On the twentieth day of the second month of that same year, the cloud over the sacred tent moved on. So, the Israelites broke camp and left the Sinai Desert. And sometime later, the cloud stopped in the Paran Desert. This was the first time the Lord had told Moses to command the people of Israel to move on.
Judah and the tribes that camped alongside it marched out first, carrying their banner. Nahshon son of Amminadab was the leader of the Judah tribe, Nethanel son of Zuar was the leader of the Issachar tribe, and Eliab son of Helon was the leader of the Zebulun tribe.
The sacred tent had been taken down, and the Gershonites and the Merarites carried it, marching behind the Judah camp.
Reuben and the tribes that camped alongside it marched out second, carrying their banner. Elizur son of Shedeur was the leader of the Reuben tribe, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai was the leader of the Simeon tribe, and Eliasaph son of Deuel was the leader of the Gad tribe.
Next were the Kohathites, carrying the objects for the sacred tent, which was to be set up before they arrived at the new camp.
Ephraim and the tribes that camped alongside it marched next, carrying their banner. Elishama son of Ammihud was the leader of the Ephraim tribe, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur was the leader of the Manasseh tribe,and Abidan son of Gideoni was the leader of the Benjamin tribe.
Dan and the tribes that camped alongside it were to protect the Israelites against an attack from behind, and so they marched last, carrying their banner. Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai was the leader of the tribe of Dan, Pagiel son of Ochran was the leader of the Asher tribe, and Ahira son of Enan was the leader of the Naphtali tribe.
This was the order in which the Israelites marched each time they moved their camp.
Hobab the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses, was there. And Moses said to him, “We’re leaving for the place the Lord has promised us. He has said that all will go well for us. So come along, and we will make sure that all goes well for you.”
“No, I won’t go,” Hobab answered. “I’m returning home to be with my own people.”
“Please go with us!” Moses said. “You can be our guide because you know the places to camp in the desert. Besides that, if you go, we will give you a share of the good things the Lord gives us.”
The people of Israel began their journey from Mount Sinai. They traveled three days, and the Levites who carried the sacred chest led the way, so the Lord could show them where to camp. And the cloud always stayed with them.
Each day as the Israelites began their journey, Moses would pray, “Our Lord, defeat your enemies and make them run!” And when they stopped to set up camp, he would pray, “Our Lord, stay close to Israel’s thousands and thousands of people.” (Contemporary English Version)
These verses from the book of Numbers might, at first glance, seem irrelevant to contemporary worshipers of God. The Old Testament book of Numbers matter-of-factly informs us of how the ancient Israelites set out in the desert by stages according to their respective tribes and how they proceeded when stopping their sojourns. Yet, if we take the time to engage in pilgrimage with the Israelites, we observe the heart of worship and life for God’s people.
The tabernacle, that is, the ark of the covenant with its accompanying tent and holy articles, was the primary symbol for Israel of God’s presence. As such, the tabernacle was at the actual center of Israelite life, both physically and spiritually. The tabernacle would leave first and be set up by the tribe of Levites before the other tribes came and encamped around it – completely encircling the tent housing the ark.
Observing this constant ancient ritual in the desert begs several questions for us today:
Is God at the center of our life and worship?
Or do we expect the Lord to come and bless our already camped-out thoughts, ideas, and practices?
If God is truly at the center of all we do, what is the evidence this is so?
Are we patient to wait for God’s leading to present itself?
Or do we act and then seek God to give his stamp of approval over it?
The wise believer will allow God to set the agenda and pace of our life journey, and not the other way around.
Sovereign God, you always lead in a way that is good, just, and right. Help me to slow down long enough to enter into the rest and connection with your will that I so desperately need through Jesus my Lord. Amen.
*Above painting: Israel Encamped Roundabout the Tabernacle in the Wilderness of Sinai
by John W. Kelchner (1866-1942)