Does God really care about the details?
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17, 18). [All scripture is from ESV unless otherwise noted.] The NIV has it, “. . . not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen . . .”
God is a God of order and purpose. The Bible is an integrated message system and is made up of 66 books produced by 40 writers over thousands of years. But, is every detail significant? Numbers chapter 2, is full of seemingly boring details. As the object of attention in this essay, Numbers chapter 2 will help to answer this question.
The background for Numbers 2 is the recent departure of Israel from Egypt. They came out of Egypt an unorganized rabble. At Sinai the multitude was organized and Numbers 2 describes some of the organization that was brought to Israel in terms of how they were organized for camping and marching.
In Numbers chapter 1, Moses was instructed to “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company.” The remainder of chapter 1 tells of this being done and the results of the census. Numbers chapter 2 then turns to a description of how the camp of Israel was arranged and in this detailed record we will discover a most interesting insight (the reader should read through Numbers 2 before continuing).
The first thing we note in Numbers 2:1, 2 is that Israel was to camp around and facing the tent of meeting, that is, the sanctuary. Not only were they to camp around the sanctuary, but they were to camp “far off” (KJV) or “some distance” (NIV) from the sanctuary. This is a detail that will become important a little later.
The camp of Israel was arrayed around the sanctuary to the East, South, West, and North. Israel was organized into four divisions of three groups, with each division assigned to one of the directions. The following table collects the details that we learn from Numbers chapter 2 about the arrangement of the encampment of Israel.
Numbers chapter 1 forms us that those who were numbered were all the men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army. Women, children, and males not able to serve in the army were not included in the census. Thus, the actual number of person camping under Judah’s standard would have been much more. However, since the other three divisions are numbered the same way, the relative proportions would be the same.
An interesting detail emerges from the number of persons listed in the tribe of Gad, which is 46,650 (Numbers 2:14). This number tells us that the numbering was done to at least the nearest 50 persons. At the end of Numbers 2, we learn that the total count was 603,550. If we do the math, we find that the numbering was done with an accuracy of about 8/10th of 1 %. Speaking of details!
If you are an accountant this is might be interesting, but if not – pretty boring, right? Why would God inspire Moses to keep such a detailed record of this?
What Did The Camp Look Like?
What image do you have of how the camp looked to Balaam when he went up on the mountain to curse Israel? Common artist renderings that you might have seen have the tribes arranged around the tabernacle as depicted in Figure 1
There is a problem with this common artistic depiction because, as they say, the Devil is in the details. This depiction has the people camping much too close to the tabernacle.
There is a vital detail in Numbers 2:2. There it says, "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." (NIV)
What was that distance? There is no direct statement as to the distance but there is information found in Joshua 3:1-6 that can give us some idea. Verse 2 of Joshua 3 tells us that the people were to stay away from the Ark of the Covenant a distance of 2,000 cubits when they crossed the Jordan river. We can use this as a guide to the “some distance”.
Cubits come in several sizes, but since the Israelites had come out of Egypt, use of the royal Egyptian cubit of 20.6” is reasonable. They were to stay 2,000 cubits away from the ark and that would mean 2,000 cubits north and 2,000 cubits south for instance. This means an open space at least 4,000 cubits on a side. 4,000 cubits is 6,867 feet, which is 1.3 miles on each side. This would result in a camp arrangement that might be something closer to Figure 2 with the inner square being 1.3 miles on each side:
Even with this arrangement, there is somewhat of a problem. Recall that when Israel departed Egypt they had flocks and herds (Genesis 12:29-38). Pharaoh said, “Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone . . .” and verse 38 says that, “A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. . . .”
So, what to do with all the animals? Although the total of the tribes was numbered at 603,550 people, most commentators suggest that the actual total 1.5 to 2 million when including women and children and males that could not go to war as well as the mixed multitude in the total. If each person had one animal each, there would be 1 to 2 million animals that had to go somewhere. See Figure 3.
Where would all of the animals be kept? There would certainly be health issues if they just wandered in the camp. If they are not embedded in the camp, then they would be located on the unprotected perimeter of the camp. That would put the owners camped near the center of the camp a long distance from their stock outside of the outer perimeter of the camp.
There is another problem to consider. Each division was to encamp on one of the cardinal compass points with respect to the camp of Levi camping in the “midst” or surrounding the tabernacle. Ephraim’s division was to camp west of the tabernacle, not southwest or northwest. See Figure 4.
If the camp was laid out so that the four divisions were actually encamped along the four cardinal compass points, the camp would look something like Figure 5. Notice that this arrangement provides space for the livestock that puts them generally closer to their owners and also provides a much smaller unprotected perimeter.
Now here is where the details get quite interesting. As noted in Numbers 2, the 12 tribes were gathered into four divisions. In general the groups were grouped into a division by their closest family ties. For example, on the West side was Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. Ephraim and Manasseh were the sons of Joseph and Joseph and Benjamin were the sons of Jacob’s wife Rachael. So we see that the close family ties would encourage harmony and efficiency in camping, marching, and fighting.
But, were these groupings just an accident of tribal genetics or is there something more to be seen. Why all these details? Why the numbering to the nearest 50 persons? Details, details, details, does God really care about details?
What did Balaam see from the mountain when he went up there to curse Israel? To answer that, we will have to refer to the tables at the beginning of this essay. Notice something quite interesting. Notice that the sizes of the four divisions are not even close to being equal. Dan had 157,800 in his camp. Reuben had 51,450, Ephraim had 108,100, and Judah had 186,400. Again, were these groupings an accident of tribal genetics or did God do this on purpose to make a statement there in the wilderness.
If you pay attention to the details, and it does help to have it in a table as opposed to just reading it in the text, you will notice that Dan and Reuben are approximately the same size and that they camped opposite of each other. Ephraim and Judah also camped opposite of each other, but their relative sizes are quite different.
So what did Balaam likely see as he looked down on the camp of Israel? If you plot out the camps proportionally, this is what Balaam would have seen:
The cross, the central theme of the Good News arrayed in the wilderness. Details, Details, Details. Yes, God does care about the details!
Len Cornwell graduated from Mountain View Academy in 1965, and received a B.S. in Aeronautical Maintenance in 1971. He received an M.B.A. in 1991 from Portland State University. He retired from his position as Coordinator for Safety, Emergency Response Planning, and Security at a large wastewater treatment plant in 2012. He currently lives in Ryderwood, WA.