Bemidbar 2 describes in great detail how the Israelites camped around the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The three images shown here, the rendering by John Kelchner,1 the engraving by Christoph Weigel,2 and the oil painting by a follower of Antoine Caron,3 all portray the Israelite encampment. Kelchner and Weigel's images focus on the Israelites at rest, while the third painting depicts the nation in transit. The artists differ in their understanding of the arrangement of the individual tribal units and in their conceptions of desert life.
Kelchner sets the campsite within a harsh and barren wilderness. Amidst the rocky cliffs, the Israelites surround the Tabernacle. Their tents are not arranged in neat rows, but sprawl out from the center in uneven groups. Each tribe has a distinct space, but the people move between the tents and tribal divisions.
In contrast to Kelchner, Weigel portrays the camp as an embodiment of symmetry and order. The tents are arranged in concentric squares, with the Tabernacle in the center, the Levites in the middle and the rest of the tribes on the outside. Each tribe is set up as its own square, clearly demarcated from the others.
Exodus of the Twelve Tribes
This image displays the camp as it traveled in the desert. The Levites, garbed in white, stand in the center carrying the various vessels of the Tabernacle. The tribes are armed and march in a square around them. Each carries its own flag. In the background, the browns of the desert turn into green pasture and clusters of trees.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Ordered or Relaxed Formation?
While Weigel depicts the nation as camping in a very rigid and strict formation, Kelchner portrays them as camping in a much more relaxed manner. The difference might relate to two larger questions emerging from the text. What was the purpose of the camp's structure? Was it related to the imminent conquest,4 in which case one might expect precision in placement and order? Or, was its key purpose to surround the presence of God, where that level of organization might not be so crucial? In addition, the strict separation raises questions as to the level of interaction between the tribes. How divided and tribal was the nation during their trek in the desert?
"As They Camped So They Traveled"?
In The Exodus of the Twelve Tribes, the nation is clearly traveling in a square, with the ark and other vessels in the center, similar to the way they camped. This fits with Bemidbar 2:17 which states: "כַּאֲשֶׁר יַחֲנוּ כֵּן יִסָּעוּ". Yet, the description of the travels in Bemidbar 10:11-28 suggests that the tribes traveled one after another,5 in a linear formation.6 Moreover, although both of the above passages (and, similarly, the painting) portray the Levites carrying the Tabernacle's vessels in the nation's midst, from Bemidbar 10:33 it appears that the Ark of the Covenant traveled in the front of the nation, guiding them. How can these two contrasting descriptions be reconciled? See The Camp in Transit for a discussion of this issue.
"וְאִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ"
The artist of The Exodus of the Twelve Tribes portrays the tribes carrying flags, a feature which is absent from the other two depictions. Did each tribe travel with its own banner? The Torah speaks of the nation being divided "אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם" but it is not clear what this phrase means. While many7 explain that it refers to each tribe having its own flag with a unique sign and color, others8 maintain that the word "דֶּגֶל" simply means a unit, and the verse is emphasizing how each person was to travel in his proper place.
A Green Desert?
The brown rocky desert of Kelchner stands in stark contrast to both the trees of Weigel's image and the green meadows depicted in the background of The Exodus of the Twelve Tribes. What was the nature of the wilderness through which the nation traveled? How often did they encounter oases and flourishing plant life? The answer, in part, depends on how one defines the term "מִדְבַּר". Many verses9 suggest that it connotes a desolate space, devoid of agriculture and greenery. On the other hand, other verses10 suggest that the root דבר refers to pasture or grazing land. The issue also relates to a larger question – to what extent was the existence in the desert a supernatural one? See Life in the Wilderness for elaboration.