The flags of the 12 tribes. Each tribe was to have its own standard or flag going before it “Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 2 ‘The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own flag, with the banners of their fathers’ households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance.”’ (Nu. 2:1-2). The Bible does not tell us the flags or standards for each tribe. We only know them by tradition. Like a nation today, a flag or sign gives you your sense of identity with your peers. The sign or flag allowed each tribe to establish an identity. As set forth below, many of the signs were flawed human signs. Because this is God’s army, we should expect a common sign to bond the 12 tribes together. We should also expect the signs to be a signal from God that people could depend upon Him. Because Jesus tells us that the Old Testament was written about Him, we should further expect signs to foreshadow Him. ‘“For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me.”’ (Jo. 5:46). “Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; In the scroll of the book it is written of me.’” (Ps. 40:7; Heb. 10:7).
God has hidden truths for us to find. Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, once wrote: “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honor of kings is to search out a matter.” (Prov. 25:2). The Bible also tells us that all Scripture is both inspired and profitable for teaching: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;” (2 Tim. 3:16). God devotes a lot of space describing the placement of the tribes. Thus, believers should expect to find hidden insights based upon their placement around the Tabernacle.
Judah. The tribe of Judah was the fourth tribe and a descendant of Leah (Gen. 29:35). Yet, it became the leading tribe by default. It guarded the eastern flank with 74,600 troops “3 Now those who camp on the east side toward the sunrise shall be of the flag of the camp of Judah, by their armies; and the leader of the sons of Judah: Nahshon the son of Amminadab, 4 and his army, their numbered men: 74,600.” (Nu. 2:3-4). The sign of the tribe of Judah was the lion. Jacob said of Judah: “Judah is a lion’s whelp . . . He lies down as a lion, and as a lion, who dares rouse him?” (Gen. 49:9).
Issachar. The tribe of Issachar was the ninth tribe and also a descendant of Leah (Gen. 30:20). It guarded behind Judah on the eastern flank with 54,400 troops “5 Those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Issachar; and the leader of the sons of Issachar: Nethanel the son of Zuar, 6 and his army, their numbered men: 54,400.” (Nu. 2:5-6). The sign of the tribe of Issachar is disputed. One view is that it was the donkey. Jacob blessed him by saying that he “bends his back to the load, working like a slave.” (Gen. 49:14-15). Another view is that it was the sun and moon. Under the second view, the tribe was later described as “men who understood the times.” (1 Chr. 12:32).
Zebulun, The tribe of Zebulun was the tenth tribe and also a descendant of Leah (Gen. 30:20). It guarded behind Judah on the eastern flank with 57,400 troops “7 Then follows the tribe of Zebulun; and the leader of the sons of Zebulun: Eliab the son of Helon, 8 and his army, his numbered men: 57,400.” (Nu. 2:7-8). Zebulun’s sign was a boat. Jacob blessed him by saying that his descendants would: “settle the seashores; he will be a harbor of ships; his border shall reach Sidon.” (Gen. 49:13).
The total. The troop total under Judah’s command facing the east was 186,400 “9 The total of the numbered men of the camp of Judah: 186,400, by their armies. They shall set out first.” (Nu. 2:9). This did not include the women, children, and elderly men with each tribe. While this might seem like useless detail to believers today, God shows the relevance of this information when we compare it to the layout of the other troops.
Reuben. The tribe of Reuben was the first tribe and a descendant of Leah (Gen. 29:32). It guarded the southern flank with 46,500 troops “10 On the south side shall be the flag of the camp of Reuben by their armies; and the leader of the sons of Reuben: Elizur the son of Shedeur, 11 and his army, their numbered men: 46,500.” (Nu. 2:10-11). Reuben’s sign was the mandrake. Reuben gave this plant, which was part of a fertility cult, to Rachel to help her get pregnant. God disciplined Rachel by delaying her first pregnancy and forcing her to wait three more years for a child (Gen. 30:14). Another view is that his symbol was a man.
Simeon. The tribe of Simeon was the second tribe and also a descendant of Leah (Gen. 29:33). It guarded behind Reuben on the southern flank with 59,300 troops “12 And those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Simeon; and the leader of the sons of Simeon: Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai, 13 and his army, their numbered men: 59,300.” (Nu. 2:12-13). The sign of the tribe of Simeon was a castle representing the city of Shechem. He and Levi murdered every male in this city to avenge the rape of their sister Dinah (Gen. 43:25).
Gad. The tribe of Gad was the seventh tribe and a descendant of Leah’s maid Zilpah (Gen. 29:11). The tribe also guarded behind Reuben on the southern flank with 45,650 troops “14 Then follows the tribe of Gad; and the leader of the sons of Gad: Eliasaph the son of Deuel, 15 and his army, their numbered men: 45,650.” (Nu. 2:14-15). The sign of the tribe of Gad was a military tent. His name meant a “troop coming”. Jacob said that raiders would raid Gad, but he will raid at their heel (Gen. 49:19).
The total. The total of the troops under Reuben’s command facing the south was 151,450 “16 The total of the numbered men of the camp of Reuben: 151,450 by their armies. And they shall set out second.” (Nu. 2:16). As shown below, this number corresponded with the northern total.
Ephraim. Ephraim’s tribe was one of two tribes to replace Joseph’s tribe. Joseph’s tribe was the eleventh tribe and a descendant of Rachel (Gen. 30:23). Joseph’s tribe was given a double blessing by being given two tribes to replace Levi, which guarded the Tabernacle (Nu. 2:33). With the Levites in the center, Ephraim guarded the western flank with 40,500 troops “17 Then the tent of meeting shall set out with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps; just as they camp, so they shall set out, every man in his place by their flags. 18 “On the west side shall be the flag of the camp of Ephraim by their armies; and the leader of the sons of Ephraim: Elishama the son of Ammihud, 19 and his army, their numbered men: 40,500.” (Nu. 2:17-19). The banner of Joseph that they carried was the ox. According to Moses, Joseph was: “the firstborn of his ox, majesty is his, and his horns are the horns of the wild ox.” (Dt. 33:17).
Manasseh. The tribe of Manasseh was the second tribe to replace Joseph. Joseph again was the eleventh tribe and a descendant of Rachel (Gen. 30:23). Manasseh guarded behind Ephraim on the western flank. It had 32,200 troops “20 Next to him shall be the tribe of Manasseh; and the leader of the sons of Manasseh: Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur, 21 and his army, their numbered men, 32,200.” (Nu. 2:20-21). Like Ephraim, they also carried the banner of the ox.
Benjamin. Benjamin was the twelfth tribe and also a descendant of Rachel (Gen. 35:18). The tribe also guarded behind the tribe of Manasseh on the western flank. It had 32,200 troops “22 Then follows the tribe of Benjamin; and the leader of the sons of Benjamin: Abidan the son of Gideoni, 23 and his army, their numbered men, 35,400.” (Nu. 2:22). The banner of Benjamin was the wolf. Jacob called him a “ravenous wolf.” (Gen. 49:27).
Total. The total of the tribes in the west under Ephraim’s command was 108,100 “24 The total of the numbered men of the camp of Ephraim: 108,100, by their armies. And they shall set out third.” (Nu. 2:24). By contrast, the total of the troops facing the east set forth above was 186,400 (Nu. 2:9). Everything in the Bible has meaning. Thus, we must ask why the eastern flank has 78,300 more troops than the western flank? Also, Rachel was the daughter that Laban promised Jacob. Her children were the ones that Jacob hoped to receive. By contrast, the other children came from Laban’s deceit or the jealous competition between Rachel and Leah. We must ask why Rachel’s tribes would not extend as far from the central part of the Tabernacle? The answer becomes clear as we learn of the positions for the rest of the troops.
Dan. Dan was the fifth tribe and a descendant of Rachel’s maid Bilhah (Gen. 30:6). This tribe guarded the northern flank with 62,700 troops “25 “On the north side shall be the flag of the camp of Dan by their armies; and the leader of the sons of Dan: Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai, 26 and his army, their numbered men: 62,700.” (Nu. 2:25-26). Dan’s symbol was the serpent. Jacob said that Dan would judge God’s people (Gen. 49:16). He is also “a serpent in the way, a horned snake in the path, that bites the horse’s path . . .” (Gen. 49:17).
Asher. Asher was the eighth tribe and a descendant of Leah’s maid Zilpah (Gen. 30:12). It guarded behind Dan on the northern flank with 41,500 troops “27 Those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Asher; and the leader of the sons of Asher: Pagiel the son of Ochran, 28 and his army, their numbered men: 41,500.” (Nu. 2:27-28). Asher’s symbol was the olive tree. Jacob said of Asher: “His food shall be rich.” (Gen. 49:20).
Naphtali. Naphtali was the sixth tribe and a descendant of Rachel’s maid Bilhah (Gen. 30:8). It guarded behind Dan on the northern flank with 53,400 troops “29 Then follows the tribe of Naphtali; and the leader of the sons of Naphtali: Ahira the son of Enan, 30 and his army, their numbered men: 53,400.” (Nu. 2:29-30). Naphtali’s symbol was the running deer. Jacob called him: “a doe let loose.” (Gen. 49:21).
Total. The total of the tribes under Dan’s command facing the north was 157,600 “31 The total of the numbered men of the camp of Dan was 157,600. They shall set out last by their flags.” (Nu. 2:31). If we compare the north with the south we find the numbers on both sides to be almost the same. The south had exactly 151,450 troops (Nu. 2:16). When seen from the sky, the tribes form the image of the cross, pointing to Jesus Christ.
The tribes forming the image of the cross (Image credit)2
The four spiritual laws. Four tribes were each given a leadership role over three separate tribes in God’s carefully ordered army. Each of these four tribes foreshadowed what Christ would do to redeem His people. Each represented one part of the four spiritual laws.
South – The mandrake (mankind’s sin). Reuben’s tribe commanded the southern tribes (Nu. 2:16). Reuben’s standard was the mandrake, a symbol of Rachel’s idolatry with Reuben’s help in trying to get pregnant (Gen. 30:14). Neither trusted God. Both turned to idolatry for protection and for their hope. Another view is that the mandrake represented the sin of mankind. Reuben was a sinner who lost his firstborn status when he defiled his father’s bed by sleeping with his step mother, Bilhah, Rachel’s maid servant (Gen. 35:22; 1 Chr. 5:1-2). Reuben, like Satan, was not content with his position and coveted power (Is. 14:12; Ez. 28:12). The wages of his sin were death (Lev. 20:11). The wages of our sin is also death (Ro. 6:23). Yet, just as the first man brought death into the world, Jesus came as a man to bring life (Ro. 5:12-21). Under the first spiritual law – you are a sinner: “[T]here is none who does good, there is not even one.” (Ro. 3:9-12; Ecc. 7:20; Ps. 143:2; Jer. 2:35). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Ro. 3:20). “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jo. 1:8). Do you recognize that you are a sinner?
North- The snake (Jesus’ judgment). Dan commanded the northern tribes. The tribe’s symbol was the snake (Nu. 2:31). The snake was also a symbol of the devil (Rev. 20:2). But the snake also foreshadows judgment because Dan’s tribes will in the end times “judge” the other tribes (Gen. 49:16). God said that Eve’s descendents would crush the snake’s head (Gen. 3:15). A bronze serpent was later raised as a “standard” for the sinners – just like the ones here. Bronze in the Bible is a symbol of judgment. Those bitten by the fiery serpent (Satan) who looked upon the standard in faith lived (Nu. 21:8). This foreshadowed Jesus (Jo. 3:14-15; 12:31-21). Jesus, however, will also judge sin: “For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecc. 12:14). Thus, He will crush the head of the snake (Ro. 16:17-20). Do you accept that you deserve judgment because of your sins? (Ro. 6:23).
West - the ox (Jesus’ atonement). Ephraim’s tribe commanded the tribes to the west. Its symbol was the ox (Nu. 2:24). This was a strong, expensive work animal. A male bull without defect had to be used as a blood sacrifice to atone for sin (Lev. 1:2-17). Without atonement, we are separated from God: “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” (Is. 59:2; 35:8). You also cannot atone for your sins on your own: “And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” (Is. 64:6). Only the shedding of blood can atone for sins (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22). Jesus became the one-time sacrificial bull to atone for the sins of mankind (Heb. 10:4, 14; 1 Jo. 4:10; Jo. 1:29; 1:36). “He was . . . brought as a lamb to the slaughter. . . ” (Is. 53:7). He is the only way to find atonement: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Jesus Christ. . .” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). Do you accept that Jesus’ death is the only way to atone for your sins?
East – the lion (Jesus is the messiah). Judah’s tribe commanded the tribes to the east. Its symbol was the lion (Nu. 2:9). Satan is referred to as a roaring lion under his current reign (1 Pet. 5:8). Yet, he has been given only temporary power. The title to Earth will soon change hands. Jesus became a descendant of the tribe of Judah (Heb. 7:14). Jesus the Messiah, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, has come to liberate mankind from the false reign of the evil one (Rev. 5:5). He came once to conquer sin and provide a path toward eternal life. He will come again with great power and rule with righteousness over the Earth (Rev. 20:6). Maybe you believe in the Messiah, but “the demons also believe and shudder.” (Jam. 2:19). Is Jesus both your Lord and Savior?
The arms of the Cross. When viewed from the air, the tribes in fact formed the cross, the sign of Christ. The arms of the cross stretching from north to south are the same, with 157,600 stretching to the north and 151,450 troops stretching to the south (Nu. 2:31; 2:16).
The head and feet of the Cross. The head of the cross is its smallest part. To the west, there were a total of 108,100 troops (Nu. 2:24). The total of the troops facing the east stretched out the longest distance with 186,400, a difference of 78,300 troops (Nu. 2:9). Everything in the Bible again has meaning. At the head of the cross, were the children that Jacob hoped for, Rachel’s descendants. The body and the arms were where the children of the flesh, born through either Laban’s deceit or the jealous competition through Rachel and Leah. By grace, we as the children of the flesh are now God’s adopted children (1 Jo. 3:2; Jo. 1:12; Gal. 3:26, 29; Rom. 8:14-17). All equally important to the Church body. The head cannot function without a body and vice versa (Ro. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-15).
The heart of the cross: The Levites. At the center of the cross protecting the ark were the Lievites: “17 Then the tent of meeting shall set out with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps; just as they camp, so they shall set out, every man in his place by their flags . . .32 These are the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their fathers’ households; the total of the numbered men of the camps by their armies, 603,550. 33 The Levites, however, were not counted among the sons of Israel, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. 34 So the sons of Israel did all this; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so they camped by their flags, and so they set out, everyone by his family according to his father’s household.” (Nu. 2:17, 32-34).
The eastward direction of the Cross. The foot of the cross stretched east, not south as one might expect. Not by coincidence, the gate to the Tabernacle courtyard containing the tent of meeting and the holy of holies also opened facing the east. The people faced west toward the holy of holies (Ex. 27:9-21). The coming of Jesus the Messiah is likened to the rising of the sun (Is. 60:1; 60:3; Malachi 4:2; Ps. 119:5). Rabbis at different times also wrote that the Messiah will come from the east like the sun. Are you waiting expectantly for Jesus the Messiah to come each day like the rising sun?
God expects order and for you to know your place in His army. God formed an army to conquer the Promised Land. To do this, He expects order. Each person and each tribe had its assigned place. The Bible also describes the Church as a body (Ro. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-15). A human body breaks down when the brain can’t communicate and direct each part. Each part also serves a separate and distinct purpose. Likewise, an army can’t function if the troops don’t stay in their assigned locations. Are you aimlessly drifting through in and out of church? Or, are you in your assigned place in your church fighting for God?
God expects you to keep Him at the center of your life. God’s army had in excess of 600,000 fighting men (six is the number of man) as it marched through the wilderness. He required that the Tabernacle had to be at all times at the center of His army. Is God at the center of your life?
God expects you to make daily efforts to keep Him at the center of your life. Imagine if you commanded one of the 12 tribes as they moved through the desert. Unless constant course corrections were made, the tribes would be out of perfect alignment, and the Tabernacle would not be at the center. Even if you make a commitment to put God at the center of your life, He will not stay there unless you constantly work at it. Do you renew your mind daily to keep God at the center of your life? “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Ro. 12:2). To stay in sync with God’s army, you must read the Word to keep your feet on His path and pray for guidance (Ps. 119:105). How frequently are you reading the Word and praying for direction?
God expects your standard (Christ’s light) to be visible for others to see. Like the Jews, we are also to make our standard – Jesus – visible for all to see. But consider the following facts. The Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Iceland each have flags with a cross in it. And the cross is correctly pointed east in each flag, just as the armies were aligned in the book of Numbers. But how many people would consider the Nordic countries to be beacons of Christianity? They have some of the lowest church attendance rates in the world. They also have some of the highest rates of births out of wedlock. Thus, when we display our Christianity with bumper stickers and cross necklaces, we run the risk of having only an outward form of godliness: ‘holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; avoid such men as these.” (2 Tim. 3:5). Jesus wants your light to shine like a city on a hill: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:13-16). Is the flag of Jesus visible in your life for all to see based upon your conduct? Are you properly representing what it means to be one of His followers?
Flag of Sweden
Flag of Denmark
Flag of Finland
Flag of Iceland
Let the light of Jesus be your sign (image credit)3