The book of Numbers begins with a census that determined the number of men that were eligible to serve in the military. Numbers 1:1-3 states, “The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, ‘Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them company by company.’” The census occurred 13 months after the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt. The children of Israel had not yet reached the borders of the Promised Land and no military conflicts had occurred thus far. God was preparing the Israelites for what lie ahead and was making them aware of the fact that war was going to be their new normal after they crossed the Jordan River.
The census allowed Moses and Aaron to organize the people in such a way that moving the camp would be efficient and orderly. Numbers 1:20-45 states:
The people of the tribe of Reuben, Israel’s firstborn, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go to war: those listed of the tribe of Reuben were 46,500…those listed of the tribe of Simeon were 59,300…those listed of the tribe of Gad were 45,650…those listed of the tribe of Judah were 74,600…those listed of the tribe of Issachar were 54,400…those listed of the tribe of Zebulun were 57,400…those listed of the tribe of Ephraim were 40,500…those listed of the tribe of Manasseh were 32,200…those listed of the tribe of Benjamin were 35,400…those listed of the tribe of Dan were 62,700…those listed of the tribe of Asher were 41,500…those listed of the tribe of Naphtali were 53,400…So all those listed of the people of Israel, by their fathers’ houses, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war in Israel – all those listed were 603,550.
After the men that were able to go to war were listed, they were grouped together to form four separate camps. The division of the camps was most likely determined by the size of each of the individual tribes and a goal of keeping the camps balanced so that their movements would be symmetrical. The total population including the 603,550 men that were able to go to war has been estimated to be 2-5 million people, somewhere around the size of the city of Los Angeles. The Israelites’ geographic footprint is unknown, but it could have been anywhere from 50-500 square miles.
The arrangement of the Israelites’ camps is important because it determined the overall size and structure of the congregation and the ordering of their movements when the people were required to relocate. Numbers 2:1-9 states:
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “The people of Israel shall camp each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ houses. They shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side. Those to camp on the east side toward the sunrise shall be of the standard of the camp of Judah by their companies, the chief of the people of Judah being Nahshon the son of Amminadab, his company as listed being 74,600. Those to camp next to him shall be the tribe of Issachar, the chief of the people of Issachar being Nethanel the son of Zuar, his company as listed being 54,400. Then the tribe of Zebulun, the chief of the people of Zebulun being Eliab the son of Helon, his company as listed being 57,400. All those listed of the camp of Judah, by their companies, were 186,400. They shall set out first on the march.
The people’s movement is described as a march, but the Hebrew word that was used, naça (naw-sawˊ) is properly translated as “to pull up, especially the tent-pins, i.e. start on a journey” (H5265). Moving millions of people at the same time was a monumental task and must have taken an enormous amount of coordination, but the system that God put in place was designed to keep everyone in a specified location so that they could move with as little amount of communication and confusion as possible when it was time for them to break camp and move on to a new location.
The camp of Judah, which included the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun, was the largest of the four camps and was designated to camp on the east side of the tabernacle toward the sunrise. Judah’s camp led the procession whenever the Israelites set out toward a new destination. The camp of Reuben, which was located on the south side of the tabernacle, included the tribes of Simeon and Gad and had 151,450 men that were able to go to war (Numbers 2:10-16). The camp of Dan included the tribes of Asher and Naphtali and was located on the north side of the tabernacle. Dan’s camp had 157,600 men that were able to go to war and was roughly the same size as Reuben’s camp to the south of it (Numbers 2:25-31). The smallest camp, the camp of Ephraim, which included the tribes of Manasseh and Benjamin, was located to the west of the tabernacle. Ephraim’s camp had only 108,100 men that were able to go to war (Numbers 2:18-24), but its overall position in the camp was balanced out by Judah’s larger size. Together, the camps of Judah and Ephraim had a total of 294,500 men that were able to go to war and the camps of Reuben and Dan had 309,050, so these groupings were fairly symmetrical. The difference between the two configurations was that the smaller camp of Ephraim was located to the west of the tabernacle and the larger camp of Judah was to the east of it, so there was a lopsided distribution of people around the tabernacle which was located in the center of the four camps (Numbers 2:2). It’s possible that the lopsided configuration was intentional and may have caused the Israelites’ camp to resemble the shape of a cross.
The most notable attribute of the Israelites’ camp was the pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day that hovered over the tabernacle and guided the Israelites on their journey. Exodus 13:21-22 states, “And the LORD was before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” God’s visible presence in the Israelite’s camp was constant reminder of his involvement in their journey toward the Promised Land. Exodus 33:7-11 describes what took place when Moses entered the tabernacle to communicate with God. It states:
Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.
The Hebrew word that is translated face to face, paniym (paw-neemˊ) is derived from the word panah (paw-nawˊ) which means “to turn; (by implication) to face, i.e. appear, look” (H6437). In a more specific application, the word paniym “represents the look on one’s face, or one’s countenance” (H6440). The text indicates that the LORD spoke to Moses as a man speaks to his friend. The Hebrew word for friend, reya (rayˊ-ah) refers to “a ‘personal friend’ with whom one shares confidences and to whom one feels very close…The closeness of the relationship is best expressed by those texts where the reaˊ is like a brother or son, a part of the family” (H7453).
King David’s intimate relationship with the LORD is vividly depicted in many of the Psalms that he wrote. David seemed to understand that the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness was more about God displaying his glory to the surrounding nations that it was about the people of Israel being seen as a military threat to those whom they were about to conquer. David wrote in Psalm 68, “Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is the LORD; exult before him!” (Psalm 68:4). David’s description of the LORD as him who rides through the deserts makes is sound as if the Israelites were carrying the LORD in a cart or perhaps, that he was riding along side them in a chariot. The King James translation of Psalm 68:4 states that God “rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH.” From this standpoint, it appears that the action that was taking place was about the LORD being transported into the Israelites’ camp. The Hebrew word that is translated rideth, rakab (raw-kabˊ) means to dispatch (H7392). David went on to say:
O God, when you went out before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness, Selah
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain,
before God, the One of Sinai,
before God, the God of Israel.
Rain in abundance, O God, you shed abroad;
you restored your inheritance as it languished;
your flock found a dwelling in it;
in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy. (Psalm 68:7-10)
David indicated that God had marched through the wilderness. The Hebrew word tsaʿad (tsaw-adˊ) suggests that God was leading the formation. Tsaʿad’s meaning, “to pace, i.e. step regularly” might have something to do with a cadence, something a drill sergeant uses to keep all his troops moving at the same pace. If so, it seems that the LORD was in control of every step that the Israelites took as they traveled through the wilderness.
David’s reference to “the One of Sinai” (Psalm 68:8) had to do with the physical manifestation of the LORD’s presence in the Israelite camp. The Hebrew word that is translated One is paniym (paw-neemˊ) indicating that God himself was present in the Sinai Desert (H6440). Exodus 14:19 indicates that the angel of God was going before the host of Israel as they moved through the desert and in Exodus 23:20 God told Moses that he was sending an angel before the people to guard them on the way “and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him” (Exodus 23:20-21). “Exodus 23:21 states that the angel of the LORD has the power to forgive sins, a characteristic belonging to God alone (cf. Mark 2:7; Luke 7:49) and that he has the name of God in him. No man can see the full glory of God and live (Exodus 33:20), but Jesus Christ, in whom all the fullness of the deity was manifested in bodily form, has made God the father known (John 1:18; Colossians 2:9)” (note on Exodus 23:20-23). Therefore, it seems likely that Jesus in a preincarnate state was the One of Sinai that David was referring to in Psalm 68:8.
David’s depiction of the Israelites’ journey through the Sinai Desert transcended the physical realm in that he portrayed their processional as a mixture of both human and angelic forces. David stated, “The chariots of God are twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them; Sinai is now in the sanctuary” (Psalm 68:17). David referred to God as the Lord instead of JAH, the personal name that was used in verse 4. The Hebrew word Adonay (ad-o-noyˊ) is used as the proper name of God only (H136). “In such contexts God is conceived as a Being who is sovereign ruler and almighty master” (H113). Adonay is used Psalm 2:4 where it says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” Psalm 2:1-9 is considered to be a Messianic portion of scripture that refers to Jesus Christ’s reign on earth. David said that Sinai was in the sanctuary (Psalm 68:17). This seems to suggest that Sinai and Heaven converged into a single space. It could be that the convergence of the physical and spiritual realms had to do with the Lord’s presence being perceived in both dimensions of his kingdom.
David said, “Your procession is seen, O God, the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary” (Psalm 68:24). The Hebrew word that David used that is translated seen, raʾah (rawˊ-aw) means to see with the eyes. It can also have several derived meanings, all of which require the individual to see physically outside of himself or herself. “It is also possible for this verb to require the individual to make a mental observation…It can also connote a spiritual observation and comprehension by means of seeing visions” (H7200). David’s declaration that God’s procession was seen probably had a past as well as a future application. David indicated that the procession involved both his God and his King, linking the Israelites journey through the desert with Jesus’ future reign on earth.
The Hebrew word that is translated procession in Psalm 68:24, haliykah (hal-ee-kawˊ) is related to the word halak (haw-lakˊ) which sometimes refers to one’s behavior, or the way one walks in life. “Thus, the rather concrete idea of following God through the wilderness moves to ‘walking behind’ Him spiritually” (H1980). When Jesus called his disciples, he used the phrase “follow me” (Matthew 8:22, 9:9). The Greek word that is translated follow, akoloutheo (ak-ol-oo-thehˊ-o) is properly translated as “to be in the same way with” (G190). God’s ways are often associated with a pathway or course of life that one must follow in order to reach a desired destination. It says of the LORD’s ways in Isaiah 55:8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
David’s view of God’s processional seemed to be a depiction of an invisible heavenly host (Psalm 68:17) and Israel’s army walking side by side through the Sinai Desert. This scene may have been a depiction of the Israelites’ journey through the Sinai Desert, but it could also be related to Christ’s return and his defeat of the kings of the earth. Revelation 19 indicates that there will be a convergence of the physical and spiritual realms at that time. John wrote:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords…And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (Revelation 19:11-21)
David concluded his psalm with a tribute to God’s awe-inspiring performance and the ultimate victory of his chosen people. David declared:
Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel,
and whose power is in the skies.
Awesome is God from his sanctuary;
the God of Israel—he is the one who gives power and strength to his people.
Blessed be God! (Psalm 68:34-35)
The Hebrew word that is translated awesome in Psalm 68:35, yareʾ (yaw-rayˊ) means to stand in awe. “This is not simple fear, but reverence, whereby an individual recognizes the power and position of the individual revered and renders him proper respect” (H3372). This will be a distinct characteristic of Jesus when he returns as “King of kings and Lord of lords” and leads the procession of heaven’s armies into battle against the beast and the kings of the earth (Revelation 19:16, 19).