Method to the Madness
“One day in midspring, during the second year after Israel’s departure from Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the Tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai. He said, ‘Take a census of the whole community of Israel by their clans and families. List the names of all the men twenty years old or older who are able to go to war.'” Numbers 1:1-3 NLT
It’s been a year and a half since the Israelites left Egypt. The Tabernacle has been up one whole month. Now God comes to Moses and commands him to take a census or a numbering (hence the name of the book) of the people. He wants him to count all the males from 20 years old and up. He was not to include the mixed multitude that had left Egypt with them, but only men from the twelve tribes of Israel. No one who was not fit for military service was to be counted. No women or children were to be included in the number. So Moses had everyone arranged according to their tribe and when the counting was complete, they discovered that there were 603,550 able-bodied men among them. If you add in wives and kids, as well as an estimate of how many foreigners were traveling with them, it isn’t hard to see that the number of people traveling under Moses’ leadership was well over a million and a half. That’s staggering. And the book of Numbers is going to chronicle their nearly 40 year journey through the wilderness. This was a logistical miracle. To travel that long and far with that many people is unprecedented.
So why did God have Moses number the people? What could have been His purpose? First of all, it was probably a not-so-subtle reminder that God was keeping the promise He had made to Abraham that He would multiply his seed exceedingly, which was the same promise He had renewed to Jacob (Gen. 28:14), that his seed should be as the dust of the earth. From their first arrival in Egypt when their numbers could be counted in the double-digits, until now, they could see that God had made good on His promise, so they could trust Him to fulfill His promise to give them the land of Canaan as an inheritance.
Secondly, part of God’s command was to place men in charge of the various tribes and clans. Leadership was going to be critical for this journey. Order was going to be needed. It is a picture of God’s care for His people. He knew what they would need in order to survive this wilderness experience. So God put Moses and these other men in positions as shepherds over the people so that they might care for them. God is called the Shepherd of Israel (Psalms 80:1), so the shepherds always kept count of their flocks, and delivered them by number to their under-shepherds, that they might know if any were missing. So in the same way, God numbers His flock.
Thirdly, God seems to go out of His way to differentiate the Israelites from the host of foreigners traveling with them. We don’t know how many “mixed multitude” had left Egypt with them, but it was probably not an insignificant number. So when God commands the census to be taken, He order that it not include anyone but sons of Israel. It seems to be a picture of God’s care for His own. The Lord knows those that are His (2 Timothy 2:19), and knows them by name (Philippians 4:3). The hairs of their head are numbered ; but he will say to others, “I never knew you, never made any account of you.’’
Finally, God seems to be arranging the people in such a way as to facilitate and improve their orderly travel and the administration of justice. This was not going to be an unruly rabble traveling through the wilderness, but a well-ordered army. He only has Moses number the men who were fit for battle, then God has Moses arrange them in military rank and file. This is probably a reminder to them that they were going to have to be prepared to fight when they arrived in the land of promise. It was not just going to be handed over to them. They were going to have to learn to follow commands and march in an orderly manner. Can you imagine what it would have been like for a million and a half people to try and travel through the wilderness without some kind of plan or method to their madness? There would have been thousands of children, hundreds of thousands of animals, and plenty of excuses for chaos and disorder. So God arranges them in troops and provides them with leaders. God is a god of order, not confusion. He has a plan. He has a purpose. He knows exactly what is needed and when it is needed. He can always be trusted.
Father, in the church today, You have given us a plan for our orderly functioning in this world. You have appointed leaders and shepherds over Your flock. You have given us marching orders and a clear task to accomplish in our days of wandering in this world. Help us to walk according to Your way and not our own. You are still a God of order and calm, not confusion. May we live that way together as Your people. Amen
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men