Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(2) With the ensign.—Better the signs or ensigns. Probably each father’s house had its own smaller ensign or flag.
Far off about the tabernacle of the congregation . . . —Better, over against the tent of meeting shall they pitch round about it. The word minneged (over against) generally implies the idea of distance as well as that of opposition. At the same time it is more correctly rendered over against than far off. The meaning seems to be that the four camps which encircled the tent of meeting were pitched opposite to, but at some distance from it; and this is implied in the directions given in the following chapter for the encamping of the Levites immediately round the tent of meeting. It has been supposed that the nearest tents were above 2,000 cubits, which was probably a Sabbath day’s journey, from the tabernacle (cf. Joshua 3:4); and on this supposition the area of the camp has been computed at about three square miles. The form of encampment was probably circular.
(9) These shall first set forth.—It is quite possible that there may be a primary reference in Genesis 49:10 to the position which the camp of Judah should occupy in the marches of the Israelites.
(16) Throughout their armies.—Better, according to their hosts. So in Numbers 2:3; Numbers 2:24. In Numbers 2:31 the words “with their standards” seem to be used in the same manner. Each tribe had probably the common standard (degel) of its leading tribe as well as its own smaller ensigns.
(17) In the midst of the camp.—Or. host. The word mahaneh (camp) here denotes evidently the whole of the four united camps or hosts. As the tent of meeting was compassed about by the four camps when stationary, so it was placed in the centre when they were in motion, having the camps of Judah and Reuben before it, and those of Ephraim and Dan behind it. As the sanctuary of God was in the midst of the camp of the Israelites, and set forward in the midst of their hosts as they marched, so God is represented by the Psalmist as being in the midst of His Church (Psalm 46:5). The collocation of the tribes was evidently determined in accordance with their mutual relationship. Thus, the eastern camp was composed exclusively of the descendants of the sons of Leah; the southern of those of the two remaining sons of Leah (the tribe of Levi being encamped around the Tabernacle) and a son of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid; the western of those of one of the sons and of the two grandsons of Rachel; and the northern of those of the two sons of Bilhah and of the remaining son of Zilpah. If this arrangement is examined, it will be found that, if allowance be made for the separation of the tribe of Levi, none could have been made in which the relationship by birth would be more closely adhered to. We may learn from this arrangement that the ties of nature should strengthen those of Christian communion. The grouping of the tribes in Ezekiel 48:30-34 is different, but the family relationship is still more closely preserved. In Revelation 7:5-8, where the reference is to a state in which they neither marry nor are given in marriage, the twelve tribes are enumerated without any regard to family relationship. It is deserving of notice that when the lots of the several tribes were finally determined, we find that the temporary association established during their encampments in the wilderness was to a great extent preserved. Thus we see, in regard to the three tribes which formed the eastern camp, that Issachar and Zebulun had adjoining territories; that of those which formed the southern camp, Reuben and Gad had adjoining territories on the east of the Jordan; that this was also the case with the three tribes which formed the western camp, viz., Benjamin, Manasseh, and Ephraim; and that of those which formed the northern camp, Asher and Naphtali had adjoining territories.
(32) These are those which were numbered.—The number of the Israelites was very large, considering in how short a time, and under what adverse circumstances, the small company which went down into Egypt had multiplied into 600,000 men capable of bearing arms, independently of the tribe of Levi. But the spiritual Israel of Revelation 7:9 is represented as a great multitude which no man could number.”
The subjoined plan will suffice to convey a general idea of the position of the twelve tribes with respect to the tent of meeting during their encampments in the wilderness. It does not clearly appear what was the position of the leading or standard tribe in regard to the two other tribes which constituted together with it one camp.