Lesson 1: Introduction and Chapters 1-2
The Census of the Tribes of Israel

Lord God,
You called Your people Israel out from the nations of the earth to serve You as Your holy covenant people and Your partners in the plan for man's salvation.  In the same way, Lord, You have called each of us to come out of the mass of humanity to make the decision to willingly place our lives in Your hands and to advance the Kingdom of Your Son.  Just as the Israelites followed Your guiding presence in their exodus out of slavery in Egypt and in their forty year journey to the Promised Land, so do we make the commitment to follow You in our exodus through this earthly existence on our journey to the Promised Land of heaven.  We ask You, Lord, to bless us as we study the story of Israel's struggles, tragedies and triumphs in the book of Numbers. May the failures of our Old Covenant predecessors to trust and obey You when their journey became difficult be a lesson all of us when we face discouragement and hardship on our journey to eternity.  We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen

+ + +

What we have heard and know, what our ancestors have told us we shall not conceal from their descendants, but will tell to a generation still to come: the praises of Yahweh, his power, the wonderful deeds he has done.  He instituted a witness in Jacob, he established a law in Israel, he commanded our ancestors to hand it down to their descendants, that a generation still to come might know it, children yet to be born.  They should be sure to tell their own children, and should put their trust in God, never forgetting God's great deeds, always keeping his commands, and not, like their ancestors, be a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation weak of purpose, their spirit fickle towards God.
Psalm 78:3-8

The Book of Numbers

The book of Numbers is often treated as a separate Bible book and as one of the seventy-three books that comprise the entire canon of Sacred Scripture. The book of Numbers is not, however, a separate book but is instead one section of the five-part work of the "Book of Moses", known in Hebrew as the Torah, in Greek as penta teuchos, "five scrolls", and in English as the Pentateuch.  The English title of the book of Numbers comes to us from the Greek Septuagint title, Arithmoi, which St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate translated as Numeri.  These are titles taken from the census of the Israelites described in Chapters 1-4 and in Chapter 26.  The Talmudic name of Numbers is homes happequddim, "the fifth of the census totals", meaning that Numbers is one of the five Torah books that records the census of Israel (see Mishnah: Yoma 7:1 and Mishnah: Menahot 4:3).  The other Hebrew titles for the fourth book of the Torah are taken from the first line of the Hebrew text.  The Hebrew title Wayedabber, "and he spoke", comes from the first words "Yahweh spoke to Moses...", while the title Bemidbar, "in the wilderness" is from the fifth Hebrew word in Numbers 1:1

The title Bemidbar more accurately describes the content of the entire book than the other titles.  The book of Numbers records the events of the Israelites' last days at Mt. Sinai and the wilderness wandering of the Israelites after their failure to trust God in their aborted attempt to take possession of the Promised Land.  Israel's failure to trust God to fulfill His promises resulted in God's judgment on the Exodus generation.  They were condemned to forty years in the wilderness until the next generation was sufficiently matured and trained in holiness to become the warriors God' needed to fulfill the promise He made to the Patriarchs.

Time and Location

The period of time covered in the book of Numbers is about thirty-nine years.  The Israelites spent three months traveling from Goshen in Egypt to Mt. Sinai, arriving as the Hebrew text reads in "the third [full] moon" after leaving Egypt (Ex 19:1).  After arriving at the mountain in Exodus chapter 19, they experienced a terrifying revelation of God followed by a period of covenant formation, covenant ratification and instruction in Exodus chapters 20-39.  Then in Exodus Chapter 40, the Sanctuary was completed on the first day of the first month in the second year after leaving Egypt (Ex 40:2).  After the Sanctuary was completed, a month was spent receiving divine instruction in the civil and religious law, the ordination of the priesthood and the establishment of liturgical worship in the consecrated Sanctuary (recorded in the book of Leviticus).  The book of Numbers chronologically begins with the celebration of the second Passover (fourteen days after the Sanctuary was consecrated), the census of the tribes of Israel (one month after the Sanctuary was built), and the events of Israel's last twenty days at Mt. Sinai in Numbers Chapters 1-9.  From their arrival on the 15th day of the third month to their departure in the second year on the 20th day of the second month (Num 10:11), the Israelites spent about ten months at Mt. Sinai.  The remainder of the narrative of the book of Numbers covers the journey to Kadesh-Barnea on the border of Canaan, the aborted attempt to take possession of the Promised Land, God's judgment on the Exodus generation for their lack of faith, and the thirty-nine years the Israelites lived as nomads in the northeastern Sinai near Kadesh-Barnea.  The narrative concludes with the events surrounding the arrival of the new generation of Israelites on the plains of Moab in the fortieth year after leaving Egypt. 

* The Israelite calendar was a lunar calendar.  All Old Covenant feast days were (and still are) determined according to the lunar cycle (see Israel's civil and liturgical calendar in the appendix to this lesson).

The Text of the Book of Numbers

The composition of the text of the book of Numbers is the most diverse of the five books of the Pentateuch, including historical narratives, poetry, legal and ritual instruction, and predictive prophecy.  It should be noted that the beginning order of events in the book of Numbers is not chronological as events have been in the structure of the Pentateuch as a whole.  For example, the census that begins in Chapter 1 occurs on the first day of the second month of the second year.  However, Numbers 7:1 looks back to the time of the dedication of the Tabernacle and the consecration of the Levites a month earlier on the first day of the first month of the second year (see Ex 40:17), just fourteen days before Passover.  Then, Numbers 9:1-5 continues with the celebration of the Passover fourteen days later. After the account of the celebration of Passover and Unleavened Bread at Sinai, the book moves forward in a chronological pattern.

Bible scholars divide the book of Numbers in various ways.  The most common division is probably between the events concerning the old Exodus generation and the new generation of Israelites preparing to take possession of the Promised Land:

Another popular division is to separate the book into three sections determined by travel and geographic location:

The three-way division of our study is determined by God's interaction with the old Exodus generation, the transition period between the two generations, and the new wilderness generation.  See the summary outline below:




SINAI COVENANT (Covenants with Aaronic Priesthood and Phinehas)
Scripture 1:1--------------5:1------------------10:11---------13:1------------15:1----------20:1-------------26:1----------------28:1-------------31:1------36:13
Division of Text Organization of Israel Sanctification
of Israel
Journey to Kadesh at
Kadesh Barnea
In the Wilderness War;
Covenant Ordeal on the Plains of Moab
Reorganization of Israel Review of Covenant sacrifices & Holy Days War with Midian; Planning the conquest of Canaan
Time Last 20 days (left Sinai 20th day, 2nd month in 2nd year after Egypt) 38 years
3 months
10 days
about 5 months


The Question of Authorship

The inspired writer is not named, but the book of Numbers records that Moses wrote down the stages of the journey: These were the stages of the journey made by the Israelites when they left Egypt in their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron.  Moses recorded their starting-points in writing whenever they moved on at Yahweh's order (Num 33:1-2)The authorship of the fourth book of the Torah/Pentateuch cannot be discussed without addressing the authorship of the other books:

See the chart "Evidence of Mosaic Authorship in the Pentateuch and in Sacred Tradition" in the handouts to Genesis Lesson One. 

The Theological Themes of the Book of Numbers

The intention of the five-part book of Moses is to make present the unique history and identity of the people of God for every generation.  The central theme of the Pentateuch is that the God of Creation who is the God of the Patriarchs is the same God who called Israel out of slavery in Egypt to be His holy people and His partner in bringing about man's salvation.  It is a theme that continues in the book of Numbers.  The sub-themes that faith and obedience lead to holiness and God's blessings as opposed to the lack of trust and faith in God that lead to disobedience and divine judgment that were present in the books of Genesis and Exodus are also present in the Book of Numbers.  Another secondary theme present in the book of Numbers is the cost of rebellion against the authority of God's ordained leaders who are responsible for ministering to God's ecclesial community.  Depending on how you count them, there are six or seven rebellions against Moses' (and at times Aaron's) leadership during the years covered in the book of Numbers.  The events in the book of Numbers, like all the events recorded in the Pentateuch, are lessons meant to be examples for every generation and age of God's covenant people, including our own: Now all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were described in writing to be a lesson for us, to whom it has fallen to live in the last days of the ages (1 Cor 10:11).

Key Hebrew words

Hebrew words that are keys to understanding the book of Numbers are the words karev/qareb, samar/shamar, and abad.   The word karev in a prohibitive context means "to encroach", as it is used in the formula saying ha-zar ha-karev yumat, "a stranger who encroaches will be put to death."  It is a formula saying that is found four times in the book of Numbers (Num 1:51; 3:10, 38; 18:7).  In the permissive context the word, karev literally means "to qualify", as it is used in Numbers 3:6 and 18:2.  The permissive use of this Hebrew word can also be found in Jeremiah 30:21; Ezekiel 42:13 and 44:16 (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon, page 898; The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 342). 

The Hebrew verb abad is a prime root meaning "to work", "to serve or keep"; while the verb samar (shamar) literally means to "hedge about" (as with thorns), meaning "to guard", "to protect."  In most English translations where these words are found the Hebrew verb abad is often translated as "to serve," "of service," "to do duty," "to perform duties," "to minister."  The verb samar is often translated as "to guard," "to protect," "to keep," "to minister," "to keep charge of," or "to attend" (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon, pages 712-13; 1036). Biblical scholar John Sailhamer interprets the commands using the verbs samar and abad to be more accurately translated as "to worship" and "to obey" (The Pentateuch as Narrative, page 101).  In the body of the Pentateuch, the verbs samar and abad are only repeated together to describe the religious duties of the priests' and Levites' liturgical service and other duties within the sacred Sanctuary of Yahweh, the dwelling place of the presence of God. 

Unless noted otherwise, all Scripture passages are from the New Jerusalem Bible.  The abbreviation CCC is a reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Census of the Tribes of Israel

Numbers 1:1-19: The Census Ordered and the Official's Named

1:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses, in the desert of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from Egypt, and said: 2 'Take a census of the whole community of Israelites by clans and families, taking a count of the names of all the males, head by head.  3 You and Aaron will register all those in Israel, twenty years of age and over, fit to bear arms, company by company; 4 you will have one man from each tribe, the head of his family, to help you.  5 These are the names of those who must help you:
For Reuben, Elizur son of Shedeur.
6 For Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai.
7 For Judah, Nahshon son of Amminadab.
8 For Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar.
9 For Zebulun, Eliab son of Helon.
10 Of the sons of Joseph: for Ephraim, Elishama son of Ammihud; for Manasseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur.
11 For Benjamin, Abidan son of Gideoni.
12 For Dan, Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai.
13 For Asher, Pagiel son of Ochran.
14 For Gad, Eliasaph son of Reuel.
15 For Naphtali, Ahira son of Enan.'
16 These were men of repute in the community; they were leaders of their ancestral tribes, the heads of Israel's thousands.  17 Moses and Aaron took these men who had been named 18 and on the first day of the second month they mustered the whole community.  The Israelites established their pedigrees by clans and families, and one by one the names of all men twenty years and over were recorded.  19 As Yahweh had ordered, Moses registered them in the desert of Sinai.

In Exodus Chapter 40 the Israelites erected the Sanctuary and its Tabernacle (Tent of Meeting) on the first day of the first month, in the second year after leaving Egypt, fourteen days before the first anniversary of the Passover sacrifice and the redemption of the firstborn on the first night of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  Moses was given the command to take the census a month after the Sanctuary was consecrated on the first day of the second month in the second year after the exodus from Egypt, which establishes the length of time Moses (and Aaron) received the legal and religious legislation contained in Leviticus as a one month period.

Question: Where did Moses' receive God's command to take the census?
Answer: Moses' received God's command while standing in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle were God spoke to him from between the cherubim of the Mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant.

The people and the newly ordained priesthood no longer had unlimited access to the presence of God (Lev 16:1-2), but Moses, the covenant mediator, continued to enjoy unlimited access to the presence of the God of Israel as he had in the temporary Tent of Meeting before the Tabernacle was completed (Ex 33:7-11).

Question: How are the Israelites organized according to Numbers 1:2-4?
Answer: By tribes, clans and families.

The officials named to take the census in each of their tribes are tribal chieftains (see Num 2:4-31).  The phrase "Israel's thousands" refers to clan divisions within each tribe.  See Exodus 18:21, 25 where the reference to Israel's "thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens" refers to the justice system Moses established within the various tribes.  Also see 1 Samuel 10:19, 21 where there is a reference to the military divisions of clans within tribes.(3)

Question: In what three ways are the men chosen to conduct the census described in verse 16?
Answer: Yahweh calls them “men of repute”, ‘leaders” and “heads” of their tribes.

The New American Bible describes them as “councilors of the community, princes of their ancestral tribes, chiefs of the troops of Israel.” These were men who were called and exhalted by God to justly administer the census and to be leaders of their people.

Question: What was the requirement for the official census?  Were all the people counted?
Answer: All the people were listed according to tribes, clans and families to establish their ancestral genealogies, but only the healthy men twenty years or older were registered for military service in Israel's army.

Twenty years old becomes the established age for conscription in Israel's army (also see 2 Chr 25:5).  In the classical age of the ancient world, conscription for military service was twenty years old in Sparta, eighteen years old in Athens, and seventeen years old in Rome.  The Hebrew word 'edah used in Numbers 1:2 and 16 can be translated as "community" or "assembly."  The basic meaning is the entire nation of Israel, including men women, and children.  It is reasonable to assume that the entire Israelite population numbered above two million people.

Question: How is the selection for the chieftains for the tribe of Joseph different from the other census officials chosen for the other tribes?
Answer: Joseph's tribe is divided into the two half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.  They are the descendants of the two sons of Joseph by his Egyptian wife Asenath (Gen 41:50-52).  Each half-tribe has its own tribal official and therefore is given equal status with the other tribes.

Question: In the list of tribal chieftains, what tribe is missing?
Answer: The tribe of Levi.

Question: Of the names of tribal chieftains selected as the census officials, do you recognize the names Nahshon and his father Amminadab of the tribe of Judah?  Where have you see Nahshon and Amminadab mentioned previously?  See the genealogy of Moses and Aaron in Exodus 6:23.
Answer: Amminadab is the father of Aaron's wife Elisheba; therefore, Nahshon is Aaron's brother-in-law and the uncle of Aaron's sons Eleazar and Ithamar.

Question: Nahshon is God's designated the leader of the tribe of Judah (Num 2:4).  He is called a "chieftain" or "prince" of the tribe of Judah in 1 Chronicles 2:10.  What other significant role does Nahshon play in salvation history?  See Mt 6:22-25; Josh 2:1-21Rt 4:18-22; Mt 1:3-6; Lk 3:31-33
Answer: Nahshon is the father of Salmon (Salma) who married the heroine Rahab of Jericho.  They were the parents/grandparents of Boaz.  Boaz married the Moabitess Ruth and they became the parents of Obed the father of Jesse.  Jesse's son was David who was anointed king of Israel by Samuel.  Nahshon was the g-g-great-grandfather of King David and an ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth.

St. Ambrose wrote that even the names of the Old Testament can be a prophecy of Christ (Ambrose, The Soul 8.65). The same chieftains listed as the census officials are also listed in Chapter 2 as the leaders of their various tribes.  Other than Nahshon and Amminadab, the names of the other chieftains are not found elsewhere in Scripture.

Numbers 1:20-47: The Census of the Twelve Tribes

20 Once the pedigrees of the descendants of Reuben, Israel's first-born, had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  21 The total of these for the tribe of Reuben was forty-six thousand five hundred. 

22 Once the pedigrees of Simeon's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  23 The total of these for the tribe of Simeon was fifty-nine thousand three hundred. 

24 Once the pedigrees of Gad's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  25 The total of these for the tribe of Gad was forty-five thousand six hundred and fifty.

26 Once the pedigrees of Judah's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  27 The total of these for the tribe of Judah was seventy-four thousand six hundred.

28 Once the pedigrees of Issachar's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  29 The total of these for the tribe of Issachar was fifty-four thousand four hundred.

30 Once the pedigrees of Zebulun's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  31 The total of these for the tribe of Zebulun was fifty-seven thousand four hundred.

32 As regards the descendants of Joseph: once the pedigrees of Ephraim's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  33 The total of these for the tribe of Ephraim was forty thousand five hundred.

34 Once the pedigrees of Manasseh's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  35 The total of these for the tribe of Manasseh was thirty-two thousand two hundred.

36 Once the pedigrees of Benjamin's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  37 The total of these for the tribe of Benjamin was thirty-five thousand four hundred.

38 Once the pedigrees of Dan's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  39 The total of these for the tribe of Dan was sixty-two thousand five hundred.

40 Once the pedigrees of Asher's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  41 The total of these for the tribe of Asher was forty-one thousand five hundred.

42 Once the pedigrees of Naphtali's descendants had been established by clans and families, the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded one by one.  43 The total of these for the tribe of Naphtali was fifty-three thousand four hundred.

44 Such were the men registered by Moses, Aaron and the leaders of Israel, of whom there where twelve, each representing his family [his father's house].  45 All the Israelites of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were counted by families.  46 Altogether, the total came to six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty.

47 But the Levites and their tribes [according to the tribe of their fathers] were not included in the count.

The information on the order of the census and the total number of fighting men for each tribe is presented in a series of formula statements.  Once again the tribe of Levi is omitted.

Question: Why weren't the Levites included in the count?  See Num 3:15.
Answer: The Levites were not included in the census of the tribes but were counted separately.  The tribe of Levi was to be set apart from the other tribes.  The men of Levi belonged to Yahweh and their mission was to guard and take care of the Sanctuary in addition to assisting the chief priests (Aaron and his sons) in their ministerial duties. 

The results of the census of the tribes of Israel (excluding the Levites):

Census of the Twelve Tribes
(Num 1:20-46)
Tribe Numbers of fighting men
1. Ruben 46,500
2. Simeon 59,300
3. Gad 45,650
4. Judah 74,600
5. Issachar 54,400
6. Zebulun 57,400
7. Ephraim 40,500
8. Manasseh 32,200
9. Benjamin 35,400
10. Dan 62,700
11. Asher 41,500
12. Naphtali 53,400
Total Tribe count of men 20 years and older who are fit for military service 603,550 men

In the absence of the tribe of Levi, the two half-tribes of Joseph provide the traditional number of twelve tribes even though there are now actually thirteen tribes.  Never in Scripture are the children of Israel described as other than twelve tribes.  Maintaining the number twelve is significant because of the symbolic nature of the number twelve which represents divinely appointed government.

The lists of the genealogies of the twelve tribes and the Levites were kept by the priests.   Genealogies were consulted in determining one's eligibility for the priesthood, the eligibility of a woman to marry a priest (Lev 21:14), and even the amount of the bride price a father could ask for a daughter who could prove an impeccable pedigree.  The importance of one's pedigree is seen in the organization of the Gospel of St. Matthew, who according to Church history is said to have been a Levite. 

Question: Why do you think St. Matthew began his Gospel by establishing Jesus' pedigree?
Answer: St. Matthew began his Gospel with Jesus' genealogy, proving Jesus' claim to be the descendant of Abraham, the rightful heir of King David's throne and the Redeemer-Messiah promised by the prophets to fulfillment of the covenant God made with David in 2 Samuel 7:12-16.

Question: The tribes listed in the census will be allotted portions of the Promised Land.  Why aren't the Levites included in this count?
Answer: The mission of the tribe of Levi is to serve God.  God is to provide their portion of the blessings of the land through tithes and offerings from the other tribes.

Question: What do you notice about the count of the fighting men for the tribe of Judah compared to the other tribes?
Answer: Judah is by far the largest tribe with 11, 900 more fighting age men than the next largest tribe (Dan) and more than double the fighting men in the combined tribes of Manasseh and Benjamin.

Question: Compare the numbers of fighting men recorded in Numbers 1:46 to the number of fighting men recorded in the march out of Egypt.  What does the difference in numbers suggest to you?  See Ex 12:37.
Answer: Exodus records that there were about 600,000 men who marched as an Israelite army out of Egypt.  The census in Numbers records that there were 3, 550 more men fit for military service then there were a year earlier.  In the past year since leaving Egypt, it makes sense that in a population that must have numbered at least 2 million people that over three thousand young men had reached the age required to be conscripted into the Israelite army.

Numbers 1:48-54: Statute for the Levites

48 Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 49 'Do not, however, take a census of the Levites, or register them with the other Israelites, 50 but enroll the Levites to take charge of the Dwelling where the Testimony is and of all its furnishings and belongings.  They must carry the Dwelling and all its furnishings; they must look after the Dwelling and pitch their camp round it.  51 Whenever the Dwelling is moved, the Levites will dismantle it; whenever the Dwelling stops for the might, the Levites will erect it.  Any unauthorized person coming near it will be put to death [ha-zar ha-karev yumat].  52 The Israelites will pitch their tents, each in their own encampment and by their own standard, company by company, 53 but the Levites will pitch their tents round the Dwelling where the Testimony is.  In this way Retribution will be kept from falling on the whole community of Israelites, and the Levites will keep charge of the Dwelling of the Testimony.'  54 The Israelites did exactly as Yahweh had ordered Moses.  They did has he said.
[..] = literal translation (The Interlineal Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 344).

The Levites, both chief priests and the lesser Levitical ministers (like our deacons) are set aside for liturgical service.  God is their inheritance (Num 18:20).  The chief priests of the Levites prefigure our New Covenant priests.  They were appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins, and to restore communion with God by sacrifices and prayer (Heb 5:1; also see Ex 29:1-30; Lev 8; Mal 2:7-9).

Question: Was the Levitical priesthood capable of bringing about the people's ultimate salvation?  See Heb 5:3; 7:27; 10:1-4; CCC 1540.
Answer: No, they were powerless to bring about salvation because no animal was perfect enough to remove the stain of sin from the human soul.  Only Jesus Christ has the power to offer one perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.

In Numbers 1:51 the Hebrew word karev is used in a prohibitive context in the formula saying ha-zar ha-karev yumat, "Any unauthorized person [literally a stranger] coming near [who encroaches] it will be put to death."  It is a formula statement that will be repeated three other times in the book of Numbers (Num 3:10, 38; 18:7).  We also find the key Hebrew word samar, to "keep charge" in verse 53.  The Levites are to guard the Sanctuary day and night.

Question: Who was the first guardian of the temporary Tent of Meeting before the Sanctuary was erected?  See Ex 33:11.
Answer: Moses' attendant and military commander, Joshua son of Nun of the tribe of Ephraim, guarded the temporary "Tent of Meeting" day and night.

Question: Do you recall another significant person in the Old Testament whose duty was to sleep in the presence of God, guarding his Sanctuary?  See 1 Sam 3:1-21.
Answer: It was the duty of the boy Samuel, who had been adopted into the family of the High Priest Eli, to sleep inside the Holy Place just outside the curtain the hid the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies in the proto-Temple at Shiloh. 

Samuel was called to his special ministry while sleeping in the Sanctuary.  He became God's great prophet/priest and anointed the first two kings of Israel (1 Sam 10:1; 16:13).

Pagan temples were also guarded day and night by the temple priests and by statues that flanked the temple entrance to guard against demons or competing false gods (i.e., see the entrance statues of the Egyptian temples at Karnack or Luxor).  Since the Israelites did not believe that false gods or demons had any power over their God, the only danger to their Sanctuary was from humans-an unauthorized person(s) who encroached upon the sacred character of the Sanctuary. 

Question: Why was the punishment for profaning the Sanctuary death?  See Ex 19:12-13, 21-23; Num 1:53; 8:19; 17:11-15, 27-28; 25:9, 18-19; 31:16.
Answer: Illicit contact profaned the sacred nature of the Sanctuary and could incite God's divine wrath.  God's wrath was not only likely to strike down the offending sinner but could also impact the entire community in its failure to protect God's sacred shrine.  The Israelite's responsibilities to God are not only personal and individual but also corporate.

This is why the formula prohibitive statement is usually coupled with a "motive clause" as it is in Numbers 1:53: but the Levites will pitch their tents round the Dwelling where the Testimony is.  In this way Retribution will be kept from falling on the whole community of Israelites, and the Levites will keep charge of the Dwelling of the Testimony.  Also see a "motive clause" in Numbers 8:19 and 18:5.  Protecting the Sanctuary isn't to protect God, who is completely capable of protecting Himself and His Sanctuary, but to protect Israel from the failure to keep her covenant obligation to perform her sacred duty to protect the holy meeting place between God and man.

Order of the Tribes

The twelve tribes were formed into four divisions.  Each division consisted of three tribes led by the standard of the leading tribe. The standard is thought to be a military banner with, according to Rabbinical tradition, each tribe's banner matching the color representing that tribe on the High Priest's breastplate (Ex 28:15-30).

Numbers 2:1-34: The Arrangement of the Tribes in their Encampment around the Sanctuary and in their Order of the March

2:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron and said: 2 'The Israelites must pitch their tents, each man by his own standard, under their family emblems.  They must pitch their tents round the Dwelling where the Testimony is, some distance away. 

The division on the east side of the camp commanded by Nahshon of the tribe of Judah:

3 Encamped on the east side: Furthest toward the east, the standard of the camp of Judah, unit by unit.  Leader of the Judahites: Nahshon son of Amminadab.  4 His company: seventy-four thousand six hundred men.
5 Next to him:
The tribe of Issachar. Leader of the Issacharites: Nethanel son of Zuar.  6 His company: fifty-four thousand four hundred men.
7 The tribe of Zebulun.  Leader of the Zebulunites: Eliab son of Helon.  8 His company: fifty-seven thousand four hundred men.
9 The tribal forces in the camp of Judah number in all a hundred and eighty-six thousand four hundred.  These will be the first to break camp.'

Judah              74,600
Issachar          54,400
Zebulun           57,400
Total              186,400 (fighting men on the east side of the camp)

The division on the south side commanded by Elizur of the tribe of Reuben:

10 'On the south side, the standard of the camp of Reuben, unit by unit.  Leader of the Reubenites: Elizur son of Shedeur.  11 His company: forty-six thousand five hundred men. 

12 Next to him: 

The tribe of Simeon.  Leader of the Simeonites: Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai.  13 His company: fifty-nine thousand three hundred men.

14 The tribe of Gad. Leader of the Gadites, Eliasaph son of Reuel.  15 His company: forty-five thousand six hundred and fifty men.

16 The tribal forces in the camp of Reuben number in all a hundred and fifty-one thousand four hundred and fifty.  They will be second to break camp.'

Reuben           46,500
Simeon            59,300
Gad                 45,650
Total             151,450 (fighting men on the south side of the camp)

The Levites, in the middle, carrying the sacred furniture and the tent and enclosure cloths:

17 'Next, the Tent of Meeting will move, since the camp of the Levites is situated in the middle of the other camps.  The order of movement will be the order of encampment, each man under his own standard.' 

The division on the west side commanded by Elishama of the tribe of Ephraim:
18 'On the west side, the standard of the camp of Ephraim, unit by unit.  Leader of the Ephraimites: Elishama son of Ammihud.  19 His company: forty thousand five hundred men.
20 Next to him:
The tribe of Manasseh.  Leader of the Manassehites: Gamaliel son of Pedahzur.  21 His company: thirty-two thousand two hundred men.
22 The tribe of Benjamin.  Leader of the Benjaminites: Abidan son of Gideoni.  23 His company: thirty-five thousand four hundred men.
24 The tribal forces in the camp of Ephraim number in all a hundred and eight thousand one hundred. They will be third to break camp.'

Ephraim          40,500
Manasseh       32,200
Benjamin        35,400
Total             108,100 (fighting men on the west side of the camp)

The division on the north side commanded by Ahiezer of the tribe of Dan:

25'On the north side, the standard of the camp of Dan, unit by unit.  Leader of the Danites: Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai.  26 His company: sixty-two thousand seven hundred men.
27 Next to him:
The tribe of Asher: Leader of the Asherites: Pagiel son of Ochran. 
28 His company: forty-one thousand five hundred men.
29 The tribe of Naphtali.  Leader of the Naphtalites: Ahira son of Enan.  30 His company: fifty-three thousand four hundred men.
31 The tribal forces in the camp of Dan number in all a hundred and fifty-seven thousand six hundred.  They will be the last to break camp.

All under their appropriate standards.'

Dan                 62,700
Asher              41,500
Naphtali          53,400
Total             157,600 (fighting men on the north side of the camp)

32 Such was the tally of the Israelites when the census was taken by families.  The full count of the entire camp, unit by unit, came to six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty.  33 But, as Yahweh had ordered Moses, the Levites were not included in the census of the Israelites.  The Israelites did exactly as Yahweh had ordered Moses.  This was how they pitched camp, grouped by standards.  This was how they broke camp, each man in his own clan, each man with his own family.

The list of tribes and tribal chieftains is not in the same order as their names were presented in the list of the census officials.  None of the lists of tribes in Scripture are ever listed in the same order, including the three times the tribes are named in Numbers Chapters 1-2.

Question: Which side of the camp had the greatest number of fighting men and therefore the greatest number of people on that side of the camp?
Answer: The east side had the greatest number with 186,400 fighting men.  The north and south sides of the camp were fairly even with 157,600 on the north and 151,450 on the south.  The smallest number of people was on the west with 108,100 fighting men.

In the arrangement and marching order of the tribes there is a connection to the creation narrative and the theme of God's redemption coming from the "east" and moving to the "west".   The prophets promised that the future redemption would be a time of restoration of the original blessings and gift of the land as it was in Eden.  You will recall, God's first act of preparing "the good land" was in the Creation event He said, "Let there be light" (Gen 1:3).  The imagery of the sunrise in the east moving to the west figures as a sign of the coming of the future redemption, whereas any movement in the opposite direction, moving farther away to the east, symbolically represents movement away from God.(4)

In a repetition of this same theme, Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives, and the angels told the faithful who were gathered there to witness the event that He will return in the same way to begin the final harvest of souls (Acts 1:9-11).  The return of the Messiah to the Mount of Olives was a prophecy made by the prophet Zechariah: When that day comes, his feet will rest on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives will be split in half from east to west ... (Zec 14:4).

Question: What is the connection to the reoccurring theme of movement from east to west as a sign of salvation?
Answer: The Mount of Olives is to the east of the holy city of Jerusalem.  When Jesus returns, He will come from the east and will move to the west to fulfill the final harvest in the resurrection of the dead and the gathering of those still alive to take part in the Last Judgment.

From this time forward in Scripture, Judah replaces Reuben as the leading tribe.  Reuben was Jacob's first-born son while Judah was the fourth.  In the plan of the tribes, Judah is in the leadership position in the encampment and in the march of the tribes, fulfilling Jacob-Israel's prophecy of his fourth son's ascendancy over his brothers (Gen 49:8-12).  Next to Judah is the tribe of Issachar and then the closest to the camp of the Levites, the tribe of Zebulun.  Please note that Judah cannot be "farthest to the east" (Num 2:3) if Issachar is camped either to the right or left of the tribe of Judah.  Issachar must come between Judah and the Levites for Judah to be "farthest east".   The designations continue for the other tribes.  Since Joseph's sons will be counted as tribes, there will still be twelve tribes encamped around the Levites and the Sanctuary with its sacred Tabernacle.

In Numbers chapter 2 the tribes were given instructions on how to camp around the Tabernacle and how to move out of camp in the tribal order of the march.  The Levites were to be arranged in a camp that surrounded the Sanctuary, but how were the other tribes to be arranged?  Draw out the plan using the instructions in Numbers 2:1-34.  Notice the size of the tribes and the importance of starting in "the east".  The Sanctuary was situated to face toward the east with the Holy of Holies situated on the west.  Judah is the first to encamp farthest to the east (Num 2:3).  You may remember that the entrance to the Garden of Eden was in the east of Eden (Gen 2:8; 3:34); therefore to move deeper into the garden Sanctuary the movement toward God was toward the west where Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect communion with Yahweh as the Divine Father who poured out His blessings on His children.  This same movement from east to west is seen upon entering the Tabernacle.  The entrance was on the east and as one moved deeper into the Sanctuary toward the west, one moved closer to God in the far western part of the Tabernacle in the Holy of Holies where God's presence resided above the Mercy-Seat of the Ark of the Covenant.

Question: If the plan for the orderly encampment of the tribes is drawn out exactly as the narrative records, what pattern is formed by the encampment of the 12 tribes?  Draw out the plan according to the information in Numbers 2:1-31.

Answer: If one follows the instructions in chapter two exactly, the tribes are encamped around the Tabernacle in the form of a cross.  Please see the chart which illustrates the encampment and the marching order of the Tribes of Israel in the handout.

This is a very practical arrangement since the herds of animals could be protected in the open areas between the camps with just a few men guarding the outside perimeter.   If the tribes were in a square formation the area for the at least four million (probably more like six million) animals would have required a great number of men to secure the herds and flocks. This pattern, like the cross pattern of the furniture arrangement in the Tabernacle, foreshadows the Cross of our redemption (see the chart: "The Plan of the Desert Sanctuary" in the "Charts/Pentateuch" section).  In addition, all the tribes were in the correct position to begin the orderly march when they broke camp. 

Other scholars have proposed plans of the encampment with the each of the three divisions of tribes placed side by side in a square formation, but this plan is not a literal interpretation of the instructions given by Yahweh.(5)  To place tribes side by side the instructions would have Judah, Issachar and Zebulun on the East with Judah situated in he middle or the farthest to the northeast or southeast-this plan is simply not faithful to the description in the text.(6)

The letter taw is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. In ancient Hebrew (prior to the adoption of the square Arabic characters still used today) the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet was written interchangeably as + or x, and the Hebrew name taw (pronounced tov) may also be translated as the Hebrew word for "mark".

Question: Please read Ezekiel 9:4-6.  In this passage the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of a man clothed in linen who is commanded by God to go through Jerusalem and put a mark, or a taw, on the foreheads of the faithful before the destruction of the city.  What is significant about this passage and what is the connection to the most significant sign of New Covenant believers?
Answer: In the Ezekiel passage the mark of the taw, a cross shape, designates those who are faithful to Yahweh.  The sign of the taw places them under His protection for deliverance and outside of the "curse of destruction". 

Question: If the sign of the taw is the cruciform pattern in which the tribes camped around the Tabernacle in the desert, it is a significant sign of God's plan for man's salvation.  Where else in salvation history has the sign of the taw been an important sign of God's protection and salvation?

Answer: The sign of the taw is the pattern the blood made around the doors of the Israelites' houses on the night of the first Passover and the "sign" under which the first-born sons were redeemed when the blood of the sacrifice was poured out before the thresholds of the Israelite houses and smeared with a hyssop branch on the door post and lintels (Ex 12:13, 22-23).  It is the same form of the sign upon which Jesus offered up His life for the sins of mankind on the altar of the Cross, and the same sign that Christians wear today to signify their deliverance from sin and death through Christ Jesus' sacrifice and resurrection.

In next week's lesson God continues to prepare the Israelites for their departure from Sinai.

Questions for group discussion:

The divinely orchestrated plan for the encampment of the tribes reaffirms both the order and the hierarchy of the Church of the Sinai Covenant.  Moses is God's covenant mediator, the High Priest, Aaron, is the people's representative to God in the liturgy of worship, and the chief priests and Levites are the ministers of God's Sanctuary.  God approves of order in liturgical worship and in a divinely appointed authority responsible for needs of the people of His Church and answerable to Him for their teaching and in the exercise of right worship.

Question: Is the New Covenant Church different as far as order in liturgy and hierarchy are concerned?  There are those who suggest that organized religion is no longer necessary.  Is there anything in Scripture to suggest this is the case?  What are the dangers of no central teaching authority and in the failure to defining right worship?  Is there still a hierarchy of Church authority responsible for the people and answerable to God in the New Covenant?  How do you describe the hierarchy of the New Covenant (universal) Catholic Church?

Question: The last Bible book, the book of Revelation, also announces a census of the tribes of Israel.  Read Revelation 7:1-8.  What is the significance of the Revelation passage in God's plan of salvation?  Hint: In the significance of numbers in Scripture, twelve is one of the "perfect" numbers and signifies divine perfection in government (i.e., twelve sons of Jacob who become the physical fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel and twelve Apostles who become the spiritual fathers of the New Covenant people of God.  Any multiplication of a "perfect" number by tens signifies abundant perfection associated with the symbolic meaning of the number.  See the Revelation study on Chapter 7 if you need help with your answer.


1. See Num 1:1; 2:1; 3:1, 5, 11, 14, 40, 44; 4:1, 17, 21; 5:1, 5, 11; 6:1, 22; 7:4; 8:1, 5, 23; 9:1, 9; 10:1; 11:16, 23; 12:4; 13:1; 14:11, 20, 26; 15:1, 17, 37; 16:20, 23, 36, 44; 17:1; 18:1, 8, 25; 19:1; 20:7, 12, 23; 21:8, 34; 25:4, 10, 16, 19; 26:52; 27:6, 12, 18: 28:1; 31:1, 25; 34:1, 16; 35:1, 9.  The same phrase is found in Exodus sixty-three times.

2. There are Bible scholars who support the theory that the text of the Pentateuch was not written by a historical Moses but was instead a composite of the writings of four different sources.  The theory is that the four sources originated from the period of the early monarchy to the period after the return from the Babylonian exile when the four sources were combined in its final written form in the post-exile period in about the sixth century BC (the Document Hypotheses theory).  However, the historical data within the text of the Pentateuch does not support this theory.  For an interesting discussion of the historical connection within the Biblical text of the Pentateuch to the Mosaic period rather than to the post-exile period see R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, Eerdmans, 1969, pages 614-22.

3. For other references to "Israel's thousands" within the Pentateuch see Num 10:4, 36; 31:5, 14, 48, 52, 54; Dt 1:15.

4. The entrance to Eden was on the east as was the entrance to the desert Sanctuary and the Jerusalem Temple.  As one moved farther into the desert Sanctuary one moved west toward the Tabernacle and the Divine Presence of God above the Mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies that was located in the far western part of the Sanctuary.  When Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden they moved out of the garden farther to the east (Gen 3:24; literal translation: "He banished the man, and in the east of the garden of Eden he posted the great winged creatures and the fiery flashing sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life").  Cain was also exiled to the east (Gen 4:16) and when Lot moved away from Abraham, he moved east toward Sodom (Gen 13:12-13).

5. The plan of the Egyptian encampment at the Battle of Kadesh shows the tent of the Pharaoh surrounded by the different Egyptian military units in a square formation.  Many scholars favor this plan for the Israelite encampment.  However, the Israelites weren't just a military camp.  The Israelite camp included women, children, and millions of animals.

6.  In The JPS Torah Commentary, Milgrom rejects the cruciform pattern in favor of a square arrangement of the tribes around the Sanctuary (page 143).  He makes the argument that "next to" in the Hebrew text is a plural participle and therefore must indicate that both the second and third tribes were on either side of the leader tribe (JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, page 12).  However, the plural participle is more likely used because of the description of the various tribes in the plural: "Next to him: the tribe of Issachar, leader of the Issacharites", ... "the Simeonites", and ... "the Manassehites" ..., and the definite instruction that Judah was stationed "farthest to the east", not that all three tribes were on the east (Num 2:3).


Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.


Catechism reference to this lesson: Num 1:48-53 – CCC 1539-41


Month Liturgical year order Civil year order Modern equivalent Feast days & agricultural season (+ = God ordained feast; * = national feasts)
1 7 March/April +Passover 14th,
+Unleavened Bread
15-21st (sacred assembly on 15th and 21st),
+Firstfruits on Sunday of Unleavened Bread holy week.
Spring equinox 15th. The "Latter rains"& flood season, beginning of barley and flax harvest
Ziv (Iyyar) 2 8 April/May Dry season, apricots ripen
Sivan 3 9 May/June +Weeks (Pentecost) 50 days from Firstfruits as ancients counted; wheat harvest, dry winds, early fig harvest, grapes ripen
Tammuz 4 10 June/July Hot, dry season: grape harvest
Ab 5 11 July/Aug. Hot, olive harvest
Elul 6 12 Aug./Sept. Dates and summer figs
Ethanim (Tishri) 7 1 Sept./Oct. +Trumpets = 1st,
+Day of Atonement =10th
+Booths (Tabernacles)  = 15-21st & 22nd sacred assembly;
Fall equinox 15th;
"Former (early) rains,"  plowing & seed time
Bul (Heshvan) 8 2 Oct./Nov. Rains, winter figs, wheat and barley sown
Chislev 9 3 Nov./Dec. *Hanukkah (feast of dedication); winter begins
Tebeth 10 4 Dec./Jan. Coldest month, rains and snow in mountains
Sebat 11 5 Jan./Feb. Growing warmer, almond trees in bloom
Adar 12 6 Feb./March *Purim; spring: "Latter rains" begin, citrus fruit harvest
+ Seven annual feasts are God ordained feasts (Ex 12:1-28; 43-51; 13:1-10; Lev 23:5-44; Num 28:16-39); + indicates also a Pilgrim feast; *Hanukkah and Purim are national feasts proclaimed by the people and are not God ordained (1 Mac 4:36-61; 2 Mac 10:1-8; Esther 9:20-32).  The Feasts of Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles fell respectively on the spring and fall equinoxes.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2010 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.