The placement of the 12 tribes is important because this was the context by which the ebb and flow of power was determined. Regardless of what we may view as fair, tribalism was brutal in its determination of rank and power and it was absolute and it was no different with Israel.
“The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ households; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting (tabernacle), but at a distance.
Numbers 2:2 (AMP)
Verse 2 makes it explicit that the 12 tribes are to camp around the Tent of Meeting AT A DISTANCE. It is too dangerous to be too near. And using common phrases of that day it next says that each Israelite is too camp with his unit (that is, within his battle group) not the badly mistranslated “with his standard” as we usually see written.
So each Israelite is to camp with the battle unit he belongs to as determined by the census, and above his unit is to fly a banner representing his unit. Now this banner was some kind of colored cloth with the emblem of the group inscribed upon it.
Most of the Targums and the Talmud agree that each of the 12 tribes had a distinctive banner incorporating a specific color and that the color of each banner coincided with one of the 12 semi-precious stones that adorned the High Priest’s breastplate.
Just what the emblem amounted to that was on each banner is anyone’s guess; nothing has been preserved that tells us with any certainty.
So whatever set of symbols for each tribe of Israel that you might see in a book, they are but guesswork and tradition?
Those who camp on the east side toward the sunrise shall be of the standard of the camp of Judah, by their armies; and Nahshon the son of Amminadab shall lead the sons of Judah, and his army as numbered totaled 74,600. Next to Judah [on the east side] the tribe of Issachar shall encamp; and Nethanel the son of Zuar shall lead the sons of Issachar, and his army as numbered totaled 54,400. Then [also on the east side] the tribe of Zebulun; and Eliab the son of Helon shall lead the sons of Zebulun, and his army as numbered totaled 57,400. The total of the numbered men [in the three tribes on the east side] in the camp of Judah was 186,400, by their armies. They shall move out first [on the march].
Numbers 2:3-9 (AMP)
The order of the tribes (or, more literally as they’re called here, troops) is that Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun encamps together as a unit on the east side (the front) of the Wilderness Tabernacle.
This is the prime position of honor. Judah is the leader of this 3-tribe division. Judah obtained this right to lead because Judah replaced Reuben (who was the natural firstborn of Jacob (Israel)) due to an indiscretion by Reuben against Jacob.
“On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Reuben, by their armies; and Elizur the son of Shedeur shall lead the sons of Reuben, and his army as numbered totaled 46,500. Those who camp next to Reuben [on the south side] shall be the tribe of Simeon; and Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai shall lead the sons of Simeon, and his army as numbered totaled 59,300. Then [completing the south side] the tribe of Gad; and Eliasaph the son of Reuel (Deuel) shall lead the sons of Gad, and his army as numbered totaled 45,650. The total of the numbered men [in the three tribes on the south side] in the camp of Reuben was 151,450, by their armies. They shall move out second [on the march].
Numbers 2:10-16 (AMP)
Reuben, although he no longer holds the preeminent position as firstborn and therefore supreme leader of Israel, still is a leader and is apparently second in command to Judah. And so he is instructed to camp in the next most prestigious area the south side of the Tabernacle.
Let me say here that when I call a tribe by name and say “he” that is not to say that the man Reuben, for instance, was still living. He had died long, long ago and as we saw in the record of the census there was a fellow named Elizur who currently was the head of the Reuben tribe.
The only thing that remained of the original sons of Jacob by this late date was their descendants and their names that continued on as the names of the tribes they fathered.
So the leader of the tribe of Judah held the highest status with the leader of the tribe of Reuben as the 2nd highest.
Reuben camped with Simeon and Gad, and together those 3 formed the Southern division.
“On the west side shall be the standard of the camp of Ephraim, by their armies; and Elishama the son of Ammihud shall lead the sons of Ephraim, and his army as numbered totaled 40,500. Beside Ephraim [on the west side] shall be the tribe of Manasseh; and Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur shall lead the sons of Manasseh, and his army as numbered totaled 32,200. Then [completing the west side shall be] the tribe of Benjamin; and Abidan the son of Gideoni shall lead the sons of Benjamin, and his army as numbered totaled 35,400. The total of the numbered men [of the three tribes on the west side] in the camp of Ephraim was 108,100, by their armies. They shall move out in third place.
Numbers 2:18-24 (AMP)
Next, to the west, was Ephraim as the head of its division and it camped together along with Manasseh and Benjamin.
“On the north side shall be the standard of the camp of Dan, by their armies; and Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai shall lead the sons of Dan, and his army as numbered totaled 62,700. Encamped next to Dan [on the north side] shall be the tribe of Asher; and Pagiel the son of Ochran shall lead the sons of Asher, and his army as numbered totaled 41,500. Then [completing the north side] comes the tribe of Naphtali; and Ahira the son of Enan shall lead the sons of Naphtali, and his army as numbered totaled 53,400. The total of the numbered men [of the three tribes on the north side] in the camp of Dan was 157,600. They shall move out last, standard after standard.”
Numbers 2:25-31 (AMP)
Lastly, in the least prestigious position, the North was the division led by Dan. Those with him were Asher and Naftali.
Now these camping positions (arranged according to compass directions) also dictated marching order: that is who marched in the lead, who followed next and so on down to who brought up the rear.
“Then the Tent of Meeting (tabernacle) shall move out with the camp of the Levites in the middle of the [other] camps; just as they camp so shall they move out, every man in his place by their standards.
Numbers 2:17 (AMP)
The Division of Judah would lead the column followed by Reuben. Verse 17 then tells us that after the Division of Reuben, but before the next division (which was Ephraim), the Wilderness Tabernacle was to be carried.
In other words the Levites, carrying and protecting the all important tent shrine, were to be smack dab in the middle of the marching column. Bringing up the rear was the Division of Dan.
Now can we ascertain just why certain tribes were designated to camp together in a particular group, a division?
Yes there is some rationale and pattern to it.
- To the East were composed of what is called the Leah tribes. That is the biological mother of Judah and the other two tribes he camped with was Leah.
- To the South we find 3 more Leah tribes; however there is a slight difference. The leader of the Southern Division, Reuben, was the biological son of Leah as was Simeon. But Gad was NOT a biological son of Leah; rather he was the son of Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah. However by law Zilpah, as a servant, was but a surrogate mother for Leah so Gad was counted as among the sons of Leah.
- To the West were the Rachel tribes led by Ephraim; that is these were all sons produced by Jacob’s most loved wife, Rachel. Now again I have some explaining to do because although Benjamin’s biological mother was indeed Rachel, Ephraim and Manesseh, the other two tribes making up this division, did NOT have Rachel as a biological mother.
So why are they called Rachel tribes?
Because Rachel WAS the biological mother of Joseph, who was the biological father of Ephraim and Manasseh; and as Joseph’s sons they were currently carrying the authority of Joseph, something that had been ordained by that amazing cross-handed blessing of Genesis 48.
By the way we would think of it, biologically speaking Ephraim and Manasseh were GRANDSONS of Rachel. Nonetheless due to the customs of that era Benjamin was considered a son of Rachel and in the cross-handed blessing Jacob (Rachel’s husband) had adopted Ephraim and Manasseh.
- To the North (representing the lowest spot in the tribal pecking order) were the remaining 3 tribes, led by Dan. What made them the lowest is that they were all sons of Jacob’s concubines (Leah’s and Rachel’s handmaidens). Dan and Naftali were sons of Bilah, and Asher the son of Zilpah.
What is important to see in all this is that Judah is the lead tribe and therefore has the highest status, and Dan is lowest. And that regardless of what we may view as fair, tribalism was brutal in its determination of rank and power and it was absolute and it was no different with Israel.
The only hope for a lower ranking tribe was to somehow become more powerful than a tribe of higher rank and to either absorb that higher tribe or simply to become dominant over it.
Keep this in mind as we watch the progress and development of Israel in the Old Testament because this was the context by which the ebb and flow of power was determined. In fact this is generally how tribal societies work to this day.
One other piece of information that I think you’ll find helpful in understanding the Bible: east was the preeminent direction just as the “right” side was the preeminent side. So to understand why the compass directions that the various divisions camped at denoted rank, we begin at the East.
Picture yourself standing and facing east.
If you hold out your right arm to the right side you’ll be pointing in what direction?
South. Therefore since East is rank #1 to the immediate right of East is rank #2, south. Now turn and face south.
Hold out your right arm to your right side and you are now pointing where?
West. Therefore that is rank #3. One more turn to the right and we’re facing north, which is the last rank, rank #4.
This same protocol is used throughout the Bible. So always begin with east and work towards the right to understand the rank and order of compass directions, as each of these directions also symbolize rank and order of power and authority.