The Hebrew word for “camp” (ma·chanehʹ) comes from the root verb cha·nahʹ, meaning “camp; encamp; pitch camp.” (Jg 15:9; Ex 14:2; Ge 33:18) These terms are used with regard to a transitory site of nomadic people (Ge 32:21; 33:18), the temporary and mobile tenting arrangement of the Israelites on their trek through the wilderness (Nu 2:17), or the protective enclosure of an army (2Ki 25:1). The Greek word for “camp” is pa·rem·bo·leʹ.—See ARMY.
Camp of Israel. Israel’s Exodus from Egypt was not in tumultuous confusion but in well-ordered “battle formation” befitting “the armies of Jehovah.” (Ex 13:18; 12:41; 6:26) Such battle formation was possibly like that of an army consisting of five parts, with a van or forward detachment, a main body, a rear guard, and two wings. At the time, the Israelites were still under patriarchal arrangements, and this would be reflected in assigning tribes and families their places in the order of march. According to such customs, the servants, retainers, and others attached to the family were reckoned as part of the household, and so the “vast mixed company” that left Egypt likely were intermingled with the various tribes, clans, and families.—Ex 12:38; Nu 11:4; De 29:11.
With the establishment of the tabernacle, the camp arrangement was organized according to divine instructions toward the beginning of the second year. The camp center, both in location and in importance, was the tent of Jehovah’s presence, the tabernacle, with its surrounding courtyard. Its entrance faced the E, where Moses, Aaron, and the priests encamped. (Nu 3:38) The rest of the Levites (numbering 22,000 males, a month old and up) camped on the three remaining sides: the Kohathites on the S, the Gershonites to the W, and the Merarites on the N. (Nu 3:23, 29, 35, 39) With these latter two groups, certain baggage, wagons, and animals used for transporting the tabernacle and its equipment were associated. Thus those assigned to serve at Jehovah’s sanctuary lived near to and surrounding the tabernacle, providing a protective cordon from intrusion by non-Levites, “that no indignation may arise against the assembly.”—Nu 1:53; 7:3-9.
Out and beyond the Levitical tents, the 12 tribes camped in a quadrilateral arrangement oriented by the four points of the compass. It appears that the people in general were removed a considerable distance from the tabernacle; some commentators suggest some 900 m (3,000 ft), because there was to be a distance of “about two thousand cubits” between the people and the ark of the covenant when the crossing of the Jordan began. (Jos 3:4) The 12 tribes were divided into four grand divisions, each called by the name of the central tribe of the division. So the three-tribe division to the E of the tabernacle was called Judah, with Issachar on the one side of Judah and Zebulun on the other side. (Nu 2:3-8) When this arrangement was set up in 1512 B.C.E., this three-tribe division of Judah numbered 186,400 able-bodied males 20 years old and up. (Nu 1:1-3; 2:9) Clockwise to the S was the three-tribe division of Reuben, with Simeon and Gad alongside Reuben, and numbering 151,450 men of war. (Nu 2:10-16) These two divisions on the E and S, together with the Levites, were Jacob’s descendants by Leah and her handmaid Zilpah. (Ge 35:23, 26) Incidentally, with both Reuben and the Kohathites camping S of the sanctuary, the physical association between the Reubenite rebels Dathan and Abiram and the Kohathite Korah is explained. (Nu 16:1) Around to the W was the three-tribe division of Ephraim, flanked by Manasseh and Benjamin, all descendants of Rachel, and numbering 108,100 army men. (Nu 2:18-24) Finally, on the N was the three-tribe division of Dan, associated with Asher and Naphtali, and totaling 157,600 fighting men. (Nu 2:25-31) Dan and Naphtali were descendants of Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah, but Asher was of Leah’s maidservant Zilpah.—Ge 35:25, 26.
The size of this camp of Israel was very great. The above register figures total 603,550 fighting men, in addition to women and children, old folks and handicapped, 22,000 Levites, and “a vast mixed company” of aliens—perhaps all together 3,000,000 or more. (Ex 12:38, 44; Nu 3:21-34, 39) How much area such an encampment would cover is not certain; estimates vary greatly. When the camp was pitched opposite Jericho on the Plains of Moab, it is described as extending “from Beth-jeshimoth to Abel-shittim.”—Nu 33:49.
The plan, or layout, of the camp is usually illustrated as being rectangular or square, an arrangement thought to be superior in efficiency and security. Definite camp boundaries are indicated by reference to going outside or entering the camp. (Le 13:46; 16:26, 28; 17:3) And there were ‘gates,’ or ports of entrance, to the camp. (Ex 32:26, 27) In his description, Josephus mentions that roads were laid out within the camp. (Jewish Antiquities, III, 289 [xii, 5]) All of this required engineering and organization if the Israelites were to set up camp quickly on a new location with minimal effort and delay.
“Signs for the house of their fathers” were provided to help a person find his proper place in the camp. (Nu 2:2) Since the Hebrew expression deʹghel, rendered “three-tribe division,” also means “banner” (as in Ca 2:4), it is possible that there were tribal markers as well as family ensigns. The Bible gives neither the number nor a description of these signs.
The government of the camp of Jehovah was most efficient. Under the theocratic arrangement, chiefs were appointed over 10’s, 50’s, 100’s, and 1,000’s. These were “capable men, fearing God, trustworthy men, hating unjust profit.” (Ex 18:21; De 1:15) Under their direction, good supervision and maintenance as well as an equitable judicial system were provided; also through them quick communication with all the people was achieved. Coded trumpet blasts signaled the whole assembly or, at times, the chieftains of thousands as representatives of the tribes to present themselves at the tent of meeting.—Nu 1:16; 10:2-4, 7, 8.
An elaborate code of laws regulated every aspect of camp life. The health and purity of the camp were preserved through various sanitary regulations. Lepers, anyone with an infectious disease or a running discharge, and those who had touched a dead body were excluded from the camp until pronounced clean. (Nu 5:2, 3) The dead were buried outside the camp. (Le 10:4, 5) Ashes from the burnt sacrifices, also the carcasses of certain sacrifices, were disposed of outside the camp. (Le 4:11, 12; 6:11; 8:17) Criminals were executed outside (Le 24:14; Nu 15:35, 36), and captives of war and returning warriors were kept outside for a cleansing period.—Nu 31:19.
Movement of this vast camp from one site to another (about 40 such encampments are reviewed by Moses in Numbers 33) was also a marvelous display of organization. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, the camp remained in place. When the cloud moved, the camp moved. “At the order of Jehovah they would encamp, and at the order of Jehovah they would pull away.” (Nu 9:15-23) Two hammered silver trumpets communicated these orders of Jehovah to the camp in general. (Nu 10:2, 5, 6) Special fluctuating blasts signaled the breaking up of the camp. The first time this occurred was “the second year [1512 B.C.E.], in the second month, on the twentieth day.” With the ark of the covenant in the lead, the first three-tribe division headed by Judah and followed by Issachar, then Zebulun, moved out. They were followed by the Gershonites and Merarites carrying their assigned parts of the tabernacle. Next came the three-tribe division headed by Reuben and followed by Simeon and Gad. After them came the Kohathites with the sanctuary, then the third three-tribe division, of Ephraim, followed by Manasseh and Benjamin. Finally, in the rear guard was the division headed by Dan and accompanied by Asher and Naphtali. Thus the two most numerous and powerful divisions took the positions of forward and rear guard.—Nu 10:11-28.
“So they went marching from the mountain of Jehovah for a journey of three days . . . And Jehovah’s cloud was over them.” (Nu 10:33, 34) How long a line this cloud-led column of marchers formed is not disclosed, nor the speed or distance covered in a day. With their little children and flocks, they probably traveled slowly. While on this march, which took three days, there was probably no formal camp layout with a setting up of the tabernacle for the temporary overnight encampment; rather, just the adjustments necessary for eating and sleeping.
Military Camps. In connection with warfare, use of the term “camp” varies. It may, for example, denote the headquarters, or base of operations, from which raiding parties sally forth; Gilgal and Shiloh are such examples. (Jos 4:19; 5:10; 9:6; 10:6, 15, 43; 18:9; Jg 21:12) Or “camp” sometimes means the army itself, rather than the place where they pitch their tents at night. (Jos 10:5; 11:4, 5) “Camping against” a city had the meaning of warring against the city, just as ‘pitching camp’ also indicated preparation for war.—Jg 9:50; 1Sa 11:1; 28:4; 2Ki 25:1.
Several factors influenced the selection of a site for an army encampment. High ground with limited access afforded natural protection and required less guarding than open and vulnerable spots. (1Sa 26:3) The camp had to have access to water. (2Ki 3:9) Joshua defeated a federation of kings camped at the waters of Merom. (Jos 11:5) Gideon’s forces camped at the well of Harod (Jg 7:1), and one third of David’s army camped at the torrent valley of Besor until their companions returned from the victory.—1Sa 30:9, 10.
A protective enclosure, as around Saul’s camp, may have been made of baggage, wagons, and animals. (1Sa 26:5, 7) Armies having chariots may have used them to encircle their camps. More permanent campsites were sometimes protected by trenches and dirt mounds round about. Battles were not usually fought at the campsite, except in cases of surprise attack. (Jos 11:7) Hence extensive entrenchment and strong walled enclosures were not usually built.
Secular histories give glimpses of army camp life among the pagans as it was in Bible days. The Egyptian camp of Ramses II, for example, was fenced with shields. The Assyrian fortified camp was generally circular and strengthened with walls and towers. The tents in Persian camps all faced the E, and their encampments were protected by trenches and embankments. Greek military camps were also circular, with the commanding officer tented in the middle of the camp. When the Roman army pitched camp a sizable ditch was dug around the whole of the new campsite.