Numbers 2:1-34

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We are making our way through the opening section of Numbers (1:1-10:10), the account of the preparations made for Israel’s departure from Mt. Sinai for the Promised Land. The first step was a census to determine the nation’s fighting strength. The next is to organize the camp for the march and its defense while encamped. It is an interesting fact of military history that care must be taken to organize the movement of armies and their disposition at rest lest they be reduced to the status of a disorganized mob rather than a fighting formation. If you remember your military history you’ll know how often wise commanders have taken advantage of poorly organized movement on the part of the enemy. Caesar inflicted his first defeat on the Helvetians – at the beginning of the Gallic Wars – by catching them unawares while crossing a river, destroying that quarter of their army that had not yet crossed the river and was encumbered with baggage while the rest of the Helvetian army watched helplessly from the far bank. A key problem with General Lee’s first days at Gettysburg was that substantial parts of his army were miles away from the action when it began and took days to arrive on the battlefield. Israel will march in a specific formation, every tribe and knowing its place in the line. That this is an order of march as well as a disposition in camp is clear from the references to the order in which the tribes will “set out” in vv. 9, 16, 17, 24, 31 and 34. If you compare the organization of the camp in chapter 2 with the order of march in 10:11ff, you will again find the same order of tribes. The tribes come into camp and leave camp in a very definite order.

Text Comment

“And the Lord said,” that is one word in Hebrew “And He said” and then “Yahweh”. “And the Lord said,” we said would be an important marker of literary units in Numbers, occurring some 50x. In other words, the chapter division is in the right place. Aaron is mentioned as receiving these instructions as well (it was only Moses in 1:1) no doubt because what follows will involve the Levites and the sanctuary.

Each tribe had its standard and each family had its banner. In the War Scroll discovered in the caves at Qumran there is a reference to each family having its own standard, a practice that apparently had continued a thousand years or more. Unfortunately we have no idea what these standards or banners looked like.

The distance required between the tribal camps and the sanctuary was necessary because the Levites, as we learn later, were to set up their camp between the sanctuary and the tribal camps, as something of a buffer between the sanctuary and the nation as a whole. The ancient rabbis surmised that the distance to be kept was 900 meters or 1000 yards because that was the distance the Israelites had to remain from the ark when they crossed the Jordan (Joshua 3:4). [Milgrom, 12]

Judah, Jacob’s fourth-born son, had replaced Reuben, the firstborn, as the leader of the tribes. This was, no doubt, because of his primary role in the family’s spiritual rebirth – the central interest of the Joseph history – and, accordingly, Jacob, his father, prophesying that the King or Messiah would come from Judah’s line. The leaders of each tribe are the same men listed in 1:5-15.

The standard is mentioned only in the case of the first tribe in each three-tribe grouping. So the standard identifies the entire group, not just the tribe of Judah. The first group is located east of the sanctuary, toward the sunrise, the direction upon which the doors of the sanctuary opened.

The numbers listed are the same numbers reported in the census of chapter 1.

So the first three tribes, with Judah at the head, form the eastern block of tribes. The twelve tribes will be arranged east, south, west, and north of the sanctuary.

The less favored positions in the square are north and south. Reuben, remember, slept with his father Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah (Gen. 35:22) in an effort to ensure that after the death of Rachel his father’s favorite wife, he, the eldest son of Leah and the first son of Jacob would assume leadership of the family. These many years later his descendants are still bearing the reproach of that sin and Reuben’s group is in one of the less favored positions.

Simeon, together with Levi, had sinned terribly against God and man by murdering the inhabitants of Shechem in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah (Gen. 34:25). But, just as Judah had committed terrible sins and was brought nevertheless to highest favor because he repented and acted in the purest faith in seeking to rescue Benjamin and honor his father Jacob, so Levi had likewise been restored to honor when, in faith, his descendants obeyed the Lord and Moses in striking down the guilty Israelites after the sin with the Golden Calf. We have, in other words, in the positioning of the tribes around the sanctuary an enacted lesson in both sin and redemption. Any Israelite, thoroughly familiar with this family history as he or she would have been, would have immediately understood all of this when hearing where each of the tribes was to find its place around the sanctuary. They would not only have realized the favored places and the less favored places, they would have immediately have known why. Sin pays a wage, a wage that may still be required of a person’s descendants generations later. But God’s grace can also wipe the slate clean and grant new favor to those who trust and obey. It is a great sinner, but one who in faith now stands forgiven, who occupies the place of greatest honor among the tribes, Judah. On the opposite side is Joseph, represented by his two sons and Benjamin. God will not be mocked. Whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap. That remains forever true. But so does this: the mercies of God are new every morning, great is his faithfulness. And this: a man in Christ is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come.

We talked about the text of the Hebrew Bible a few weeks ago and there is an interesting illustration of a typical textual problem, of a kind very easy to solve, here in v. 14. The MT text reads not Deuel but Reuel. In 1:14 we have Deuel but here, where the same name should appear, we have Reuel. The letters “r” and “d” in the Hebrew alphabet look very much alike and were often and easily confused, all the more if the scribe’s handwriting were not very good, if it were, for example, like the handwriting of my two sons. It should be read Deuel as in the NIV; they have made the change even though the Hebrew text in front of them reads Reuel.

We’ll learn more about the Levites and their camp and their place in the march in chapters 3 and 4.

A longstanding question is why Dan should lead a section of tribes. Judah we understand. Reuben is the firstborn. Ephraim replaces Joseph who, for his faithfulness to the Lord, received from Jacob the blessing belonging to the firstborn son. But why Dan? Apparently it was because Dan was the firstborn of Jacob’s sons by his concubine (Gen. 30:1-13). Dan’s northern group occupies probably the position of least favor (north or south) just one of a hundred little hints that we are given from the beginning of the Bible to the end that it was never God’s intention that a man have more than one wife, at least at the same time.

Vv. 32-34 are a summary, such as we had at the end of chapter one, and, in fact, generally reproduce 1:46-47 and 54.

It is very interesting to note that the Egyptian army under Rameses II in the 13th century B.C. and other ANE armies adopted the same sort of formation in camp that is described here in Numbers 2: a square with the royal tent in the middle. The remarkable implication of this arrangement in its ancient Near Eastern setting is that the burden of this arrangement was to place Israel’s king, Yahweh himself, in the center of his army. This arrangement places Yahweh in direct command of his host and makes his presence with the army the single most salient fact of Israel’s life in the wilderness. Other nations had their king with them on the march; Israel had Yahweh himself, the Maker of heaven and earth, with them. Yahweh went with Israel on her pilgrimage through the wilderness.

So much of the Bible is in one way or another occupied with this assertion: that God himself is with his people in the wilderness of this world. That he accompanies them on their pilgrimage. Numbers, as the entire Bible, is about the presence of the Lord with us. This truth was dramatically illustrated in the manner of Israel’s encampment, with the tabernacle at the center. But it is taught and illustrated in many other ways as well. Think of the disaster that overtook Israel in the days of Eli, when the ark of the covenant was lost in battle to the Philistines. Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas (the wicked priest and son of Eli), gave birth to a son just as the news of Israel’s defeat and the ark’s capture reached her; dying herself she named her newborn son Ichabod, which means “the glory has departed.” “Glory,” as you know is in the OT a circumlocution for “God,” a way of talking about God without mentioning his name. The glory has departed means that God has departed, we’ve lost his presence. This woman was astute enough to realize that Yahweh had taken his presence and the blessing and help of that presence away from Israel because his people no longer trusted in him or obeyed him.

Or consider the days of Elijah when the prophet of the Lord – which is to say as we read there that the Word of the Lord – left Israel and remained out of Israel for three years. “Word” is another circumlocution for God. When Jesus said to the religious leaders that God’s word did not dwell in them (Jn 5:38) or when Paul spoke of the word of Christ dwelling richly in believers, they were speaking of the Lord’s own presence either absent or present with his people. So to say that the Word of God went away is to say that God himself went away. Drought and famine descended upon Israel during Ahab’s reign because the Lord had left Israel as judgment on her sins.

Or consider the destruction of the temple and the exile of the Jews to Babylon in 586 B.C. which we considered in detail during our recent Sunday evening sermons on Ezekiel. Here the Lord did not so much depart from his people as he drove his people away from his presence on account of their unbelief and disobedience.

And then think of the use made of this idea in the New Testament. We are told in John 1:14 that the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. You know that the verb translated “made his dwelling” is related to the noun for “tent” and has sometimes been translated “he tabernacled among us” or “he pitched his tent among us.” The idea is that he dwelt with us albeit temporarily. But, when he departed to heaven, he promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age. And in fulfillment of that promise he left us the Holy Spirit who would mediate his presence to us. Our bodies, we are told in 1 Cor. 6:19 are the temple, the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit; they are where he dwells. The Lord remains present with his people through the Holy Spirit. It is in this way that Paul says that Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17). John speaks of Christians living in God’s presence (1 Jn 3:19). And so the presence of the Lord continues to define the meaning of salvation to the very end. The fate of the unbelieving is to be shut out of God’s presence (2 Thess. 1:9) and the blessing of the faithful is that they will be presented before God’s glorious presence without fault and with great joy (Jude 24) and will hear the great news that “Now the dwelling of Godis with men and he will live with them” (Rev. 21:3).

It is a very simple but completely biblical way to think about the history of salvation. God was present with man in the Garden; man lost God’s presence on account of his sin; and God in Christ has restored his presence to those who believe in him in anticipation of their enjoying that presence intimately and completely for eternal ages to come. And so God’s presence is one of the great themes of the Book of Numbers: Immanuel, God with us. And, as I never tire of reminding you, remember it is an emphasis of the New Testament that the person of the Godhead with whom Israel had to do in the wilderness was none other than God the Son whom we would later come to know as Jesus Christ. It was the person of Immanuel in Numbers as it would be the same person, now the incarnate Immanuel in the Gospels: God with us in both cases. We might entitle Numbers “Immanuel in the Wilderness”.

Now, let’s be honest about his; face the issue squarely. What we Christians are asserting is that the Living God is with us in a way he is not with the people of this world. What the world does not believe is precisely the same thing: that God is with us and not with them.. In Numbers everyone could see the tabernacle in the midst of the camp and, what is more, they could see the pillar of fire and the cloud and they could see the glory on Moses’ face when he came out of the tent after one of his audiences with Yahweh. There was a visible demonstration of God’s presence with his people, as there would be in the Gospels in the miracles that Jesus performed and as there would be, at least for Peter, James, and John, on the Mount of Transfiguration. In our case, however, that divine presence with us is known only by faith and not by sight. True, the Lord proves himself present with us in many wonderful and powerful ways. Elder Arnold just reported to us a striking instance of God’s providence by which his presence was made known to him, but these ways are not visible and not even impressive to unbelievers. They would think it a happy coincidence that those two men happened to show up at that very moment in the conversation.

Truth be told, unbelievers are not inclined to think that the presence of God with them would be any particularly great thing. They don’t want God’s presence. They are not thinking about it, they’re not longing for it, they are not praying for it, and they are not in any way, shape, or form considering their lives’ woe or for weal as a matter of the presence of God with them. To be sure, they may not want to lose all contact with God – they would like for him to remain close enough so that he could be called on to help should he be needed, either individually or nationally; but to have God with us for most people would be a great inconvenience. He would be too close for comfort, too close for some of our business deals, or our entertainment, or some of our conduct toward other people. We know how much we would not do or would do differently if another person were present; how much more if God himself were present all the time! Why our lives would have to change radically. We don’t want that! That is how most people think. [From Clowney in Duguid, 39]

But all of that thinking stems from the fact that people have no idea where they are or where they are going. Most people really don’t. They don’t think about this and they have no fixed and serious idea about their situation. If they understood that they were in the wilderness of this world, poised between two diametrically opposite destinies, that they had enemies who threatened their very lives, that ahead of them lay either the Promised Land or unending years in a dreary desert bereft of water and every good thing, they would crave the presence of God as they crave nothing else. Every human being wants to be happy. Virtually every decision a human being makes throughout any particular day he makes because he wants to be happy and he considers that decision in some way contributing to his happiness. If he knew that he was poised between eternal happiness and eternal unhappiness and woe and that the presence of God was going to make the difference between one destiny for him or for her and the other, those people would crave God’s presence. So much of what we think about God – the extent of our thoughts about him and the type of thoughts we think about him, whether we think about him at all – depend on our sense of our need for God. If we don’t think we need him for what is important to us, we think little of his presence. If we know we depend on him for what is crucial to us, we consider his presence a very great thing. A failure to understand her real situation in the world will be Israel’s undoing in the first half of Numbers and the failure to understand the same thing is the undoing of vast multitudes of people today.

In any case, what we are shown here is a people, a community whose life is focused on the Lord who is present with them. The nation was to be camped around the sanctuary as we read at the beginning of the chapter. We said last time that the church is an edged-bounded group, a group with clear boundaries. One is either in it or out. It is possible to take a census of its members. But the church is also a center-focused group: it has a reason for being, a commitment that all in the group share: that commitment is the presence of God in their midst. It was that presence that would lead them on their journey, that presence that would guarantee them victory over their enemies, that presence would provide what they needed for life, and that presence would finally bring them into the Promised Land. Yahweh himself, the personal infinite God, the one living and true God, was and is the focus of the church’s life as it is of every Christian’s life. To know God, to be with God, is the Bible’s simplest and shortest way to describe what salvation means and how one’s life reaches true fulfillment. To have God with you. The unbeliever is without God, Paul says, but God is with those who trust in him.

Life in the wilderness can be difficult. We all know this. It is precisely the difficulty of life that makes the presence of God so precious and so important. To be a soldier in an army on the march, facing the prospect of terrible battles is one of the Bible’s great pictures of the Christian life. Any soldier in combat can tell you that his life is an alternation of boredom and terror, long stretches of boredom punctuated by short periods of terror. In that way it is like the Christian life, crises interrupting the normal routine. And nothing is more important to a soldier – and, alas, in the history of armies, nothing so regularly in short supply – than that those above him in the chain of command know precisely what they are doing and are winners on the battlefield. A soldier can face the prospect of terrible fighting, he can face even the prospect of losing his life so long as he does not think that his life will be wasted, thrown away, given up for nothing, lost to the incompetence of his generals as has happened to uncounted millions of soldiers through the ages.

Soldiers take courage from their leaders. One of the reasons why great generals won so many battles is that their soldiers had great confidence in them and fought accordingly. They took courage from their sense that their leader knew what he was doing, cared about his soldiers, and had the skill to lead them to victory. This was true of Caesar, it was true of Napoleon, it was true of Robert E. Lee. To know these generals were in charge for a soldier was to believe in ultimate victory.

What is interesting about generalship is that the success of a general does not depend on moderating the demands he makes upon his soldiers. Men are ready for a leader who will unhesitatingly claim the last ounce of his followers’ courage and strength. The general can make what might seem impossible demands and his soldiers will strive to meet them if only they trust him to lead them to victory. There is a story told of how Napoleon, who was without doubt a very great general – when an artillery officer at the siege of Toulon, built a battery in such an exposed position that he was told he would never find men to man it – put up a placard on the side of the battery that read “The battery of men without fear.” That battery was always manned. But it was Napoleon who put up the placard. Had it been some other general, one in whom the men had less confidence, to whom they felt less loyalty it would not have been so.

A British navy captain, Robert Stopford, who commanded one of the ships with which Nelson chased to the West Indies a French fleet nearly double its size, wrote of the ordeal in a letter. Describing the desperate hardships of that daring adventure, he wrote, “We are half-starved, and otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port. But our reward is – We are with Nelson!” [In J.S. Stewart, Heralds of God, 144] There is the difference that confidence in one’s general or admiral can make. Any hardships can be endured if he is present, if we are following him; if he is at the head of our column; if we are with him, if we are sure he will lead us to victory!

But, of course, all of these great leaders at last were just fallible and mortal men. Caesar was assassinated. Napoleon was finally defeated in battle and sent into perpetual exile. Nelson was killed at Trafalgar. Robert E. Lee presided over the destruction of his army and the defeat of his cause.

But Christians don’t have a mere man as their Captain, but the Lord himself, the King of Kings, no Pharaoh in the center of their camp, but the Living God. He too may require of his soldiers great and painful sacrifices, even death in battle, but they know that following him they cannot possibly fail no matter the difficulties of the journey or the ferocity of the battles that must be fought along the way. That is the beautiful and powerful point made by the organization of Israel’s camp with the tribes in camp around the Tent of Meeting. Our lives in this wilderness are to be lived in the Presence, conscious of the Lord being with us to guide and protect us all the way to the Promised Land. We are an army on the march but we have with us the Living God. Our lives are to be lived in the demonstration of the truth of that. It is precisely what non-Christians do not believe and so precisely where the issue ought to be joined. Are we, in fact, living in the Presence?

But how can we cultivate that consciousness of the Lord’s presence with us when we can’t see it as the Israelites could. In our day there is no Tent of Meeting around which the tribes are camped. Well, actually there is. It isn’t that Tent of Meeting, the portable sanctuary, the Tabernacle that served Israel until the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. But it is a place of meeting the Lord has just as surely appointed for us. I’m speaking of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day, when the Christian community practices the presence of God as surely as did the Israelites when they encamped in a square around the sanctuary.

In that Lord’s Day worship, as it were, the entire camp reorients their souls toward the center, toward the presence of the Lord. It is this scene in Numbers 2 and its meaning that make every Sunday’s worship so important to us today. The question is whether we will in fact be organized around the sanctuary, and whether we will march with the Lord’s presence a visible, known, and experienced power and blessing in our lives? And, of course, we do not really orient ourselves around the sanctuary of the Lord unless in our worship we pay proper reverence and devotion to him and unless we point ourselves toward the Living God conscious of who he is.

Were you struck by the requirement that the people camp at a distance from the sanctuary itself and, as we will learn in the next chapter, that the Levites were to position themselves between the twelve tribes and the sanctuary. This was a way in which the holiness of the Lord was demonstrated in a constant and visible way to the people of Israel. As the entire OT makes clear, the believer had access to God as direct and immediate as we do today. He was as near to them as he is near to us. It is, after all, the same Christ in both cases, the same salvation, the same faith, the same world, and the same pilgrimage. But the holiness of the Lord was displayed in more visible ways in that ancient epoch at least some of the time than it is today. The holiness is the same, the reverence for God required of us is the same, the fear of the Lord that should be found in believing hearts, that too is the same now as it was then.

Twenty years ago now, the late Neil Postman, a Jewish man and an observer of modern culture, in his prophetic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, pointed out that modern Christian services – such as appeared on television programs and increasingly in church sanctuaries on Sunday – were becoming more and more a form of entertainment. Everything that made the Christian faith historic, profound, and sacred was being stripped away. There was increasingly less ritual, less dogma, and little to no sense of spiritual transcendence. God himself is second banana in these services. It is the art form, the band, the preacher who are tops. The presence of God as a spiritual reality was disappearing from Christian worship. [116ff.] That was twenty years ago, how much more today? These changes may have been introduced with the best of intentions as a way to help people come to faith in Jesus Christ, but they can be seen for what they are when compared to Numbers 2. Here the people of God are organized to take seriously the divine presence among them to believe it, but they are also required to camp at a distance from that presence. This double perspective – both the nearness and the transcendence of God, his immanence and his holiness – will be found throughout Numbers. But it is just as really found in the New Testament, where we are taught both to draw near to God and to fear him in reverence and awe because our God is a consuming fire. That experience both of God’s nearness and his majesty, that experience of the presence of the living God, is what worship must be, the presence but the presence of the Living God, if we are to live our lives oriented to God and to his presence as it actually is in the world.

Come every Lord’s Day as if you were coming into camp around the sanctuary. You have been on the march through the week and are now coming again into camp, taking your place on one side or another of the presence of the Lord. Seeing the sanctuary there it all becomes clear to you again who you are, where you are and who you are with. Being required to keep your distance, that too powerfully reminds you of the God whose presence has led you to this point on your pilgrimage.

Numbers will force many such questions upon us: 1) Do I live in the consciousness of God’s presence? 2) Is it my joy and confidence to know that the Lord is with me? 3) Does the fact of God’s presence alter the way I live my life every day? 4) Is it obvious to others that I know that the Lord is near me, with me? 5) And is it clear to me, as well as to others, that the God whom I serve and whose presence is my boast is the holy one, so holy that even clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ I must revere him, conscious always of his holiness and majesty, keeping my distance even as I draw near to him, bowing my head and covering my feet and face even as I live my life pointed toward him at every moment? It should be, it must be, if indeed the Living God is present with us as he most certainly is.