The Camp

Three Days' Journey

And they set forward from the mount of the LORD three days’ journey; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting-place for them.—Numbers 10:331

Daniel Kaleta

In the twenty-sixth generation from the creation of Adam, God revealed his name to mankind. Moses, a descendant of Eber the Semite, was to carry this holy name to a nation especially prepared for this purpose in the land of Egypt. God’s name needed a body of a nation “betrothed” (Ezekiel 16:8) to become his earthly tabernacle: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). A sanctuary worthy to be God’s dwelling place could not be set up in the land of Egypt. Because there was first the need to separate the nation that was to serve the Creator, Moses conveyed God’s command to Pharaoh by saying, “Let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice unto the LORD our God” (Exodus 5:3).

The Pillar of Cloud

Israel’s first stop on the way to freedom from Egyptian bondage was at Succoth (Exodus 12:37; Numbers 33:5). It was likely a gathering point of the Israelites and hence its name, which means “tents.” There, for the first time, the Israelites saw a “pillar of cloud” that from then on would accompany them in their journey to the promised land (Exodus 13:20-22). God accompanied the nation of Israel by either going ahead of them or placing himself in the rear of their group (Exodus 14:19,20). The pillar of cloud, or pillar of fire, was “a sign of redemption”; it divided Israel from the Egyptians and the rest of the world. Similarly at Mount Sinai, God commanded a strict adherence to the separation of the Israelite camp from his holy and terrifying glory. Crossing that line meant death (Exodus 19:12). On the sixth day of the month of Sivan on the day of the Pentecost, God’s glory appeared on the mount: “The LORD came down upon mount Sinai, to the top of the mount” (Exodus 19:20). “The glory of the LORD abode upon mount Sinai” (Exodus 24:16). Later, Moses set up for himself a tent of meeting on the side of the mount so that he could talk with God. “Now Moses used to take the tent and to pitch it without the camp, afar off from the camp; and he called it the tent of meeting. And it came to pass, that every one that sought the LORD went out unto the tent of meeting, which was without the camp” (Exodus 33:7).

Despite the appearing of God’s glory (Exodus 19:18), despite the announcement of the ten Words (Commandments, see Exodus 20:1), despite the establishing of the covenant (Exodus 24:8), the camp of Israel was still not ready to become God’s dwelling place. A new tent of meeting was to be consecrated for that purpose, together with its altar and priesthood: “And there I will meet with the children of Israel; and [the tent] shall be sanctified by my glory. And I will sanctify the tent of meeting, and the altar; Aaron also and his sons will I sanctify, to minister to me in the priest’s office. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the LORD their God” (Exodus 29:43-46). This was the ultimate purpose of leading Israel out of Egypt by the way of their “three days’ journey”—so God could dwell within the camp of Israel.

The long awaited moment of God’s glory “moving in” to the newly built and consecrated Tent of Meeting took place on the first day of the month Nisan (Exodus 40:17), almost one year after the exodus from Egypt: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. For the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys” (Exodus 40:34,38). From that point on, God dwelt in Israel’s camp, which had fully become his dwelling place, holy and separated from the world [Egypt] by the “three days’ journey.”

The visible sign of God’s presence over the Tent of Meeting gave the Israelites the sense of God’s closeness, but its main function was to continue to lead the nation through the wilderness on its way to the Promised Land: “[I] went before you in the way, to seek you out a place to pitch your tents in: in fire by night, to show you by what way ye should go, and in the cloud by day” (Deuteronomy 1:33). From the first day of the month Nisan, the Israelites would set up their camp around the pillar of the cloud of God’s glory. The cloud was in the center of the camp; it was not as it had been before, at the border between the camp and the outside world. The sacrifices offered to God were now killed in the midst of the camp; they were not, as at Mount Sinai, offered in the space between the glory of the Lord and Israel’s camp to seal the establishment of the covenant.

The Camp

The organization of the camp is described in the first ten chapters of Numbers. Aaron, Moses and all Levitical families camped close to the Tent of Meeting and encircled it. At a considerable distance from them were all the other tribes.

A few observations can be drawn from this arrangement of the camp:

1. The tent entrance was on the east side, the side where the priests and Moses camped (Numbers 3:38). Further east were Judah’s tents whose camp included three tribes and was the most numerous.

2. The firstborn had their camp on the West side of the Tent. Jacob considered Ephraim and Manasseh as his “first born” rather than Reuben and Simeon (Genesis 48:5). Gershon was most likely the firstborn of Levi since he is mentioned first.

3. The Ephraimite camp was the closest to the Most Holy but its distance to the gate of the tent was the farthest.

4. The largest camp is in the east; the camp of Reuben in the south and that of Dan in the north are slightly smaller and almost the same size. The smallest camp was that of Ephraim in the west.

5. The sequence of the arrangement of the camps given in the Bible starts in the east and progresses clockwise to the south, the west, and then north.

6. The camps of the Levites are set up similarly: the most important, the priestly camp, is found on the east side. On the south were the Kohathites who carried the furniture of the tent and the Court; then Gershon in the west, who was in charge of the covers, veils, and cords, and finally Merari, who had the responsibility for the wooden boards, was on the north.

7. The Levite camps were directly adjacent to the tent while those of the other Israelites were to be “far off” (Numbers 2:2). Based on Joshua 3:4 it is thought that the distance was 2,000 cubits, about a half mile.

Outside the Camp

Tied directly to the instructions about setting up the camp were the regulations concerning the removal of unclean people: “Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is unclean by the dead; both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them; that they defile not their camp, in the midst whereof I dwell” (Numbers 5:2,3). The camp, the dwelling place of God, throughout which he would “walk” just as in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8), was to be holy. Its holiness was to be achieved by the keeping of the ordinances of cleanliness, by the cleansing received from sacrifices, and by removing those who threatened its cleanliness. It was outside the camp that offenders were stoned (Leviticus 24:14). The remains of the offenders who died inside the camp were taken outside (Leviticus 10:4); by inference a burial ground was located outside the camp.

In the unclean zone that likely surrounded the entire camp, there was one clean area where the remnants of the sacrifices whose blood was carried into the sanctuary were burned (Leviticus 4:12). Probably it was in that place that the red heifer sacrifice was offered; her ashes served for the cleansing of the people and places contaminated by contact with the dead (Numbers 19:3).

Israel’s camp, while removed by three days’ journey from Egypt, was also separated from it by this belt of unclean ground.

The Camp on the Move

On the twentieth day of the second month (Ijar) or on the fiftieth day of the year, the Israelites moved from mount Sinai (Numbers 10:11,12).2 From that day forward their march was to be in the order designated by God’s ordinance (Numbers 2:17,18). At the sound of an alarm from two silver trumpets, the first to move was the eastern camp of Judah. Then the Tent of Meeting was to be disassembled for travel and the Gershonites and Merarites were to move next transporting the structure of the Tabernacle on six wagons pulled by twelve oxen (Numbers 7:3-9). Then at another sound of the trumpets, the southern camp of Reuben moved. It was followed by the Kohathites carrying the furnishings of the sanctuary. It appears that they walked side by side with the priests, because in Numbers 10 there is no indication of further signals given by the priestly trumpets calling the two last camps of Ephraim and Dan to march.

From the descriptions of Numbers 10:33 and Deuteronomy 1:33 it appears that the ark of the covenant was not transported together with the other five furniture items of the sanctuary and Court. More likely it accompanied Aaron and Moses and was carried by the chosen Kohathites in front of the marching Israelites and indicated the new place where the camp should be set up. The leading camp of Judah had to set up its tents to the east of the Tabernacle. That means the new location for the Tent of Meeting had to be determined before the first tribe arrived.

A Few Symbolic Implications

It appears that the organization of Israel’s camp was only superficially dictated by practical constraints. The Israelites were good travelers before the camp was first organized at Mount Sinai. Most likely it was the symbolic aspects and the matter of ritual purity of the camp in which the Name of God would dwell that dictated the rules for camp setup and the movement of God’s chosen people. That is why Israel could not be God’s dwelling place in Egypt but had to journey a long and tiring way through the desert to Mount Sinai. From the distance of the “three days’ journey” from the world they could become an eternal pattern of the holiness of God’s people.

1. East of Eden

The entrance to the Tabernacle was on its east side and guarded by the cherubs woven onto the cloth gate (Exodus 26:1). It was to remind the Israelites of the first pair expelled from the garden of Eden looking with longing back to paradise lost where, on its eastern border, two cherubim stood guarding the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). God symbolically opens the way to the tree of life which is beyond three “gates,” guarded constantly by the fiery cherubim who kill those daring to approach in an unauthorized manner (Leviticus 10:2; Numbers 3:38).

2. The glory of the Invisible God

The sanctuary of the Tent of Meeting is a compelling illustration of the idea of an invisible God. The objects of worship in other cultures and temples were at least periodically exposed to the public eye to testify to the greatness of the god being represented. The Tent of Meeting hid from the eyes of the people everything that was to prove the glory of God. An ordinary Israelite only saw the gate kept by the cherubim, the pillar of cloud of God’s presence, and the smoke of the perpetual offering rising from the altar in the Court. Only the Levites saw the equipment in the Court and the ceremonies that took place in it. The entrance to the first chamber of the sanctuary was only for priests authorized to serve, while only the high priest could ever enter the second, where the ark of the covenant was located. The entire worship carried out behind the three veils had to be experienced internally, spiritually, without the support of one’s usual senses. Since an average Israelite had to camp at least a half mile away, his religiousness had to be internal, spiritual, directed toward heaven where God really dwells, and who, in the Tent of Meeting only chose to express the truth of his eternal existence, which is invisible to man.

3. God’s Body

The apostle Paul calls a human body a tabernacle, a tent (2 Corinthians 5:1). So if the Tent of Meeting was God’s dwelling place, then in some respects it was his “body.” The most important element, the heart of this body so to speak, was the ark of the covenant. But it also had other internal organs. It was those pieces that constituted the essence of the term “sanctuary.” We know that the portable frame of the Tent of Meeting was transported by the Gershonites and Merarites in between the camps of Judah and Reuben, and yet it is said of the Kohathites that it was they who were the “bearers of the sanctuary” (Numbers 10:21). On the west were the Gershonites who transported the covers, veils, and cords, the skin and muscles as it were. Then on the north side were the Merarites who carried the “bones” of the Tabernacle. Looking at the Tabernacle from the outside, one saw only the covers, veils, and cords, i.e., the skin and perhaps clothing. That is how we human beings perceive others and sometimes even God himself. Yet the Lord teaches Samuel the prophet and us, “For man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). It was the “heart” of the Tabernacle—the ark of the covenant—that went ahead and determined the next camp site. It is the heart that dictates the place where God’s holiness abides, and only afterward around that place indicated by the heart, the external and material aspects of service develop.

When Moses received the building instructions for the Tent of Meeting, the description always started with the ark of the covenant, progressing to the other furniture, then to the Court; only in the end was the camp’s organization given with its rules regarding cleanliness and the unclean place outside the camp. The Tabernacle and the camp were organized in that order. Thus uncleanness is eventually determined by first starting with holiness, not the other way round. How often we human beings of flesh and bones, deceived by worldly wisdom, begin the construction of our holiness by arranging a place for the unclean, outside the camp. That’s what the Pharisees did (Matthew 23:23,25,26). Many Christians appear to follow this pattern as well instead of following the example of the camp of the “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).

The example of holiness shown in the type of the Tent of Meeting is inexhaustible, as inexhaustible as the width, length, depth, and height of divine wisdom. If a thousand scholars wrote a thousand books, they still could not cover all the aspects of the glory revealed in the Tabernacle. Yet it would be good if each spiritual Israelite brought at least a half of the required shekel (Exodus 30:13; 38:25,26) of the silver of wisdom. That silver was required in addition to the voluntary offerings (Exodus 25:2-7) of the fruits of love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7); so that from the distance of “three days’ journey” from Egypt, a Tabernacle could be raised, a dwelling place for the Lord.

1 Old Testament quotations are from the Hebrew Bible in English by the Jewish Publication Society, 1917.

2 : On the first day of the first month (Nisan), the tent was set up (Exodus 40:17). Since Nisan has 30 days, the 20th day of Ijar was exactly 50 days into the year.