Numbers 1:1-54

Numbers 1:1-54

Download audio

Text Comment

“The theme of the book of Numbers is the journey to the promised land of Canaan. Its opening chapters, covering a mere fifty days, describe how Moses organized Israel for the march from Sinai to the promised land.” [Wenham, 55]

The sanctuary (Tent of Meeting) had been completed one month earlier (Ex. 40:17). “Desert” may not be the most accurate translation of the word. The scant rainfall of that wilderness cannot support crops but it can support flocks. [Milgrom, 4]

In any case, the narrative recommences with a reminder of the great redemption by which Israel was rescued from bondage in Egypt. But redemption does not finish the work. The Lord promised his people not only to deliver them from Egypt but to bring them into the Promised Land. It is time to get moving.

We mentioned last time that the first word “And the Lord said…” is one of the Hebrew titles for the book and an important organizational marker throughout the book. “And the Lord said” will occur some 50 times in Numbers.

“Community” is the ordinary Hebrew word for “assembly.” It ordinarily means the entire nation: men, women, and children. But it can also refer to the adult males or even a representative body of elders.

The age of conscription in the United States is 18. In Israel it was 20. In any case, it is clear that the purpose of the census was to determine the fighting strength of the nation. If it had been supposed that the Lord was going to do everything for his people and require nothing of them in return, we now learn it is not so. There will be fighting required, perhaps in the wilderness, certainly to take the Promised Land. Israel must be mustered and organized as an army.

The census was completed in less than 20 days (10:11) by means of requiring each clan to count its own membership, making it necessary only to collate the totals. In the days of the monarchy, when the national government conducted the census, laboriously taking the count tribe and tribe and district by district, the census took more than nine months! [2 Sam. 24:8]

These “assistants” may be the source of some of the material Moses introduced into his text of Numbers. It is interesting that the Lord himself chose them; he did not leave the selection to Moses. Since each clan would have had a chief, there would have been a number of chiefs in each tribe. Hence the choice that had to be made.

There are several features of this early section of Numbers that betray its great antiquity (i.e. that it was not composed much later in Israel’s history as is usually assumed in skeptical scholarship. One is the means by which the census was taken, a practice unknown after the rise of the monarchy. Another is the numerous parallels in vocabulary and procedures to the census documents found at Mari and other ANE sites from this time or still earlier. Mari flourished, for example, in the 3rd millennium B.C., a thousand years or more before the exodus and continued to exist until the 18th century B.C. when it was overrun by Hammurabi. In other words, the census we have here is like that of earlier peoples, not later. Another ancient feature is these names: sixteen of them never occur again in biblical literature and not one of them is a compound of Yahweh (remember we read in Exodus 6:3 that the name “Yahweh” was first revealed to Moses and was not known to the Jews before). Many of these names are compounds of El and some of Shaddai. Later Hebrew names are in large numbers compounds of Yahweh; virtually any name in your English Bible that starts with a “J”! [Milgrom, 6]

You will notice that while the list of Israelite tribes varies – largely as to whether Levi is included or not – there is always a concern to maintain the number 12. Levi is not listed here – replaced by the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh – because the Levites were exempt from military service.

Nahshon was an ancestor of Boaz and so of David.

Elishama ben Ammihud was the grandfather of Joshua.

The groups ascend in size: family, clan, tribe, and the entire assembly. It is perhaps useful to point out that we have similar groupings today. We have families, we have clans or extended families – think of the Kvales if that will help you picture what is happening here in Numbers 1 – and we have tribes or larger groupings, whether we think of congregations or denominations or of Christendom as a whole.

The opening phrase of v. 20, literally the opening word, reads literally: “and there were…” This forms an inclusio with v. 46 which reports the grand total.

Reuben comes first as the eldest son of Jacob even though Judah will be the first to lead the nation on the march (10:14).

We discussed a few weeks ago the question of the numbers reported in this census and the others taken of the wilderness generation. They presuppose a total population over two million people. The problem is not created by an unwillingness to believe the Bible. As we pointed out when discussing this as an example of the sort of objections that can be raised to the inerrancy of the Bible, the Bible’s own figures do not provide a consistent picture. For example, in Judges 5:8, written perhaps less than a century later and after a time of Israelite triumph in the Promised Land, six tribes are said to have been able to mobilize only 40,000 fighting men, whereas the same tribes yield 273,000 soldiers in this census. What is more, in Numbers 3:43 we read that there were 22,273 first born sons in Israel a month of age or older. But assuming that there were as many girls born as boys and comparing that figure with this census, the ratio of adult first born sons to other adult males would be 27:1, an average family would have had 27 sons and the average mother something approaching 50 children. They don’t make women like they used to! The census figures are too large. One suggestion that has been proposed is that the term translated “thousand” refers instead of a military unit of a clan, perhaps 10 or 11 men. The number for Reuben then would be 46 units numbering approximately 500 men. There are other proposals, including that the numbers are exaggerated for effect according to typical ANE convention. One evangelical scholar proposes that the exaggeration is by a factor of ten, so that the total size of the Israelite army would actually have been 60,000, not 600,000. Textual corruption is another possibility.

The total number, by the way, is the same given in Exodus 38:26, suggesting again that the “books” of the Pentateuch are really one book. The number has been transported back into Exodus from the census here in Numbers 1. Or, there was an earlier census taken (Exodus 30:12-16), this to form what would in effect be the tax roles of Israel, and the numbers, being rounded off are the same a year later.

Interestingly, at Mari also, the census is specifically targeted, with those exempt from military service not counted.

One interesting feature of the literary organization of Numbers is the use of prolepses, passages that anticipate material to be given later. This section on the duties of the Levites has nothing particular to do with the census that comes before it or the arrangement of the camp that comes after it. But those duties will be reported in great detail in chapters 3 and 4. This is, in other words, something of a tease. There are a number of these prolepses or anticipations throughout the book. [Milgrom, xxx]

That the Israelites obeyed so promptly and comprehensively is an ironic statement in retrospect. This generation would cease to obey and would die in the wilderness for their disobedience. We have here, in other words, the same reality often described in the NT: people who started well but quit at some point, people who tasted the powers of the age to come and the goodness of the word of God and shared in the Holy Spirit (Heb 6:4-5) but who, nevertheless, fell away never to be renewed to repentance. It is this that will make Numbers such an important warning for every generation of Christians, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 10.

We might title the first section of Numbers, 1:1-10:10 as “Getting ready,” that is, getting Israel ready to leave Mt. Sinai, where she has camped for more than a year, to make her way on to the Promised Land.

We said last time that Numbers is tough going for many even interested readers of the Bible. It has always been so. Origen, writing early in the 3rd century, observed that “if the Book of Numbers is read the hearer will judge that there is nothing…as a remedy for his weakness or a benefit for the salvation of his soul.” [Cited by Raymond Brown, The Message of Numbers, 14] We said, in introducing the book, that there is more to Numbers than meets the eye and that Paul himself said that it was a book written for Christians about the Christian life. But we are put on our mettle to prove that in the very first chapter, the account of a census taken of the Israelite population at Mt. Sinai. But the more carefully we consider what might otherwise be thought a dry and uninteresting account, the more timely and relevant it becomes.

We observe, at the outset, that a census is as much a fact of modern life as it was in the second century B.C. Governments today count their populations and for the same reasons. They need to know what resources they have and what resources they need. [Duguid, 26] In the ancient world censuses were taken for two reasons: to know how many soldiers were available and to assess the population for taxes. Remember it was for military purposes that David conducted his ill-starred census and it was to update his tax rolls that Augustus ordered the census that took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. That is why censuses have always been unpopular. They are a form of government intrusion and they serve to aid the government in getting something from us. We don’t use the census per se to fill the ranks of our armies at this time in US history, but, in effect, we employ a running census operated by the Selective Service Administration that enables us to be ready to identify potential draftees should the need arise. And we are interested in the numbers that are generated by these censuses. The size of individual cities, their growth or decline since the last census, the relative proportion of various minorities among the population as a whole, the age of the population and so on. Some of the most pressing political concerns in the Western world are census related: the decline of Europe’s traditional population, the increase in Muslim immigration into European states, the declining birthrate in America’s blue states, and so on.

In considering the relevance of this census with which the book of Numbers begins, let me read you an interesting observation that I found in one of the commentaries on Numbers I am reading to prepare these messages [Duguid, 27-28].

Sociologists tell us that there are essentially two ways in which people come together into groups. There are edge-bounded groups and center-focused groups. Center-focused groups are organizations in which the glue that holds the group together is a common interest or center, around which the group comes together. So the Audubon Society comes together because everyone there is excited about birds, while those in an operatic society meet because they share a common love of opera. In a center-focused group, everyone can tell you what holds the group together, but they can’t necessarily put an exact count on who is in the group and who is outside. The edge of the group may well be rather fuzzy, with people moving in and out around the fringes. [Think, for example, of the group “Mariner Fans.” The group gets larger one night and smaller the next, very large one year and quite small the next.]

An edge-bounded group, on the other hand, has a clearly defined boundary. Everyone in the group knows who is in and who is out, though they may not be equally clear on what this particular group has in common. The family is an edge-bounded group: you either are part of the family or you are not. There are no fuzzy boundaries. Yet it is not always clear what this disparate mass of individuals have in common, particularly once you get up to the level of extended family. We are so different in our interests, in our beliefs, in our concerns. and yet we are all part of the same family. People can come into the family through birth or marriage, and they can leave the family through death, divorce, or being disinherited, but there is no fuzzy middle. With an edge-bounded group you are either in or out.

So what kind of group is the people of God? Numbers 1 shows us that the people of God are an edge-bounded group. It is a family. You are either in or you are out. Nowhere is that clearer than when there is a census among the people of God. A census presses the question, ‘Are you in or are you out? Do you want to be counted in or do you want to he excommunicated? What’s it going to be?” We will see in the next chapter that the people of God make up an edge-bounded group that is also center-focused, but here in Numbers 1 the focus is on the people of God as an edge-bounded group. To be counted means being identified as part of the people of God, with all of its responsibilities and privileges.

Now that is very helpful I think and a very necessary corrective to the rampant individualism and subjectivity of our time. Remember, the church is today – or ought to be – what it was then. It is not for nothing that Paul refers to the Christian church of his day, by then a largely Gentile church, as “the Israel of God.” The NT refers to the church as God’s family and household (Gal. 6:16). And like any other family or household, it is a group with defined limits. One is either in it or out of it. So we read in Acts, for example, about people being added to the church.

In other words, what we have in Numbers 1 is ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. A biblical ecclesiology is the missing ingredient in the viewpoint of so many Christians nowadays. And we find here some important features of the Bible’s ecclesiology.

I have told you on many occasions that it is a great help both to the understanding and to the appreciation of the Bible’s teaching to reckon with its dialectical character. On any continuum of biblical truth you find attention paid to the poles and very little attention paid to resolving the tension created by the Bible’s emphasis on the polarities of truth: whether the unity or triple personality of God, the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man, the righteousness and the sinfulness of the Christian in the world, and on and on. You get now the one, now the other; you almost never get any reflection on how you are to believe both at once. Sometimes divine sovereignty is stated so categorically as to seem to leave no room for human freedom and sometimes human freedom is stated so categorically as to seem to leave no room for divine sovereignty. Virtually any doctrine you can name is presented this way in the Bible. There are reasons for that as we have often said.

But one result of this biblical pedagogy is that our mistakes as Christians tend to result from our wrapping ourselves around one pole at the expense of the other. Virtually any error you can think of having been committed in Christian history concerning the biblical doctrine of the Trinity amounts to an emphasis on either the unity or the triple personality of God with a corresponding neglect or underemphasis on the opposite pole. Arminians stress man’s freedom without doing justice to the Bible’s emphatic teaching of divine sovereignty and hyper-Calvinists stress sovereignty at the expense of the Bible’s teaching of human freedom and responsibility.

Well in ecclesiology there is a similar polarity or dialectic. It is the tension-laden emphasis in the Bible now on the group and now on the individual, now on the church and now on the Christian himself or herself. Everywhere one looks in the Bible one finds this dialectic: the Christian as an individual before the Lord alone and the Christian as essentially a member of the church, the body of Christ. Each emphasis is vital to a biblical self-understanding. And it should surprise no one that there has been throughout Christian history the predictable result: sometimes an overemphasis on the group at the expense of the individual; sometimes an overemphasis on the individual at the expense of the group.

Whenever, for example, you find Christians who imagine that their church membership, their participation in the group – baptism, worship on Sunday, the Lord’s Supper, giving gifts of money to the church, etc. – renders them invulnerable to God’s judgment (a viewpoint a great many more people have entertained than you might think), there the collective emphasis has overwhelmed the individual emphasis of the Bible. These people are not thinking in terms of the necessity of an individual having a living faith in Christ that demonstrates itself in a life of devotion and obedience. The group is enough. We would say that one of the great dangers of what we judge to be Roman Catholic errors of theology is precisely the way in which they encourage such a one-sidedness and so a false confidence. Being a Catholic, or for that matter a Presbyterian, is going to count for nothing if you yourself did not love and serve the Lord!

But much more common among American evangelicals is the opposite mistake: paying attention to the individual at the expense of the collective, thinking of the Christian faith and life as individual matters and not attending to the Bible’s consistent emphasis on the fact that the Christian individual is always and only a Christian as a member of Christ’s church.

Here in Numbers 1 the emphasis falls on both. In other words, we have the dialectic in a pure and concentrated form. You see the emphasis on the individual here in the explicit requirement to count and to list the men by name and one by one or, as the ESV has it, head by head. The fact of the matter is that at bottom a census, and this census among them, is a counting of individuals. And the story of Numbers, as the story of Israel’s march to the Promised Land, includes accounts of individuals. Of the twelve spies, two righteous men gave a good report and ten unrighteous men gave a bad report. The group did not so absorb the individual as always to make his choices for him or to make, his own words, and his own deeds unimportant.

But here in Numbers 1 the emphasis falls still more on the group, the church, the assembly of the Lord. The only individuals who are named are the tribal elders or chieftains selected as census supervisors. Otherwise we have the report of the groups that make up the assembly. We have families mentioned, clans, and tribes. But even they are not counted specifically. We don’t know how many belonged to this family or that clan. All we are given is the total number of those in each particular tribe, the largest classification within the assembly as a whole.

What matters here is the entire assembly and even the individual in his individuality, by name, takes on his importance as one among many soldiers available to fight the battles of the kingdom of God. In fact, knowing what we know of human beings and human nature, no doubt there was every sort of difference between one man and another whose name was taken down in this census. There were large men and small; young men and much older; there were athletic men and quiet and studious men; there were outgoing men with the gifts of leadership and many more unassuming men who had neither the personality nor the character of a leader. There were men who were natural born soldiers and there were men who were made for other pursuits. But, and here is the point, every one of them had to be prepared to fight in this army. There were no deferments for students, no allowance made for conscientious objectors, no one excused because his eyesight wasn’t as good as it once was. This was no volunteer army. This was a universal draft. Everyone was a soldier, everyone was in this way put on notice that he must be prepared to fight as soon as the order was given. There were to be no slackers, no stragglers, no one AWOL.

Now any pastor of any denomination will tell you that it is precisely here that the church grows weak in our day. People are very loosely committed to the church. They float from one church to the next, hanging around the fringes but never becoming a committed member who regards his or her life in some large measure to be defined by the church, its life and work, and its battles in the world. These men in Numbers 1 stood up and were counted. And that is what every Christian is supposed to do: stand up and be counted as part of the company, a soldier at Christ’s disposal, subject to callings of the assembly as a whole. This is one of the reasons church membership is such an important step to take for believers nowadays.

It is certainly true that there is nothing in the Bible quite like our practice of joining a particular church. But the thing itself is very definitely biblical. There are a great many Christians who hope to live by the church but not in the church. Their plan is precisely to be connected to the church in such a tenuous and indefinite way that if a census were taken they would be missed! [Cf. Duguid, 29-30] But that is not a biblical viewpoint, however much it is a modern American viewpoint. One of the reasons for the popularity of large institutions in our culture – from schools to churches – is the anonymity it provides and the opportunity to be only as committed as one wishes to be.

But you are not your own. You belong, body and soul, to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian at all, you are part of his body and it is as a part of that body that you are to serve him in this world. You are not a Christian in the full sense if you are not numbered among the church in that real, earthy, practical way illustrated here by this census.

You know that nowadays the church is being reorganized in its worship and work in part because advisors are saying that it needs to be more like a business in our commercial world and that it needs to learn how to attract consumers in our market driven culture. A church needs to give people what they want in order to get them to come and be a part. Sounds very sensible. Many modern worship services are intentionally designed so that a newcomer can watch, even participate to some degree without feeling that he must be involved lest he feel threatened and not come back. The church should be like the world in every way it can be so that people will feel that they are in a familiar place, can be at ease, and comfortable. The great problem with this approach – as now many are admitting, even those who were some of its prominent advocates in the first place – is that the people brought into the church on this plan tend to remain as they were. The church may increase in numbers but its fighting power remains the same or actually decreases over time. The church has worked hard to be friendly, but when its life is characterized primarily by friendliness it is hard then to be a disciplined and demanding community. It may have people; it does not have “divisions.”

Think of joining the army. Everything changes. They cut off your hair, they change your clothes, they make you wake up earlier than you used to, they tell you what to do with your time and yell at you if you are moving too slowly. They give you orders right and left and require you to obey those who are above you in the ranks. You are part of a fighting force and your life is important to the army primarily because you can contribute to the fighting power of the army’s various formations. There is something profoundly different about life in the army than life anywhere else. You are part of a platoon and a company and a battalion and a brigade and a division and a corps and an army. That is who and what you are. You have a job that contributes to the whole and it is with the whole that the army fights and gains victory. Not even the greatest general can win the battle by himself!

Well the church is much more like an army than a sales force or a retail company seeking customers. Becoming a Christian is much more like being drafted than volunteering. Your life, once you are in, is no longer your own. It exists for larger purposes and can only contribute meaningfully to the Lord’s work and cause as it is and remains a part of a larger force.

This was the genius of early Christianity and a great source of its power in taking on and conquering the world. In its worship and its work it created an environment that was quite foreign to anything Greco-Roman people were familiar with but it also gave to such people the impression that they were missing something very important and precious and true. One had to be introduced to this new reality and it was a discipline; it required sacrifices of various kinds, and it absolutely required that one’s life be submitted to the interests of the church and kingdom of the Lord Jesus. Many, even many Christians do not understand this today. And it is a cause of the church’s weakness. But the early church understood it very well.

The world needs Christians to demonstrate that their convictions are worth surrendering their freedoms and pleasures for. That is what will impress pagans again as it did in the early centuries. To become a Christian is to become a soldier. To become a Christian is to join an army with all that entails. It becomes a Christian is to live one’s life under orders and for higher purposes than those that can be achieved by any individual in isolation or independence.

Numbers 1 is a summons to see ourselves as Christians should: citizen soldiers of the kingdom of God, under orders, and fulfilling our calling only to the extent that we are serving the greater interests and purposes of the church of God. Numbers 1 poses questions to each of us and requires us to answer them before the Lord: are we living for the church of God? Have we stood up to be counted? Do we find our highest purpose in life the interests of the assembly of the Lord in the world? The answer must in every case be a resounding “Yes!” It is ours to examine ourselves and, where necessary, to repent until it is so.