Bemidbar: Tribes in Four Directions

May 22, 2015 at 10:07 am | Posted in Bemidbar | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

The Israelites leave Egypt in a rush, in a swarm, in no particular order.  At the beginning of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), they prepare to leave Mount Sinai in orderly formation.

One difference is that now they have made the portable sanctuary for God.  The tribe of Levi is responsible for the sanctuary, both when the people are camping and the sanctuary is assembled, and when they are marching and the Levites are carrying the disassembled parts.  So the Levites camp in the middle of the Israelites, immediately around the sanctuary: the priests (kohanim) and Moses on the east, the clan of Kehat on the south, the clan of Geirshon on the west, and the clan of Merari on the north.  (See my post Naso (and Bemidbar): Four Duties, Four Directions for details.)

Camping Formation

Camping Formation

Surrounding the Levites, but at a greater distance from the sanctuary, are the remaining twelve tribes.  They camp and march in four blocks: east, south, west, and north.  Each block has a leading tribe and two supporting tribes.

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: Each man shall camp next to his banner, with the insignia of their father’s house.  They shall camp at a distance around the Tent of Meeting. And those camping keidmah, mizrachah, shall be the banner of the camp of Yehudah… And those camping next to them: the tribe of Yissachar …the tribe of Zevulun … All those counted for the camp of Yehudah were 186,400, by their legions; the first to pull out. (2:1-9)

keidmah (קֵדְמָה) = to the east, in front, originally. From the root verb kadam (קָדַם) = came toward, went first, confronted, preceded.

mizrachah (מִזְרָחָה) = to the east, toward sunrise. From the root verb zarach (זָרַח) = shone forth.

When the Israelites break camp, the tribe of Yehudah (יְהוּדָה), Judah in English, sets off toward the east, then veers in whatever direction the people will actually travel that day.

In the Torah, the east represents origins and birth. The front gate of the courtyard around the tent-sanctuary is on the east side.  So is the curtain at the entrance into the sanctuary proper, which only priests (and Moses) are allowed to enter.

sunriseMoses and the priests (Aaron and his sons) camp just east of the courtyard gate.  Farther east is the camp of Yehudah, accompanied by Yissachar and Zevulun. In the book of Genesis, Yehudah gradually becomes the leader of all the brothers who confront Joseph.  King David was from the tribe of Yehudah, and after Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Yehudah survived for two more centuries.

When you face east, the south is on your right.  That means Reuven is Yehudah’s right-hand man in this week’s Torah portion:

The banner of the camp of Reuven shall be teymanahAnd those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Shimon…and the tribe of Gad… All those counted for the camp of Reuven were 161,450, by their legions; and they shall pull out second. (2:10-16)

teymanah (תֵּימָנָה) = to the south.  (From the root yamin, יָמִין, = right side, south side, right hand.)

In the Torah, south is the direction of the Negev desert, the kingdom of Edom in the hills of Sei-ir, Mount Paran, and Mount Sinai. Moses says in his final speech to the Israelites: God came from Sinai, and shone forth from Sei-ir for them, having radiated from Mount Paran… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:2)

menorahAll of this divine light dawns in the south.  Inside the sanctuary tent, the menorah (lampstand) is by the south wall.

The Levite clan of Kehat camps just south of the sanctuary.  Beyond them are the camps of Reuven and its two assisting tribes, Shimon and Gad.  Reuven is the firstborn of the twelve sons of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, but he does not inherit the leadership of the extended family. His tribe gets second place, but at least it is close to God’s illumination in the south.

Then the Tent of Meeting shall set out, the camp of the Levites, in the middle of the camps; as they camp, so shall they pull out, each man in position next to their banners. (2:17)

Next come the tribes in the back, to the west of the sanctuary:

The banner of the camp of Efrayim by its legions shall be yammah…And next to them shall be the tribe on Menasheh…and the tribe of Binyamin…  All those counted for the camp of Efrayim: 108,100, by their legions; and they shall pull out third. (2:18-24)

yammah (יָמָּה) = to the west, toward the (Mediterranean) Sea (yam).

sunsetThe other Biblical Hebrew word for west is ma-arav (מַעֲרָב), toward the sunset. In the Bible, the west represents the unknown:  the great sea, the future, and death. The western end of the tent sanctuary is the back wall of the Holy of Holies.

The Levite clan of Geirshon camps just west of the sanctuary courtyard.  Behind them, in the position farthest west, is the tribe of Efrayim and its assistant tribes, Menasheh and Binyamin. In Genesis, Jacob rearranges his hands when he blesses Joseph’s two sons Menasheh and Efrayim, so that even though Menasheh is older, Efrayim receives the blessing of the firstborn.

Thus the chief tribe on the east is named after Yehudah, who took the role of the firstborn by his own leadership.  The chief tribe on the south is named after Reuven, who was the firstborn but lost his position.  And the chief tribe on the west is named after Efrayim, who was born second but promoted to firstborn.

The chief tribe on the north, Dan, does not even care about the rights of the firstborn.

The banner of the camp of Dan shall be tzafonah, by their legions… And those camping next to them shall be the tribe of Asher…and the tribe of Naftali… All those counted for the camp of Dan: 157,600; as the last they shall pull out, next to their banners. (2:25-31)

tzafonah (צָפֹנָה) = to the north. From the same root as the verb tzafan (צָפַן) = hide treasure, hide in ambush.

mountainIn the Bible, the north is where the Assyrians came from when they swept down and conquered the kingdom of Israel.  It is also the direction of Mount Tzafon, a peak near the Mediterranean coast in present-day northern Syria. In Canaanite mythology, when Baal became the supreme god, he built a palace on top of Mount Tzafon, and the gods assembled there.

Inside the sanctuary, the table displaying the twelve loaves of bread stands by the north wall. The loaves stand for the tribes of Israel, on display before God.

The Levite clan of Merari camps just north of the sanctuary.  Dan is the leader of the three tribes camping farther north.  Jacob’s fifth son, Dan, is unimportant in the book of Genesis.  But in Judges the tribe of Dan abandons its allotted territory and heads north.  As the tribe crosses Efrayim’s territory, it captures a priest and a molten idol.  Then Dan seizes the Canaanite city of Laish.  Both conquests are surprise attacks; perhaps the whole tribe of Dan is good at hiding in ambush. Laish, renamed Dan, becomes the northernmost city in the kingdom of Israel.

The word for northward, tzafonah, is related not only to hiding, but also to the center of Canaanite religion at Mount Tzafon. In the first book of Kings, the city of Dan has its own temple and a golden calf.

Maybe when the Israelites break camp the tribe of Dan pulls out last because it is not wholehearted about either the community of Israel or its god. Dan goes its own way, then follows the rest of Israelite and its sanctuary after all.

compassWhen the Israelites leave Mount Sinai, they march and camp in a formation that positions each tribe in relation to the four directions and to the sanctuary in the center.  Today, we also need to put what is holy to us at the center of our lives. Otherwise we will swarm about aimlessly.

In addition to holding a holy center, we need to operate in the world.  The four compass points might indicate four ways of operating. If we are fortunate, our primary strategy is represented by the east and Yehudah: taking the lead in our own lives and setting off on new ventures. A second strategy is represented by the south and Reuven: seeking and remembering moments of illumination. Third is the strategy represented by the west and Efrayim: humbly accepting the unknown future, as well as unexpected blessings from those wiser than we.  Finally there is the strategy represented by the north and Dan: stepping away when we need to, coming out of hiding, and doing the unexpected.

May all these elements be present when we organize our own lives.

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1 Comment »

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  1. Thank you so much for giving direction for setting direction. Tomorrow, we set out to the south and return home. On Shavuot, traveling to the sacred waters of lago atitlan, I take your teachings with us. Love Elisabeth


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