As we pick up in chapter 9 of Numbers, Moses reminds the reader of the presence of God in the cloud above the tabernacle. On the first day the tabernacle was completed (first day of the second year of the exodus, or 1445 BC), the cloud covered it (recall Exodus 40:34). Verses 15-23 in chapter 9 explain what the cloud meant for the Israelites.
We first learn, in verses 15-16, that from dusk to dawn the cloud would have the appearance of fire so that the people of Israel could always see God’s presence, even during the night.
Verses 17-23 have an almost poetic quality, as if the author is exalting the presence and direction of God in the life of Israel. The presence of the cloud is equated with the command of God to stay where they are or to move their camp.
The system is simple: if the cloud covers the tabernacle, the Israelites are to stay encamped where they are. This could be the case for a single day, weeks, or even months. When the cloud lifted up into the sky, it was a signal to Israel to get the camp ready for movement. The people would then pack up the tabernacle, gather their belongings, decamp in an orderly and prescribed fashion, tribe by tribe, and follow the cloud (God), wherever He led.
As we skip ahead to the twentieth day of the second month of the second year (chapter 10, verses 11-36), the cloud lifts up and God signals to Israel that it is time to leave Mount Sinai, where they spent the last 11 months. The excitement must have been incredible, as in a short time Israel would reach the borders of the Promised Land of Canaan.
In verses 14-28, Moses is careful to describe the exact order of decampment. The tribes move off in groups of three, as prescribed in chapter 2 of Numbers. The tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun went first. After they departed, the tabernacle was taken down by the Levite clans of Gershon and Merari. They would then load the curtains and poles of the tabernacle on oxcarts and set out behind Judah’s tribe-group.
Next the tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad set out. They were followed by the Levite clan of Kohath, who carried the holy things of the tabernacle (i.e., the table for the bread, the lampstand, the incense altar, the altar of burnt offering, and the ark). In verse 33, however, we read that the ark was moved to the front of the procession. Notice that the Gershonites and Merarites were to arrive before the Kohathites so that the tabernacle could be assembled before the holy things arrived (except the ark).
The third group of tribes to leave was Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin, and the final group consisted of Dan, Asher and Naphtali.
R. Dennis Cole, in Numbers: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary), explains the meaning of the order of departure:
The order and symmetry of the beginning of the journey from the mountain of God, the place where the nation has been constituted, to the Promised Land, where the fulfillment of that nationhood was to be confirmed, echo the essential themes of . . . unity and harmony, purity and faithfulness. The people of God move out in harmonious accord, faithful to the Lord’s leading through the cloud pillar and the ark of the covenant, the symbols of his presence with them in a miracle of nature and in the focal point of the relationship between God and his people.
When the people of God follow his instructions, there is orderliness, unity, and harmony. The faith of the Israelites is on display for future generations to emulate.
Verses 29-32 describe Moses asking his brother-in-law, Hobab, to travel with them to the Promised Land. Why was Moses so interested in having Hobab come along? Probably because Hobab was familiar with the terrain they would be covering, and he could help Moses find water and better navigate the terrain God was leading the nation through.
In verses 33-34, we learn that this initial part of the journey to the Promised Land would be a “three-day journey.” Rather than understanding the journey as actually taking three days, it should be understood as a measure of distance. Fifteen miles per day was the average distance an army could travel, so it is best to interpret the journey as covering about 45 miles. It may have taken more than 3 actual days for Israel to cover that distance.
Finally, in verses 35-36, Moses repeats two phrases, one when Israel departs their camp, and one when Israel arrives at a new destination. When they depart, Moses exclaims, “Rise up, O LORD! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.” When they come to rest, he exclaims, “Return, O LORD, to the countless thousands of Israel.”
The faith and confidence that Moses has in the God of Israel stands in sharp contrast to events that will soon occur. Things are about to go downhill.