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David Guzik's Commentaries
on the Bible

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Numbers 1 - The Census of Israel

A. Background to the Book of Numbers.

1. Israel has come out of Egypt, God setting them free in spectacular fashion; they have come through the Red Sea, and saw God provide through the desert wilderness. They have come 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 in a spectacular way; and where they embraced an idolatrous image of a golden calf in a spectacular way.

a. Encamped at Mount Sinai, Israel has built a tabernacle; they have established a priesthood, and received God's plan for the priests and the nation at large in Leviticus. At the end 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 Numbers encompasses more than 38 years.

2. What happened during those 38 years? The Hebrew title of the book helps us; in Hebrew, it is not called Numbers (surely an unattractive title), but instead, In the Wilderness.

a. The wilderness was never the destination point for Israel; God meant to bring them into the Promised Land of Canaan. The wilderness was intended to be a temporary place, a place to move through, not to live in.

i. "The 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." (Wenham)

b. Numbers is all about God's 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. "The 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." (Wenham)

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

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

ii. "So 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." (Morgan)

d. The book of Numbers approaches it all God's way. When we are in the wilderness, we are tempted to launch a hundred different schemes and plans to get out. But only God's way really works; and the book of Numbers gives us God's 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.

a. As Moses meets with the Lord in the tabernacle, God commands 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. This was predominately a military census; to see who could fight on Israel's behalf in taking the Promised Land. This was the first step in taking the Promised Land: An inventory to see what will be, and can be, used in getting them there.

i. All up until this point, though there have been mentions of the Promised Land, the focus has been upon getting to Sinai and receiving the law. But that's 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 preparations were being made for war.

c. 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. But 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 wouldn't let them do that.

d. God wanted the count made by their families; the strength of Israel was determined by looking at the strength of individual families. Is it any different today?

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

a. Israel was organized according to the tribes which 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 father's house, who would stand for the whole tribe.

i. In a sense, this is a representative form of government; each head of his father's house was essentially the "governor" of the tribe.

ii. It is possible - even likely - that the head of his father's house was elected by those in the tribe; Numbers 1:16 says, These were chosen from the congregation.

b. Twelve tribes are mentioned, but not the tribe of Levi; yet the number twelve is maintained because from Jacob's son Joseph, two tribes came (Ephraim and Manasseh).

i. The absence of the tribe of Levi among the potential soldiers is important, but explained later in the chapter.

ii. The head of the house of Judah (Nahshon) is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:4).

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

a. The leaders of the tribes were responsible to count the potential soldiers in their tribe, then they gathered to make report to Moses.

C. The count of the tribes.

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

a. Are these numbers literal? Some have thought they are grossly exaggerated, and others have suggested they are increased by a factor of ten. But can't we trust the simple testimony of God's Word? Surely God could provide for such a multitude in the wilderness; and occasional discrepancies in numbers are likely due to scribal errors.

b. Are these numbers exact? Most likely, they are rounded off to the nearest one hundred (except in the case of Gad).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a. At the end of the book of Numbers - 38 years later - this census will be 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. Here, in chapter one, we see 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. 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.

a. 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. Counting, or taking inventory, is an essential step in organization. It was essential, in preparing to enter the Promised Land, that Israel be organized - God is an organized God, and moves through organization (even when we can't figure it out!), so it was essential that Israel take inventory and see where they were.

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

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

c. We also must see, that as in the case of Levi, there are some things that can't - or shouldn't - be counted. Israel had to appreciate that some of the most important things can't be counted!

i. Taking inventory is fine; even a necessary first step in organizing for victory in taking hold of God's 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! God always works mightily through the intangibles.


Copyright Statement
David Guzik's Commentaries on the Bible are reproduced by permission of David Guzik, Siegen, Germany. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Guzik, David. "Commentary on Numbers 1". "David Guzik's Commentaries
on the Bible". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/guz/view.cgi?book=nu&chapter=001>. 1997-2003.  

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