Numbers 1 - The Census of Israel

 

A. Background to the Book of Numbers.

 

1. As recorded in the Book of Exodus, Israel escaped slavery in Egypt - God miraculously set them free from hundreds of years of bondage. They came through the Red Sea and saw God provide through the desert wilderness. They came to Mount Sinai where God appeared to them in a spectacular way; where Moses went up on the mountain to meet with God and receive the law. At Mount Sinai Israel also embraced an idolatrous image of a golden calf and was corrected by the Lord.

 

a. Encamped at Mount Sinai, Israel built a tabernacle of meeting and established a priesthood, receiving Godís plan for the priests and the nation at large in Leviticus. At the end of the Book of Leviticus, they have been out of Egypt for a little more than a year.

 

b. Exodus covered a year; Leviticus only a month - but the Book of Numbers encompasses more than 38 years.

 

2. This third book of Moses tells us what happened during those 38 years. The Hebrew title of this book gives us an idea of the theme of Numbers. In Hebrew this book is titled In the Wilderness instead of Numbers.

 

a. The wilderness was never meant to be Israelís destination. Godís intention was to bring them into the Promised Land of Canaan. The wilderness was intended as a temporary place - a place to move through, not to live in.

 

i. ďThe Hebrew word for wilderness (midbar) means a place for driving flocks. It is not a completely arid desert, but contains little vegetation and a few trees. The rainfall in such areas is too light, a few inches per year, to support cultivation.Ē (Wenham)

 

b. The Book of Numbers is all about Godís people in the wilderness - how they get there, how God deals with them in the wilderness, and how He brings them out of the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

 

i. ďThe theme of the book of Numbers is the journey to the Promised Land of Canaan. Its opening ten chapters, covering a mere fifty days, describe how Moses organized Israel for the march from Sinai to the Promised Land.Ē (Wenham)

 

c. The Book of Numbers gives us a big vision: Where is God taking us? What will it take to get there? What inward qualities must God develop in us and demand in us along the way?

 

i. Promised Land people are very different from slave people. Israel emerged from Egypt a slave people, basically unsuited for the Promised Land. How would God transform them into a promised-land people?

 

ii. ďSo the Israelites had been slaves in the land of Goshen; their tasks were appointed, and their taskmasters compelled their obedience. Their difficulties had been great, their bondage cruel, but they were free from the necessity of thought and arrangement. Having escaped from their taskmaster, they imagined that freedom meant escape from rule. They had been taught in their year of encampment under the shadow of the mountain that they had to submit to law, and it was irksome to them, and they became discontented. This discontent resulted from lack of perfect confidence in God.Ē (Morgan)

 

d. The Book of Numbers approaches it all Godís way. When we are in the wilderness, we are tempted to launch a hundred different schemes and plans to escape. But only Godís way really works; and the Book of Numbers gives us Godís way. The idea that the Lord spoke to Moses is repeated more than 150 times and more than 20 different ways in Numbers.

 

B. Israel takes inventory: The census of Numbers 1.

 

1. (1-3) The purpose of the census.

 

Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying: "Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male individually, from twenty years old and above; all who are able to go to war in Israel. You and Aaron shall number them by their armies.Ē

 

a. Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness: As Moses met with the Lord in the tabernacle, God commanded him to take a census of the congregation of the children of Israel - but only counting all who are able to go to war in Israel.

 

b. You and Aaron shall number them by their armies: This was predominately a military census to see who could fight on Israelís behalf in taking the Promised Land. This was the first step in taking the Promised Land - an inventory to see where Israel was and what Israel had to get where God wanted them to be.

 

i. Though the Promised Land has been mentioned during the exodus to this point, the focus has been on getting to Mount Sinai and receiving the law. That was just the beginning; now, the focus turns towards taking the Promised Land and recognizing it will be a battle.

 

ii. Imagine how this census would affect the nation! As the count was made, every family would know preparation was being made for war.

 

c. By their armies: The order to count the potential soldiers was not meant to imply that Israel would take the land because of superior forces or merely the bravery of these men - they would receive the Promised Land by the hand of God. Nevertheless, they still had to fight and know what they had available to them going into battle.

 

i. We may fail in spiritual battle because we do not take an honest inventory about where we are spiritually. We may overestimate or underestimate our spiritual strength and resources. This count of Israel wouldnít let them do that.

 

d. By their families, by their fathers' houses: God wanted the count made by their families because the strength of Israel was determined by looking at the strength of individual families.

 

2. (4-16) The heads of the tribes.

 

And with you there shall be a man from every tribe, each one the head of his father's house. These are the names of the men who shall stand with you: from Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur; from Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai; from Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab; from Issachar, Nethanel the son of Zuar; from Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon; from the sons of Joseph: from Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud; from Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur; from Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni; from Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai; from Asher, Pagiel the son of Ocran; from Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel; from Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan." These were chosen from the congregation, leaders of their fathers' tribes, heads of the divisions in Israel.

 

a. A man from every tribe, each one the head of his father's house: Israel was organized according to the tribes that descended from the original twelve sons of Jacob (later renamed Israel by God). Each of these twelve tribes designated one who was the head of his fatherís house, who was to stand with Moses and stand for their whole tribe.

 

i. In a sense, this is a representative form of government; each head of his fatherís house was essentially the ďgovernorĒ of the tribe.

 

ii. These were chosen from the congregation: It is possible - even likely - that the head of his fatherís house was elected by those in the tribe.

 

b. From Reuben . . . from Simeon . . .: Twelve tribes are mentioned, but not the tribe of Levi. Yet the number twelve is maintained because from Jacobís son Joseph, two tribes came (Ephraim and Manasseh).

 

i. This was a military census, and the absence of the tribe of Levi among the potential soldiers is important but explained later in the chapter.

 

ii. Nahshon: This was the head of the house of Judah, and is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:4).

 

3. (17-19) The assembly of the leaders.

 

Then Moses and Aaron took these men who had been mentioned by name, and they assembled all the congregation together on the first day of the second month; and they recited their ancestry by families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, each one individually. As the Lord commanded Moses, so he numbered them in the Wilderness of Sinai.

 

a. They recited their ancestry by families: The leaders of each tribe was responsible to count the potential soldiers in their tribe, then they gathered to make report to Moses.

 

b. Each one individually: Every individual was important to God. This wasnít just the assembling of a final number, but a specific mention of each individual.

 

C. The count of the tribes.

 

1. (20-21) The Tribe of Reuben: 46,500 potential soldiers.

 

Now the children of Reuben, Israel's oldest son, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, every male individually, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Reuben were forty-six thousand five hundred.

 

a. Those who were numbered of the tribe of Reuben were forty-six thousand five hundred: Many people wonder if these numbers are accurate and literal. Some think that they are grossly exaggerated, and others have suggested they are increased by a factor of ten. Despite the objections of critics, it is best to trust the simple testimony of Godís Word. Surely God could provide for such a multitude in the wilderness and occasional discrepancies in numbers are likely due to scribal errors.

 

b. Forty-six thousand five hundred: Are these numbers exact? Most likely, they are rounded off to the nearest one hundred (except in the case of the Tribe of Gad).

 

2. (22-23) The Tribe of Simeon: 59,300 potential soldiers.

 

From the children of Simeon, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, of those who were numbered, according to the number of names, every male individually, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Simeon were fifty-nine thousand three hundred.

 

3. (24-25) The Tribe of Gad: 45,650 potential soldiers.

 

From the children of Gad, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Gad were forty-five thousand six hundred and fifty.

 

4. (26-27) The Tribe of Judah: 74,600 potential soldiers.

 

From the children of Judah, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Judah were seventy-four thousand six hundred.

 

5. (28-29) The Tribe of Issachar: 54,400 potential soldiers.

 

From the children of Issachar, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Issachar were fifty-four thousand four hundred.

 

6. (30-31) The Tribe of Zebulun: 57,400 potential soldiers.

 

From the children of Zebulun, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Zebulun were fifty-seven thousand four hundred.

 

7. (32-33) The Tribe of Ephraim: 40,500 potential soldiers.

 

From the sons of Joseph, the children of Ephraim, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Ephraim were forty thousand five hundred.

 

8. (34-35) The Tribe of Manasseh: 32,200 potential soldiers.

 

From the children of Manasseh, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Manasseh were thirty-two thousand two hundred.

 

9. (36-37) The Tribe of Benjamin: 35,400 potential soldiers.

 

From the children of Benjamin, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Benjamin were thirty-five thousand four hundred.

 

10. (38-39) The Tribe of Dan: 62,700 potential soldiers.

 

From the children of Dan, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Dan were sixty-two thousand seven hundred.

 

11. (40-41) The Tribe of Asher: 41,500 potential soldiers.

 

From the children of Asher, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Asher were forty-one thousand five hundred.

 

12. (42-43) The Tribe of Naphtali: 53,400 potential soldiers.

 

From the children of Naphtali, their genealogies by their families, by their fathers' house, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war: those who were numbered of the tribe of Naphtali were fifty-three thousand four hundred.

 

13. (44-46) Summary of the tribes: 603,550 potential soldiers in Israel.

 

These are the ones who were numbered, whom Moses and Aaron numbered, with the leaders of Israel, twelve men, each one representing his father's house. So all who were numbered of the children of Israel, by their fathers' houses, from twenty years old and above, all who were able to go to war in Israel; all who were numbered were six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty.

 

a. All who were able to go to war in Israel; all who were numbered were six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty: At the end of the Book of Numbers - 38 years later - this census is repeated. The total number of available soldiers will be almost the same - only a loss of some two thousand. But the numbers of each tribe change significantly, and there is meaning in what happened to each tribe over these critical 38 years.

 

b. So all who were numbered of the children of Israel, by their fathers' houses: In this first census Manasseh is the smallest tribe and Judah is the largest. There are two tribes in the 30 thousands; three in the 40 thousands; four in the 50 thousands; one in the 60 thousands, and one in the 70 thousands.

 

c. All who were numbered were six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty: Based on having 603,550 available soldiers, many people estimate the total population of Israel at this time to be between two and two-and-a-half million.

 

14. (47-54) The special case of the tribe of Levi.

 

But the Levites were not numbered among them by their fathers' tribe; for the Lord had spoken to Moses, saying: "Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor take a census of them among the children of Israel; but you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the Testimony, over all its furnishings, and over all things that belong to it; they shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings; they shall attend to it and camp around the tabernacle. And when the tabernacle is to go forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be set up, the Levites shall set it up. The outsider who comes near shall be put to death. The children of Israel shall pitch their tents, everyone by his own camp, everyone by his own standard, according to their armies; but the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the Testimony, that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the children of Israel; and the Levites shall keep charge of the tabernacle of the Testimony." Thus the children of Israel did; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so they did.

 

a. But the Levites were not numbered among them: Because this was a census of potential soldiers, the Tribe of Levi was not counted. They alone among the tribes did not go to war because they had special responsibility to God for the priestly duties of Israel.

 

b. Thus the children of Israel did; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so they did: Counting, or taking inventory, is an essential step in organization and moving forward. In preparing to enter the Promised Land Israel had to be organized - God is an organized God, and moves through organization even when we canít figure it out! Therefore it was essential that Israel took inventory and saw where they were.

 

i. God counts things. He counts the stars and has a name for each one (Psalm 147:4; Isaiah 40:26). God even counts and knows the number of hairs on your head! (Matthew 10:30)

 

ii. ďHe who counts the stars and calls them all by their names, leaves nothing unarranged in his own service.Ē (Spurgeon)

 

c. Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number: We also must see, that as in the case of Levi, there are some things that canít - or shouldnít - be counted. Israel had to appreciate that some of the most important things canít be counted.

 

i. Taking inventory is fine; even a necessary first step in organizing for victory in taking hold of Godís promises. But it must always be done understanding that some of the important factors - as the Levites were in Israel - cannot be counted. No inventory is totally complete, and God always works mightily through things that canít be counted.

 

© 2004 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission