7.2. Camp of Israel

Scripture informs us that the earthly patterns given by God are often a shadow of a greater heavenly reality (Col. Col. 2:17; Heb. Heb. 8:5; Heb. 9:8, Heb. 9:23; Heb. 10:1; Rev. Rev. 15:5+). So it is not a great surprise when we find similarities between Israel’s encampment in the wilderness around the tabernacle of meeting and the heavenly realm surrounding God’s throne. Given the level of detail which attends God’s instructions concerning the encampment (Num. Num. 2:1), it would be unusual if there were no symbolism to be found in it. The camp was to be set up as follows:
  • The tabernacle of meeting was in the center.
  • The camp of Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah (74,800), Issachar (84,400), and Zebulun (57,400), a total of 186,400 men, camped to the east (Num. Num. 2:3-7).
  • The camp of Reuben, consisting of the tribes of Reuben (46,500), Simeon (59,300), and Gad (45,650), a total of 151,450 men, camped to the south (Num. Num. 2:10-16).
  • The camp of Ephraim, consisting of the tribes of Ephraim (40,500), Manasseh (32,200), and Benjamin (35,400), a total of 108,100 men, camped to the west (Num. Num. 2:18-24).
  • The camp of Dan, consisting of the tribes of Dan (62,700), Asher (41,500), and Naphtali (53,400), a total of 157,600 men, camped to the north (Num. Num. 2:25-31).
  • Each group was to “camp by his own standard, beside the emblems of his father’s house” [emphasis added] (Num. Num. 2:2).
  • The tribe of Levi was unnumbered and camped around all sides of the tabernacle (Num. Num. 2:17, Num. 2:33). Num. 3:21-38).”1
The word for his own standard is דִּגְלוֹ [diḡlô] , means “to put up the flag” and is used of “a troop with banners.”2 It is derived from the word דָּגַל [dāḡal] meaning look, behold.3 The standards provided a visual rallying symbol for each camp when stationary and on the move (Num. Num. 2:2-3, Num. 2:10, Num. 2:17-18, Num. 2:25, Num. 2:31, Num. 2:34; Num. 10:14, Num. 10:18, Num. 10:22, Num. 10:25). Ensign is אוֹת [ʾôṯ] “This is the general word for ‘sign,’ and it covers the entire range of the English term and the Greek word sēmeion . On the pedestrian end of the scale it includes what amounts to a ‘signboard’ or ‘standard’ (Num Num. 2:2). It also includes such important concepts as the rainbow ‘sign’ to Noah (Gen. Gen. 9:12-13, Gen. 9:17).”4

דֶּגֶל [deḡel] , a standard, banner, or flag, denotes primarily the larger field sign, possessed by every division composed of three tribes, which was also the banner of the tribe at the head of each division; and secondarily, in a derivative signification, it denotes the army united under one standard, like σημεία [sēmeia] , or vexillum. It is used thus, for example, in Num. Num. 2:17, Num. 2:31, Num. 2:34, and in combination with מַחֲנֶה [maḥăneh] in Num. Num. 2:3, Num. 2:10, Num. 2:18, and Num. 25:1, where “standard of the camp of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan” signifies the hosts of the tribes arranged under these banners. אֹתֹת [ʾōṯōṯ] , the signs (ensigns), were the smaller flags or banners which were carried at the head of the different tribes and subdivisions of the tribes (the fathers’ houses).5

Both standard and ensign speak of flags which uniquely signify each camp or tribe. In order for the camps to be differentiated, such standards would necessarily differ in color, insignia, or both. Since the tabernacle was quite small, it seems impractical for the four cardinal directions to have been restricted in width by the dimensions of the tabernacle itself. It seems likely that the Levites, who were not numbered, camped around the tabernacle equally in all four directions and then the other four camps extended outward from there. Given Levitical attention to detail, whoever camped outside of the clear directions of east, south, west, and north (e.g., northwest) would be violating these directional instructions (e.g., by being both north and west). Using the populations given for the four camps, the ratios of their relative sizes would have been: Judah (1.0); Reuben (0.81); Ephraim (0.58); and Dan (0.85). Assuming the Levites encamped in a square and a uniform width for each camp extending strictly outward in the four cardinal directions, the view from above, as Balaam saw it (Num. Num. 23:9) may have resembled a cross:

Camp of Israel

Camp of Israel 6

This assumes a uniform width for each camp—which cannot be known with certainty. If the boundary between each camp was taken to be on a diagonal (e.g., northwest, northeast, etc.) then the formation of the camp would have not been that of a cross. Even so, this does not adversely affect our main point—that the camp of Israel is a shadow of the heavenly throne. As to the contents of each camp’s standard, tradition tells us that each camp had a different symbol upon its standard:

Neither the Mosaic law, nor the Old Testament generally, gives us any intimation as to the form or character of the standard (degel). According to rabbinical tradition, the standard of Judah bore the figure of a lion, that of Reuben the likeness of a man or of a man’s head, that of Ephraim the figure of an ox, and that of Dan the figure of an eagle; so that the four living creatures united in the cherubic forms described by Ezekiel were represented upon these four standards.7

Jewish tradition says the “four standards” under which Israel encamped in the wilderness, to the east, Judah, to the north, Dan, to the west, Ephraim, to the south, Reuben, were respectively a lion, an eagle, an ox, and a man, while in the midst was the tabernacle containing the Shekinah symbol of the Divine Presence.8

The Talmud saw in these four creatures the four primary forms of life in God’s creation. It also noted that the twelve tribes of Israel camped under these four banners; some with Reuben (symbolized by a man), others with Dan (symbolized by an eagle), others with Ephraim (symbolized by the calf, or ox), and the rest with Judah (symbolized by a lion).9

The Jewish writers tell us, that the standard of each tribe of Israel took the colour of the stone which represented it in the high priest’s breastplate, and that there was wrought upon each a particular figure—a lion for Judah, a young ox for Ephraim, a man for Reuben, and an eagle for Dan.10

No further information is provided about the size, color or representation on these standards. Jewish tradition, however, does provide a clue to the way in which later generations of Jews viewed the standards. The Aramaic paraphrase of the Torah, called Targum Jonathan, and the ancient commentary on Numbers, called Bemidbar Rabbah , suggest that each tribe was assigned a color corresponding to the color of its respective stone in the high priest’s breastplate. Thus, the color of Dan would be blue because a sapphire is blue. The four standards, therefore, were composed of the colors of the three tribes of each triad. The tradition continues that each of the four standards depicted a living being. Judah’s animal was a lion, Reuben’s a man, Ephraim’s an ox and Dan’s an eagle. This tradition may have been influenced by the cherubim in Ezekiel’s vision who also had four faces (Ezek. Eze. 1:10; see also Rev. Rev. 4:7+). It should be emphasized that there is no solid biblical or historical basis for these descriptions of the standards. The Jewish tradition, however, does provide the most logical suggestion for their descriptions, particularly in the case of Judah and Ephraim (see Gen. Gen. 49:9 and Deu. Deu. 33:17).11

Jewish tradition holds that the standards contained the very symbols Scripture reveals in association with the four living creatures (Eze. Eze. 1:10; Eze. 10:14; Rev. Rev. 4:7+). In opposition to this tradition, some have noted the adverse reaction of the Jews of NT times to the images on the Roman standards:

Every tribe had its particular standard, probably with the name of the tribe embroidered with large letters. It seems highly improbable that the figures of animals should have been painted on them, as the Jewish writers assert; for even in after ages, when Vitellius wished to march through Judea, their great men besought him to march another way, as the law of the land did not permit images (such as were on the Roman standard) to be brought into it. Josephus Ant. 1. xviii. c. 7.12

It is not clear that the Jews would have allowed images on their standards: In the time of Augustus, Roman legionaries would leave their standards in the Judean port city of Caesarea, so that the images drawn upon them would not offend the sensitive Jews.13

In response to this proposed difficulty, it may be observed:
  1. Jewish writers and rabbinical tradition maintain the standards did have images of animals upon them. Of all people least likely to suggest that animal insignias were upon the standards (due to Ex. Ex. 20:4), it is the Jews themselves who give us this tradition.
  2. The opposition of the Jews of Josephus’ day to the Roman standards may have been due to the particular images they contained, not the mere fact that they contained images. Concerning Jewish opposition to the Roman standards, Josephus relates, “for that the laws of their country would not permit them to overlook those images which were brought into it, of which there were a great many in their ensigns.” [emphasis added]14
  3. The Israelites were instructed to decorate the tabernacle, and later the temple, with various images, including lions, oxen, and cherubim (Ex. Ex. 26:1; Ex. 36:8, Ex. 36:35; 1K. 1K. 6:32; 1K. 1K. 7:29; 2K. 2K. 16:17; 2Chr. 2Chr. 4:3-4, 2Chr. 4:15). If these images were so offensive to the Jews that they dare not have them upon their standards, how is it that cherubim (of which some have four faces) appear in the tabernacle along with lions and oxen in the temple?
If Jewish opposition to unbiblical images upon the Roman standards is seen in light of the biblical symbolism allowed within the tabernacle and temple, the view that their ensigns could not have contained insignia of the four faces is less convincing, especially in the light of Jewish tradition itself. It seems likely that Adam and Eve would have seen cherubim when they were driven out of Eden (Gen. Gen. 3:24). Perhaps their knowledge of the faces of these incredible angelic beings, though not recorded in Scripture until Ezekiel’s time, was preserved by tradition. Jerome Prado provides additional background correlating the images with the camps:

Jerome Prado, in his commentary upon Ezekiel (Ezekiel Eze. 1:1 p. 44), gives the following minute description according to rabbinical tradition: “The different leaders of the tribes had their own standards, with the crests of their ancestors depicted upon them. On the east, above the tent of Naasson the first-born of Judah, there shone a standard of a green colour, this colour having been adopted by him because it was in a green stone, viz., an emerald, that the name of his forefather Judah was engraved on the breastplate of the high priest (Ex. Ex. 25:15ff.), and on this standard there was depicted a lion, the crest and hieroglyphic of his ancestor Judah, whom Jacob had compared to a lion, saying, ‘Judah is a lion’s whelp.’ Towards the south, above the tent of Elisur the son of Reuben, there floated a red standard, having the colour of the sardus, on which the name of his father, viz., Reuben, was engraved upon the breastplate of the high priest. The symbol depicted upon this standard was a human head, because Reuben was the first-born, and head of the family. On the west, above the tent of Elishamah the son of Ephraim, there was a golden flag, on which the head of a calf was depicted, because it was through the vision of the calves or oxen that his ancestor Joseph had predicted and provided for the famine in Egypt (Gen. Gen. 41:1); and hence Moses, when blessing the tribe of Joseph, i.e., Ephraim (Deu. Deu. 33:17), said, ‘his glory is that of the first-born of a bull.’ The golden splendour of the standard of Ephraim resembled that of the chrysolite, in which the name of Ephraim was engraved upon the breastplate. Towards the north, above the tent of Ahiezer the son of Dan, there floated a motley standard of white and red, like the jaspis (or, as some say, a carbuncle), in which the name of Dan was engraved upon the breastplate. The crest upon this was an eagle, the great doe to serpents, which had been chosen by the leader in the place of a serpent, because his forefather Jacob had compared Dan to a serpent, saying, ‘Dan is a serpent in the way, an adder (cerastes, a horned snake) in the path;’ but Ahiezer substituted the eagle, the destroyer of serpents as he shrank from carrying an adder upon his flag.”15

In relation to the eagle being associated with the tribe of Dan, we note that Dan means judge (Gen. Gen. 30:6; Gen. 49:16) and the symbolism of the eagle is often connected with judgment (Deu. Deu. 28:49; Job Job 9:26; Pr. Pr. 30:17; Jer. Jer. 4:13; Jer. 48:40; Jer. 49:22; Lam. Lam. 4:19; Eze. Eze. 17:3; Hos. Hos. 8:1; Hab. Hab. 1:8; Mtt. Mat. 24:28; Luke Luke 17:37).


1 Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 1:659.

2 Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. Richardson, and Johann Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (New York, NY: E. J. Brill, 1999, c1994-1996).

3 Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999, c1980).

4 Ibid.

5 Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1:660.

6 See also [John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1997), 199] and [W. A. Criswell and Paige Patterson, eds., The Holy Bible: Baptist Study Edition (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), 192].

7 Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1:660.

8 A. R. Fausset, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, 1877), Rev. 4:8.

9 John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), Rev. 4:8.

10 J. A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 106.

11 William Varner, Jacob’s Dozen: A Prophetic Look at the Tribes of Israel (Bellmawr, NJ: Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1987), s.v. “The Tribal Encampment.”

12 R. Torrey, The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1995), Num. 2:2.

13 Chaim Potok, Wanderings (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1978), 268.

14 Flavius Josephus, The Complete Works of Josephus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1981), s.v. “Ant. XVIII, v3.”

15 Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1:660n11.