An army of 12 tribes
Dividing into tribes1 The Lord told Moses and Aaron: 2 When the people of Israel make camp, I want each tribe to stick together. They should pitch their tents together and camp under their tribe’s banner or flag. Have all the tribes make camp around the tent worship center—surrounding it, but at a distance.
Eastern camp3 I want the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun to camp to the east, on the sunrise side of the worship center. Judah’s tribe will camp together under their own banner and with their own leader: Nahshon, Amminadab’s son.
4 Judah's corps of 74,600 men will camp among them.
5 The tribe of Issachar will camp beside them. Their leader: Nethanel, Zuar’s son.
6 He’ll command a corps of 54,400 men.
7 The tribe of Zebulun will camp beside Issachar. Their leader: Eliab, Helon’s son.
8 He'll command a corps of 57,400 men.
9 Combined forces of these three tribes on Judah’s eastern side of the encampment is 186,400 men. When it’s time for everyone to break camp and move on, they’ll head out first and take point.
Southern camp10 Camped south of the worship center will be the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad. Leading Reuben’s tribe, under their tribal banner: Elizur, Shedeur’s son.
11 He’ll command a corps of 46,500 men.
12 Simeon’s tribe will camp beside them. Their leader: Shelumiel, Zurishaddai’s son.
13 He’ll command a corps of 59,300 men.
14 Gad’s tribe will camp beside them. Their leader: Eliasaph, Deuel’s son.
15 He'll command a corps of 45,650.
16 Combined forces of these three tribes on Reuben’s southern side of the encampment is 151,450 men. When it’s time for everyone to break camp and move on, they’ll head out second. 17 The tribe of Levi will follow them, carrying the tent worship center. The tribes will travel like they camp: together as individual tribes, each under their own banner or flag.
Western camp18 Camped west of the worship center will be the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. Leading Ephraim’s tribe, under their tribal banner: Elishama, Ammihud’s son.
19 He’ll command a corps of 40,500 men.
20 Manasseh’s tribe will camp beside them. Their leader: Gamaliel, Pedahzur’s son.
21 He’ll command a corps of 32,200 men.
22 Benjamin’s tribe will camp beside them. Their leader: Abidan, Gideoni’s son.
23 He'll command a corps of 35,400 men.
24 Combined forces of these three tribes on Ephraim’s western side of the encampment is 108,100 men. When it’s time for everyone to break camp and move on, they’ll head out third.
Northern camp25 Camped north of the worship center will be the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. Leading Dan’s tribe, under their tribal banner: Ahiezer, Ammishaddai’s son.
26 He’ll command a corps of 62,700 men.
27 Asher’s tribe will camp beside them. Their leader: Pagiel, Ochran’s son.
28 He’ll command a corps of 41,500 men.
29 Naphtali’s tribe will camp beside them. Their leader: Ahira, Enan’s son.
30 He'll command a corps of 53,400 men.
31 Combined forces of these three tribes on Dan’s northern side of the encampment is 157,600 men. When it’s time for everyone to break camp and move on, they’ll head out last, taking their banners and flags with them.
32 That’s the count—the number of Israelite men listed by their tribal families and armies: 603,550. 33 Levi’s tribe wasn’t counted among the fighting men because the LORD told Moses to exclude them. 34 So, the Israelites did everything the LORD told Moses they should do. Each tribe camped under the tribal banner. And each family traveled together, within their tribes.
This puts the tent worship center in the most secure position in the camp: right in the middle, surrounded by the Levite’s first (Numbers 1:50) and all the other tribes in an outer ring beyond that.
This put the sacred tent worship center in the most secure position. They’re traveling with six tribes and their soldiers in front of them and another six tribes and their soldiers behind them.
If there were about 600,000 men (also reported in Exodus 12:37), it’s a fair guess there were about 600,000 women. Put them together, and there may have been at least two children per couple. That’s about 2.4 million souls camped at the foot of Mount Sinai in the Sinai badlands, with their livestock. Those numbers seem unrealistic to many readers. A year earlier, if they had walked in rows 100 yards (91 meters) long as they crossed the parted sea (Exodus 14:22), the column of one line after another would have stretched about 20 miles (32 kilometers). Commentators have suggested a variety of solutions to these huge numbers. Here are three:
TRUST GOD. This theory embraces the biblical story as accurate history.
600 CLANS. Another suggests the Hebrew word for “thousand” elep, can refer simply to a group of people, such as an extended family known as a clan, or a group of clans, called a tribe. So, if there were 600 clans, there could have been fewer than 20,000 people—which is still a lot in a desert wasteland.
SYMBOLIC NUMBERS. Another theory sees a hidden message in names. Hebrew letters had number equivalents, as did letters in other languages. The census Moses took of the Israelites revealed that there were 603,551, if we add Moses (Exodus 38:26). When we tally up the numbers for the phrase commonly used to refer to the Israelites, “sons of Israel,” the letters add up to 603,551. So, the theory here is that all the Israelites came out of Egypt, however many there were.
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