Numbers 2 is a very interesting chapter. It consists of thirty-four verses and it contains the specific instructions YHWH gave to Moses concerning the arrangement of the tribes of Israel as they camped in the wilderness as well as the order they were to travel in when they were in transit. The tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun were to always set up on the eastward side of the Israelite camp, “toward the sunrise” (v. 3). Rueben, Simeon and Gad camped on the south side. Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin camped on the west side. Dan, Asher, and Naphtali camped on the north side. This was their YHWH-assigned camp location throughout their forty-year wilderness journey.
YHWH further instructed that the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, was to remain in the midst of the camp at all times. The Levites were also assigned to set up camp in the midst of the assembly, closest to the tabernacle. So, envision the rectangular tabernacle structure with four sets of three tribes, each set on one of its four sides at all times. If you are familiar with the Houston, TX area interstate system you’ll recognize this description of the camp arrangement. The twelve tribes surrounded the tabernacle as a Beltway 8-styled outer loop or rectangle in this instance. The Levites (Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites), were then set up as the inner-loop/rectangle (I-610) also surrounding the tabernacle. And the tabernacle itself was in the center, like downtown H-town.
Then, whenever the Israelites set out from camp to move to a new location YHWH instructed Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun to set out first. Followed by Reuben, Simeon, and Gad. The tabernacle components which had been broken down for transport by the Levites were to follow next, guarded by the Levites. Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin followed them. And finally, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali joined the procession. This was the order in which they were to travel at all times.
Military experts have pointed out that this consistency in camping arrangement and travel provided advantageous tactile positioning and situational awareness. However, something much deeper is conveyed to us here. Smack-dab in the middle of the 34 verses, the 17th verse in Numbers’ second chapter YHWH commanded,
Then the tent of meeting shall set out with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps; just as they camp, so they shall set out, every man in his place by their standards.
In camp and on the march, the tabernacle, guarded by the Levites, was always to be at the center. The tabernacle, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, the representation of YHWH’s tangible presence with Israel as well as the focal point of YHWH worship was to always be at the center as He is the heart of the nation. This is an Old Testament representation of the reality of Christ’s preeminence conveyed in Colossians 1:15-18,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
Christ-followers can be involved in lots of things. We can even pursue undertakings in the name of “ministry,” yet lose the centrality of Christ’s preeminence in the process. If we’re not careful our service to Christ can morph into “my ministry.” We can get so consumed in the doing that Christ’s preeminence fades into the background and becomes a faint whisper. Pastors’ preaching can devolve into “just doing my job.” Home-based discipleship can devolve into “a better educational route to secure my child’s future”…you know “better than those terrible public schools” (i.e. Harvard or career or intellectual superiority). Even, devotional times can turn into rote “reading,” void of the power, presence, and urgency of Christ.
We must always remember to introspectively re-visit our “why.” Why do we do what we do? Are we engaged in what we do because the preeminence of Christ compels us? Or, is something else driving us? Remember, the Old Testament example of idolatry did not consist of the Israelites’ complete abandonment of YHWH worship. They simply put Baal, Molech, Milcom, Ashtoreth, the “Queen of Heaven,” et. al. on the same plane of commitment and devotion as they did YHWH. They violated the first commandment by making an equivalency between gods (lowercase “g”) and the one true God. In the New Testament, Jesus said,
But the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful (Mark 4:19).
These things all cut in on God’s Word and make it unfruitful. Not because God’s Word is fruitless. But because people treat God as merely one among many gods. Whether we are in motion or at rest, Christ’s preeminence must remain central to who we are and what we do if, in fact, we are His!