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
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 mans 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 Gods 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 priests breastplate, and that there was wrought upon each a particular figurea 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 priests 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. Judahs animal was a lion, Reubens a man, Ephraims an ox and Dans an eagle. This tradition may have been influenced by the cherubim in Ezekiels 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
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
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 lions 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
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).
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].
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, Jacobs Dozen: A Prophetic Look at the Tribes of Israel (Bellmawr, NJ: Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1987), s.v. The Tribal Encampment.