Day 53: The Twelve Tribes of Israel

Numbers 2:1-34 The tribes of Israel traveled and camped through the desert with three tribes occupying each of the four sides surrounding the tabernacle. The Levites would camp close to the tabernacle to oversee its upkeep and to lead the people in worship. Technically, there were THIRTEEN tribes, but only twelve would receive territory in the Promised Land; the Tribe of Joseph had been split into two tribes (because remember, before he died Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh instead of Joseph) which were named for his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. (CCC 1539-1541)

Deuteronomy 2:8-23 The Moabites and the Ammonites were descendents of LOT (remember how THAT happened? His daughters got him drunk,he passed out, and they raped him) Little is known about some of the other peoples mentioned, for example, Rephaites, Horites, Avvim, Caphtorim.

Psalm 85 The Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem, razed the Temple, and exiled a significant portion of the population of Judah to Babylon in 587 B.C.; some sixty years later, the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed the people of Israel to return to their homes in the Promised Land. This psalm makes reference to the “return” of the people of Israel from this exile, but the Hebrew term also had a spiritual meaning: CONVERSION. Many Jews regarded the exile as a punishment for their infidelities and, likewise, saw their return as a fruit of their repentance. God had forgiven their transgressions.

Mercy and faithfulness...righteousness and peace: These are two characteristics of God that are revealed in his every work.

Faithfulness from heaven: This prophetic utterance refers to the redemption of the world gained through the Death and Resurrection of Christ. The gates of Heaven, which were closed due to the Fall of Adam and Eve, were opened by the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, the Son of God, who had assumed our human nature in his Incarnation. By his Resurrection he conquered sin and death and opened the pathway to eternal life. (CCC 214, 2795)

(*Didache Bible RSV-CE Ignatius Edition, 2006)

  • The first four chapters of Numbers explain how Moses numbered and organized the twelve tribes into an orderly camp.

  • The tabernacle is placed in the center of camp, immediately surrounded by Levites, who act as a protection and buffer between God and the twelve tribes, who are placed three tribes each on the four sides of the tabernacle.

  • Similarly, when Israel is on the march, the Ark of the Covenant is in the center of the marching alignment, with Levites in front and in back of the Ark.

  • The tribe of JUDAH always leads the march, a position that points to the future role this tribe will play in the leadership of Israel.

  • What is striking is the central placement of the tribe of Levi, which is repeated throughout the instruction.

  • Levi’s role as a buffer between God and the people is a result of their priestly election, after the golden calf, when the firstborn sons of Israel forfeited their priestly status.

  • It is precisely this distinction between the priestly tribe of Levi and the lay status of the twelve tribes that is driven home throughout the camp instructions of Numbers 1-4.

  • The Levites alone, purified in their priestly role, can camp around the sanctuary.

  • In doing so, they provide a buffer to protect anyone else of the other tribes from coming too near the sanctuary without the necessary purification, lest the fire of God’s holiness consume the sinful people of Israel.

  • At the end of the census, all the tribes are numbered except Levi.

  • God sets aside Levi for priestly service and forbids Moses’ including Levi in the army or census.

  • Twelve tribes will serve in the army of the Lord, but the tribe of Levi will serve only in the sanctuary.

  • Recall that in Genesis 48, Jacob took Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as his own in Joseph’s place, raising to thirteen the number of tribes of Israel.

  • Thus, thirteen tribes minus Levi (who cannot be numbered in the census) result in the twelve tribes of Israel.

(*Walking With God: A Journey Through the Bible by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins)

  • Numbers sure has a lot of numbers, eh?

  • For now, Numbers is the setup for the scene of the 12 Tribes gathered around the Tabernacle

  • In Deuteronomy, it is the STORY OF NUMBERS (think of it as a recap told by Moses to the Israelites) retold because Deuteronomy is the end of the wilderness journey

  • At first glance, Numbers is organizing how they camp and march

  • Remember, the Tabernacle is the center of camp

  • Right around the Presence of God in the Tabernacle are the Levites

  • To the East, West, North, and South are the 12 Tribes of Israel

  • We know the numbering of them, but also the order of the tribes which is IMPORTANT

  • The First of the tribes was Judah

  • You may even recognize the name of the leader of the Tribe of Judah who was Nashon, the son of Ammin’adab (Don’t feel bad, I didn’t recognize this name)

  • BUT…….if we read the Gospel of Matthew, the opening has the GENEALOGY of Jesus from Abraham to Joseph

  • We go through a list of names through the Tribe of Judah

  • Judah was the 4th of Israel’s sons

  • He wasn’t the first son, yet he was selected as the one who would receive the blessing that the whole world would eventually receive

  • The Tribe of Judah was first on the east next to the Tabernacle

  • The Tribe of Judah was the first to march into battle, into the wilderness

  • “Let Judah go up first”

  • The name Judah means PRAISE

  • That is so fitting for us

  • God is all about ORDER

  • These are people who were formally slaves with no order

  • We had the Levitical Law and now the Laws of Deuteronomy being proclaimed by Moses as they wander in the desert

  • Remember that God is making these former slaves into a NATION OF PEOPLE who have the strength to be free

  • Think how difficult it must have been to live as generations of slaves and all of a sudden you have your freedom (Remember, Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption)

What is FREEDOM?

Freedom is not what you may think it is.

“Freedom is not primarily a choice, but rather the shaping of desire so as to make the achievement of the GOOD first possible, then effortless”

- Bishop Robert Barron

And THAT is what God is training the Israelites towards

  • Then all of a sudden you are wandering in the wilderness

  • Then all of a sudden you are being reminded of who you are as a people

  • It is important that the Tribes of Israel are being divided up into the families of Israel

  • It reminds them of their identity

  • Not only are they a tribe of Israel, but now they know WHICH tribe they are

  • This is not a generic family

  • This is a SPECIFIC family under a SPECIFIC head of the family

  • There is something powerful about knowing your identity

  • God is giving them order

  • God is giving them their identity

  • They are ordered all around the Presence of God in the Tabernacle

  • The presence of God is at the center of everything that they are and everything that they do

  • Why?

  • Because they were formerly slaves and God is TRAINING them to be the kind of people who can live FREELY, people who can live WELL

  • The story is a lot bumpier than that as we will soon find out

  • But God is SHAPING THEM


  • Into the kind of people that can be FREE

  • Judah goes up first


  • That’s a lesson for all of us when it comes to how we begin our day

  • It is so important for us to at least take a moment to PRAISE GOD and to let praise go up first

  • And also to praise His FAITHFULNESS

  • In Deuteronomy Ch 2 we have a number of times where Moses is recapping their journey and they go through the land of the Edomites

  • God tells them not to attack them

  • Why?

  • Because Edomites are the descendants of ESAU

  • Do you remember who Esau is?


  • So the edomites were their family and they were not to attack them

  • They will deal peacefully with them

  • Then they will pass through the land of the Ammonites

  • They will not attack them either because not only are they also family, but God gave them that land


  • God will give the Israelites land as well, just not THIS LAND

  • This is so vitally important for all of us to understand

  • We can praise God for His faithfulness

  • One of the things that can bother us is that we will encounter violent battles

  • We are not necessarily accustomed to associating violence with God


  • There are ways to understand this

  • First, tell yourself to be comfortable with being uncomfortable

  • If you are not comfortable with how the Israelites will FIGHT for their Promised Land, be patient we will see why eventually what God is doing in the midst of a VIOLENT WORLD

  • God does not desire violence for its own sake AT ALL

  • God does not desire death

  • Book of Wisdom: “God does not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.”

  • We know that the heart of God does not rejoice in VIOLENCE or DEATH AT ALL

  • Remember, we live in a broken, violent world

  • We do this to each other

  • Second, be patient, hold on

  • There is an explanation coming

  • But, there is a lot of violence coming too

  • That is part of our story

  • It’s like how each of us are with our families

  • We have great times

  • We also have some big fights

  • We have some great people in our families

  • We also might have some scoundrels in our families

  • We have some glorious moments in our families

  • We also have some shameful moments in our families


  • In the meantime, LET JUDAH GO UP FIRST

  • In the meantime, LET PRAISE GO UP FIRST

  • In the meantime, we situate our lives like the Israelites situated their tents and their families and their tribes around the Tabernacle

  • We center God in the midst of our lives

  • When God is in the midst of our lives and praise goes up first, THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN STOP US

  • God is at the CENTER and we are on His side

  • Keep praying for each other

  • It gets easy to get bogged down, distracted, and off track

  • So let’s stay on track

  • Let’s give God the praise that is due today :)

Prayer by Fr Mike: “Father in Heaven, we thank you. We thank you for your Word. We thank you for trusting us, and entrusting your Word to us. We thank you for sharing who you are. We thank you for sharing that you are faithful to your promises, that you are faithful to your people. And we thank you for giving us the opportunity today to come into contact with you through the power of your Word Proclaimed. And we thank you in the midst of confusion. We thank you in the midst of not being inspired. We thank you or we thank you in the midst of clarity and in the midst of being illuminated and inspired and moved forward by your Grace and your Spirit. Because, Lord God, whenever your Word is proclaimed, whenever it is read or heard, we know that you are present. And we know that you are telling us something, you are revealing something of your heart to us. And you are revealing something of our hearts to ourselves. So, Lord God, where there is confusion, give us clarity. Where there is dullness, give us inspiration. Where there is a lack of zeal, give us a great joy and a love for you this day and everyday, Lord God. We ask this of you in the mighty name of your son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”