Each under the banners (or flags or standards) of his father’s house. What does that mean? When I think of banners used when marching, I think of soldiers marching off to war, walking with the group carrying the flag and representing the noble house that summoned them to fight. Or I might imagine the parade of nations at the Olympics.
The Hebrews were slaves (or serfs) and they all belonged to Pharaoh. While their living groups may have been divided loosely by tribe (something not mentioned in Torah but implied by the tribal structure within the Exodus story), they had no need for coats of arms.
Yet they had flags or banners (at least by the time Numbers was written).
The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division with the flag staffs of their fathers’ house; some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp.Numbers 2:2-3 (Chabad)
Those camping in front, to the east, were the legions under the division of the camp of Judah.
In this translation, a “division” was a tribe and there were multiple “fathers’ houses” as part of each. The implication is that each patriarchal unit had a flag, though it’s not clear if that means the actual families at the time or some larger, more ancestral, separation.
The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.Numbers 2:2-3 (Sefaria)
Camped on the front, or east side: the standard of the division of Judah, troop by troop.
In this different translation, the banners are by tribe.
In more modern imagination (and by this I mean Medieval and up), each tribe indeed had a flag, each using a symbol associated with the tribe or with the son the tribe is named for.
There are multiple versions of each flag and none should be considered definitive. Note that this version is the traditional one, with two tribes for the sons of Joseph and no Levites.
According to Rashi, each tribe had a color.
Every division shall have its own flag staff, with a colored flag hanging on it; the color of one being different from the color of any other. The color of each one was like the hue of its stone, set in the choshen [worn by the Kohen Gadol], and in this way, everyone could recognize his division.Commentary on Numbers 2:2 by Rashi, 11th Century French Jewish biblical commentator.
Unfortunately, there is little agreement of what the modern equivalent of many of the mentioned stones are. We can’t even be sure of the colors. Nor is there any text that tells us which gems go with which tribes.
According to Ibn Ezra, each tribe had an insignia.
There were insignias on each banner. The Sages said that Reuven’s banner had the picture of a man, based on the mandrakes, Yehudah’s banner had a lion, to which he was compared by Yaakov, Ephraim had the picture of an ox, based on “the firstborn ox,” Dan’s banner had the picture of an eagle, until they resembled the cherubs seen by the prophet Yechezkel.Commentary on Numbers 2:2 by Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, 11th Century Spanish Jewish biblical commentator.
Here we have a bit more agreement, though there are multiple versions.
Reuben — Jasmine plant
Simeon — City of Shechem
Levi — Urim VeTurim (the Priest’s breastplate)
Judah — Lion
Dan — Snake
Naphtali — Gazelle
Gad — Military camp
Asher — Olive tree
Issachar — Sun and moon
Zebulun — Ship
Benjamin — Wolf
Ephraim — Bull
Menasheh — Re’em (a large horned bovine animal)
12 Tribes of Israel: The Shevatim, by Yecheskel Posner
Reuben’s stone was odem, and the colour of his flag was red, and mandrakes were drawn on it [cf. Genesis 30:14].
Simeon’s [stone was] piteda, and the colour of his flag was green, and [the city of] Shechem was drawn on it [cf. Genesis 34].
Levi’s [stone was] bareqet, and the colour of his flag was one third white, one third black, and one third red, and the Urim weTummim were drawn on it.
Judah’s [stone was] was nofekh, and the colour of his flag was like the colour of the sky, and a lion was drawn on it [cf. Genesis 49:9].
Issachar’s [stone was] sappir, and the colour of his flag was dark blue [lit. black like kohl], and a sun and a moon were drawn on it, as it is written [I Chronicles 12:33]: “And from the sons of Issachar were those who knew the wisdom of the times [i.e. astronomy and calendars].”
Zebulon’s [stone was] yahalom, and the colour of his flag was like the moon, and a ship was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:13]: “Zebulon shall dwell by the seashore.”
Dan’s [stone was] leshem, and the colour of his flag was similar to sappir, and a snake was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:17]: “Dan shall be a snake.”
Gad’s [stone was] shevo, and the colour of his flag was not white and not black but a mixture of black and white, and a military camp was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:19]: “Gad shall camp in troops [Heb: Gad gedud yegudenu].”
Naftali‘s [stone was] ahlama, and the colour of his flag was like diluted wine whose red [colour] was no longer strong, and a deer was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:21]: “Naftali is a swift deer.”
Asher’s [stone was] tarshish, and the colour of his flag was like a precious stone that women decorate themselves with, and an olive tree was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:20]: “From Asher will be his rich bread.”
Joseph’s [stone was] shoham, and the colour of his flag was very black, and the [picture] drawn on it for the two leaders, Ephraim and Menasseh, was Egypt, because they were born in Egypt. And on the flag of Ephraim was drawn an ox, as it is written [Deuteronomy 33:17]: “His first born is his ox;” this is [a reference to] Joshua, who was from the tribe of Ephraim. And on the flag of Menasseh was drawn a re’em [oryx], as it is written [Deut. 33:17]: “and his horn will be like the horns of the re’em;” this is [a reference to] Gideon, son of Joash, who was from the tribe of Menasseh.
Benjamin’s [stone was] yashpe, and the colour of his flag was like all the colours of the twelve colours, and a wolf was drawn on it, as it is written [Genesis 49:27]: “Benjamin is like a scavenging wolf.”
Incorporating It All
So what do I do with this? First of all, I honestly don’t see the escaping slaves marching in formation with flags held high on staffs or banners carried by 2 or 3 people. This isn’t a parade.
While perhaps at Mt. Sinai they had the time and desire to create such artistic representations, when they first left Egypt they left in haste, with barely enough time to prepare wagons and sacks to carry their goods, and to pack their belongings and animals.
But we know the Hebrews had strong tribal identities and it is certainly reasonable (and there is evidence) to say there would be visual representations of this. While slaves they had time to add embellishments to clothings, to create jewelry (we know they had lots of jewelry and not just what they were given by their Gentile neighbors before they left), to create music, and more. Not a lot of time, but enough.
While living in their village as serf-like slaves, I envision each tribe in a loose arrangement of family compounds. Because they were there for generations, there was little need to have signs (they might have painted something on walls here and there). But while on the move, things could get confusing very quickly without them.
At the point that they left Egypt, they might have painted their wagons with symbols or colors, perhaps tied colored fabric on some of the lead animals for each herd, and people from each tribe might incorporate the colors or symbols into their clothing.
(In marching order)
- Levi — Green stone (bareqet), flag black, white, and red, Priestly Breastplate.
- Judah — Sky blue stone (nophekh), possibly turquoise, lion.
- Issachar — Sapphire or lapis lazuli (sappir), dark blue, sun and moon.
- Zebulun — White or clear stone like moonstone (yahalom), ship (seashore).
- Reuben — Red stone (odem) and mandrake or flowers or a human.
- Simeon — Yellowish-green stone like topez (piteda), city of Shechem.
- Gad — Agate (shevo) which is a mix of colors, some with spots or stripes, flag mix of black and white, military camp.
- Ephraim — Onyx or other black stone (shoham), flag color black, picture of Egypt, symbol is ox.
- Manasseh — Same as Ephraim except the symbol is a re’em (oryx) (probably a wild ox, though some translations say rhinoceros or even unicorn).
- Benjamin — Jasper (yashfe) which is multi-colored and often striped or spotted (“usually red, yellow, brown or green in color; and rarely blue”), flag all tribal colors, wolf.
- Dan — Stone similar to sappir (leshem), dark blue, snake.
- Asher — Unknown stone (tarshish) but suggestions are aquamarine or other ocean color, olive tree.
- Naphtali — Amethyst (ahlama), color faded wine/purple, deer or gazelle.