There were two distinct phases in the march of the Children of Israel from Egypt to Canaan. The first was from Egypt to Horeb and then from Horeb to Canaan. The second phase included the thirty-eight-year delay due to Israels failure to enter Canaan when the Lord instructed them to do so (Num 14.1-45).
Departure from Egypt (Ex 12.37-41)
Rameses was in the area of Egypt that had been given to the Children of Israel when they came down into Egypt. Later, during their oppression, they built a treasure city there. They left their homes and travelled to Succoth, the place where they assembled together, ready for the journey. "Succoth" means "Booths" and it is likely that this was a shepherd encampment also used by travellers. Their booths would be erected from the branches of trees etc. to form suitable temporary accommodation. That the Children of Israel lived in booths when they left Egypt is clear from Leviticus 23.43: "I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt". The difference in their new domestic circumstances was very considerable. Living in booths, then in tents, and the temporary nature of each stopping place on the journey, brought a new way of life completely. Salvation touched all aspects of their lives and changed everything.
The company leaving Egypt was very large, numbering, apart from women and children, 603,550 adult men (Ex 38.26). Sceptics have challenged the large number, insisting that such a company could not leave Egypt in this way. This, however, is the record of Scripture, and the Lord is in control. If, on average, each of these men was married and had two children this would make a total of around 2,400,000. The logistics of moving such a multitude would demand order and discipline. But they were to be well led. The Psalmist writes that the Lord "made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock" (78.52). As far as the Egyptians were concerned they were glad when Israel departed "for the fear of them fell upon them" (Ps 105.38). For 430 years they had remained in Egypt. It was, therefore, to a new world they travelled, a world that they had never experienced and a way of life completely different from all that they had known. "All the hosts of the Lord" (Ex 12.41) went out. None was left behind, another example of the faithfulness of the Lord in fulfilling His promises.
From Horeb to Canaan (Num 9.15-23; 10.5-6)
When the Tabernacle was reared initially the cloud covered it by day and the fire by night. This was what took place on every occasion when the Tabernacle was not travelling. But the people did not plan the journey. The cloud moved and they followed. When it began to rise the priests and Levites, those who lived nearest to the Sanctuary, would be the first to understand what was taking place. So it is that those who live nearest to the Lord will be more able to discern the mind of God.
The call to march
Two silver trumpets had been made for a number of purposes. One was to announce that it was time to strike camp and travel. The nature of the trumpet blast indicated to the people the purpose of the blast. For commencing a journey the call was an "alarm" (Num 10.6), that is, a series of short sharp blasts. The period of time between each stage of the journey varied. It could be a period of many days or of a few days. It could be two days, one month, or even a year. The journey could have been made during the day or even through the night (Num 9.19-23).
The lesson to be learned is that, as we journey through life, we ought to be careful that we are moving according to His will. We are faced often with decisions as to the direction of our lives, but must always be careful to seek the mind of the Lord and only to "journey" when we seek His guidance.
The response to the call
On the first alarm call the tribes that dwelt on the east side of the Tabernacle commenced the journey, and on the second blast it was those on the south side. The camps that were on the north and west sides of the Tabernacle are not mentioned, but it must be supposed that a third and a fourth blast were made.
The order of the march
At the head of the march were the three tribes that camped on the east side of the Tabernacle: Judah in the lead, followed by Issachar and Zebulun. Behind them came the tribes that camped on the south side: Reuben, Simeon, and Gad. Following them were the tribes that camped on the west side: Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. In the rear came those who camped on the north side: Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. Each of these groups had a leading tribe: Judah in the first, Reuben in the second, Ephraim in the third, and Dan in the fourth. Each tribe had a leader who was "over the host" of the tribe. The three tribes led by Dan were the rear-guard (v.25, JND) of the camp. It was their responsibility to ensure that no stragglers were left behind in the wilderness, as it would also fall to them to ensure that no enemy succeeded in attacking them from the rear.
It must have been an impressive sight to see the tribes preparing to march. The blowing of the trumpets, and the moving of hundreds of thousands of souls in response, would captivate the attention of any onlooker. They did not know their destination, nor did they know how long they would be on the march. They had to depend on the Lord only, in the knowledge that it was He alone who ordered their steps.
Bearing the sanctuary (Num 7.1-9; 10.11-28)
The Levites consisted of three groups, the families of Kohath, of Gershon, and of Merari, and they were responsible for carrying the Tabernacle. The Kohathites carried the holy vessels (see chart). The Gershonites carried the curtains, the hangings of the door of the Tabernacle, of the court, and of the gate of the court. The Merarites carried the boards, pillars, sockets, pins and cords (Num 3.25-37).
On the day that the Tabernacle was set up the princes brought to Moses, as an offering to the Lord, six covered wagons and twelve oxen, and the Lord instructed Moses to accept them. Two wagons with four oxen were given to the Gershonites, and four wagons with eight oxen to the Merarites. This was to carry the items of the Tabernacle for which they were responsible. These wagons were covered so that their contents were not exposed to the gaze of all. The Kohathites were given no wagons, as they had to bear the holy vessels "upon their shoulders".
The Gershonites and the Merarites travelled on the march with the leading group which was led by Judah (Num 10.17). The Kohathites, carrying the holy vessels and the Ark travelled with the second group led by Reuben (Num 10.21). When the cloud stopped, the Gershonites and the Merarites, travelling with the first group, set up the Tabernacle so that the holy vessels could be put in place when they arrived later, with no delay.
Leading the people (Num 10.29-36)
When the people departed from Horeb and commenced their journey there was one matter that cannot be overlooked. The Ark was not to be found in the midst of the people behind the second group, in front of the tribe of Ephraim (Ps 80.2), as had been instructed. There was a change in the order of the march and the Ark was out in front leading the way. What was the cause of this? It was due to the request that Moses made to his father-in-law, that he should accompany them in order to guide them through the wilderness, showing them where to camp, being "eyes" for the nation (v.29-32). In grace, but also as a rebuke to Moses, the order of the march was altered so that the Ark was out in front.
How loath we should be to be too critical of Moses. His actions were no different from what ours might have been. How often we fail in the matter of guidance. "It must be owing to the lack of a circumcised ear to hear the sound of the silver trumpet, and of a subject will to yield a response to the sound we are not to expect to hear a voice from heaven nor yet to find a literal text of Scripture to guide If the ear is circumcised, you will assuredly hear the silver trumpet" (Notes on Numbers C H Mackintosh).