THE FOUR BANNERS OF ISRAEL  


 

THE FOUR BANNERS OF ISRAEL

Although there is no Biblical testimony to indicate what the images were on the four banners described at Numbers 2:2ff, there is considerable information available so that we are able to make some very probable conclusions.

The research on this subject has been collected by Tony Garland (www.SpiritAndTruth.org) and is quoted here.

As to the contents of each camp’s standard, tradition tells us that each camp had a different symbol upon its standard:

Neither the Mosaic law, nor the Old Testament generally, gives us any intimation as to the form or character of the standard (degel). According to rabbinical tradition, the standard of Judah bore the figure of a lion, that of Reuben the likeness of a man or of a man’s head, that of Ephraim the figure of anox, and that of Dan the figure of an eagle; so that the four living creatures united in the cherubic forms described by Ezekiel were represented upon these four standards.7

Jewish tradition says the “four standards” under which Israel encamped in the wilderness, to the east, Judah, to the north, Dan, to the west, Ephraim, to the south, Reuben, were respectively a lion, an eagle, an ox, and a man, while in the midst was the tabernacle containing the Shekinah symbol of the Divine Presence.8

The Talmud saw in these four creatures the four primary forms of life in God’s creation. It also noted that the twelve tribes of Israel camped under these four banners; some with Reuben (symbolized by a man), others with Dan (symbolized by an eagle), others with Ephraim (symbolized by the calf, or ox), and the rest with Judah (symbolized by a lion).9

The Jewish writers tell us, that the standard of each tribe of Israel took the colour of the stone which represented it in the high priest’s breastplate, and that there was wrought upon each a particular figure—a lion for Judah, a young ox for Ephraim, a man for Reuben, and an eagle for Dan.10

No further information is provided about the size, color or representation on these standards. Jewish tradition, however, does provide a clue to the way in which later generations of Jews viewed the standards. The Aramaic paraphrase of the Torah, called Targum Jonathan, and the ancient commentary on Numbers, called Bemidbar Rabbah , suggest that each tribe was assigned a color corresponding to the color of its respective stone in the high priest’s breastplate. Thus, the color of Dan would be blue because a sapphire is blue. The four standards, therefore, were composed of the colors of the three tribes of each triad. The tradition continues that each of the four standards depicted a living being. Judah’s animal was a lion, Reuben’s a man, Ephraim’s an ox and Dan’s an eagle. This tradition may have been influenced by the cherubim in Ezekiel’s vision who also had four faces (Ezek. 1:10; see also Rev. 4:7+). It should be emphasized that there is no solid biblical or historical basis for these descriptions of the standards. The Jewish tradition, however, does provide the most logical suggestion for their descriptions, particularly in the case of Judah and Ephraim (see Gen. 49:9 and Deu. 33:17).11

Jewish tradition holds that the standards contained the very symbols Scripture reveals in association with the four living creatures (Eze. 1:10; 10:14; Rev. 4:7+).

In opposition to this tradition, some have noted the adverse reaction of the Jews of NT times to the images on the Roman standards:

Every tribe had its particular standard, probably with the name of the tribe embroidered with large letters. It seems highly improbable that the figures of animals should have been painted on them, as the Jewish writers assert; for even in after ages, when Vitellius wished to march through Judea, their great men besought him to march another way, as the law of the land did not permit images (such as were on the Roman standard) to be brought into it. Josephus Ant. 1. xviii. c. 7.12

It is not clear that the Jews would have allowed images on their standards: In the time of Augustus, Roman legionaries would leave their standards in the Judean port city of Caesarea, so that the images drawn upon them would not offend the sensitive Jews.13

In response to this proposed difficulty, it may be observed:

  1. Jewish writers and rabbinical tradition maintain the standards did have images of animals upon them. Of all people least likely to suggest that animal insignias were upon the standards (due to Ex. 20:4), it is the Jews themselves who give us this tradition.
  2. The opposition of the Jews of Josephus’ day to the Roman standards may have been due to the particular images they contained, not the mere fact that they contained images. Concerning Jewish opposition to the Roman standards, Josephus relates, “[F]or that the laws of their country would not permit them to overlook those images which were brought into it, of which there were a great many in their ensigns.” [emphasis added]14
  3. The Israelites were instructed to decorate the tabernacle, and later the temple, with various images, including lions, oxen, and cherubim (Ex. 26:1; 36:8, 35; 1K. 6:32; 1K. 7:29; 2K. 16:17; 2Chr. 4:3-4, 15). If these images were so offensive to the Jews that they dare not have them upon their standards, how is it that cherubim (of which some have four faces) appear in the tabernacle along with lions and oxen in the temple?

If Jewish opposition to unbiblical images upon the Roman standards is seen in light of the biblical symbolism allowed within the tabernacle and temple, the view that their ensigns could not have contained insignia of the four faces is less convincing, especially in the light of Jewish tradition itself. It seems likely that Adam and Eve would have seen cherubim when they were driven out of Eden (Gen. 3:24). Perhaps their knowledge of the faces of these incredible angelic beings, though not recorded in Scripture until Ezekiel’s time, was preserved by tradition.

Jerome Prado provides additional background correlating the images with the camps:

Jerome Prado, in his commentary upon Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1 p. 44), gives the following minute description according to rabbinical tradition: “The different leaders of the tribes had their own standards, with the crests of their ancestors depicted upon them. On the east, above the tent of Naasson the first-born of Judah, there shone a standard of a green colour, this colour having been adopted by him because it was in a green stone, viz., an emerald, that the name of his forefather Judah was engraved on the breastplate of the high priest (Ex. 25:15ff.), and on this standard there was depicted a lion, the crest and hieroglyphic of his ancestor Judah, whom Jacob had compared to a lion, saying, ‘Judah is a lion’s whelp.’ Towards the south, above the tent of Elisur the son of Reuben, there floated a red standard, having the colour of the sardus, on which the name of his father, viz., Reuben, was engraved upon the breastplate of the high priest. The symbol depicted upon this standard was a human head, because Reuben was the first-born, and head of the family. On the west, above the tent of Elishamah the son of Ephraim, there was a golden flag, on which the head of a calf was depicted, because it was through the vision of the calves or oxen that his ancestor Joseph had predicted and provided for the famine in Egypt (Gen. 41); and hence Moses, when blessing the tribe of Joseph, i.e., Ephraim (Deu. 33:17), said, ‘his glory is that of the first-born of a bull.’ The golden splendour of the standard of Ephraim resembled that of the chrysolite, in which the name of Ephraim was engraved upon the breastplate. Towards the north, above the tent of Ahiezer the son of Dan, there floated a motley standard of white and red, like the jaspis (or, as some say, a carbuncle), in which the name of Dan was engraved upon the breastplate. The crest upon this was an eagle, the great doe to serpents, which had been chosen by the leader in the place of a serpent, because his forefather Jacob had compared Dan to a serpent, saying, ‘Dan is a serpent in the way, an adder (cerastes, a horned snake) in the path;’ but Ahiezer substituted the eagle, the destroyer of serpents as he shrank from carrying an adder upon his flag.”15

In relation to the eagle being associated with the tribe of Dan, we note that Dan means judge (Gen. 30:6; 49:16) and the symbolism of the eagle is often connected with judgment (Deu. 28:49; Job 9:26; Pr. 30:17; Jer. 4:13; 48:40; 49:22; Lam. 4:19; Eze. 17:3; Hos. 8:1; Hab. 1:8; Mtt. 24:28; Luke 17:37).


Notes

1 Carl Friedrich Keil, and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 1:659.

2 Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. Richardson, and Johann Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (New York, NY: E. J. Brill, 1999, c1994-1996).

3 Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999, c1980).

4 Harris, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.

5 Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1:660.

6 See also [John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1997), 199] and [W. A. Criswell, and Paige Patterson, eds., The Holy Bible: Baptist Study Edition (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), 192].

7 Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1:660.

8 A. R. Fausset, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, 1877), Rev. 4:8.

9 John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), Rev. 4:8.

10 J. A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 106.

11 William Varner, Jacob’s Dozen: A Prophetic Look at the Tribes of Israel (Bellmawr, NJ: Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1987), s.v. “The Tribal Encampment.”

12 R. Torrey, The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1995), Num. 2:2.

13 Chaim Potok, Wanderings (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1978), 268.

14 Flavius Josephus, The Complete Works of Josephus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1981), s.v. “Ant. XVIII, v3.”

 

MY SUMMARY

Anyone who has studied the Old Testament in great depth has discovered that there is much information that is not explicitly revealed. This is because much of that information was UNDERSTOOD by the Hebrew people, who were the primary recipients of the Old Testament Scriptures, and it was passed on to progeny through verbal instruction.

One subject that has been clouded in apparent mystery is the significance of the FOUR FACES on the Cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision of chapters 1 and 10; and the FOUR FACES on the four living creatures seen in John’s vision of Revelation 4:6-8.
Related to this is the absence of any specific description of the four tribal banners used to order the camping arrangement for Israel as revealed by God to Moses, and recorded in Numbers 2:3, 10, 18, and 25.
There were four groupings with three tribes in each group, with one tribe seen as the LEADER.
Accordingly, the other tribes would be arranged and camped under the banner of that leader tribe. They camped around the tabernacle so that it was seen to be in the middle of the site and would be well protected from any incursion by unwelcome attacks.

The camping arrangement, then, was for the FIRST BORN tribe, Reuben, to be situated on the SOUTH in reference to the “tent of meeting.”
Judah was on the east side (the right) of the tabernacle; Ephraim was on the west side (the left); and Dan was on the north.

“The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance.” Numbers 2:2

"Now those who camp on the east side toward the sunrise shall be of the standard of the camp of Judah . . . Those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Issachar . . . Then comes the tribe of Zebulun.” Verses 2:3-7

“On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Reuben . . . And those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Simeon . . . Then comes the tribe of Gad.” Verses 2:10-14

“On the west side shall be the standard of the camp of Ephraim . . . And next to him shall be the tribe of Manasseh . . .  Then comes the tribe of Benjamin.” Verses 2:18-22

“On the north side shall be the standard of the camp of Dan . . . And those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Asher . . . Then comes the tribe of Naphtali.” Verses 2:25-29

It is believed by many Jewish historians and rabbinic writers that Ezekiel’s vision of the four cherubim reveals the images on the four primary banners of Reuben, Judah, Ephraim and Dan.
Respectively, those images are: for Reuben, the man; for
Judah, the lion; for Ephraim, the ox; and for Dan, the eagle.

Ezekiel 1:10
As for the form of their faces, each had the face of a man; all four had the face of a lion on the right and the face of a bull on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle.

But we are not limited to this appeal to Ezekiel’s vision. We can find various hints in the Old Testament that strongly suggest that the above identification is accurate.
 
 We start with the most obvious.

Rev. 5:5: And one of the elders said to me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book, and its seven seals.

This is the only place where LION is used in connection with Jesus. I suggest that the only reason for this reference is to make the direct connection to the tribe of Judah as the Messiah’s tribe of origin. It is the LION that makes that connection because the lion is the emblem on Judah’s banner.

Consider Genesis 49:8-10.

"Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father's sons shall bow down to you.
"
Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him up?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, Until
 Shiloh comes, And to him {shall be} the obedience of the peoples.

The next item to consider is the banner for Ephraim; the Ox. This symbol is not as obvious as the Lion but there is a little bit of information that can be found in the Scriptures.

According to the prophecy of Jacob at Genesis 48:11-20, Joseph was given the DOUBLE PORTION right of the first born instead of Reuben (1Chron. 5:1). And Ephraim (the younger son) was made the recipient of the first-born right and blessing over Manasseh (the first born). So the tribe of Joseph would later be replaced with the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. (Levi became the priestly tribe and would not be numbered as a separate tribe.

Deuteronomy 33:13-17, The Blessing of Moses on Israel.

“And of Joseph he said, Blessed of Jehovah be his land, For the precious things of heaven, for the dew, And for the deep that couches beneath, And for the precious things of the fruits of the sun, And for the precious things of the growth of the moons, And for the chief things of the ancient mountains, And for the precious things of the everlasting hills, And for the precious things of the earth and the fullness thereof, And the good will of him that dwelt in the bush. Let [the blessing] come upon the head of Joseph, And upon the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren. The firstling of his herd, majesty is his; and his horns are the horns of the wild-ox (NOT, unicorn as in the KJV): With them he shall push the peoples all of them, [even] the ends of the earth: And they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, And they are the thousands of Manasseh.”

Several times the OX is associated with Ephraim.

Hosea 10:11
Ephraim is a trained heifer that loves to thresh, But I will come over her fair neck with a yoke; I will harness Ephraim, Judah will plow, Jacob will harrow for himself

Jeremiah 31:18
I have surely heard Ephraim grieving, 'You have chastised me, and I was chastised, Like an untrained calf; Bring me back that I may be restored, For You are the LORD my God.

 

In Solomon's temple there were twelve oxen standing beneath and supporting a very large tank of water called a sea. These 12 oxen are facing the four directions of the compass.
1 Kings 7:25
It (the tank of water; bronze laver) stood on twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east; and the sea was set on top of them, and all their rear parts turned inward.”

And throughout the temple there were many oxen and lions. 1 Kings 7:28-29
This was the design of the stands: they had borders, even borders between the frames,
and on the borders which were between the frames were lions, oxen and cherubim; and on the frames there was a pedestal above, and beneath the lions and oxen were wreaths of hanging work.”
1 Kings
7:36
He engraved on the plates of its stays and on its borders, cherubim, lions and palm trees, according to the clear space on each, with wreaths all around.”

Oxen characteristically represent devout service (Isaiah 1:3), and could be representative of Israel’s commission to represent the truth of God to the world (Ex. 19:5-6).
However, it could also be representative of the divided kingdom, which was shared by Ephraim and Judah. The
Northern kingdom was designated as Israel or Ephraim, and the Southern kingdom was designated as Judah. Thus we have the oxen and the lions to represent this division and the promised re-uniting of the two in Messiah’s kingdom.
Together with the other factors, this seems to be more likely.

When we look more closely at the 4 cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision, we notice a very interesting parallel.

Ezekiel 1:10
As for the form of their faces, each had the face of a man; all four had the face of a lion on the right and the face of a bull on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle.

From the perspective of Ezekiel, the face in the lower position on the cherub was that of a man. The face on the right was that of a lion, which would correspond with the encampment of Judah ON THE EAST (right) side of the tabernacle. The face on the left was that of an ox, which would correspond with the encampment of Ephraim to the WEST of the tabernacle.
And that would make the face at the top to be that of an eagle, which would correspond with the encampment of Dan on the NORTH side of the tabernacle. Thus, the face in the lower position on the cherub (the man) would correspond with the encampment of Reuben on the SOUTH side of the tabernacle.

The only reasonable explanation of this is that it is designed to be symbolic of the nation of Israel as the evangelistic servant of God, which is about to come under severe discipline from God.
Likewise, the living creatures of John’s vision are designed to be symbolic of the nation of
Israel, but from the perspective of INACTIVITY. They are still the focal point of God’s plan for humanity on the earth so are shown to John in his vision. The description of these creatures with the 4 faces corresponds with both Ezekiel’s vision and with the four primary banners of Israel’s encampment arrangement.

COMPARISON of Ezekiel’s vision with John’s:
When Ezekiel is shown the symbolic cherubim, they appear different because there is a different significance. For Ezekiel, Israel was still a functional nation with a job to do. The cherubim on the wheels, moving in various directions communicates the purpose of
Israel as the evangelistic agent to the world.
As with John, Ezekiel does not need to question what these four faces mean. It would have been clear to him that they indicated the four banners of Israel and as such symbolized the nation of
Israel as a whole.
The Southern
kingdom of Judah is currently under the 4th cycle of discipline, but if they do not recover, the 5th cycle will be implemented in 7 years, and the nation will temporarily cease to be God’s representative on the earth. The Northern kingdom had already been disciplined in like manner and the two will soon be joined in captivity in the kingdom of Chaldea.
SEE TOPIC:
Israel, 5 cycles of discipline
The date of this first vision is 593 BCE. The fifth cycle will be implemented in 586 BCE and last for 70 years. In Ezekiel chapter 10, the 4 cherubim are shown to depart from the temple,  along with the Spirit of God. This shows that God has temporarily turned away from the nation during the Babylonian captivity, which will last for 70 years. During that time of national discipline, the nation will not function as God’s evangelistic agent.

In John’s vision, the symbolic cherubim are shown without the wheels and without the rapid movement in various directions. This communicates the fact that the nation is currently under discipline from God, having been temporarily set aside with the destruction of the city and temple in 70 AD. But God still has a major role for the nation of Israel. In fact, His plan will revolve around that nation until the end of Messiah’s earthly kingdom. Accordingly, John is shown these symbols of four living creatures as representatives of the nation of
Israel.
John does not question who the living creatures are or what the meaning of the 4 faces is, for he understands it based on his knowledge of the Old Testament.

In the absence of any direct identification of the emblems on these four banners, it seems to be a reasonable deduction to identify them as summarized above.
The banner to the SOUTH of the tabernacle would have had the face of a man.
The banner to the EAST of the tabernacle would have had the face of a lion.
The banner to the NORTH of the tabernacle would have had the face of an eagle.
The banner to the WEST of the tabernacle would have had the face of an ox.

1. The evidence is strong that Judah’s emblem was a lion and Ephraim’s was an ox.
2. There is no reason to show Ezekiel and John these symbolic creatures with the 4 faces UNLESS it is to portray the nation of Israel. This would have meaning only to the Jews who KNEW what the four emblems were.
3. Accordingly, it is a simple step in logic to assign the emblems of eagle and man to the two remaining banners.

Why is Reuben given the symbol of a MAN? Probably because he is the ACTUAL firstborn.
It is true that Ephraim inherited the first born right of the double portion (two tribes), but Reuben is still the ACTUAL firstborn.

Why is Dan given the symbol of an eagle? I can’t find any reason so I will simply repeat what Tony Garland observed as cited above.
In relation to the eagle being associated with the tribe of Dan, we note that Dan means judge (Gen. 30:6; 49:16) and the symbolism of the eagle is often connected with judgment (Deu. 28:49; Job 9:26; Pr. 30:17; Jer. 4:13; 48:40; 49:22; Lam. 4:19; Eze. 17:3; Hos. 8:1; Hab. 1:8; Mtt. 24:28; Luke 17:37).”

The following diagram is from www.hooper-home.net/TEMPLE/BannersTribalIsrael.html.

 

 

 
 
 

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