#217. What was the organization of the Israelite camp during the wilderness period: no arrangement with the Tent of Meeting outside the camp OR in a circular tribal arrangement around the Tent of Meeting at its center? (Ex 33:7-8; Num 11:26, 12:4 vs Num 2)


This entry will serve as a general introduction to the book of Numbers—75% of which is a continuation of a once independently existing scroll written by the Aaronid priesthood of the exilic and post-exilic periods. In fact, all of the literature from Exodus 35 to Numbers 10:11 is from the pen of this elite priestly guild. This is supported by this literature’s sustained emphasis on the Aaronid priesthood (#152, #153-154, #160-161, #166, #177); the cultic institution with its sacrificial legislation (#137-138, #148-149, #155, #172); concern for issues of purity, holiness, and atonement of sins via sacrifice (#174, #175, #178, #183, #185); the observance of festivals and holy days (#109-110, #118, #186, #194-197, #198-204, #205-208); and its unique set of terms, sacrificial language, style, and vocabulary.

The book itself derives its name from its opening chapters where Yahweh is presented commanding Aaron and Moses to number the tribes of Israelites and to arrange them, in martial array, around the Tent of Meeting—that is around the sacrificial complex spearheaded by the Aaronid priests. Thus chapter 1 numbers all the tribes of Israel except the Levites who are singled out as ministers of the Tabernacle complex. Chapter 2 presents the plan of the encampment with the Tent of Meeting at its center and the families of the Levites arrayed around its four sides (Aaronids at the East, the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; Kohathites to the South; Gershonites to the West; and the Merarites on the North). Chapters 3-4 focus on the internal organization of the Levites, first with a numbering of their families, and then with a detailed treatment of the service each family was to provide for the Tent of Meeting, which basically boiled down to carrying and moving the various parts of this movable shrine. We should note as well, and contradictory to the pro-Levite written Deuteronmic texts (e.g., 1 Sam 6:13-19), that the Levites were not permitted to directly touch any of the cultic apparatus and its equipment for fear of death (Num 4:15; 18:3, 32). Only the consecrated Aaronid priests (i.e., Yahweh’s messiahs) were allowed to touch the Tabernacle equipment and approach the Tabernacle when erected.

As a further note, we should remember that this movable shrine, more idealistic than historical, weighed a whopping 7.5 tons!—2,200 lbs of gold; 7,585 lbs of silver; and 5,340 lbs of bronze (see #158 & #163)! And that number does not include the massive curtains which covered the entire structure. Seeing that it was the responsibility of the Kohathite and Merarite families to carry the Tabernacle equipment, and the frames and bars, etc. (while the Gershonites were responsible for the Tabernacle’s curtains and hangings), that yields a total of 5,900 well-bodied Levite adults (2,700 Kohathites and 3,200 Merarites (Num 4:34-42)) to carry 7.5 tons of gold, silver, and bronze—approximately 2.5 lbs per person across the hot Sinai peninsula!

One unique feature of this literature apparent from the opening of Numbers is the care for and importance of the Tabernacle complex, its cultic equipment, and the organization of the Israelite camp around this central sacrificial structure. In no other book of the Bible, with the exception of Ezekiel who was an Aaronid priest himself, is there any interest in the Tent of Meeting, which was the central cultic symbol and institution of the Aaronid priesthood that penned this text.

In other words, in no other book of the Bible does the Tent of Meeting with its sacrificial cult and Aaronid-led priesthood take up such a prominent and central role. Likewise, in no other book of the Bible is there an avid interest in presenting an organized holy community arranged around this cultic edifice and tent of its god. The Tent of Meeting with its sacrificial Altar and Aaronid priesthood is strictly a priestly innovation. It is mentioned more than 100 times in the Priestly source, while nothing is said of it in the Levite written Deuteronomic texts, and its only other reference in the Pentateuch is a meager 3 times in the Elohist source!

The Priestly literature’s focus on Aaron, the Aaronid priesthood, and the sacrificial cult is even more pronounced when we compare its vocabulary with other Pentateuchal sources. For instance, the term for sacrifice appears 82 times throughout P, while only 20 times in E, and merely a dozen times in D. Aaron, its central figure, is mentioned 261 times in the Priestly literature, while he is only mentioned 35 time in E and twice in D! The word “priest,” which not surprisingly gives this source its title, appears 275 times, while making a meager 7 appearances in D! This is not just a difference in terminology, but in the whole concept and purpose of religion as imagined by these very two different authors. The Aaronid priests who wrote the Priestly source define religion in terms of the sacrificial cult. Furthermore, it is the Aaronid priests who are the sole mediators to Yahweh, and all sin, unintentional sins only, must be atoned through the sacrificial cult as they envisioned it. The Deuteronomist, on the other hand, defines religion in vastly different terms. It is not equated with the sacrificial cult but with more secular ideas. Likewise, the word “holy” is found 166 times in P and only 6 times in D—emphasizing once again the importance of maintaining holiness and the boundaries between the pure and the impure that were conceived of by this elite priestly guild as inherent parts of the cosmos as God originally created.

In other words, the whole Priestly text legitimates the role of the Aaronid priesthood as sole mediators between Yahweh and the people via the sacrificial cult whose complex, the Tent of Meeting, resided at the core of this idealized and archaic Israelite encampment.

The Priestly writer’s unique interest in this archaic cultic shrine and more so its importance and relevance with respect to the Aaronid’s sacrificial cult are at variance with other, and earlier, Pentateuchal sources where the Tent of Meeting and/or the sacrificial cult played a minor role or no significant role at all in regards to how religion was conceptualized by these writers. Obviously priests are going to emphasis the importance of the sacrificial cult over and against non-priestly written texts and traditions. Thus, in the more secular focused Deuteronomic literature there is no mention of the sacrificial cult nor the Tent of Meeting. Likewise in the earlier Elohist source, although the Tent of Meeting is mentioned approximately 3 times it is dissociated from the sacrificial cult, and contrary to the Priestly source its location is presented as being outside the camp and is portrayed as a place where Moses goes to communicate directly with Yahweh (e.g., Ex 33:7-8; Num 11:26, 12:4). Contrary to this older Elohist tradition, the Priestly source also does not permit Moses to enter the Tent of Meeting; only the Aaronid priests are granted this privilege! This textual contradiction, therefore, reflects the contradictory views associated with the Tent of Meeting between a secular scribe such as the Elohist and an elite priestly writer such as our Aaronid priest of Leviticus and Numbers.

Another unique feature of the Priestly source, as we have already seen, is its interest in dates and chronologies. So for example, the book of Numbers opens with a reference to its chronological setting: “on the 1st day of the 2nd month in the 2nd year of their exodus” (Num 1:1). In other words, the Priestly writer reckons time from the date of the exodus onward—that is, from Yahweh’s redemptive act and the creation of Yahweh’s people. Thus, we are literally at 2/1/2 in the narrative!

The same author also gave us specific dates in other places of his composition:

  • Numbers 7 which records the dedication sacrifices made after the Tabernacle and Aaronid priesthood are anointed on 1/8/2 is chronologically out of place (see #170).
  • in Exodus 40 we are informed that the whole cultic structure—Tabernacle, Tent of Meeting, Altar, and the Aaronid priesthood—were established on 1/1/2 (Ex 40:17; Lev 8)
  • Exodus 19, which is mostly E material, nevertheless opens up with a verse from the Priestly writer noting that the arrival at Sinai happened during the 3rd month after the Exodus, 3/1/1
  • and Exodus 12:1 informs us that the Yahweh’s Passover, his redemption of all Israelite firstborns through a blood ritual on the eve of the Exodus happened on 1/14/1!

The Priestly writer’s chronology would have been more easily perceivable in the scroll that he originally composed as one whole document:

  1. The Passover-Exodus marked the beginning of the calendar year, 1/14/1
  2. The arrival at Sinai 3 months later, and the giving of only in the Priestly literature the instructions for building the Tabernacle, Altar, and Tent of Meeting (#156), and the selection of the Aaronids to spearhead the sacrificial cult happened over a period of 9 months.
  3. The erection of the cultic institution and the anointing of the Aaronid priesthood on New Year’s Day 1/1/2
  4. And the giving of the sacrificial law code and purity laws happened during the first month after the Tabernacle is erected, and ends at the beginning of the 2nd month, 2/1/2.

So the whole sacrificial legislation given in the book of Leviticus transpired during the 1st month of the 2nd year, according to this writer’s time frame. Or to put it in proper historical context: when the 6th century BCE Priestly writer drafted the cultic legislation for the Aaronids he authenticated its laws by not only presenting them as Yahweh’s words, but also by creating a narrative and chronology that appended this ritual law code onto the tail end of an already existing authoritative tradition—the Elohist’s Sinai tradition. So our 6th century writer denies authorship, denies origianality, and rather presents his law code as part of an already accepted and authoritative tradition—the giving of the laws at Sinai. The Priestly writer’s emphasis on chronology aids in this subversive literary technique by situation his 6th century ritual law code in the ensuing months following the Sinai revelation, according to the tradition that was already established and handed down to him.

8 thoughts on “#217. What was the organization of the Israelite camp during the wilderness period: no arrangement with the Tent of Meeting outside the camp OR in a circular tribal arrangement around the Tent of Meeting at its center? (Ex 33:7-8; Num 11:26, 12:4 vs Num 2)

  1. Welcome to Dr. Steven D’s site.
    I really enjoy his posts and this site too.
    I am looking forward to when he gets to the Gospels and the writings of Paul or how many Pauls?
    Rudy T

  2. I stumbled onto this website while researching this topic. Thk u so very much for ur effort. Pardon shorthand and typo using analog keyboard. I have ba history with a concentration in african american history, ma teaching hst, bs spec ed, minor psychology. I give this background to show my understanding of history in general and understanding historical sources. I really agree with what u said about understanding context. We explain it to students as wearing rose colored glasses. Sources will differ their understanding of events based on many factors, socio economic background, race, religious views, political correctness of the times, ect. We go even further to say imagine u r a police officer and a crime has taken place with twenty five direct witnesses. However, these witnesses backgrounds vary. They r of multiple ages, races, different neighborhoods, religious affiliations ect. Each witness may see say a murder, a white male stabs a black male, that is the fact, however when looking at the why and preceding events u will hear a multitude of differences in the stories. Then one must root out the facts. Then consider how many of the other details can be proven as fact. How does the individual tell their version and why. I am so very glad i found this site. I hope others looking for true historical perspective about the bible stumble here and find answers rather than finding other sites with multiple biases littered throughout. Its difficult to use the internet as a research tool today.

  3. Thanks
    Hope you also have a memorable year end and a new year full of new promises
    I wanted to know whether I can ask you any other doubts other than
    bible contradictions
    Prof.Dr.Leo Theobald Menezes

    1. Dr. Leo,

      That’s fine. In general I like to preserve this site for a discussion of the biblical texts themselves, which inevitably includes talking about—in cases attempting to discern—the authors behind these texts, the specific historical circumstances that prompted them to write what they did in the first place, their religious and/or political convictions and ideologies, and their beliefs, worldviews, views about sacrifice, religion, Israel’s deity, etc. One of the primary goals here, as I’m sure you’ve become aware of, is to demonstrate through the texts themselves that the Bible’s 70+ different authors had, in many cases, vastly different perceptions of the world, perceptions of God, vastly different views about religion, different beliefs, values, and so on. This is easily—ought to be easily—discernible when we realize that the texts in this collection of texts were written over a thousand year period by a vast array of different authors: royal scribes, secular archivists, elite and powerful priests, prophets, individuals, etc.

      Studying these texts themselves—their authors’ varying, and often competing and contradictory, messages, beliefs, and purposes for writing their texts—and acknowledging these differences (what I have been labeling as being honest to the texts and their authors, and thus not later readers’ views and perceptions about these texts) certainly clashes with what the label “Bible” has come to invoke and how many modern Christians view (I dear not say read) the Bible in general—that is, usually as a homogeneous, single-authored narrative with a happy-ending unified story line representing a determined divine plan. This, however, is a later interpretive framework imposed upon these texts centuries later by readers who were concerned with advocating their own agendas, beliefs, and views.

      In short, I guess I’m trying to say, listening to the texts themselves and their unique messages and authorial agendas clashes, quite violently perhaps, with how these texts are “read” and viewed through later (centuries later) interpretive frameworks, the most influential of which goes by the name of the (Christian) Bible. So it’s a 2-step process, and discussion, here. First, acknowledging that the authors of these ancient texts had varying and often contradictory beliefs, views of the world, ideologies, etc. Second, acknowledging, and on a cultural level grappling with, the fact that our beliefs and our beliefs about this so-called book are radically different from the authors of these texts. Ideally, that is the conversation I’d like to bring to the public.

      Many of my Christians readers rather simply impose their beliefs onto these texts without ever really engaging with the texts themselves on the terms of their unique authors and each one in its own historical and literary context—i.e., before they were co-opted by later readers and placed into a different interpretive framework called “the Holy Book.” So when these texts’ belief systems, views of the world, even views of God clash with and differ from our beliefs and/or our beliefs about the text and its beliefs—as is only natural living some 2-3 millennia later and under radically different perceptions about the world, etc.—then this is certainly a conversation that is not to be ignored. So I’m more than happy to engage in conversations of this sort. However, from my experience here, I’m not sure the human species is ready (mature enough) for that conversation—i.e., us creating our own beliefs which in turn define our realities!

  4. Dear Dr.Steven
    I am not receiving the bible contadictions Daily. Once in a fortnight or so.
    Am I missing on some things ?
    If I have any other doubts may I write to you?
    Greeting of the Christmas Season and very Happy New Year To you and Your Family

    Prof.Dr.Leo Theobald Menezes

    1. “Once in a fortnight” — yes, sad to say that is correct. I have grossly been slacking in my original promise of 1 contradiction a day over the last few months. I have regrettably been averaging less than half-a-dozen for the past few months now. I apologize, will try to beef-up my activities here. After all, if I want to get through the whole Bible I better get on with it then.

      Cheers, and happy holidays.

  5. Fantastic information Dr. Steven.
    “Sixth century ritual law handed down to him”
    A whopping 7.5 tons hauling around in the hot Sinai
    Rudy T

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