Don’t Judge by the Numbers

1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent 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 people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company. And there shall be with you a man from each tribe, each man being the head of the house of his fathers. And these are the names of the men who shall assist 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; 10 from the sons of Joseph, from Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud, and from Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur; 11 from Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni; 12 from Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai; 13 from Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran; 14 from Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel; 15 from Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan.” 16 These were the ones chosen from the congregation, the chiefs of their ancestral tribes, the heads of the clans of Israel. Numbers 1:1-16 ESV

The book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch, which contains the first five books of the Bible. According to verse 1, the author of Numbers was none other than Moses, the man whom God had chosen to deliver the nation of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. Over the centuries, there have been some who have attempted to discount Moses as the author of Numbers and the rest of the books of the Pentateuch. But the Scriptures seem to consistently support the Mosaic authorship of these books sometimes referred to as the Law of Moses.

These are the stages of the people of Israel, when they went out of the land of Egypt by their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord, and these are their stages according to their starting places. – Numbers 33:2 ESV

Jesus believed Moses to be the one who recorded the content found in the Law of Moses. In one of His post-resurrection appearances to His followers, Jesus told them:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” – Luke 24:44 ESV

After first having met Jesus, Phillip declared his belief that he had met the Messiah, the one whom Moses had written about in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” – John 1:45 ESV

It is likely that Moses recorded the books of the Pentateuch late in his life as he prepared the people of Israel to enter into the land of Canaan, promised to them by God as their inheritance. The Pentateuch contains the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each was penned by Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and contains a unique historical record of the people of Israel. Genesis covers the creation of the universe, the fall of man, the dispersal of the nations, and the eventual call of Abram, who would become the father of the Hebrew people. Genesis tells the story of their eventual captivity in Egypt, then the book of Exodus reveals how God used Moses to deliver them from slavery and lead them across the wilderness to the land of promise. The book of Leviticus continues the historical record of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, outlining how God provided His people with the Law and gave specific instructions to the tribe of Levi regarding their God-ordained role to serve as priests and caretakers of the Tabernacle.

The book of Deuteronomy might be considered a collection of sermons or messages that Moses gave to the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the land of Canaan. He would not be joining them as they crossed over the River Jordan, so he wanted to make sure they understood the gravity of what they were about to do. He had led them for more than 40 years and was determined for them to fulfill their God-ordained occupation of the land.

The Book of Numbers essentially bridges the gap between the Israelites receiving the Law (Exodus and Leviticus) and preparing them to enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy and Joshua). The title of the book is based on the two censuses taken by Moses. Chapters 1-4 record the first “numbering” of the people and chapter 26 records the second. The first 25 chapters of Numbers cover the exploits of the first generation of Israelites who successfully escaped their captivity in Egypt. Under the leadership of Moses, they eventually made their to the border of Canaan but refused to obey God’s command and cross over the Jorden to take possession of the land. Fearing the more formidable nations that occupied Canaan, they turned away and were forced to wander in the wilderness until that rebellious generation died off. The final chapters of Numbers record what happened to the next generation of Israelites. The themes of obedience, rebellion,  repentance, and blessing run through the entire book.

The book of Numbers opens up with the first generation of Israel in the second month of their second year since their escape from Egypt. Chapters 7-10 provide a recap of what happened prior to that point. But the entire book spans a period of nearly 40 years, chronicling what happened to the people of Israel from the time they refused to enter the land the first time until the second generation arrived on the shore of the Jordan River again.

We know from the book of Exodus, that during their 400-year stay in the land of Egypt, the number of Jacob’s descendants had expanded greatly. When Jacob and his family initially entered the land to escape a famine in Canaan, there had only been 70 of them (Exodus 1:5). But during their time of captivity, their numbers had increased significantly.

the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:7 ESV

It was their vast numbers that caused Pharaoh to begin a campaign of persecution against the Israelites designed to demoralize them and diminish their numbers.

“Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. – Exodus 1:9-14 ESV

He even tried to reduce their numbers through infanticide, ordering the Hebrew midwives to execute all male babies born among the Jews.

“When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” – Exodus 1:16 ESV

But these faithful women refused to obey Pharaoh’s command and the number of Israelites continue to increase. Some 430 years later, when Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt, they could have been well over a million in number.

And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. – Exodus 12:37 ESV

The 600,000 number would have been adult males, many of whom would have been married with children. So, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to estimate a crowd of more than a million people making their way out of Egypt and into the wilderness. Some have estimated that Israel had grown to be 2.4 million in number.

So, the book of Numbers opens up with a census, designed to determine exactly how many Israelites there were according to their tribes. But Moses was particularly interested in how many warriors he had at his disposal because they would be needed when the time came to enter the land and destroy the nations that lived there.

“From the whole community of Israel, record the names of all the warriors by their clans and families. List all the men twenty years old or older who are able to go to war. You and Aaron must register the troops, and you will be assisted by one family leader from each tribe. – Numbers 1:2-4 NLT

One of the important points to remember is that Moses was under the impression that they were just weeks away from the conquest of the land. He had no way of knowing that the people were going to refuse to obey God’s command and take possession of the land. He was taking a census in order to determine the size of his army and to prepare his forces for the inevitable battles they would face in occupying the land of promise.

According to verse 46, the census revealed a sizeable force of 603,550 men. This number would have consisted of all males over the age of 20 and Moses must have been encouraged by the size of the army God had provided. Their future looked bright. Their success seemed to be assured. With an army of this size and God’s help, the land of Canaan was as good as conquered. Or was it?

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.