Our Fathers' Flags
“We have put up many flags, they have put up many flags.
To make us think that they are happy. To make them think that we are happy.” (Yehuda Amichai)
Flags are raised, burned, folded, buried, worn and worn out - national legacies and visual symbols of patriotic proud sentiments that either elevate or desecrate, or both. Back in the wilderness each of the twelve tribes had their own flag, with unique color schemes, symbols and icons, a perfect marching mandala of unity: families, tribes, nation. At least that’s how the ideal story goes:
אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מִנֶּ֕גֶד סָבִ֥יב לְאֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד יַחֲנֽוּ׃
The Israelites shall camp each with his flag, in accordance to the symbols of their paternal house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting in perfect order. (Ba 2:2)
These chapters list the categories of tribal leaders according to ‘their paternal house’ - in what might be the natural, organic use of inherited family structures of leadership, already familiar to the people. This expression and form of leadership will soon fade out, not seen throughout most of the bible, as local leaders will be replaced by centralised structures - judges, kings, high priests, appointed elders. But here, under their crest raised high, each local family head still matters as Moses tries to build a united confederacy of these scattered, not so long ago enslaved people, held together with purpose and pride. Each flag according to tradition bears a sign already given to the tribes by Jacob, on his death bed, at the end of Genesis, endowing each of his 12 sons poetic charges, with allusion to what will become their tribal totem: Reuben’s mandrakes, Judah’s lion, Asher’s tree, Naphtali’s deer, and so on. Many artists have imagined what these may look like. But what’s missing? Dina’s tribe, for one, the 13th tribe is never mentioned, and if ever existed, has no camp, location or flag. And the nation’s flag. Was there not one central flag to represent the people as a whole?
Perhaps that flag was the smoke that rose from the center of the camp, the vertical colum sprouting from the altar in the tabernacle, offered daily, 24/7? In her commentary, Rachel Haverlock remarks: “...The power of this book emerges from the image of the encampment's concentric rectangles radiating inward to a core of supreme holiness. In this geometry of moving from the periphery to the center, the tribes encamp around the Levites, who encircle the high priestly family, who surround the Tabernacle's curtained walls that enclose the court that buffers the Holy of Holies. This symmetry—constructed on the ground as well as in prose—is a collective act of ordering chaos that emulates the creation of the world in Genesis.”
Perhaps, for them, for us, where there is clear connection between earth and heaven, a hearth that gives one a sense of belonging and security, no flag is needed, no fabric, no colorful totem - just the fleeting smoke that rises, smells, looks and make us feel happy, like being at home?
Want to learn more, discuss your thoughts and feelings about this chapter and Below the Bible Belt? Join me on Monday July 25th 2022, 1pm ET for our first hour long Zoom monthly conversation and study. Link here:
https://us06web.zoom.us/j/89433380921 Meeting ID: 894 3338 0921
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