A Lion Before, A Serpent Behind

January 11, 2022

Numbers 10:11-28 details the (divinely?) prescribed processional order of the nomadic twelve and a half tribes of Israel. They first assumed this exact processional order upon leaving Mount Sinai, and thereafter did the same whenever they would decamp and follow the pillar of cloud during their forty year meander through wilderness. According to Numbers 10:14, the tribe of Judah was to take up its banner (or standard) first and commence the procession of the entire nation. With its standard hoisted, the tribe of Judah marched at the vanguard, at the head of the hosts of Israel. The other tribes would follow after. The last tribe to leave camp, according to Numbers 10:25, was the tribe of Dan. The tribe of Dan was always to serve as the rearguard, or tail, of the mass procession, carrying their own distinctive banner (or standard).

The Book of Numbers mentions that four of the twelve tribes had a distinctive banner or a standard. The three tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun (which always camped to the east of the tabernacle) were to march following Judah’s standard. Some of the Levitical priests would follow the first three tribes carrying the deconstructed tabernacle. Then the three tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad (which always camped to the south of the tabernacle) were to march following Reuben’s standard. Following those six and a half tribes, the three tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin (which always camped to the west of the tabernacle) were to march, behind Ephraim’s standard. And finally, the three tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali (which always camped to the north of the tabernacle) were to march last, with the tribe of Dan carrying its standard towards the rear of the procession.

Necessarily, a banner or standard has a distinctive insignia or emblem of some sort. In the case of the fledgling nation of Israel, the emblems adopted by each of the twelve tribes likely derived from metaphors their forefather Jacob used while speaking a final blessing over each one of his sons, as recorded in Genesis chapter 49. If so, then the tribe of Judah’s marching standard would have featured a lion (see Jacob’s declaration in Genesis 49:9). Likewise, simple consistency would dictate that the tribe of Dan’s standard feature a serpent (see Jacob’s prophecy in Genesis 49:17).

A lion went before, a serpent behind.

During their long sojourn through the wilderness the nation of Israel had the figurative head of a lion and figurative tail of a serpent. This, I would suggest, is the biblical background to the symbolism we find in Revelation 9:17-19.

And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.

Revelation 9:17-19

For this and additional reasons, the army depicted in Revelation 9:17-19 should be understood as the elect people of God, in their sojourn through the centuries between the first and second coming of Christ. Though this might be a different interpretation than you have heard before, the preceding background information can help you understand why I believe it is correct.

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