Once again, you have been spared the names and numbers associated with God’s arrangement of the Israelites for their journey to the Promised Land – but the arrangement itself has a powerful lesson for us.
Old Testament scholar Martin Noah observed that God organized His people like both a military encampment and a group of pilgrims gathered for a religious festival. But it doesn’t take a scholar to understand that God was arranging the Hebrew people for both purposes.
God distributed the people for efficiency and safety as the moved across the wilderness. They were strategically ordered for military action – which would be needed in case of attack, as well as to take the land of Canaan from the tribes who lived there. In that way, they were to be God’s instruments of judgment on the pagan people of the land.
Religious pilgrims would encamp much the same way – with the object of their worship in the middle of them. And the Hebrew people were on a pilgrimage – a journey in which their faith would be stretched as they learned to rely wholly on God, before reaching their final destination.
If you look at the insert in your bulletin, you will see the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali were placed on the north side – Reuben, Simeon, and Gad on the south side – the half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, as well as Benjamin to the west – and Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun to the east. This was as God commanded in verse 2: “The Israelites are to camp around the Tent of Meeting some distance from it, each man under his standard with the banners of his family.”
They surrounded their spiritual and civil leaders, as well as the people who took care of the Tabernacle. On the east side of the middle section were Moses and Aaron and their sons, and on the other three sides were three clans of Levites – Merari, Gershon, and Kohath. Those four groups surrounded the Tent of Meeting – the Tabernacle, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. That is where God dwelt among His people in a special way.
Yes, God is everywhere at all times – but God’s presence was especially powerful in the Tabernacle in the midst of His people. So powerful that the Hebrew word for “glory” – kavod – literally means “heavy.”
God’s presence was heavy enough – and personal enough – to be felt in the Hebrew camp.
Certainly, the arrangement of the tribes was effective from a military standpoint: the largest groups of men were in the front and the rear, with the smaller ones on the flanks. The Levites were in the middle, relying on the others for protection.
But did God Himself need those layers of protection around Him? Was God afraid that the armies of the Canaanites might desecrate the Tabernacle, capture the Ark, and take it away? We might think that’s nonsense, but the Philistines did capture the Ark during the time of the Judges. They held it for seven months – but returned it after God sent plagues to afflict the people of three Philistine cities where they stored the Ark.
But there is another – more compelling – reason for having the Tabernacle in the center of the people: to demonstrate that God was at the heart of it all.
At the heart of their deliverance, at the heart of their journey, and at the heart of their lives.
And knowing that God was at the heart of their encampment should have given the Israelites the heart they would need for the trip – with all of its potentially disheartening challenges.
The presence of God at the heart of the camp had the opposite effect on their enemies. In the second chapter of Joshua we read about two spies sent to check out the Promised Land – especially the walled city of Jericho.
A prostitute named Rahab hid them from the king’s soldiers – and told the spies that the people of Canaan had heard about the God of Israel, the parting of the sea, and the Israelites’ victory over the Amorites. She told them, “When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”
Where else have we heard about God’s presence in our midst – at the heart of everything? In the person of Jesus Christ – His Son and our Savior. In John 1 we read that “the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” Literally, “tabernacled” – “pitched His tent” among us. God’s Son left the glory of heaven to take on our humanity. Is there any better example of God’s being at the heart of it all? Or more specifically, God’s heart being at the heart of it all?
And that did not end when Jesus returned to the Father at His ascension. He is still present in our hearts through the Holy Spirit – so He is still at the heart of it all. The question is – do we recognize that truth? In our study of the Book of Numbers we will see that the Hebrew people had trouble recognizing their God as the heart of it all.
In William Paul Young’s book, The Shack, Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) try to explain that to Mack:
Papa again interrupted. “You see, Mackenzie, I don’t just want a piece of you and a piece of your life. Even if you were able, which you are not, to give me the biggest piece, that is not what I want. I want all of you and every part of you and your day.”
Jesus now spoke again. “Mack, I don’t want to be first among a list
of values; I want to be at the center of everything. When I live in you, then together we can live through everything that happens to you. Rather than the top of a pyramid, I want to be the center of a mobile, where everything in your life – your friends, family, occupation, thoughts, activities – is connected to me but moves with the wind,
in and out and back and forth, in an incredible dance of being.”
“And I,” concluded Sarayu, “am the wind.”
When we acknowledge that God is at the heart of our lives – as individuals, as a church, as a community, as a nation – God lives in us and through us, giving us His power for living as His people.
If God is at the heart of it all – why are we so worried about the future of the Church? About the decline of Christian influence in the world? About the rise of unbelief?
The Israelites found out as they moved toward and finally into Canaan that they were unstoppable with God in their midst. Jesus told Peter in Matthew 16 that the gates of hell cannot hold back His Church as she takes the Gospel all over the world and moves forward toward our eternal Promised Land.
To see the connection between the Israelites and us more clearly, You may want to have your inserts of the Arrangement of the Israelite Camp in hand as we read what John wrote about our Promised Land in Revelation 21:
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
God will be at the heart of it all in eternity, too. And believers of every time and place, nation and tribe, language and people will surround Him and worship Him forever. Acknowledge God as the heart of it all –
as the center of your mobile – and you will have the heart you need for your journey to the Promised Land.