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God’s Word for You

Numbers 2:1-9 Law and Gospel

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Arrangement of the Camp
2 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron as follows:
2 Each of the Israelites will camp under his own standard, with the banners for their fathers’ houses. They will camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance from it.

Imagine how this arrangement of tribes might look around the tabernacle of God, where each of the tens of thousands of soldiers in each tribe had space for their own tent with wife and children living inside. God’s careful instruction, “at a distance from it,” makes a great deal of sense. This was a nomadic bedouin city of vast numbers: more than half a million tents in rows all around the tabernacle, tribe by tribe, clan by clan, family by family. Were they neat, precise rows? There was certainly an orderliness to it all, but I doubt whether any sarey-‘asaroth “captains of ten” (Exodus 18:25; Deuteronomy 1:15) were out there with a tape measure.

If each of the warriors (and Levites) had his own tent, with his one wife and their two or three children, the entire nation would have added up to about two million or more people. But to imagine the size of the place, we can return to “each of the Israelites… will camp.” Each of the soldiers probably had his own tent. We’re going to see in chapter 3 that the three tribes of Levites camped nearest to the Dwelling or tabernacle of the Lord. That meant a space of approximately half a mile or more of Levite’s tents between any tribe and the entrance of the Dwelling.

The standards and banners mentioned here are not described in Scripture, but there are traditions about them that make good sense. For example, Judah’s banner is thought to have been green with a lion, since Judah’s stone in the high priest’s breastplate was said to be the emerald (Exodus 28:18) and Jacob compared Judah with a lion in his final blessing (Genesis 49:9). Since these symbols and colors are conjecture, we don’t need to dwell on their details. It is enough to say that each tribe had its standard, and each family its banner. These were most likely ribbons of color that hung down from cross pieces, what we would call a gonfalon or the hanging / draping vexillum used by the Romans. Most High School and College gyms have these types of banners hanging to identify the schools in their conference. While I wouldn’t insist that they were made of cloth, it’s unlikely that they were made of anything more solid such as wood, since wood was scarce and expensive in the desert. They had an abundance of animal hides and access to dye, so these standards and banners were most likely made of wool or leather, or both.

  3 Those who camp on the east side toward the sunrise will be organized under the standard of Judah’s camp, according to their military units.
  The tribal chief of Judah’s descendants is Nahshon son of Amminadab. 4 His unit, as registered, totals 74,600.
  5 The tribe of Issachar will camp next to Judah. The tribal chief of Issachar’s descendants is Nethanel son of Zuar. 6 His unit, as registered, totals 54,400.
  7 The tribe of Zebulun will be next. The tribal chief of Zebulun’s descendants is Eliab son of Helon. 8 His unit, as registered, totals 57,400.
  9 All those registered in Judah’s camp are 186,400, according to their military units. They will set out first.

The order of encampment is not perfectly clear, and commentaries and sketches differ as to which tribe was where. In these verses, it appears that Judah was on the corner of the eastern group, probably to the northeast. Issachar clearly camped “next to Judah,” but is that the center of the line? When Moses writes, “Zebulun will be next,” does he mean next, that is, to the side of Issachar, or next, on the other side of Judah? This would have been made clear from Moses with a wave of his arm and the simple tradition of following that visual command for the remainder of the sojourn, but for us there is this question. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Judah camped on the corner, not in the center. This is based on how I would read the Hebrew preposition ‘al, “against, leaning on.” This is how Samson talked when he asked to be placed between the pillars of the Philistine temple, “So that I may lean ‘against’ them” (‘alehem, Judges 16:26). So Issachar was “up against, leaning on” Judah, and Zebulun was “up against, leaning on” Issachar, just the way that some of the volumes of books lean on my bookshelf. Volume I rests against the bookend, but Volume II leans on I, and III leans on II, and so forth.

The final sentence of verse 9 shows the order of march: When Israel pulled up stakes, packed their gear and rolled up their tents, Judah was the first to set out, accompanied by Issachar and Zebulun.

Here we should ask, is this passage law or gospel? Does it show God’s wrath, or his grace?

One might say: “While these things are commands, it is not God’s wrath but his gracious will and his love for his people that laid out these simple rules for the organization and the movement of the nation. Any order of tribes might have sufficed. But any order would be better than no order at all. By giving the command in this way, there would be no bitterness among the tribes. No Reubenite or Simeonite could object, and since there was a plan, there would be no real confusion within the nation as to who should be next when they traveled. Each tribe had its place, each clan had its location within the tribe, and each family had their places within the clan. This would save time, save arguments, and potentially, save lives. God ‘establishes order in the heights of heaven’ (Job 25:2), and he established order among the tribes of Israel.”

And while this is true, it is not the true dividing point in our passage between law and gospel. Walther lists six true points of difference between law and gospel: (1) the manner of their being revealed to man, (2) their contents, (3) the promises held out, (4) their threatenings, (5) the function and effect of either doctrine, and (6) the persons to whom either the one or the other doctrine must be preached. (The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel p. 7).

In this case, the fifth point, the function and effect of the doctrine, must be observed, along with the fourth point, their threatenings. The commands of the order of march and encampment are a legal command that demanded obedience and which brings no promise except for the general promise that accompanies all the law: “Do this and you will live.” And when certain elements of this command were not followed later in Israel’s history, such as the commands about avoiding contact with the Most Holy Place and not approaching the Dwelling or Tabernacle, death was commanded. We saw this already in verse 51 of the previous chapter. So although these laws do not directly affect us today, they were laws for Israel on the march. Their function tells us that they fall under the category of the Ceremonial Law. We can read them and even apply them, but there is no way or reason for us to obey them today in our lives. We have been set free from these laws by the ripping of the curtain when Jesus died on the cross. Three of the Gospels delight to remind us of this: “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51). “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:45). The Most Holy Place, represented by what was behind that curtain, is truly the presence of the Living God. It is no longer represented, because we have true access to God through Christ. “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body” (Hebrews 10:19-20).

These laws teach us to appreciate our place in God’s kingdom, but the gospel of Jesus invited us to rejoice that our place is a gift, given through his blood, and ours forever by means of his grace. This is the difference between the fear of the law and the joy of the gospel.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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