Widely circulated photo of ancient bronze flag attached to copper pole. Flag has been
dated to 2400 BC and was discovered at an archaeological site near Shahdad, Iran in 1971.
Text:  Numbers 2:2 "Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father's house." KJV

"Each by his standard, with ensigns of the house of their fathers, do the sons of Israel encamp; over against, round about the tent of meeting, they encamp.'"(YLT)

The Hebrew word for standard is "degel" and means a chief flag or banner. And the Hebrew word for ensign is "oth" and means a sign of appearance, evidence or monument. 

While this chapter in Numbers is especially insightful as to how the children of Isreal  organized themselves  when encamped* (see note below), verse 2 raises two  interesting questions. How many flags were erected in the camp of Israel? And what did these ancient flags look like?

When it comes to interpreting Number 2:2, Biblical scholars have found two meanings.  Some think that there was both a chief (division) flag (dehgel)  and secondary tribe, group or even household group flags (oth); meaning that each tent was pitched in the assigned division (his own standard) and segmented by tribes and again by households (with the ensign of their father's).

Others think the text to be a statement accompanied with emphasis, meaning that "dehgel" is the subject and "oth" is descriptive; such as "a chief banner appearing as a monument".

While the Bible is vague as to how many flags, and it does not give any information as to the design and materials of Israel's banners or the symbols adorning them, researches tend to think that the culture of the day may give good insight and that the Israelite flags probably resembled Egyptian military ensigns similar to those found on monuments.

In general,  Egyptian flags were umbrella or fan-like in form,  made of ostrich feathers, and attached to very tall poles. One or more colorful shawls (long strips of decorated cloth) were draped around and tied into place just below the flag's base.  And sculptured symbols, made of metal and mostly of religious significance, were fastened to the top of the pole. 

These flags could be quite heavy and were usually transported upright on a rolling cart or braced on several men’s shoulders.

However, the discovery of the 9 1/4" square bronze flag at the archaeological dig near Shahdad,  Iran has presented new considerations and possibilities for Israel's flags. 

Decorations on Israel's flags.
Early Jewish writer/historians record that the colors adorning the Hebrew flags were the same as those of the precious stones that represented each tribe in the breastplate of the high priest [Exo_28:17-21].

The Targum of Jonathan  describes the ornamental top pieces of Israel's flags as:  Reuben the form of a man,  Judah the form of a lion, Ephraim the form of an ox, Dan the form of an eagle, so that they might be like the cherubim the prophet Ezekiel saw.  (Ezekiel 1:10)  [This is a translation or paraphrase of a certain portion of the Old Testament Scriptures in the Chaldee or Aramaic language (dialect.)] 

Whatever the material, color, design and ornamentation, these flags served a two-fold purpose, that of stating the identity of one's division, tribe, group, family, or household;  and that of identifying one's location in the camp.  

From Joseip PItts:  (An account of an early Arabian military caravan and the use of the ornaments decorating the top of their flag poles on dark days and at night.)

"They are somewhat like iron stoves (the ornamental top pieces) into which they put short dry wood, which some of the camels are loaded with.  It (the wood) is carried in great sacks which have a hole near the bottom, from which the servants take it out as they see the fires need a recruit. Every cotter (company) has one of these poles belonging to it, some of which have ten or  twelve, of these lights on their tops.  They (tops) are likewise of different figures as well as numbers; one perhaps oval, one like a gate; another triangle, or like an N or an M, etc; so that every one knows by them his respective cottor."  "Religion and Manners of the Mahometans", p.150-151. Published 1738, London.)

Camp of Israel
When stationery, the camp of Israel was grouped into four divisions that consisted of three tribes each.

From Wesley's commentary: "It is supposed that the tribes were placed at 2000 cubits distance from the Tabernacle, which was the space between the people and the ark...with the Levites encamped round about it and separate from the other tribes.

It can also be observed that those tribes that were nearest of kin (or of a like relationship) to each other were placed together.

Division 1: Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. These were the three youngest sons of Leah. Judah, being the eldest, was placed in command. 

Division 2: Reuben and Simeonm, the oldest sons of Leah along with Gad,  the oldest son Leah's  handmaid (Zilpah). Reuben, as the eldest, was placed in command.

Division 3: Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin were all descended from Rachel. Joseph, being older than Benjamin, his oldest son, Ephraim, was placed in command.

Division 4: Dan  and Naphtali,  the sons of Rachel's handmaid (Bilhah), along with Asshur,  the youngest son of Leah's handmaid (Zilphy). Dan, as the oldest, was placed in command. 

Copyright by Ancient Bible History - Eden Games Inc.


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