Formation of the Israelite Camp

Numbers 1:47-2:34

The Torah now outlines the arrangement of the Israelite camp. The Tabernacle has become the central focus of the community, so it is not surprising to hear the camp must be erected around it.


God tells Moses not to count the Levites in the census with the rest of the people, because they have a unique role to play. They are to take responsibility for the Tabernacle and its utensils, assembling and disassembling the components as needed during the Israelites’ travels. It therefore makes sense that God commands them to encamp directly around the Tabernacle.


The rest of the tribes are arranged in groups of three around the Levites, one group for each point of the compass. Judah, along with Issachar and Zebulun, take the eastern camp; Reuben, along with Simeon and Gad, are in the south; Ephraim, along with Manasseh and Benjamin, encamp in the west; and Dan, with Asher and Naphtali, round out the north. Thus, the eastern camp held 186,400, the southern camp numbered 151,450, the western camp contained 180,100 and the northern camp consisted of 157,600 members.


The Israel Bible explains that as forebear of the Davidic dynasty, the tribe of Judah was given the place of honor at the front of the Israelite camp, in the direction of the rising sun. Whenever the people traveled, it was Judah who led the way.


Each mini-camp had its own banner with a unique insignia. Similarly, the modern state of Israel has its own flag with imagery that evokes its uniqueness. The Israel Bible relates the story behind the flag of Israel, which dates back to the First Zionist Congress in 1897. According to David Wolffsohn, a prominent member of the early Zionist movement, “…an idea struck me. We have a flag — and it is blue and white. The tallit (prayer shawl) with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us that the tallit from its bag and unroll in before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations. So I ordered a blue and white flag with the Shield of David painted upon it. That is how the national flag, that flew over Congress Hall, came into being.”


Virtual Classroom Discussion

Considering their various relationships to one another, why do you think the tribes were grouped together they way they were?


Comments ( 12 )

The comments below do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and opinions of The Israel Bible™.

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  • West: the tribes descending from Rachel are together: Benjamin+Manasse+Ephraim born of Joseph. Ephraim considered the leader of these 3 tribes as a consequence of the blessing of Ja'acov.
    Center: Levi around the Mishkan, their work-area.
    East : Juda+Issaschar+Zebulon All Lea's children. Juda always at the head of all ("the scepter" of the blessing of Ja'acov.)
    North: Dan+Aser+Naphtali. Dan+Naphtali(of the maid-servant (Bilha) of Rachel; Aser (of the maid-servant (Zilpa) of Lea.
    South: Gad+Simeon+Ruven. Gad born of the maid-servant (Zilpa) of Lea; Simeon+Ruven of Lea. Though being firstborn Ruven yet placed at the tail consequence of his behavior at the time of Joseph both before the Egyptian time (Joseph, Dothan) and the time of the famine.

  • Sheila

    Appreciate your explanations here. Thanks.

  • Danielle Reisman

    Terrific observation! The twelve tribes, in groups of three, were situated at a certain distance around the tabernacle. Four of the tribes, Judah, Reuben, Ephraim and Dan were recognized as tribal leaders.
    It is important to note that Jacob had prophesied that the senior position in his family would belong to the people of Judah:
    Gen 49:10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people.

    • Thank you Danielle, I have forgotten Gen 49:10. Judah being the fourth born and the scepter not departing from him. This made it clear and answered my long question of why each prince was chosen.

  • Orli

    In checking with the account in Genesis 30 of the sequential birth of Jacob’s children, I am beginning to see a pattern emerge concerning the order that G-d chose in Numbers 1,2.
    Judah, Issachar and Zebulun were all sons of Leah and they were the leading tribes.
    Reuben and Simeon are Leah’s first and second born sons, but Gad is the firstborn son of her handmaid, Zilpah so they are all from the same mother and her handmaid and Reuben and Gad are both firstborn.
    Ephraim, Mennasah and Benjamin are all Rachel’s sons, Ephraim representing the firstborn according to Jacob’s blessing before he died.
    Dan is a firstborn son and Naphtali were both born through Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah and Asher was born through Leah’s handmaid, Zilpah. These are all from handmaids and are last in line.
    It appears to me that G-d has arranged them in order of familial honor according to their parental rights.

    • Diana Brown

      I agree with what you think. Danielle any sagely thoughts?

    • Ken

      As expressed by Orli, the order of birth of Jacob’s sons is relevant. Also Genesis 49 relates Jacob’s blessing of his sons. Here we see Reuben the first born demoted and Judah a 4th born elevated to highest honor. With the birthrights and blessings coordinated, the order of assignment around the Tabernacle seems reasonable.

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