the temple. And we’re told in verse 34 that they did everything the Lord commanded Moses: this is the way they camped and this is the way they set out.
Why was Reuben relegated to fourth place and Judah promoted to first place? Well, back in Genesis 49, Jacob prophesied what would become of his sons and their tribes; and he announced about Reuben, his firstborn, that though he was the firstborn, and excelled in honour and power, he would no longer excel, because he went up on his father’s bed and defiled it. Jacob was referring to the time when Reuben slept with his father’s concubine. And so, because he defiled his father’s bed, he would lose the first place in the family.
And according to Jacob’s prophecy, Judah — his fourth son — will be praised by his brothers and his brothers will bow down to him. In other words, he would have first place. Furthermore, Jacob prophesied that the sceptre will not depart from Judah nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet until he comes to whom it belongs. Jacob was announcing that kings would come from the tribe of Judah; that’s why he mentions the sceptre, which was a sign of royalty.
And sure enough, David and all the kings who came from David were from the tribe of Judah. Moreover, when Jacob referred to the one who was coming to whom the sceptre belongs, he was announcing the coming of Jesus Christ, the true King of God’s people, who was also descended from the tribe of Judah. Jacob also referred to his son Judah as a lion; and in Revelation 5 one of the elders in heaven spoke to John about the Lord Jesus in these terms: he referred to him as the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the Root of David who has triumphed. So, when Jacob described Judah as a lion in Genesis 49, and when he announced that kings would come from Judah, he was announcing the coming of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
Though Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn son, he was relegated to the fourth place; and first place went to the tribe of Judah, from which tribe the King of kings would come. And so, here in Numbers chapter 2, Judah was given the primary place on the east side, facing the rising of the sun and facing the entrance to the Tabernacle, where the Lord their God lived. Furthermore, when they set off on their journey, Judah was in the lead, leading the rest of the people towards the Promised Land. Judah points forward to Christ the Saviour who is leading us and all God’s people to the promised rest of heaven.
Notice as well from this chapter that at the centre of the camp was the Tabernacle of the Lord. In other words, the Lord dwelt among the people, right in their midst. In this way the arrangement of the camp — with the Tabernacle in the centre — points us to Jesus Christ, who is the Eternal Word of God, but who became flesh and made his dwelling among us. That’s what we read in John 1. But the Greek word which John uses in John 1 for ‘dwelling among us’ is in actual fact the word for ‘tabernacle’. John was saying that the word became flesh and tabernacled among us; he pitched his tent among us. What we read here in Numbers chapter 2 about the arrangement of the camp — with the Lord’s tabernacle at the centre — was a revelation of the good news of the gospel and of how, one day, God would dwell among his people, not in a tent, but in the person of his Son. God so ordered the arrangement of the camp, because he wanted to make known what he would one do for his people and how he would become one of us and live among us in order to deliver us from our sin and misery and to bring us to heaven.
And finally, notice too that the camp was a square. It was a square, because each of the four sides was equal, with three tribes on the east and three tribes on the south and three tribes on the west and three tribes on the north. The whole camp was a square. Is that significant? Well, it might not seem significant until we remember what we read in Revelation 21 about the heavenly Jerusalem, which is really the glorified church, because it’s made up of all of God’s people. And in Revelation 21 we read that the heavenly Jerusalem is a square: it was 12,000 stadia long and wide. And do you remember? The walls of the city had 12 gates, named after the 12 tribes of Israel, with three gates on each of the four sides.
Do you see? The Israelite camp in the days of Moses was designed by God to resemble the church in glory. And just as the Lord dwelt in the midst of the Israelite camp, so the Lord will dwell with his people for ever and for ever in glory, because in Revelation 21 we’re told that the dwelling of God will be with his people and he will live with them. But, of course, the reality in heaven will be far, far, far better than the shadow which we read about in Numbers chapter 2, because whereas the Israelites had to camp at a distance from the Tabernacle, in the glory of heaven, we shall see his face. No longer will we be separated from him by our sin, because in the glory of heaven, we will be transformed and sin will be no more, and we will be able to come before him and see him and be with him for ever.
God is not a God of disorder, but of order. And when he commanded Moses to arrange the Israelite camp in a certain order, he knew what he was doing, because he wanted to reveal the good news of the gospel and the hope of everlasting life which he gives to all who believe in him. Judah was given the first place, because from him would come the Saviour of the world, who will lead his people to the promised rest of God. The Tabernacle was in their midst, because one day God was going to dwell among us in the person of his Son in order to save us. And the way they camped in a square pointed forward to the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, which will be made up of all of God’s people in every age and from every nation who will dwell with him for ever and ever in glory.