The Torah Text
The Israelites are told how they will march in the wilderness. The twelve tribes will march in four groups, on the east, west, north, and south of the mishkan (tabernacle) that will be at the center. Each group marches under the standard of the lead tribe in that group, although the Torah doesn’t tell us what is on each flag.
Ibn Ezra’s Teaching
באתת. סימנים היו בכל דגל ודגל וקדמונינו אמרו שהיה בדגל ראובן צורת אדם מכח דרש דודאים ובדגל יהודה צורת אריה כי בו המשילו יעקב ובדגל אפרים צורת שור מטעם בכור שור ובדגל דן צורת נשר עד שידמו לכרובים שראה יחזקאל הנביא
Numbers 2:2 ACCORDING TO THE ENSIGNS. There were signs upon each and every standard (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:6). The ancients said that the banner of Reuben had the form of a person on it. Their statement is based on a midrashic interpretation concerning the mandrakes found by Reuben. The ancients also tell us that there was an image of a lion on the standard of Judah, for Jacob had compared Judah to a lion. They also tell us that the banner of Ephraim had the image of an ox upon it, in keeping with the verse His firstling bullock (Deuteronomy 33:17). The flag of Dan had the image of an eagle. Thus the banners were similar to the cherubim which the prophet Ezekiel saw. (Translation Strickman and Silver)
Reflections for the Path
Strickman and Silver note that “[i]n Ezekiel’s vision these cherubim supported the divine throne. Similarly, according to the sages, God’s spirit rested upon the camp of Israel.” What a beautiful image! Mystical and mundane wrapped up together – tribal standards and fantastical visions, both revealing that human community can be a source of dignity, support, and loving presence, signified by God seated on the divine throne.
For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.