The Word Made Fresh
1This is what the LORD said to Moses in the Sinai wilderness. It was in the meeting tent on the first day of the second month in the second year since they had left Egypt: 2“Count all the Israelites according to their ancestry in their separate families and list every man by name. 3You and Aaron must list them from twenty years old and older, everyone able to take up arms. 4I will assign someone to assist you, a man who is the head of each family group. 5Here are their names:
“From Reuben, Elizur son of Shedeur.
6From Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai.
7From Judah, Nahshon son of Amminadab.
8From Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar.
9From Zebulun, Eliab son of Helon.
10From Ephraim, son of Joseph, Elishama son of Ammihud.
From Manasseh, son of Joseph, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur.
11From Benjamin, Abidan son of Gideoni.
12From Dan, Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai.
13From Asher, Pagiel son of Ochran.
14From Gad, Eliasaph son of Reuel.
15From Naphtali, Ahira son of Enan.”
16These are the leaders chosen from each of the tribes. 17Moses and Aaron brought them together 18and on the first day of the second month they gathered all the men twenty years old and older and listed them by name in their respective ancestral families. 19They did just as the LORD commanded.
20From the tribe of Reuben, Israel’s firstborn son, 21they listed forty-six thousand, five hundred.
22From the tribe of Simeon 23they listed fifty-nine thousand three hundred.
24From the tribe of Gad 25they listed forty-five thousand six hundred fifty.
26From the tribe of Judah 27they listed seventy-four thousand six hundred.
28From the tribe of Issachar 29they listed fifty-four thousand four hundred.
30From the tribe of Zebulun 31they listed fifty-seven thousand four hundred.
32From the tribe of Ephraim, son of Joseph, 33they listed forty thousand five hundred.
34From the tribe of Manasseh, son of Joseph, 35they listed thirty-two thousand two hundred.
36From the tribe of Benjamin 37they listed thirty-five thousand four hundred.
38From the tribe of Dan 39they listed sixty-two thousand seven hundred.
40From the tribe of Asher 41they listed forty-one thousand five hundred.
42From the tribe of Naphtali 43they listed fifty-three thousand four hundred.
44Moses and Aaron and the twelve tribal leaders listed these men. 45The total was 46six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty. 47The Levites were not counted 48because the LORD had instructed Moses 49not to count them. 50Instead, they were appointed to be in charge of the covenant sanctuary, along with all its equipment and furnishings. They were in charge of transporting the sanctuary and its accoutrements and take care of it, and they were to make their camp around it. 51Whenever they broke camp and traveled the Levites packed up the sanctuary and all the furnishings, and when they camped the Levites set it back up. Anyone else who approached the sanctuary during its transition was to be put to death. 52The other Israelites would set up their camps in their ancestral groups, 53but only the Levites could camp around the sanctuary of the covenant so that no blame would be levied on the people. The Levites were to serve as the guards of the sanctuary.
54The people did just as the LORD commanded Moses.
Welcome to the exciting book of Numbers!
In the first chapter the tribes are numbered by census. That is, all the men available for battle (age 20-60) are counted. Why count only those who are able to bear arms? God is preparing them to conquer the land promised to the descendants of Abraham. The census provides essential information for organizing battle divisions.
1-16: Moses is told to choose a leader from each tribe. The tribes are not listed in the order of birth of the sons of Jacob. Leah’s and Rachel’s descendants are listed first and then the four tribes descended from the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. There seems to be a new pecking order emerging. Levi is not included in the twelve, that tribe having been claimed by God for service in the tabernacle and thus unavailable to bear arms. To keep the number at 12, the tribe of Joseph is divided in two between Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s sons.
20-47: Now a count of each of the twelve tribes is given, but in a slightly different order again, this time corresponding to the order of march that will be described in the next chapter.
Here’s the count:
Judah 74,600 (the largest tribe)
All the numbers end in zero, which makes them suspect as far as strict accuracy is concerned.
48-54: The duties of the Levites are explained in some detail. They are responsible for setting up the tabernacle, taking it down and transporting it to each successive camp site. They do serve a military function as well: although the Levites will not be sent out in battle with the other tribes, they are responsible for guarding the tabernacle.
Much of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are tedious and boring, largely because the subject matter of much of these books is foreign to us. We are reading the record of a large group of people camping in territories that do not belong to them, and who have no established government. God is dealing with them in the ways that they will understand and be most helpful to them during their forty-year trek toward the Promised Land.