Chapter 1

NUMBERS CHAPTER 1

The First Census of Israel’s Troops

    • A year after Israel had left from Egypt, on the first day of the second month of the year (according to the Hebrew lunar calendar this would have been April or May), the Lord spoke to Moses in the Tabernacle and told him to record the names of all the warriors of Israel according to their clans and families. All men 20 years old and above who were able to go to war were to be counted. This registering of troops was to be carried out by Moses and Aaron with the assistance of one leader from each tribe.

Tribe

Leader

Number

Reuben (Jacob’s oldest son)

Elizur (son of Shedeur)

46500

Simeon

Shelumiel (son of Zurishaddai)

59300

Judah

Nahshon (son of Amminadab)

74600

Issachar

Nethanel (son of Zuar)

54400

Zebulun

Eliab (son of Helon)

57400

Ephraim (Joseph’s son)

Elishama (son of Ammihud)

40500

Manasseh (Joseph’s son)

Gamaliel (son of Pedahzur)

32200

Benjamin

Abidan (son of Gideoni)

35400

Dan

Ahiezer (son of Ammishaddai)

62700

Asher

Pagiel (son of Ocran)

41500

Gad

Eliasaph (son of Deuel)

45650

Naphtali

Ahira (son of Enan)

53400

    • The total number was 603,550.

      • The Israelites prepared to leave for the Promised Land by registering all the troops eligible to participate in the conquest.[…] One family member from each tribe (except Levi) was appointed to count Israel’s men of fighting age. […] Moses and Aaron did not include Levi’s tribe in this registration, since it had a special status in Israelite society (Numbers 1:47-53; 26:51-62; Deuteronomy 18:5; 33:8-11).” (NLT Illustrated Study Bible)

      • HCSB notes, “The format of the Israelite military census parallels that of Assyrian military censuses of the eighth century BC. […] The total of 603,550 for the Israelite able-bodied militia would suggest a population of 2-3 million people now preparing to leave Mount Sinai.”

      • If the tribe of Levi is left out, how can there still be a total of 12 tribes? The sons of Jacob’s son Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) are listed as 2 tribes.

      • Guzik points out that Nahshon, the leader of the tribe of Judah, is later mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:4).

  • The large total number of Israelites in the military represented in the Numbers censuses is the subject of great debate. As mentioned above these figures would indicate a total population of 2-3 million people. The HCSB contains an excellent article which explains the controversy and explores the options. I’ll break down the issues and summarize the arguments:

      • Critical scholars challenge these numbers based on a number of external and internal issues. The following are the external issues:

              1. The ability of the Sinai region to support that many people.

            • HCSB answers by noting that this “critique does not accept the supernatural way in which the texts of Exodus and Numbers describe God’s provision of manna and meat for the people.”

          1. The need for at least a 3-5 square mile area to house such a group.

            • The issue of space depends upon where one locates Mount Sinai. The traditional site of Jebel Musa in the southern Sinai peninsula may not have a broad enough single area, but other regions would have more ample space.”

          1. Lack of archaeological evidence for any sizeable population existing in any of the regions or sites listed in the Israelite itinerary such as an immense burial and garbage disposal site.

            • These issues “can be resolved through the understanding of practices of nomadic peoples who leave relatively little trace of their material culture except in a culturally significant location, like a clan burial site.”

      • The following are the internal issues:

          1. The total for the militia (603,550) would indicate a total male population of around a million. Using the Numbers 3:43 figure of 22,273 for the number of firstborn males, this would mean each Israelite family would have to have 40-50 males. Obviously, this is not realistic even by OT standards.

          1. In the time of the Judges, Deborah and Barak’s armies are numbered at 40,000 (Judges 5:8). However, this Numbers census counts 301,000 from the six tribes represented by the armies of Deborah and Barak. 40,000 is also the number recorded in Joshua 4:13 as crossing the Jordan toward Jericho and in Joshua 8:3, 30,000 are listed as being deployed against Ai and Bethel.

      • HCSB addresses the internal issues posed by these scholars with the following, “The 22,273 firstborn males are those who were born in approximately a year and a half between the exodus from Egypt and the time of the census. A population that included 603,550 males would have about 200,000 males from age 20 to 30, which might result in about 20,000 marriages per year. Allowing for the possibility of two gestation periods in some cases, that population could produce 22,273 firstborn males in 18 months. As for the smaller armies in the books of Joshua and Judges, first, Deborah and Barak’s army of 40,000 (only 10,000 of which marched out) reflects Barak’s inability to recruit and muster all available men. While Saul was physically and rhetorically imposing and recruited an immense army (1 Samuel 9:2; 11:7-8), Barak was a wimp (Judges 4:8). The fact that only 40,000 members of the Transjordan army crossed the Jordan may reflect their decision to hold back two thirds of their forces to protect their villages and homesteads, in spite of their promises to send them all (Numbers 32:20-32). And the fact that Joshua only deployed 30,000 against Ai and Bethel simply reflects Joshua’s decision to use only as much force as he deemed necessary to accomplish the objective.”

      • Despite these solutions, these internal issues have led some scholars to theorize other methods for interpreting the census numbers recorded instead of accepting them as literal figures. Yet these theories each create their own problems. The following are the proposed solutions followed by the subsequent issue it creates:

          1. The census represents a later period in Israel’s history, such as the Davidic kingdom period.”

          • HCSB notes, “This view should be rejected since it assumes the unreliability of the numbers in their current context.”

          1. The numbers are hyperbolic, multiplied for rhetorical purposes perhaps by a factor of ten to highlight the providence of God in blessing Israel with an abundance of children.”

        • HCSB aptly points out, “This view would only be acceptable if we assume the original readers understood the figurative nature of the numbers.”

          1. The Hebrew term ‘eleph (“thousand”) should be translated as clan or military unit.” This would mean that Numbers 1:20-43 refers to 598 clans comprising 5,550 men.

          • HCSB, however, notes, “…the summation in Numbers 1:46 lists not 598 but six hundred ‘eleph and three ‘elaphim (and five hundred fifty). Also, in contexts of counting, the term seems to mean “thousand,” especially in the census of Numbers 1-4 where the number of thousands is always followed by the number of hundreds (except for an even 22,000 in Numbers 3:39.)”

      • HCSB further enumerates issues created by attempting to decrease the census numbers:

          1. A small group of Israelites could scarcely have provided the huge quantities of precious materials (over 2,000 lbs of gold alone!) for the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 38:24-29).”

          1. Archaeology informs us that Pharaoh Merneptah encountered Israel as a significant people about 1230 BC.”

          1. The number of soldiers needed to invade Canaan was surely more than a few thousand.”

          1. …the assignment of a half shekel for each warrior in Exodus 38:26 seems to confirm the literal number of 603,550 (also the round number of 600,000 in Exodus 12:37).”

      • The HCSB article concludes with the following, “…rejecting the large numbers in the Pentateuch and book of Judges seems to create far more difficulties than accepting them. Nevertheless, the issues involved are complex, and no scholarly consensus has been reached.”

Duties of the Levites

    • The Levites were not registed by their tribe because the Lord told Moses that the Levites were to be responsible for the Tabernacle of the Covenant with all its furnishings and equipment. They would take it down when it was time to pack up and move, carry it while they traveled, and set it up when they made camp. Anybody who got too close to the Tabernacle that was not authorized would be put to death. Each tribe of Israel would have a designated area to camp marked by their banner, however the Levites would camp around the Tabernacle of the Covenant in order to protect the Israelite community from the Lord’s anger- the Levites had to stand guard around the Tabernacle. The Israelites obeyed the commands that the Lord gave Moses.