Yellow Balloons Devotional Series: Advent

Numbers 2:1-2

The book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of Moses that comprise the Torah, which means “Law.” It gets its English name from the Greek Old Testament called the Septuagint (or LXX). The LXX named this book, “Arithmoi,” meaning “Numbers.” Its Hebrew name means “in the desert” or “in the wilderness.” Both names are appropriate. The Hebrew name is appropriate because Numbers covers the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness (or “desert”) from Sinai to the plains of Moab. The Greek name is also appropriate because of the many lists, and the numbers within those lists.

At the beginning of the book, the Israelites had been camped at Mount Sinai for about a year. The book of Exodus covered their escape from Egypt and their journey to Sinai. The LORD commanded Moses to organize the people in preparation to leave Sinai and go to the Promised Land. The book covers around 38 years of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, and describes many of Israel’s failures, including mutinies against Moses and outright disobedience to the word of the LORD. In Numbers, the LORD declares that the generation that left Egypt would die in the wilderness due to their disobedience. Only two, Joshua and Caleb, were allowed to enter the Promised Land, due to their faithfulness. Even Moses died without entering the Land due to disobedience.

The book of Numbers can be outlined in many ways. The most general outline involves the generation that leaves Egypt and the one after it, as seen below:
• Events Involving the Exodus Generation (Num. 1 – 25)
• Events Involving the Second Generation (Num. 26 – 36)

Another outline sees the book having three major divisions based on the major encampments of the Israelites:
• Israel at Sinai (Num. 1:1 – 10:10)
• Israel at Kadesh Barnea (Num. 10:11 – 19:22)
• Israel on the Plains of Moab (Num. 20:1 – 36:13)

Still another outline (the one followed here) is as follows:
• The Exodus Generation in the Wilderness (chaps. 1 – 25)
◦ The Israelites Prepare to Leave Mount Sinai (1:1 – 10:10)
◦ The Israelites Depart to Kadesh Barnea (10:11 – 14:45)
◦ The Israelites Journey to the Plains of Moab (15:1 – 22:1)
◦ The Israelites Are Confronted by Balaam the Prophet (22:2 – 25:18)
• The Second Generation Prepares to Enter the Promised Land (26:1 – 36:13)
◦ The Rules Concerning Inheritance (Num. 26:1 – 27:11)
◦ The Provision for Moses’ Successor (Num. 27:12 – 23)
◦ The Laws Concerning Offerings (Num. 28:1 – 29:40)
◦ The Laws Concerning Vows (Num. 30:1 –16)
◦ The LORD’s Judgment Against the Midianites (Num. 31:1 – 54)
◦ The Inheritance of the Eastern Tribes (Num. 32:1 – 42)
◦ The Review of the Journey to Canaan (Num. 33:1 – 56)
◦ The LORD’s Instructions Before Conquering Canaan (Num. 33:50 – 36:13)

There are two themes that flow from the book of Numbers. The first concerns the LORD’s infinite grace in light of the people’s many failures and transgressions. There is hardly a book in the Bible where the LORD had to exercise His grace to His people more often than this one. The book of Numbers contains a record of Israel’s failure after failure and the LORD’s gracious forgiveness after forgiveness. Even when He judged them, there was grace.

Second, and related to the first, the book stresses the importance of obedience. God chose the Israelites unconditionally; they were the LORD’s chosen people regardless of their behavior. However, He demanded obedience to show His people that their obedience results in blessing. God set forth a way of life for His people in the covenant He and the people entered into at Sinai (Exodus 19:5-8). The Ten Commandments made it clear that God would make the law, and that the pinnacle requirement of His law was for the people to respect and serve one another. The strong were to serve the weak. This was in stark contrast to the surrounding cultures, which centered around the strong exploiting the weak (Leviticus 18). God’s judgment brought discipline upon Israel in order to shepherd them toward living in harmony and service to one another.

The second chapter of the book of Numbers describes the arrangement of the tribal camps around the tabernacle. It describes where each tribe was to be when camped, and it specifies the order in which each tribe was to embark when marching to the Promised Land. The LORD did not want His people to go to the Promised Land as an unorganized, chaotic mass of people. Instead, with the tabernacle in the center, the camps of the other tribes are assigned to a specific place around the tabernacle. This was not only orderly, but also practical, as the fighting tribes were on the exterior, and the square formation would be difficult for an enemy to attack.
Numbers 2 can be outlined as follows:
–The LORD Commanded Moses to Arrange the Camps (Num. 2:1 – 2)
–The Tribes Placed on the East Side (Num. 2:3 – 9)
–The Tribes Placed on the South Side (Num. 2:10 – 16)
–The Tent of Meeting in the Midst of the Camps (Num. 2:17)
–The Tribes Placed on the West Side (Num. 2:18 – 24)
–The Tribes Placed on the North Side (Num. 2:25 – 31)
–Summary of the Arrangement (Num. 2:32 – 34)

The Lord tells Moses and Aaron to divide the Israelites into groups around the Tabernacle.

Again, the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron. The phrase the Lord spoke to Moses occurs in every chapter of Numbers except chapters 22 – 24, the story about Balaam. This repetition emphasizes that the fact that the LORD was the source of these commands and not something Moses dreamed up.

On this occasion, the LORD commanded that the sons of Israel shall camp. God here is organizing the formation for the sons of Israel when they stopped traveling and set up camp in the wilderness. They were to camp each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance. As can be seen later in this chapter, the Israelites were to arrange themselves into a square on four sides, each side having three tribes each. Each group of three would be placed on one of the sides of the tabernacle. The tribe of Levi was to be divided according to its families and placed immediately around the tabernacle, thus providing a buffer between the other tribes and the tabernacle.

Israelite Camps in the Wilderness

The order of the phrases as seen in the Hebrew text of v. 2 reads as follows:

Each by his own standard,
With the banners of their fathers’ households,
The sons of Israel shall camp,
Around the tent of meeting at a distance,
They shall camp.

The first phrase each by his own standard stresses that this command was directed to each and every Israelite. Each one was to gather by his own standard. A standard (Hebrew “degel”) was a banner that identified a group. It appears that each individual family was to gather with their own standard around their “father’s households,” which were identified by “banners” (Heb. “otot”). Each family of each tribe was to congregate together, and apparently were to clearly identify themselves. This organization and identification would presumably reflect the census. This organization appears to be a typical military structure.

The tribes were to camp around the tent of meeting. The tribes were to surround the tabernacle, completely encompassing it. This would provide a strong defense perimeter. They were also to camp at a distance from the tabernacle. A holy God (who dwelled in the “tent of meeting”) could not be approached by someone who was not a priest and who was not clean. For the LORD to command them to camp at a distance showed His grace by warning them not to come near to Him, as well as His holiness, since coming too close might have deadly results.

Biblical Text

1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,2 “The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance.