In the Book of Numbers, certain tribes of Israel are clustered together. We see this in Numbers 2, which places three tribes on each of the four sides of the Tabernacle. The same clusters appear in Numbers 7, in which leaders of the tribes bring gifts to the Tabernacle. And, in Numbers 10:11-28, we see the order in which each tribal cluster moves out from Sinai.
Why are certain tribes
grouped with certain other tribes? And why are these tribes put in a
particular order----i.e., Judah is first, etc.? In this post, I'll
address this question by appealing primarily to Genesis 29:31-30:24, in
which Leah and Rachel give birth to the fathers of the tribes of Israel.
The first tribal cluster consists of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. They
camp on the east side of the Tabernacle, and they are also the first
three tribes to bring gifts to the Tabernacle in Numbers 7. Moreover,
they are the first to depart from Sinai. Judah appears to precede Issachar in importance, and Issachar appears to precede Zebulun.
Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun are the third, fourth, and fifth sons, respectively, of Jacob's wife Leah. So
why are they the most important cluster, and not Leah's first, second,
and third sons? Leah's first son, Reuben, was disqualified as firstborn
because he slept with Jacob's concubine (Genesis 35:22; 49:3-4; I
Chronicles 5:1). Leah's second and third sons were Simeon and Levi,
respectively, and they were scattered in Israel because of their
slaughter of the Shechemites (Genesis 34:25-31; 49:5-7). Consequently, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, the next in line, appear to take their place as the most important tribes.
second tribal cluster consists of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad. As I said
above, Reuben and Simeon are the first and second sons, respectively, of
Leah. Leah's third son, Levi, is not included in this cluster because
the Levites were to be servants of the Tabernacle, and so they were not a
part of any tribal cluster. The third tribe, Gad, is the firstborn son
of Leah's maid Zilpah.
The third tribal cluster consists of
Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. Ephraim and Manasseh are sons of
Joseph, the son of Rachel. Ephraim precedes Manasseh in importance in
Numbers just as he does in Genesis 48, in which Jacob blesses his
grandsons and makes them like his own sons. And Benjamin is the second
son of Rachel. The sons of Leah come first in importance, and
then the sons of Rachel follow. Could this be because God honored Leah
as the underdog, the wife whom Jacob did not love (see Genesis 29:31)?
The fourth tribal cluster consists of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. Dan
is the firstborn son of Rachel's maid Bilhah, and, as Jacob Milgrom
notes, he is the first among the sons of Israel to be born to one of
Jacob's concubines, which, according to Milgrom, is probably the reason
that Dan is the head of this cluster. Naphtali is the second
son of Bilhah and the second son born to one of Jacob's concubines. And
Asher is the second son of Leah's maid Zilpah. Remember that the first
son of Leah's maid Zilpah, Gad, is in the second tribal cluster, along
with Leah's first and second sons.
The general pattern
here is that Leah's sons come first, then Rachel's sons follow, and
finally we have the sons of the concubines. But this pattern is not
air-tight, for there needed to be a third person in the second cluster
for there to be twelve tribes surrounding the Tabernacle, and this was
solved by putting the first son of Leah's maid into it. Moreover,
while the order of birth often determines the importance of the tribes
in terms of their arrangement, that is not an absolute, for the first
cluster is younger than the second cluster, and Ephraim is younger than
Manasseh yet is more important.