Camping Around the Tabernacle

According to the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, the tribes of Israel camped around the tabernacle in the wilderness under silk banners whose colors corresponded to the colors of the tribal stones of the High Priest’s breastplate.[i]

The tribes did not camp according to the birth order of Israel’s sons: 

  • Leah: Reuben (1), Simeon (2), Levi (3), Judah (4), Issachar (9), Zebulon (10)
  • Bilhah (Rachel’s handmaid):  Dan (5), Naphtali (6)
  • Zilpah (Leah’s handmaid): Gad (7), Asher (8)
  • Rachel: Joseph (11), Benjamin (12)

Instead, the four camps of 3 clans each dwelled around the tabernacle with their silk colored banners which portrayed the symbol of their camp. 

The camp of Judah whose symbol was the Lion was located east of the tabernacle.  It consisted of the clans of Judah (sardius), Issachar (topaz), and Zebulon (carbuncle).  “Arise, 0 Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered, and Thine adversaries be driven away before Thee” was written on their banners.   

The camp of Reuben whose symbol was a stag instead of a young ox was located to the south.  It consisted of the clans of Reuben (azmorad), Simeon (sapphire), and Gad (adamant).  “Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is One” was written on their banners.  The Targum indicates that it was Moses decision for their banners to have a stag instead of a young ox so the incident with the golden calf would not be remembered against them. 

The camp of the Levites surrounded the Tabernacle with all the other camps set up beyond them.  Moses, Aaron & his sons camped to the east, Kohath camped to the south, Gershom camped to the west, and Merari camped to the north.  In one way, the location of the Levites around the tabernacle is comparable to the living creatures which surrounded the throne of God while the other camps around the Tabernacle were like the 24 thrones in heaven (Rev. 4:2-8).   Incidentally, the 24 thrones in heaven probably correspond to the 24 divisions of the Levitical priests (1 Chron. 24:1-18) so it appears the camp of the whole nation of Israel foreshadowed a time in which all believers would be part of a royal priesthood.

The camp of Ephraim whose symbol was a young man was located to the west.  It consisted of the clans of Ephraim (ligure), Manasseh (agate), and Benjamin (amethyst).  On their banners was written:  “And the Cloud of the Lord was over them, in the going forward of the host.”

The camp of Dan whose symbol was a basilisk serpent was located to the north.  It consisted of the clans of Dan (chrysolite), Asher (beryl), and Naphtali (jasper).  On their banners was written: “And in his encampment shall he say, Return, 0 Lord, and dwell in Thy glory in the midst of the myriads of Israel.”  Most agree that the eagle is the counterpart of the serpent.

God was enthroned in the center of the camp similar to:

  • The chariot seen in Ezekiel’s vision:  “Then I looked, and behold, a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. 5 Also from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. 6 Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings… As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle.”  (Ezek 1:4-6, 10-11) 
    • The faces of the living creatures correspond to the four camps of Israel.  The face of the man corresponds to Ephraim, the lion to Judah, the ox to Reuben, and the eagle to Dan.
  • John’s vision in Revelation 4:2-8:  “Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. 3 And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. 4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. 5 And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.  6 Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. 8 The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying:  “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!”   
    • Here again, the living creatures seem to represent the clans of Israel as they had camped around the tabernacle in the wilderness.  The one like a man corresponds to Ephraim, the lion to Judah, the calf to Reuben, and the flying eagle to Dan.  I believe God desired Dan to be similar to a swift eagle but instead he became a serpent as Israel prophesied in Genesis 49:17.  When the end comes, the descendants of Dan may be where the eagles are gathered since they are not listed among the 144,000 (Luke 17:37, Rev. 19:17, 21).  In other words, they will be eaten by birds of prey.
  • The Holy Spirit dwelling within the heart of believers.  If this is the case, how can our flesh be like the creatures which surround the throne and/or the camps which surrounded the tabernacle? 
    • Mankind was made in the image of God but we are still being conformed into the unique person He desires us to be so in this sense we are like the living creature that was “like a man.”  We are also like Ephraim who was lost and scattered to the 4 parts of the earth.  Similarly, we needed to be drawn back into relationship with the Lord like Ephraim will be.
    • When I think of a lion, I think of the powerful king of the jungle.  Maybe that’s why Jesus is called the Lion of Judah.  The Bible tells us that God’s servants will reign as kings forever but first the fleshly lion within us needs to be tamed (Rev. 22:5).  We need to remember that lions are powerful creatures when they hunt but even they know when to eat, play with the cubs, and rest.
    • The ox was a clean animal suitable for sacrifice.  We might venture to say it was of higher worth or quality than a sheep.  We are sheep who follow a loving Shepherd.  We are expected to be living sacrifices holy and pleasing to the Lord (Romans 12:1-2). We need to walk in the Spirit instead of fulfilling the desires of the flesh which is similar to worshipping the golden calf called “self.”  One day, I suspect we will be transformed into powerful oxen who lead instead of remaining as sheep which only follow.   
    • Eagles are swift birds.  When Jesus brought the mixed multitude out of Egypt, He destroyed Pharaoh’s army and carried His people on wings of eagles and brought them to Himself (Exodus 19:4).  When we trust in the Lord, He renews our strength.  Isaiah 40:31 also tells us we will rise up with wings like eagles’ and run or walk without being weary or faint.

What else can we say about the mixed multitude that camped around the tabernacle?  Numbers 10:35-36 says, “So it was, whenever the ark set out, that Moses said:  “Rise up, O Lord!  Let Your enemies be scattered, And let those who hate You flee before You.”  36 And when it rested, he said:  “Return, O Lord, To the many thousands of Israel.”  Oddly enough, this is what was written on the banners of the camps of Judah and Dan.  Fortunately today, the Holy Spirit dwells within us (believers) all the time wherever we go.  We should be careful not to commit apostasy so He will remain within us and so we never experience the fate of God’s enemies.  


[i] Palestinian Targum on the Book of Numbers, Section of the Torah XXXIV. Bemidbar  http://targum.info/pj/pjnum1-4.htm

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