Rashbam: Fun With Flags (B’midbar)

The book of Numbers begins with a census, and quickly moves to telling us how the tribal encampments and marching worked. At the center is the Mishkan, surrounded by the various clans of the Levites. The twelve tribes are divided into groups of three, each taking up position on one side of the Mishkan.

Numbers 2:2 tells us that each three-tribe group camped under the ot of their ancestral houses. What exactly is an ot in the context of flags?

Rashi suggests two options – (1) the ot is the color associated with the tribal stone that was set in the high priest’s breastplate. (2) the otot, or signs, that Jacob gave his children on his deathbed. He directed them in how they should be placed when they carried his body back to Canaan from Egypt.

Rashbam offers yet another interpretation of the otot.

Numbers 2:2 THE ISRAELITES SHALL CAMP IN THEIR THREE-TRIBE UNITS, UNDER THE SIGN OF THEIR ANCESTRAL HOUSES: On the flag of each three-tribe unit there was an insignia: for example on Judah’s [flag] there was a lion and on Joseph’s there was an on. (Translation Martin Lockshin)

What I’m appreciating about these various views is how an ot, a sign, can be up for so much interpretation. That is precisely what a sign is, something that points beyond itself. A sign requires interpretation. So the physical layout of the tribes around the Mishkan, and the physical standards that identified each group, are subject to all sorts of symbolic interpretation.

This reminds me of how enjoyable it can be to share favorite colors, to identify a spirit animal, to sort into Houses at Hogwartz, to delineate which Enneagram type you are, or any other way of distinguishing one’s particularity in relation to everyone else.

What is your go-to way of distinguishing yourself?

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.