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B'Midbar/Numbers 2:17 The Tent of Meeting, the camp of the Levites, shall travel in the midst of the camps.
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This travelling instruction comes exactly in the middle of a five part list of the Israelite tribes that serves both as a plan of the camp and as a travelling manifest while the people are on their journey through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan, the Promised Land thatHaShem had sworn to the patriarchs that He would give to their descendants that they might possess it as an inheritance. First in the list, camping on the east of the Tabernacle and travelling first, are the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, under the banner of Judah (B'Midbar 2:3-9); second comes the tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad, under the banner of Reuben (vv. 10-16). Our text (v. 17) comes next, in one verse; the detailed camp layout of the Levite clans, forming a ring around the Tabernacle is to come in in the next chapter during the numbering of the Levites. The third position goes to the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamim, under the banner of Ephraim; and fourth, bringing up the rear, are the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naphtali, under the banner of Dan. Stephen Sherwood writes that, "one might have expected the arrangement of the camp to follow the geographical disposition of later Israel, but that is not the case ... The arrangement of the camp is a literary device aimed at projecting past narrative and also future plot developments."1
Before we examine the text in more detail, let's take a quick look at some of the vocabulary being used. The Hebrew root , to encamp, is used throughout the narrative block and is present in noun form twice in our text. With back ground senses of lowering oneself down or pitching a tent (Davidson), the standard prefix forms a noun denoting the place or location of the verbal action. is therefore a camp (of potentially many tents) and means "the camps"; which camps will be our next topic. The pair word for is the verb , which has the idea of pulling up tent-pegs (Isaiah 33:20), so comes to have the meaning "to travel, journey, move, go about."2 It is the first word in our text: , the Qal affix 3ms form, translated "And [he] travelled." The last word to explain - actually the last-but-one in the text - is , formed from the prefix preposition , most often translated 'in', and the adjective meaning 'middle' or in slightly older English, 'midst'. So means "in the middle of" or "in the midst of" and connects with "the camps" that follow it.
The Jewish commentators, who have also been reading the account of the first journey in their new order made by the Israelites as they leave Mt. Sinai (10:11-28), disagree about exactly what our text is saying. Richard Elliott Friedman explains that "the Tent of Meeting, the Levite's camp, shall travel inside the camps", supported by Don IsaacAbravanel who comments that, "the tribes would camp all around the Tent, but when they were on the move the Tent was halfway down the long line of march." The Rashbam too takes this view: "Two of the divisions would go first; then the Tabernacle and the Levites; finally the other two divisions." For them "the camps" refers to the whole Israelite camp: all twelve individual tribal camps. Attempting to harmonise with the journey description in chapter 10, other commentators limit "the camps" to the two divisions - of Judah and Reuben - who have just been enumerated. The Sforno says that "in the midst of the camps" really means "between the two aforementioned standards," echoed by Ibn Ezra who comments: "Between the two divisions already mentioned. For the Gershonites and the Merarites would march between the divisions of Judah and Reuben. The Kohathites, along with Aharon and his sons, would march between the divisions of Reuben and Ephraim." The modern commentator and scholar Jacob Milgrom sums up: "The Tabernacle and its Levitical guards were divided into two groups during the march. The dismantled structure was transported by the Gershonites and Merarites who marched between the first and second divisions, whereas the cult objects were carried by the Kohathites in the very centre of the column, between the second and third divisions."
We are no nearer finding a solution to this disagreement today, but to get too bogged down in this argument is to miss the larger point. Exactly how it was physically done doesn't matter as much as the universally agreed essential location of the Tabernacle within the people of G-d. Thomas Dozeman writes that this text, "underscores that the tent of meeting and the camp of the Levites are at the centre of the four regimental encampments and the order of their marching."3 Gordon Wenham agrees, "making the the point that, as the house of G-d had to be in the centre of Israel while they were encamped, so it had to be in the midst when they were on the march."4 Switching from physical language to spiritual language, RabbiHirsch captures the critical thought: "even when dismantled and in transit on the journeys, the Abode of the Evidence remained the holy gathering point of the national mission." This works from the use of the word ; "in the midst" means among, inside, an integral part of, without needing to be geometrically precise about it. HaShem said, "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8, NJPS) and that is what happened. Wherever they are, travelling on in camp, the Israelites always know where to find their G-d; He is right there, among them, accompanying them on their - on His - journey.
We can see the same rich imagery being deployed in the New Covenant Scriptures. John tells us that Yeshua " dwelt among us" (John 1:14, ESV). The verb is used by Xenophon and other classical Greek writers for "pitching tents" or "making camp" (Liddell & Scott) and Luke tells us that Rav Sha'ul worked with Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth because "they were tentmakers by trade" (Acts 18:3). Yeshua lowered Himself, "made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant" (Philippians 2:7, ESV) and pitched His tent among us, in our midst. Just as God accompanied our people - His people - through the wilderness, Yeshua is present among His people - the people of G-d - today. G-d has "put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee" (2 Corinthians 1:22, ESV). As the Tabernacle in the wilderness was a Mishkan, literally a , a place of dwelling, so now Jew and Gentile as the One New Man "are being built together into a dwelling place for G-d by the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22, ESV). In John's vision of the world to come, he heard a voice saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of G-d is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their G-d" (Revelation 21:3, ESV).
That's all very well for them - past and future - but what about us today? Where is G-d in our midst? I am going to suggest that is somewhat down to us: do we really want Yeshua to be the centre and focus of our lives. It seems to me that we need to exert ourselves to place Yeshua in the centre - and always have done. We certainly do live a modern world that is massively distracting, vastly over-busy and where the pace of life seems to get ever-faster with each day that passes. But I don't know that the challenges of every day life have changed that much; believers have always had to prioritise Yeshua, have always had to make an effort to spend time with Him, stay focused on Him. For one thing, the enemy of our souls has always been fighting to do just the opposite: take our eyes off Yeshua and drag us away from Him. That certainly hasn't changed; perhaps it is just the level of technology and sophistication that has made today such a wild party! It is, and always has been, easy to suffer from drift, to allow ourselves to marginalise Yeshua in our lives so that He stops being the centre and becomes increasingly irrelevant as we turn our backs on Him.
How can we prevent this happening? The writer to the Hebrews is clear; we should be "fixing our eyes on Yeshua, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2, NASB). Fix your eyes on Him, stare at Him - He won't think it rude - and refuse to be distracted. Try to see everything and everyone through Him - how He sees them. I remember hearing an old preacher trained at Spurgeon's College, J. Sidlow Baxter, who said that to know Yeshua you have to read about Yeshua - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; round and round - until the words become a part of your life and He is living within you. If we apply ourselves, then He will meet us more than halfway and the words of the text will become a reality for us: the Tent of Meeting - the very presence of G-d - will be in the midst of our lives everywhere we go.
1. - Stephen Sherwood, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry - Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), page 142.
2. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 276.
3. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 687.
4. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 77.
Further Study: 1 Kings 6:11-13; Vayikra 26:11-12
Application: Are you focused totally and exclusively on Yeshua? Do you know His presence in your life every moment of every day and the power and life of His hand on you, flowing through you and guiding every step and word? This can be true for you - reach out to Yeshua today and cry for His presence and Spirit to fill you and ask Him what you must do to keep it that way.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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