Bible Commentaries
Numbers 2

Clarke's CommentaryClarke Commentary

Verse 1

108,100 men, 18-24.

Dan, Asher, and Naphtali, on the NORTH, with 157,600

men, 25-31.

The sum total of the whole, 603,550 men, 32.

But the Levites are not included, 33.

The people do as the Lord commands them, 34.


Verse 2

Verse Numbers 2:2. Every man-shall pitch by his own standard — Commentators, critics, philosophers, and professional men, have taken a great deal of pains to illustrate this chapter by showing the best method of encampment for such a vast number of men, and the manner in which they conceive the Israelites formed their camp in the wilderness. As God gave them the plan, it was doubtless in every respect perfect; and fully answered the double purpose of convenience and security. Scheuchzer has entered into this subject with his usual ability, and in very considerable detail. Following the plan of Reyher, as in the preceding chapter, he endeavours to ascertain the precise order in which the several tribes were disposed; and as his work is both scarce and dear, the reader will not be displeased-to meet here with a translation of all that refers to the subject.

"The Israelitish army was divided Into three principal divisions. The first, which was the least in extent, but the strongest and the most powerful, occupied the centre of the army: this was the throne of God, i. e., the TABERNACLE. The second, which was composed of the priests and Levites, surrounded the first. The third, and the farthest from the centre, took in all the other tribes of Israel, who were at least about a mile from the tabernacle. For it appears from Josephus, iii. 4, that the nearest approach they dared make to the ark, except during the time of worship, was a distance of 2,000 cubits. The reverence due to the Divine Majesty, the numerous army of the Israelites, composed of 600,000 soldiers, with their families, which made about 3,000,000 souls, naturally demanded a considerable extent of ground. We are not to imagine that all these families pitched their tents pellmell, without order, like beasts, or as the troops of Tartary, and the eastern armies; on the contrary, their camp was divided according to the most exact rules. And we cannot even doubt that their camp was laid out, and the place of every division and tribe exactly assigned by some engineers, or geometricians, before the army stopped to encamp, in order that every person might at once find his own quarter, and the road he ought to take to reach the other tents.

"Four divisions, which faced the four quarters of the heavens, each with his own ensign, formed the centre of the army. JUDAH was placed on the east, and under him he had Issachar and Zebulun; on the south was REUBEN, and under him Simeon and Gad: on the west was Ephraim, and under him Manasseh and Benjamin; finally, DAN was on the north, and he had under him Asher and Naphtali. It has been pretended by some that these four principal divisions were not alone distinguished by their ensigns, but that each particular tribe had likewise its standard or ensign. On this subject we might refer to the Talmudists, who have gone so far as to define the colours, and the figures or arms, of the very ensigns. They pretend that on that of JUDAH a lion was painted, with this inscription: 'Rise, Lord, let thine enemies be dispersed, and let those that hate thee flee before thee;' and they found this description of Judah's ensign in Genesis 49:9. They give to ISSACHAR an ass, Genesis 49:14; to ZEBULUN a ship, Genesis 49:13; to REUBEN a river, Genesis 49:4, (others give REUBEN the figure of a man;) to SIMEON a sword, Genesis 49:5; to GAD a lion, Deuteronomy 33:20; to EPHRAIM a unicorn, Deuteronomy 33:17; an ox to MANASSEH, Deuteronomy 33:17; a wolf to BENJAMIN, Genesis 49:27; and a serpent to DAN, Genesis 49:17, though others give him an eagle. In short, they pretend that the ensign of ASHER was a handful of corn, Genesis 49:20, and that of NAPHTALI a stag, Genesis 49:21.

"In a well-regulated camp, cleanliness is considered indispensably necessary; this is particularly remarkable in the Israelitish army, where the most exact order was maintained. Hence every person who had any kind of disease, and those who were reputed unclean, were forbidden to enter it; Numbers 5:2-3; Deuteronomy 23:10.

"Those who have the health of men, and of a whole army confided to them, are not ignorant that diseases may be easily produced by putrid exhalations from excrementitious matter; and that such matter will produce in camps pestilential fevers and dysenteries. For this reason, care should be always taken that offices, at a distance from the camp, be provided for the soldiers, and also that those who are sick should be separated from the others, and sent to hospitals to be properly treated.

"In military tactics we find two distinct wings spoken of; the right and the left. The Israelitish army not only had them on one side, as is customary, but on all their four sides. On the eastern side, the tribe of Issachar formed the right, that of Zebulun the left, and that of Judah the centre. On the south, Simeon formed the right wing, Gad the left, and Reuben the centre. Towards the west, Manasseh composed the right, Benjamin the left, and Ephraim the centre. And on the north, Asher was on the right wing, Naphtali on the left wing, and Dan in the centre. Notwithstanding this, however, the army was not in danger of being easily broken; for every tribe being numerous, they were supported by several ranks, in such a manner that the first being broken, the second was capable of making resistance; and if the second gave way, or shared the same fate as the first, it found itself supported by the third, and so on with the rest. The square form in which the Jewish army was ordinarily placed, was the very best for security and defence. The use and importance of the hollow square in military tactics is well known.

"For so large a multitude of people, and for so numerous an army, it was needful that all the necessary articles of life should be prepared beforehand, or be found ready to purchase. In these respects nothing was wanting to the Israelites. Their bread came down to them from heaven, and they had besides an abundance of every thing that could contribute to magnificence. If we may credit Josephus, they had amongst them public markets, and a variety of shops. Ant., i. iii. c. 12, sec. 5. The tabernacle being erected, it was placed in the midst of the camp, each of the three tribes stretching themselves on the wings, and leaving between them a sufficient space to pass.

"It was, says Josephus, like a well appointed market where every thing was ready for sale in due order, and all sorts of artificers kept their shops; so that this camp might be considered a movable city.

"In Exodus 32:27 we likewise find that mention is made of the gates of the camp: 'Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp.' From whence we may certainly conclude that if the camp had gates, the Israelites had also sentinels to guard them. If this be true, we may also believe that they were surrounded with entrenchments, or that at least their gates were defended by some fortifications. Sagittarius (de Jan. Vet., c. 18. § 10) pretends that the tabernacle was not only guarded by the Levites, but that there were likewise sentinels at the gates, and at the entrance of the Israelitish camps. Exodus 32:27; Exodus 32:27.

"If we examine and compare the camp of Israel with that of our most numerous armies, which in these days are composed of 100,000 or of 150,000 men, we cannot but consider it of vast extent. The Jews say it was twelve miles in circumference; this is not at all improbable, and consequently the front of each wing must be three miles in extent. But taking in the tents, the soldiers and their numerous families, the beasts of burden, the cattle, and the goods, it certainly must have formed a very considerable inclosure, much more than twelve miles. Exodus 12:37; Exodus 12:37, and "Exodus 13:18". Reyher (Math. Mos., p. 568) assigns to the

"At the place where the camp of the Levites ends, a space must be left of 2,000 square cubits, after which we must take the dimensions of the camp of the twelve tribes.

"This plan is in the main well imagined, but it does not afford an ichnography of sufficient extent. To come more accurately to a proper understanding of this subject, I shall examine the rules that are now in use for encampments, and compare them afterward with what is laid down in the Holy Scriptures, in order that we may hereby form to ourselves an idea of the camp of God, the grandeur and perfection of which surpassed every thing of the kind ever seen. I shall now mention what I am about to propose as the foundation upon which I shall proceed.

"In Exodus 18:21, Deuteronomy 1:15, we find the advice given by Jethro to Moses respecting political government and military discipline: 'Thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.' [See the note on "Exodus 18:21".] We may very well compare these tribunes, or rather these chiliarchs, to our colonels, the centurions or hecatontarchs to commanders or captains, the quinquagenaries or pentecontarchs to lieutenants, and the decurions or decarchs to our sergeants. These chiefs, whether they were named magistrates or officers, were each drawn from his own particular tribe, so that it was not permitted to place over one tribe an officer taken from another. Whatever matter the decarchs could not decide upon or terminate, went to the pentecontarchs, and from thence by degrees to the hecatontarchs, to the chiliarchs, to Moses, and at length to GOD himself, the sovereign head of the army. If we divide the whole army (such as it was at its departure from Egypt) by the numbers already laid down, we shall find 600 chiliarchs, 6,000 hecatontarchs, 12,000 pentecontarchs, 60,000 decarchs, which in all make 78,600 officers. Josephus regulates the number of them still more exactly by saying that there were chiefs set over 10,000, 1,000, 500, 50, 30, 20, and 10. We find this regulation in Ant. Jud., b. iii., c. 4: 'Take a review of the army, and appoint chosen rulers over tens of thousands, and then over thousands, then divide them into five hundreds, and again into hundreds, and into fifties, and set rulers over each of them who may distinguish them into thirties, and keep them in order; and at last number them by twenties and by tens, and let there be one commander over each number, to be denominated from the number of those over whom they are rulers.'

"We ought not to pass over in silence this division by tens, for twice 10 make 20, three times 10, 30, five times 10, 50, ten times 10, 100, ten times 50, 500, ten times 1,000, 10,000. It was in this manner, as is pretended, that Cangu, the first of the great Khams, (as he is called,) and after him Tamerlane, drew out an army, i. e., by 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, mentioned in Alhazen, c. v. Probably these Tartars borrowed from the very Hebrews themselves this manner of laying out a camp. At all events it is certain that nothing more ancient of the kind can be found than that mentioned in the books of Moses. To distinguish it from that of the Greeks and Romans we may with justice call it the Hebrew castrametation, or, if we judge it more proper, the Divine castrametation, and consequently the most perfect of all. For although Moses places the pentecontarchs in the middle, between the hecatontarchs and the decarchs, i. e., 50 between 100 and 10; and although Josephus afterward places 1,000 between 500 and 10,000, and 30 and 20 between 10 and 50, this does not at all derange the progression by tens, which Is the foundation of arithmetic. These subaltern officers were equally useful and necessary, as we now see that their number, far from creating confusion, helps maintain order, and that the more there are of them the better is order preserved. According to the modern method of carrying on war, the next in rank to the generals of the army (who have the supreme command) are field marshals and brigadiers, who command 5,000 men.

There are then between the chiliarchs or colonels and the hecatontarchs or captains, lieutenant-colonels; and between the hecatontarchs and the decarchs, lieutenant-captains; and these have under them lieutenants and ensigns.

"It is certain that this method of distributing an army by tens, and of encamping, which is very concise, has far greater advantages even with respect to expense than the very best plans of the Greeks, Romans, or any other ancient nation. On this subject we have the testimony of Simon Steven, Castrametat. c. 1, art. 1, and c. 4. art. 3, Oper. Math., p. 574 and 596, c. According to this arrangement each soldier, or if more proper, each father of a family, being thus placed by ten and ten in a straight line one after the other, might very easily name themselves first, second, c. Each troop in like manner might be distinguished by its ensigns, that of 100 might have them small, that of 1,000 larger, and that of 10,000 still larger. Every officer, from the lowest subaltern to the general officers of the camp, and even to the generalissimos themselves, had only an easy inspection of ten men each the decarch had the inspection of 10 soldiers, the hecatontarch of 10 decarchs, and the chiliarch of 10 hecatontarchs. After the chiliarchs, which in no troop can amount to ten, there is the chief or head of each tribe. Each then exactly fulfilling the duty assigned him, we may suppose every thing to be in good order, even were the camp larger and more numerous. The same may be said respecting the contentions that might arise among the soldiers, as well as every thing relative to the general duty of the officers, as to the labours they were to undertake, whether for striking their tents for works of fortification or for making entrenchments. This arrangement might be easily retained in the memory, or a general list be kept of the names of both officers and soldiers to distribute to them their pay, and to keep exact accounts.

"It was possible in one moment to know the number of those who were either wanting or were out of their ranks, and to avoid this disorder in future by obliging each man to attend to his duty and keep in his rank. If by chance it happened that any one man wished to desert or had escaped, it was easy to notice him and inflict on him the punishment he merited. The ensigns being distinguished by their marks, and the company being known, it was easy to find any soldier whatever.

"The armies themselves might have certain marks to distinguish them, and by that means they might at once ascertain the person in question for example: 8. 2. 7. 3. might signify the eighth soldier or father of a family, of the second rank, of the seventh company, in the third chiliad; 7. 3. 5. the halberdier of the decurion or sergeant of the seventh line, in the third company, of the fifth chiliad or thousand; 5. 8. the hecatontarchs or captains of the fifth company, in the eighth chiliad; 7. the chiliarchs or colonels of the seventh rank; 0. finally, the general of the whole army. Farther, by the same means the loss or misplacing of their arms might be prevented. Again, the soldiers might in a very short time be instructed and formed to the exercise of arms, each decad having its sergeant for its master; and the chariots or other carriages might easily be divided amongst several, 10 under the decurion, 100 under the hecatontarch; and by thus following the above method, every thing might be kept in good order.

The reader will have the goodness to observe that the preceding observations, as well as the following plate or diagram, which was made by Scheuchzer on the exactest proportions, could not be accurately copied here without an engraved plate; and after all, the common reader could have profited no more by the plate than he can by the diagram. It is not even hoped that disquisitions of this kind can give any thing more than a general idea how the thing probably was; for to pretend to minute exactness, in such cases, would be absurd. The sacred text informs us that such and such tribes occupied the east, such the west, c., c. but how they were arranged individually we cannot pretend absolutely to say. Scheuchzer's plan is such as we may suppose judgment and skill would lay down but still it is very probable that the plan of the Israelites' castrametation was more perfect than any thing we can well imagine; for as it was the plan which probably God himself laid down, it must be in every respect what it ought to be, for the comfort and safety of this numerous multitude.

As there are some differences between the mode of distributing the command of a large army among the British, and that used on the continent, which is followed by Scheuchzer, I shall lay down the descending scale of British commanders, which some may think applies better to the preceding arrangement of the Israelitish army than the other.

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Though I particularly refer the reader to the above diagram of the Israelitish camp, taken from Scheuchzer’s plate, which I have thought necessary to be subjoined to his description, yet I think it also proper to introduce that on the following page, as it gives a general and tolerably correct idea of this immense camp, in the description of which the inspired writer has been so very particular; but still I must say these things are to be considered as PROBABLE, not as absolutely certain; as comprising a general view of what may be supposed probable, likely, and practicable.

The whole may be said to consist of three camps, viz.,

1. The camp of the Lord;

2. The camp of the Levites; and ,

3. The people.

These in the grand camp in the wilderness, corresponded with the holy of holies, the holy place, and the outward court of the Temple at Jerusalem. See Ainsworth.

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Bibliographical Information
Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Numbers 2". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". 1832.