Numbers 2 records Jehovah’s arrangement of the encampment of the 12 tribes of Israel around the tent of meeting in the following order: Judah takes the lead in the east, next to Judah is the tribe of Issachar and Zebulun. To the south is the tribe of Reuben; next to Reuben is the tribe of Simeon and the tribe of Gad. On the west is the tribe of Ephraim; next to Ephraim is the tribe of Manasseh and Benjamin. The tribe of Dan takes the lead on the north; next to them is the tribe of Asher and Naphtali. The Levites were, of course, not counted. The names of the leaders, as well as the division numbers in each tribe, were mentioned in addition to recording this order.
Many readers may be confused after reading the names of these unfamiliar tribes, leaders, and numbers. It’s enough to make one’s head spin.
Just this week, I saw one of my teachers from the United Theological Seminary, post a sentence on Facebook by John Wimber (the founder of the Vineyard Church). It reads, “When we are losing the encounter of the Lord, we will start counting on people.” I am paraphrasing it as I did not know where it came from. This means that we should focus on meeting the Lord every day instead of the achievements we have done for the Lord.
The Bible records David’s two sins. His first sin was committing adultery by marrying Uriah’s wife. The other sin was counting the Israelites. This census was the sin of spiritual immorality. Why? As Joab (David’s general) said, if David is not satisfied, he can ask God to give him more. Why count Israel? When David was counting the Israelites, his heart became proud, and he had drifted far away from God. He was counting his achievements and those achievements became the idol of his heart causing God to be displeased.
Watchman Nee, the founder of the Local Church Movement, often said that God values more what we are than what we do. It’s not hard for us to draw inspiration from the story of David and the words of John Wimber and Watchman Nee. We don’t need to pay too much attention to the names and numbers of those tribes in this chapter. Rather, we should pay attention to how we can stay focused on the Lord. Under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we did notice that a very important phrase in this chapter from the second verse “around the tent of meeting.” Numbers 2:2 (NIV) says, “The Israelites are to camp around the tent of meeting some distance from it, each of them under their standard and holding the banners of their family.” While we had our Bible study, the Holy Spirit especially illuminated this and reminded us to pay attention to these words “around the tent of meeting.” In the version of the Chinese Bible we used, it was translated as “facing the tent of meeting.” The translation in the NIV is not that clear. But the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) version says, “The Israelites shall camp each in their respective regiments, under ensigns by their ancestral houses; they shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side.” It also says, “facing the tent of meeting on every side.”
In other words, Jehovah’s encampment isn’t just focusing on the order, division numbers, and the names of the leaders of the twelve tribes. These are important, but what’s more important is the principle of the encampment of the tribes of Israel: to “camp facing the tent of meeting on every side. ” In other words, the principle of spiritual warfare is to “face God and turn one’s back on the world and the enemy.” This sounds different from the strategy in the world. We usually face our enemies. What should we do if the enemy suddenly attacks? It’s a different story here. Although we need to understand the enemy’s movements, the key to win at spiritual warfare is to “face God,” receive enlightenment and guidance from Him, rather than fighting the enemy according to our flesh.
Many pastors often testify that when they feel overwhelmed by the needs of the world and the busyness of working for the Lord, they slowly lose God’s presence and their peace in the Lord. They become overwhelmed to the point of suffering a nervous breakdown. “Burnout” is a word that can describe this situation.
The tent of meeting or tabernacle serves as the dwelling place of God. This is where God’s presence is. To the east of the tabernacle is the gate to the outer court of the tabernacle where the priests offer sacrifices, manage affairs in the outer court and perform their services. In the center is the Holy Place of the tabernacle, and to the west is the Holy of Holies.
Each tribe is to camp facing the tent of meeting on every side, each man under his standard with the banners of his tribe. Although the Levites were not counted here, it doesn’t mean that the Levites had no status. On the contrary, the Levites have a very important status here. They are the connection between God who dwells in the tabernacle and the different tribes of Israel who encamped facing the tent of meeting. By serving each tribe, the Levites brought their needs before God. At the same time, the Levites also brought God’s presence and instructions to the tribes of Israel outside.
If you weren’t able to recognize the work of the Levites, it is easy to think of this arrangement of Jehovah as a few dots. But when you notice the work of the Levites, the arrangement of God is no longer a few dots, but rather, a net. In this net, God and man form a big wheel through the link between the Levites as priests and the cooperation amongst different tribes. It’s like what Ezekiel mentioned, wheel intersecting a wheel (NIV, Ezekiel 1:16).
No matter which tribe we belong to, or in which church God places us, our most important task every day is to draw near to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is our High Priest. It’s just like what the ministry of the Levites represents here. Our most important task every day is to meet with God. Our hearts must be towards God. We must face God and turn our back on the world and its needs. It’s not that we shouldn’t get in touch with the world and carry out various activities. But rather, we must ensure that we don’t deal with things for the sake of just dealing with them.
I often hear people say that it’s not the needs of human beings that motivated the ministry of Jesus. Rather, the will of the Father was what motivated Him. He only did what He saw His Father doing. If Jesus came to earth because He was merely trying to meet the needs of human beings, then his ministry was not successful, because many people’s needs were not met. But the Lord Jesus came to fulfill God’s will for Him. If the Heavenly Father spoke, He spoke; if the Heavenly Father did something, He did it. Similarly, we should operate in this way to serve the affairs of the world, such as caring for the orphans and poor people. If it’s because we are simply responding to the needs of human beings, we will eventually collapse and fail to meet all the needs of the world. If we do it because of God’s will and guidance in our lives, no matter how much we do, we are filled with God’s presence and rest.
Many pastors and other spiritual leaders start their ministries by first waiting on God. But slowly, the needs that they are facing become greater, and gradually, the needs take all of their attention, causing them to unknowingly focus on the needs rather than God. Remember, we cannot turn our backs on God and face the world and its needs; we need to turn our back on the world and its needs and face God.
There is a saying in China called “Take a coat by the collar,” which means if you grasp the main idea of something, the minor details will become clearer. The main point here is “facing the tent of meeting.” When each tribe is “facing the tent of meeting,” many of the following activities will be easier to do or manage afterward. But if a certain tribe begins to take his eyes off the tabernacle or off of God and turn to his enemies outside, or if he pays too much attention to the tribes next to him, which then generates competition, this main point or collar is destroyed. Problems will occur in the operation of this big net or this big wheel designed by God according to His wisdom.
For example, we know that God’s chosen people should be in unity. But when we see the shortcomings of other Christians or denominations, it is inevitable to criticize and judge. It is not that we should not help other churches but that God leaves the right of judgment to Himself; therefore, it is not our responsibility to judge others. We should keep our eyes on God, and not others, denominations, etc.. When we are more focused on what others are doing either right or wrong, the enemy will take advantage of us creating discord and destroying the large net woven by God.
We should not be jealous of other’s gifts and different callings. Just as the eyes should not be jealous of the ears, we should be satisfied with our own gifts and take hold of our calling firmly. Our eyes should be focused on God and treat other people and denominations from God’s perspective.
Now that we understand this most important principle let’s look at the order, names of the leaders, and the number of people in each tribe and see what kind of spiritual significance they each have.
First of all, let’s take a look at the tribe of Judah on the east, towards the sunrise. We know that Judah is the tribe of war. The book of Judges records that when the Israelites went to fight against the Benjaminites, they asked Jehovah who should go up first to fight, and the Lord said that Judah should go first. The Lord Jesus is called the Lion of the tribe of Judah. In Genesis 49, Jacob prophesied that his son Judah was a lion’s cub.
Next is the tribe of Issachar. Judges said that the tribe of Issachar were men “who understood the times” (1 Chronicles 12:32 NIV). We can say this tribe has the gift of prophecy. We don’t know exactly what the gifts of each tribe are, but it seems that Judah has more like the gift of an apostle, and Issachar has more like the gift of a prophet. Their different gifts complement each other. The apostles and prophets are the foundation that the church was built on In the New Testament.
The next tribe, the tribe of Zebulun, may represent provision and gospel preaching because Zebulun is a harbor; his border will extend toward Sidon (NIV, Genesis 49:13). Perhaps the tribe of Zebulun represents the gift of the evangelists in the New Testament. This is only my guess, but in any case, I think the order of the twelve tribes here is not according to the natural order of their births, nor is it the order of whether they came from the same mother so that they may be arranged according to their gifts and their spiritual maturity before God. These three are collectively referred to as the camp of Judah.
Second is the camp of Reuben, which is located in the south. This includes Reuben, Simeon, and Gad. I think that the gift of Reuben is shepherding because he tried to protect Joseph when some of his brothers plan to kill him. The meaning of the name Simeon is “heard,” while the name Gad means “luck.” I don’t exactly know what gifts Simeon and Gad represent. Maybe they represent God’s mercy because Simeon slaughtered countless people and could have been the key person that participated in the plot to kill Joseph. But God pitied him. Reuben also sinned, but Moses prayed not to let the tribe of Reuben be few. Jacob prophesied in Genesis 49:19 (NIV), “Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders, but he will attack them at their heels.” Perhaps Gad has the gift of resurrection from failures.
Behind these two camps is the camp of the Levites. They are responsible for carrying the instruments of the tabernacle. We could say that they were moving tabernacles around, or in other words, they carried the presence of God around.
The third camp is Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin, which is located on the west. All three are descendants of Joseph. The West is where the Holy of Holies is. I feel these groups of people represent what John the beloved represented in the New Testament. John rested in the bosom of Jesus, and he was an intimate friend of Jesus. These three tribes are all dependents of Rebekah, whom Jacob loves most.
The fourth camp is the tribe of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali, which is located in the north. To me, they also represent certain aspects of Christ, who is our ultimate savior. Of course, other tribes also represent certain aspects of Christ as well.
I’m not sure why Jehovah has arranged it that way. However, my guess is perhaps they are arranged according to their different gifts and the maturity of their spiritual lives.
Let’s take a look at the leaders. The leaders of each tribe are mentioned here for the second time because the Lord has already appointed them in Chapter 1. For example, the leader of the tribe of Judah is Nahshon, son of Amminadab. There is no detailed record in the Bible, so we have no way of knowing what kind of a person Amminadab was, how he could give birth to a leader like Nahshon, and what education and help did Nahshon receive to become the leader of the Judah.
Nahshon commands 74,600 soldiers in the tribe of Judah. I don’t know how many people you are shepherding or how many people God has entrusted to your leadership, but I know that a pastor leading a church of 2,000 people, or even a church of 200 people, is a very difficult job. Therefore, it was not easy for Nahshon to lead 74,600 people. He must have received excellent training and help from God to take such responsibility.
Being a leader is not a ruler but a shepherd. Nahshon would have to face God every day and bear the responsibility for 74,600 people. On the one hand, he was leading these people. On the other hand, he was shepherding them or carrying them on his shoulder or his back before the Lord because the New Testament had already told us that the responsibility of the elders was not to rule over but to shepherd. We are all priests who carry those who are under our shepherding.
I just cited Nahshon as an example to tell you that he has a legacy from his family, and he learned this from his father Amminadab. God knew him. God had personally called him to be a leader, indicating that God had already personally trained him. The same goes for the other tribes and their leaders. Not only was a tribe’s leader mentioned, but the names of their fathers were also mentioned. We won’t mention each one of the leaders of the other tribes. But hopefully, this helps you to see the principle behind each leader.
Let’s take a look at the numbers now. Each tribe’s division numbers are different. Don’t think this is just a trivial matter. This reflects the prosperity of the tribe. Naturally, the increase in number reflects that they have been blessed before God. Judah’s tribe was the largest. This may be one of the reasons they were in the first camp.
I don’t know the meaning of each set of numbers. I know God wasn’t happy when David was counting the numbers of Israelites. But it’s okay for Moses to count here. Why? It’s still the principle that we talked about earlier, “camp facing the tent of meeting on every side” is the main point. When Moses was doing the counting, he had a face to face encounter with God. He was doing it in the correct order. But David’s heart was full of pride when he was counting the numbers. He was doing it in the wrong order.
Meeting God first is the priority. If God is first, counting the things that you do spiritually for God is okay. If you neglect God and just focus on the spiritual needs in your ministry, it won’t be pleasing to God. We must first pursue God before working for Him or pursing His gifts. I’m not saying to neglect service or gifts but we need to balance it all correctly by seeking God with all of our hearts first. This will enable us to walk confidently in our calling and be victorious in battle.
Let’s meet God first daily before we face the needs of the world. No matter what we do, hopefully, it is done out of our love for God instead of duty or ambition. In this way, we will certainly be able to please God. But let’s not overlook the fact that God has indeed given us different gifts. Just like the twelve tribes, they are all placed in certain places by God to carry out certain duties according to the calling and gifts that He has given us.