One of the foundational convictions of reformed theology is the unity of Scripture. There is, we believe, one covenant of redemption that God reveals and accomplishes through history, from Adam all the way through to Christ. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find the Old Testament—beginning with the Pentateuch—framed around the expectation of Christ (so, Lk. 24:27). There is one fascinating example of this in the book of Numbers that I want to take up in this post.
The book of Numbers begins with two lists of names. In chapter one, a census of Israel is taken, listing all twelve tribes one-by-one. Then in chapter two, the arrangement for Israel’s encampment and their order of march is given, once again listing the tribes one-by-one. But the order is different in the two chapters. And the shift in order is theologically profound.
Both lists of tribes are shaped according to the birth order of their namesakes, the twelve sons of Jacob. To be more specific, both of these name lists are based on the birth order of the twelve patriarchs, grouped according to their mothers. (Recall that Jacob had two wives and two concubines). Here is their birth order when grouped by mother (cf., Gen. 29–30; 35:18):
Birth Order of Tribes (by Mother)
|Born by LEAH||1||Reuben|
|Born by RACHEL||7||Joseph|
|Born by ZILPAH||9||Gad|
|Born by BILHAH||11||Dan|
Now there are a couple adjustments that need to be made to this list before we turn to Numbers. This gets a bit technical, but bear with me.
First of all, the inheritance belonging to Joseph (and thus his position among the tribes) was re-assigned to Joseph’s two sons. Jacob adopted Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh to be his own sons, and co-heirs among the other patriarchs (see Gen. 48). So the tribe of Joseph was replaced by the two half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Technically, Manasseh was older, but Jacob gave Ephraim firstborn status among the sons of Rachel (see Gen. 48:13–20). So, the sons born to Rachel are, by inheritance rights: (1) Ephraim; (2) Manasseh; and (3) Benjamin.
Secondly, the tribe of Levi was removed from his inheritance among the twelve. Instead, Levi was promoted to the privileged inheritance of service and support in God’s house (Exod. 32:29; cf., Num. 8:14–19). He would not possess any of the land, but instead the Lord would be his inheritance. Mathematically, this works out conveniently, since the removal of one tribe (Levi) from the number along with the multiplication of Joseph’s one position into two (for Ephraim and Manasseh), allows the total number of tribes to remain twelve. Now, the result listed (by birth order under mothers) appears as follows:
Addition of Joseph’s Sons & Removal of Levi
|Born by LEAH||1||Reuben|
|Born by RACHEL||6||EPHRAIM (of Joseph)|
|7||MANASSEH (of Joseph)|
|Born by ZILPAH||9||Gad|
|Born by BILHAH||11||Dan|
|Outside the Number||—||LEVI|
With that background from Genesis and Exodus, we are now ready to look at the census of the twelve tribes at the beginning of the book of numbers. This census (Num. 1) lists the tribes in the following order, which is identical to the above groupings with one set of variations I will highlight in bold on the list and attempt to explain, afterward:
Census Order (Numbers 1)
In the census in Numbers 1, Gad is inserted into Leah’s group and Asher is inserted into Bilhah’s group. What is going on here? I would suggest that this list shows us the proper protocol for the modifications I noted earlier. Earlier, I pointed out how Levi was removed from the list, and for the sake of simplicity I created a new list showing what the order of the twelve would look like with Levi removed and with Joseph’s position split between Ephraim and Manasseh. But the list in Numbers shows us that one further step (that I did not previously account for) was needed to maintain the proper balance of the arrangement.
Rather than simply removing Levi from among Leah’s block of sons and thereby reducing her list by one (dropping the count from six to five), a third adjustment to the list was still needed. The firstborn of Leah’s handmaid Zilpah (namely Gad) was promoted into Levi’s position among Leah’s biological sons. This ensured that Leah’s number was not reduced by the removal of Levi. Notice on the list in Numbers 1 that Gad is placed specifically into the position vacated by Levi’s removal (that of Leah’s thirdborn). Then, the remaining sons of the two concubines were grouped together into one list, with the firstborn of Bilhah heading that block followed by Asher (of Zilpah) and Naphtali (of Bilhah).
Thus, in the census taken in Numbers 1, we have a carefully arranged hierarchy of the tribes listed in proper order after the aforementioned changes due to the adoption of Joseph’s sons in his place and the promotion of Levi to a landless inheritance in God’s house. The list is neither random nor haphazard. There is a protocol being observed. In fact, when the census is repeated in the following generation at the end of the book of Numbers (chap. 26), the same order is repeated almost identically. In that second census (Num. 26), there is only one difference from the order of the first: Manasseh is listed before Ephraim (that is, according to their actual birth order). So, even in that change, it is still sensitivity to birth order (grouped by mothers) that guides the arrangements.
But something changes between the list in Numbers 1 and the list in Numbers 2. Immediately after that careful ordering of the census list (Num. 1), the very next chapter lists the tribes all over again (Num. 2). But this time, the tribes are being assigned their order for their march up to the promised land. And when the hierarchy of march to the promised land is given, a very significant set of changes are made. Here is the order of march (Num. 2):
March Order (Numbers 2)
|March FIRST (Camp EAST)||1||Judah|
|March SECOND (Camp SOUTH)||4||Reuben|
|(March and Camp in Center)||(Levites)|
|March THIRD (Camp WEST)||7||Ephraim|
|March FOURTH (Camp NORTH)||10||Dan|
The same basic hierarchy is observed, but the two blocks of Leah’s children are reversed. Instead of placing Reuben’s block at the head of the list, it is Judah’s block that is moved into position to lead the march. In Numbers chapter 10, the actual departure from Sinai is reported, and there the same marching order is repeated with the opening line, “The standard (or, banner) of the camp of the people of Judah set out first…”(Num. 10:14).
When we come to appreciate the sensitivity to proper protocol in these lists, why would the order of Israel’s march be different in this one respect from the order of Israel’s census—and in a manner that contradicts the birth order so carefully observed in every other detail? There is only one possible explanation that takes the hierarchy of the tribes seriously.
When Jacob pronounced his blessing on each of the twelve patriarchs at the end of his life, he announced that the scepter of Israel (that is, the nation’s coming, victorious king) would one day arise from the tribe of Judah:
Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow before you…
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (Gen. 49:8–10)
At the time of Israel’s residence in the wilderness of Sinai, they still had no human king. The census was rightly taken according to birth order, with Reuben first. However, the order of inheritance pronounced by Jacob indicated Judah would become the nation’s head, and his seed would lead the nation into victory over all nations. Thus, the proper protocol for the people’s movement in faith—their march into the land—was to be ordered under the banner of Judah.
With such features woven throughout the Pentateuch (for there are certainly many others), a compelling argument emerges that the Pentateuch is, truly, Christian Scripture. And the book of Numbers shows us that the congregation marching to the Promised Land was a Christian congregation—marching to Canaan by faith in the promised king to arise from the tribe of Judah.
What I find particularly inspiring is that Ezra, in the period after the Davidic dynasty collapsed and seemed at an utter end, republished the Pentateuch with this persistent, Davidic hope illustrated by the tribe lists. Not only did Ezra’s generation re-compile the Psalms of David for singing in anticipation of a restored Davidic throne (a subject I have written about elsewhere: see J. Beeke and A. Selvaggio, Sing a New Song, pp92–110), but the Pentateuch republished by Ezra continued to express such hope in the line of Judah despite the lack of a Davidic king in the Second Temple period. The Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets truly are books about the promised Christ.
The tribe lists explored in this article is only one example of the Christ-centered focus of the Pentateuch. But I think it is a striking example that reminds us there is one covenant of redemption, centered on faith in Christ that pervades all of Scripture. It begins with the five-volume Gospel according to Moses.