Our Fathers’ Banners

After the initial census of the people of Israel ended and before the Bible describes how the different tribes camped in the desert, the following verses appear:

“The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “The people of Israel shall camp each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ houses. They shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side.” (Numbers 2:1-2)

In the original Hebrew ‘with the banners of their fathers’ houses’ can be understood as what written in the English translation, but also as two independent and separate concepts meaning ‘the banners’: (‘Diglo’ {דגלו} in Hebrew) is one meaning and ‘their fathers’ houses’ (‘Le-Vet Avotam’ {לבית אבותם} in Hebrew) is another meaning.

An old Jewish Midrash (a Jewish lesson) noticed that there were two meanings and asked ‘why the two things are separate?’ Or in other words, why was it necessary to mention ‘their fathers’ houses’ – isn’t it obvious?

The answer is found in an interesting ancient Jewish tradition discussing exactly what Jacob told his sons before he died (Genesis: 49). According to this tradition, before Jacob died he gave specific instructions of how all of them would carry his coffin:

From the east: Judah, Issachar and Zebulun.

From the south: Reuben, Simeon and Gad.

From the west: Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin.

From the north: Dan, Asher and Naphtali.

Jacob’s son Levy did not carry his coffin because his role was to carry the Ark of the Covenant. In the original Hebrew, the word for both ‘coffin’ and the ‘Ark’ is ‘Aron’ ({ארון} literally meaning ‘a place of storage’) – and Jacob said that ‘who is to carry the ‘Ark of God’ (‘Aron Ha-Elohim’ {ארון האלוהים}) will not carry a coffin (‘Aron Metim’ {ארון מתים}).’

When the Children of Israel went out of Egypt and God told Moses that they would need to be organized by their tribes when they camped in the desert, Moses was worried they would argue about the position of each tribe. So that is why, according to this ‘Midrash,’ God told Moses they shall camp according to ‘their fathers’ houses’ – meaning, this formation was already known to them because it is exactly the same order as their fathers carried Jacob’s coffin.