The order of the tribes’ placement around the Tabernacle was NOT a random matter.
The way they were organized reflects a kind of pecking order that kept inner rivalry between the tribes to a minimum.
Here’s a quick easy-to-understand breakdown of how and why the tribes were situated as they were around the tabernacle.
The three tribes of Issachar, Judah, and Zebulun totaling 186,000 men were placed here.
The reason these three tribes were grouped together is because they were Leah’s youngest three sons.
The three tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin consisting of 108,100 men were placed here.
The reason these three tribes were grouped together is because together Manasseh and Ephraim carried the authority of their father Joseph and Benjamin had the same mother (Rachel) as Joseph.
The three tribes of Asher, Dan, and Naphtali consisting of 157,000 men were placed here.
The reason these three tribes were grouped together is because Dan and Naphtali were born to Rachel’s handmaiden Bilah.
And these two were coupled with Asher.
However, Asher kind of sticks out like a sore thumb because he was not born from Bilah but was the youngest son from Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah.
The three tribes of Simeon, Reuben, and Gad consisting of 151, 400 men were placed here.
The reason these three tribes were grouped together is because Simeon and Rueben were sons of Jacob’s first wife Leah and Gad was added in because he was the son of Leah’s handmaiden, Zilpah.
What’s up with the Tribe of Levi?!
Notice that the Tribe of Levi is nowhere to be found.
This is because Levi (another son of Leah) was set apart to be the priestly tribe.
Levi was no longer considered to be one of the tribes.
The Levites were actually situated the closest to the Tabernacle.
They were divided up by family and placed on all four sides, like an inner ring serving as a buffer zone between the Tabernacle and the 12 Tribes of Israel.
The Levites totaled 22,300 men.
Now notice when I give out specific tribal population figures, I am saying “men”.
“Men” is to be taken literally because any census of Israel counted ONLY the males.
Actually, to be even more accurate, a census of Israel only counted men capable of fighting in the army.
Males who were not eligible for military service because they were too young, old, or disabled were NOT counted.
When one adds in all the women, children, the elderly, and even the mixed multitude (non-Hebrews) the total population count would have come to figure of about 3 million.
This was a humongous tent city!