The Rabbi's Study

Who’s on First?

A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.
-Jean Luc Godard

The Twelve Tribes of Israel are enumerated in the Torah many times, but in a number of different orders. According to age, according to their mothers, according to some combination thereof…

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bamidbar, opening up the Book of Numbers (which the Greeks named as such because of the number of censes found within its chapters), we have the tribes listed three times: first to list those from each tribe who will oversee the conscription census; second for the conscription census itself; and third for the marching orders of the conscripted armies. Here’s the thing… each list is in a different order!

Num. 1:5-15 Num. 1:20-46 Num. 2:3-31
Reuven Reuven Yehudah
Shimon Shimon Yissakhar
Yehudah Gad Zevulun
Yissakhar Yehudah Reuven
Zevulun Yissakhar Shimon
Ephraim Zevulun Gad
Menashe Ephraim Ephraim
Binyamin Menashe Menashe
Dan Binyamin Binyamin
Asher Dan Dan
Gad Asher Asher
Naphtali Naphtali Naphtali

Num. 1:5-15
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (12th c. Spain) spells out for us very succinctly the rationale behind the ordering of the first list: It begins with the first-born (Reuven)…and after the sons of Leah (tribes 1-5) it honors Rahel (which is why it goes out of the birthing order), so it begins with Ephraim according to the blessings Yaakov gave (at the end of Genesis), and Ephraim and Menashe precede Binyamin because they are in Yosef’s place (and he was older than Binyamin). It then proceeds with Dan because he is the first-born of the handmaids, and then Asher because he was destined to be designated to lead the march of the banner of Dan. Then Gad because he was the firstborn of the handmaid of Leah (Naphtali being the younger of the handmaid of Rahel).

So, according to ibn Ezra, it is in the order of their mothers according to their birthing order, but out of order…

Num. 1:20-46
Again, ibn Ezra explains:
It begins with Reuven because he is the first-born, then Shimon because he was born next, and Gad follows because he is the firstborn of Leah’s handmaid. This will constitute the banner of Reuven (in the marching orders). After the banner of Reuven is the banner of Yehudah, and after that the banners of Ephraim and Dan…”
So, ibn Ezra is telling us this is a combination of birthing order and marching order…

Num. 2:3-31
Back to ibn Ezra:
It begins in the east (banner of Yehudah)… and moves rightward (i.e., east, south, west, north.)

So there you have it. Three lists of the same tribes in three different orders.

Following these lists, we receive the genealogy of the Levite tribe, none of whom are conscripted into the armies because they are conscripted to serve in the Mishkan, and we are told which clan is responsible to carry which items used to build the Mishkan. When camped they are at the center of the camp, and when marching they are at the center of the troops.

The camping would have looked like this:

Yehudah Yissakhar Zevulun
North Naphtali



Moshe and Aharon Reuven



Mishkan Kehati
Gershoni (cloth)
Binyamin Menashe Ephraim

The marching would have worked like this:

Gershon (cloth)
Merari (wood)
Kehati (gold)

Three lists, three orders, three reasons. Thanks, R’ ibn Ezra!

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