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 Levites and priests camp immediately around the sanctuary. (See my post Bemidbar & Naso: Four Directions of Service.)
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. (Numbers/Bemidbar 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 (Judah in English) sets off toward the east, then veers in whatever direction the people will actually travel that day. 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 one faces east, the south is on one’s 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 teymanah… And 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. (Numbers 2:10-16)
teymanah (תֵּימָנָה) = to the south. (From the root yamin, יָמִין, = right 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)
All of this divine light dawns in the south. Inside the sanctuary tent, the menorah (lampstand) is by the south wall.
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. (Numbers 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 yamah…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. (Numbers 2:18-24)
yamah (יָמָּה) = to the west, toward the (Mediterranean) Sea (yam).
The 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.
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.
In 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.
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.
Dan, Jacob’s fifth son, is unimportant in the book of Genesis. But in the book of 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 its own 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.
When 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 cardinal directions 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, or coming out of hiding and doing the unexpected.
May we be able to use all these strategies when we organize our own lives.
2 thoughts on “Bemidbar: Tribes in Four Directions”
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