In form the encampment was square, with the Tabernacle occupying the central position, and the four grand divisions of the army of Israel camping around it on each side.
According to Numbers 2:2, there was a reserved space between the Levitical tents, which were pitched near and around the tabernacle, and the first line of the tents of the other tribes. The space in between was regarded as holy ground by its proximity to God’s presence in the Tabernacle. Just as had been the case at Mount Sinai, death may have been the penalty for trespassing on this reserved space. Exactly how much distance was required is not told in Numbers, but in Joshua 3:4, they were told to keep a distance of about a thousand yards between them and the ark, and not to go near it. This could have been the same distance that was required from God so that they would be away from the Tabernacle itself.
Although they were not permitted to access the space for secular purposes, they were not excluded from entering it when their purpose was to worship God, or when the great festivals were at hand. They could walk on it on such occasions as when Moses had called them together to give them instruction from God, also.
On the EAST, and before the gate of the court, were pitched the tents of
MOSES, AARON, AND THE PRIESTS
Numbers 3: 38
On the SOUTH, were the tents of the
Numbers 3: 29
On the NORTH, the tents of the
Numbers 3: 35
On the WEST, the tents of the
Numbers 3: 23
There were 8,530 males from the age of 30 to 50 that were appointed ministers of the Sanctuary, sentinels to guard it, laborers to rear it and take it down, carriers to transport it from place to place, servants to assist its priests in their sacred duties, and instructors to teach the thousands of Israelites that camped on every side of them.
Each grand division or army of Israel was composed of three tribes, and camped as follows:
On the EAST,
THE CAMP OF JUDAH
This comprised the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun
Numbers 2: 2 – 10
On the SOUTH,
THE CAMP OF REUBEN
This comprised the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad
Numbers 2: 10 – 17
On the WEST
THE CAMP OF EPHRAIM
This comprised the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh
Numbers 2: 18 – 28
On the NORTH
THE CAMP OF DAN
This comprised the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, and Asher
Numbers 2: 25 – 29
The above diagram of the plan of the camp will help to give a clearer picture of the remarks above it. The encampment was square, and there were four great camps, with one being on each side.
The Camp of Judah on the east numbered 186,400 adult males; the Camp of Reuben on the south numbered 151,450; the Camp of Ephraim on the west numbered 108,100; and the Camp of Dan on the north, 157,600. In all there were 603,550 adult males in the camp at the time that Numbers was written. As already stated, the Levites camped on every side between the Tabernacle and the inner line of the four great camps.
The exact number of the Israelites including women and children, and old men is not known, although it is thought that there were probably about two million. The tents of that many people would have covered a huge space, estimated at maybe from 2 to 3 miles square.
The different camps, tribes, and families, had standards, flags, or ensigns to distinguish them from each other. How they accomplished this is not told in the Bible, though. They were all arranged so as to secure the most perfect order according to how many they had in their tribes. “Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father’s house; far off about the tabernacle of the congregation shall they pitch.” Numbers 2: 2
The city of tents must have been a most beautiful sight. In the center stood the tabernacle, with its golden walls and silver foundation shining brilliantly for them to see from far off. Resting upon its beautiful roof covering was the cloudy pillar that sheltered the huge number of Israelites from the burning rays of the sun. “He spread a cloud for a covering so that the sun did not smite them by day, nor the moon by night.”
Around the Sanctuary was the court of the Lord’s house. It had in the center the brazen altar, with its bright exterior, and ascending upward was the smoke of the sacrificial victims. A beautiful wall enclosed the court that consisted of pillars and linen hangings. During special times, the priests would have also been arrayed in their robes “for glory and beauty.”
Living close by the Tabernacle would also have been the Levites, which would have formed a complete wall of defense around the Holy Tabernacle. Then beyond all this stretched all the many tents of the many thousands of Israelites. They were all arranged in order like a well laid-out city in regular streets, and it is thought that somehow they were planned out so that each tent-door opened out to the Tabernacle. This would enable them to worship God while they were standing at the door of their tents because their faces would be toward the Sanctuary.
All of this huge encampment was covered over by the expanded cloud from the Sanctuary itself. It was to show them that God’s protecting wings were watching over every one of them. This really must have been something to see for a person who might have just been walking by or looking at it from afar. No doubt it could be seen for many miles.
The following is a description of what the prophet Balaam saw when a wicked king sent for him and asked him to curse Israel. He had every intention because the king was going to pay him a huge amount, but he was completely overwhelmed by the sight as he stood on the top of a mountain and looked down on the sight of all of them camped out in the desert. He was so overwhelmed that blessings and not curses came from his lips and he could not do what the king had asked.
“How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed ? Or how shall I defy, whom the Lord hath not defied ? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” “Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel ?” “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob! And thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river’s side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath, as it were, the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones. He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up ? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee.” (Numbers 23: 8 – 10; 24: 5, 6, 8, 9)