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God’s Word for You

Numbers 2:10-34 The camp

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, May 26, 2021

10 Those who camp on the south side will be organized under the standard of Reuben’s camp, according to their military units.
The tribal chief of Reuben’s descendants is Elizur son of Shedeur. 11 His unit, as registered, totals 46,500.
12 The tribe of Simeon will camp next to Reuben. The tribal chief of Simeon’s descendants is Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai. 13 His unit, as registered, totals 59,300.
14 The tribe of Gad will be next. The tribal chief of Gad’s descendants will be Eliasaph son of Deuel.  15 His unit, as registered, totals 45,650.
16 All those registered in Reuben’s camp are 151,450, according to their military units. They will set out second.

The south side of encamped Israel was led by Reuben. This did not have any effect on the future lots cast for these tribes by Joshua as to where they would live (Joshua 18:10), but it’s interesting to note that Reuben and Gad were the southernmost of the “northern tribes,” camped in the territories of Ammon and Edom across the Jordan, and Simeon was absorbed within southern Judah. Most readers will only recognize the name Beersheba as a town within the territory of Simeon.

When the tribes actually set out on the move, these three tribes followed the Levitical families of Gershom and Merari, who carried the tabernacle, it stakes and poles. The tabernacle was to be set up before the Ark arrived, so that it could be taken right into its Most Holy Place on arrival. The arrival of more than a hundred and fifty thousand warriors with their families would give plenty of time for the Dwelling tent to be set up. The command was that they would hold their ranks on the march. This was crucial from a military as well as a social perspective. The commanders of the tribes needed to know where their people were in case of an attack (such as that of the Amalekites at Rephedim, Exodus 17:8-13). Also, any mother will tell you that she needs to know where her children are, especially when they are travelling. Not every parent is as comfortable with assuming where the kids are as Mary and Joseph were (Luke 2:43-44). So the south camp under Reuben’s standard set out ‘second,’ meaning second in military groups. First was Judah’s group, then came the Levites of Gershom and Merari, and then the second military division under Reuben.

17 Then the Tent of Meeting will set out with the Levites’ camp, which is in the middle of the camps. They are to set out in the same order as they camp, each one in his place, following their standards.

The center of God’s people was the Dwelling, the Tent of Meeting. God’s intention was that this would remain the case whether the people were camped or whether the people were on the move. The application for Christians who read this verse is that we remember to keep God himself at the center of everything we do, whether at home or on the road or whatever we do. We keep digging deeply into the Word of God so that we understand his will better and better, and so that we can strive to avoid temptation and sin. This isn’t done by replacing worship with a fishing trip fifty weekends out of the year. We learn nothing about Christ by vacationing on the lakes. We can be reminded of creation and our Creator, but not of our Savior. Those who wander from church with the claim, “I can worship God in nature” will not find a Savior or the gospel out there in the trees, on the golf course, or on lazy summer lakes. This isn’t to say that a family shouldn’t get away to have a little vacation in the summertime, but when fathers lead their families away from God’s house weekend after weekend, they are not leading them to Christ. They will find only a prick of their conscience and the law of God that condemns them. Or worse. They may find that their attitude about Christ has changed. Here Luther warns us:

“You say: ‘I am a Christian; now I may do whatever I want.’ Christ suffered death against sin so that he might purge it away. ‘Now I will boldly do as I will.’ This is a fine understanding of the Gospel! Reason itself is not so irrational as to think that way. Reason would regard it as a joke to crow that Christ has redeemed me from sins so that I might sin again—but now this is widely accepted. Surely this is just how a cow or pig understand it. If you give a servant his wages, should he understand that he is now justified in acting against you and disobeying? I have not adorned him so that he might trample me underfoot. This is how they interpret the Gospel against the Gospel and Christian life against Christian life.” (LW 58:296)

Am I being too harsh by bringing these things to light? I would rather be harsh and suck up all the dirt and cobwebs with the vacuum than let them collect so deeply in the corner as to block all the windows and doors. Let us keep Christ at the center of all things.

18 Those who camp on the west side will be organized under the standard of Ephraim’s camp, according to their military units.
The tribal chief of Ephraim’s descendants is Elishama son of Ammihud. 19 His unit, as registered, totals 40,500.
20 Next to Ephraim will be the tribe of Manasseh. The tribal chief of Manasseh’s descendants is Gamaliel son of Pedahzur. 21 His unit, as registered, totals 32,200.
22 The tribe of Benjamin will be next. The tribal chief of Benjamin’s descendants is Abidan son of Gideoni. 23 His unit, as registered, totals 35,400.
24 All those registered in Ephraim’s camp are 108,100, according to their military units. They will set out third.

The west side was organized in the same way. The west side of the camp was what we would think of as the “back,” located behind the sanctuary or Dwelling. They were third as an army division, and they travelled directly behind the Ark of God just as they camped behind the Ark of God.

By this time, many readers will notice that all of the numbers in the census are given in whole numbers ending in hundreds with the exception of Gad, with a number ending in 50 (1:25; 2:15). Does this mean that the numbers are only estimates, or that they are not authentic numbers? No. It means that the census was done in military units. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro advised Moses to get help dealing with the people when they came to him with matters to settle. His idea was to appoint trustworthy men as “officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). The evidence we have from the rest of the Old Testament is that this was the general way in which the army was divided:

‘eser    = ten men
hamishim    = five ‘esser; about 50 men
may’ah  = two hamishim; about 100 men
’eleph  = ten may’ah; about 1000 men

At first glance, this might seem to some as if they were using all rounded numbers, and that the census was therefore incorrect. Consider: any given ‘eser might be understrength at seven or eight men, but another might be overstrength at twelve or even fifteen. In an army of this size, there might be an ’eleph with 1,100 and another with only 900, but the strength of the army is accurately described by the numbers Moses recorded. It also shows how quickly the count would have taken, since units of ten would “cross over” (Exodus 30:13-14) together in the count.

25 Those who camp on the north side will be organized under the standard of Dan’s camp, according to their military units.
The tribal chief of Dan’s descendants is Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai. 26 His unit, as registered, totals 62,700.
27 Next to Dan will be the tribe of Asher. The tribal chief of Asher’s descendants will be Pagiel son of Ochran. 28 His unit, as registered, totals 41,500.
29 The tribe of Naphtali will be next. The tribal chief of Naphtali’s descendants is Ahira son of Enan. 30 His unit, as registered, totals 53,400.
31 All those registered in Dan’s camp are 157,600. They will set out last, following their standards.
32 These were the Israelites who were registered according to their fathers’ houses. All the men in the camps, organized according to their military units, as registered, totaled 603,550. 33 But the Levites were not registered among the Israelites, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.

The north side was occupied by Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. They fell into line last after the other tribes. From the point of view of Israel on the march throughout the desert, this made Dan’s division the rearguard and also the army that was almost always closest to Israel’s enemies. They had a special watchfulness built into their position, just as today those churches and pastors who are geographically closer to false teachers and heretics develop a special watchfulness as they begin to hear their members using certain words and phrases.

The total is recorded: 603,550. Our estimate of Israel having around two million people is based on this number as representing husbands and fathers, with the most conservative estimate possible for such families at that time: a mere two children per family. It seems improbable that the nation would have been so small at this time, and to me, four or five million seems more likely, but there is no proof either way apart from the tally of the second census forty years later. The very same nation, after the death of all the adults from this count, still totaled 601,730 (Numbers 26:51), with modest increases in seven of the tribes and more dramatic decreases in five.

Some critics throw away the text of Exodus and Numbers and claim that such a large number of people could never have been fed for forty years in the desert of Sinai, nor could they ever have had enough water to drink. But the Scriptures tell us that they ate manna in the desert, and the Lord sent them quail to eat. “Men ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat” (Psalm 78:25). And as for water? “He opened the rock, and water gushed out; like a river it flowed in the desert” (Psalm 105:41). Critics have a problem with their faith. Learn to recognize their nonsense when you hear it: It’s nothing less than unbelief. The critics deserve to be ignored in the very same way that they ignore the Word of God. The tragedy is that a great many of these critics occupy pulpits in many churches today.

In this representation, each tribe’s area was perhaps a square ½ mile to a side, giving the whole nation an encamped area of about three miles by three miles. The tabernacle took up a space of less area than an American football field.

34 The Israelites did everything that the Lord commanded Moses. They camped around their standards, and they set out, every one of them by their clans, according to their fathers’ houses.

Two years before, everyone in the group except Moses had been a slave. Just a few months ago they had been a mob in disarray, ready to abandon the true God and worship a golden calf. Now they were in submission to God’s commands, an orderly army, camped around their standards and banners, grouped by tribe, clan, and house. Moses would take no credit for it all. This was due to the perfection of God’s commands and his holy word. “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him” (Proverbs 30:5). His flawless word includes the gospel of your forgiveness. Trust in him, and let your life fall in line with his holy will.

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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