Numbers 26:1-65


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Numbers 26:1-65

As we have made our way through the previous several chapters we have been conscious of the fact that there has been a generational turnover in Israel. We have come to the end of the forty years in the wilderness and things are not as they once were in large part because Israel is not the same people she once was, literally not the same people. The adults who left Egypt at the Exodus and for whose faithlessness were condemned to remain in the wilderness and never see the Promised Land, they have now died. Perhaps the last of them died in the plague with which Israel was punished for idolatry and sexual immorality in chapter 25. We have noted that this new generation, for all its obvious faults, is considerably quicker on the uptake, spiritually speaking, than their parents had been. They have already enjoyed the conquest of enemies and that by the exercise of real faith in the Lord. Indeed, one scholar entitles the final section of the book of Numbers – 26:1-36:13 – “The Generation of the Conquest.” [Milgrom, 219] The great subject of this final section of the book is the prospect of the occupation of the Promised Land and that is going to be the background, the sub-text of everything that remains in the Book of Numbers.

Now as virtually an inclusio for the book and as a way of marking the change of generations, as well as preparing for the next step in Israel’s history, we have another census taken, like the one with which the book began, the census taken when Israel was still at Mt. Sinai most of forty years before.

Text Comment

v.4       The first census at the beginning of Numbers was overseen by Moses and Aaron. Upon Aaron’s death, his son Eleazar succeeded to the high priesthood and so he stands in for his father, a generational change there.

Again, as in the case of the first census, the immediate purpose is to determine the number of men available for military service. At the end of the previous chapter (vv. 17-18) a campaign against the Midianites was ordered, but, more important still, the nation is poised on the border of Canaan and will have to fight its way into the Promised Land. It is the military purpose that accounts for the specific people to be counted: men of twenty years of age and older. There would, of course, in the nature of the case, be no men older than 60 to count; they would all have died.

We will learn later in the chapter that the census had a second purpose, viz. to determine the relative size of the various tribes and their clans for the purpose of the eventual allotment of land when once Canaan had fallen into their hands (vv. 52-56). That is one obvious difference between the early census and this one: the first gives us only the total number of men 20 years of age and older in each tribe; this second census mentions the particular clans that made up the various tribes.

You will notice that the census purports to count “the Israelites who came out of Egypt.” Obviously those who were babies to nineteen years of age at the time of the rebellion at Kadesh had, in fact, literally, come out of Egypt at the exodus. But now, almost forty years later, there would be many men and women twenty years of age and older who had been born in the wilderness since Israel left Mt. Sinai. Nevertheless, they too are regarded as part of the people who had been redeemed from bondage at the exodus. There is a sense in which all Israelites came out of Egypt. The exodus is as much their history as it was the history of that generation that actually, literally, participated in the event itself. We get this perspective regularly in the Bible and it is a particularly important one for us to grasp. In Deut. 5:3-4 Moses speaks to this second generation and tells them that the Lord made his covenant at Sinai with them, not indeed with their fathers who were actually present at Sinai when Moses received the law and when the covenant with Abraham was renewed. Moses even says “the Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain.” Well most of the people to whom Moses was then speaking, or at least a great many of them, hadn’t been born when Moses went up Mt. Sinai into the fire and the smoke and when the Lord spoke to Israel out of the fire on the mountain. But they are regarded as participating in the events of redemption through memory and faith. And so with us. Paul will make that point: we were at the cross and died with Christ; we were raised with Christ; we are now in the heavenly places with the Lord Jesus: all by the appropriation of those past events by faith, in which we were not literally, personally, actually present or involved. This is the appropriation of the events of redemptive history by faith and it is an important feature of the Bible’s teaching of salvation.

v.7       Each of these names is listed in Gen. 46:9 as a son of Reuben and so a grandson of Jacob. That is where the clan names came from. In Genesis they are individual persons; in Numbers they have become the clans or extended families descended from those persons.

I’m not going to read all of these names; it would be difficult for me and wearying for
you, and, as we have often said, Christians shouldn’t have to do anything that is difficult or wearying! But let me draw your attention to certain features of this second census, especially in comparison with the first census of Numbers 1-3.

  1. The census makes a point of noting certain prominent examples of the people’s faithlessness and rebellion and four in particular scattered throughout the whole. So in vv. 9-10 we read of Dathan and Abiram “who rebelled against Moses and Aaron” and “against the Lord.” In v. 19 we even read of Er and Onan who were executed by the Lord for their sins before Israel went to Egypt. They are mentioned in Genesis but have no clans descended from them. In v. 61 we are reminded of the priests Nadab and Abihu and the sin for which they were put to death. And finally, in vv. 64-65 the point is made that the entire generation of the exodus was put to death in the wilderness (except Caleb, Joshua, and their families). A point is being made again, as it has been so often made to this point and will be made again and again throughout the remainder of the Bible that the covenant promises of God may be forfeit for individuals and even for an individual generation but cannot be prevented in their fulfillment to the people of God as a whole.
  2. Second, the census numbers are approximately the same in the second census as they were in the first: 601,730 in the second census, as we read in v. 51; 603,550 in the first (1:46). A comparison of the tribal totals shows that most of the tribes increased in size during the wilderness years, most notably Manasseh, which went from 32,200 at the first census to 52,700 at the second. But five tribes show losses. Reuben dropped from 46,500 to 43,700; Gad from 45,650 to 40,500; Ephraim from 40,500 to 32,500; Naphtali from 53,400 to 45,400. Only Simeon suffered a catastrophic loss: from 59,300 to 22,200. You immediately realize that the numbers are rounded off. The fall in the population of the tribes of Reuben and Simeon is probably the result of their participation in the rebellions of Dathan and Abiram in chapter 16 and of Zimri in chapter 25 (who is identified as a Simeonite). Perhaps they suffered disproportionately in the divine judgments of those rebellions, both of which were punished by plagues. But for the losses in the other tribes no explanation is furnished. [Cf. Wenham, 190]
  3. Once again, I should point out, as I did in some detail in regard to the first census, that the internal evidence of the Bible itself indicates that these numbers are too large. However the problem is to be solved (as a problem of textual corruption, a misunderstanding of the Hebrew word here translated “thousand,” and in military contexts may in fact be translated “unit” of some indeterminate size, or as a hyperbole typical of ANE census reporting), I say, however you understand these numbers the Bible itself gives us reason not to trust them as literal accounts of the size of the population. It does not appear that Israel numbered the 2 million souls or more that would be her total population if women and children were added to some 600,000 men of fighting age.
  4. In v. 33 we read that the progenitors of one of the clans of Manasseh produced no sons, only daughters. That is significant in this census because of the question of inheritance in the Promised Land, an inheritance that ordinarily passed from father to son. This created a problem that will be dealt with in greater detail in chapters 27 and 36.
  5. The principle of distribution of land once Canaan is in Israel’s hands is to be that of dispassionate equality. The larger clans get more land than the smaller (v. 54) and the precise allocation would be made by lot (v. 55). No favoritism was allowed.
  6. As we read in v. 62 a census of the Levites was also taken, as it was in the first census; there because the Levites were not responsible for military duties; here because it was already understood that the Levites were not to receive an inheritance in the Promised Land such as the other tribes would receive.

 

Read verses 62-65.

v.62     There is a longstanding debate as to whether the Levites were exempted from the punishment imposed on the rest of Israel for their failure of faith at Kadesh Barnea (14:26-35). Did the adult men of the tribe of Levi who were twenty years or older also die in the wilderness. Eleazar survived and some argue that he is proof that the Levites were not counted among those who had to die. Others point out that there is no evidence that Eleazar was twenty or older at the time of the rebellion. He could be nearly sixty at this point and not have been old enough to be included in the generation that was consigned to perish in the wilderness. Others point out that there was no scout from the tribe of Levi among the 12 who spied out the land and among the ten who gave a discouraging report to the people. Still, one would expect that if the tribe of Levi had been exempt from the punishment imposed on the rest of the people, there would have been some mention of that fact.

v.65     You will notice here a generalizing way of speaking that we encounter often in the Bible. Not one of the Israelites counted by Moses and Aaron at the first census taken when Israel was still encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai was counted by Moses and Eleazar in the second census taken when Israel was encamped on the Plains of Moab. Not one, well, except Caleb and Joshua. This is the way the Bible so often speaks, a generalizing summary and then specific qualifications added later.

We have before us one of the Bible’s principle accounts of generational transition. As interested in the succession of generations as the Bible is; as emphatically as it emphasizes the progress of both grace and judgment in the lines of generations; as much of the fortunes of the kingdom of God as the Bible stakes upon the handing down of living faith from parents to children and then to grandchildren, such a moment as we have described here in the second census is obviously of great importance. A generation of unbelievers had been eliminated and their faithlessness purged from the body of God’s people. A new generation rose up to replace them and now becomes the vanguard that will claim possession of the Promised Land.

Ordinarily, of course, generations don’t change like this, almost all at once as it were. The old are dying all the time and babies are being born all the time. Generations are slowly rolling over day after day and year after year. We indulge a conceit in our society, a result in some large part of the clamoring of the social sciences for respectability, that we can identify specific generations in the midst of the constant flux of population, the daily ebb and flow of death and new life. So we speak of the baby-boomers, baby-busters, genXers, genYers, and the millennials and so on. Most of this is hype based on unconvincing generalizations. The categories by which such groups are defined don’t apply to as many as they apply to. It is only in a broader sense that we can speak of generational transition in society. Nevertheless there are real generational transitions in both human life and the life of the church, however much less abrupt and precisely defined. It is because this one is so sharply defined – this one when Israel paused on its pilgrimage to wait for the death of an entire generation and its replacement by a new one – that the point of it becomes so much clearer.

The television journalist, Tom Brokaw, styled the American generation that fought the Second World War The Greatest Generation. He wrote his book when he did because it suddenly became clear to everyone that that generation was dying off. Stephen Ambrose had to hurry to finish his books on the Second World War while there were still survivors of the various battles to interview, just as anyone in Moses’ day, doing an oral history of the exodus from Egypt, would have had to interview the last survivors of that generation before they had all perished in the wilderness. The World War II generation is now dying by the scores of thousands every month and soon it will be gone. The cemeteries of the United States are burying between 30 and 40 thousand World War II veterans every month. It was of course, for all that we owe them, not the greatest generation and proof of that is that it was that generation that sired and raised the present generation, which no one is ever likely to describe as great much less the greatest! If they saved the world from Nazi Germany it was to condemn the world to the culture of pornography, triviality, the self and to some of the same forms of death that originated in their modern form and ghoulishly in Nazi Germany!

Churches sometimes experience dramatic generational change. A church I know had withered down to a few old ladies gathering of a Sunday in a large, beautifully appointed colonial sanctuary. They were gracious, gospel-minded Christians and decided to give their church to a young, up-and-coming, interracial congregation and now the sanctuary is full every Sunday with a fine, large congregation of believing people. In that case one generation was very happily on a single Sunday replaced by another.

In our own case, here at Faith Presbyterian, there was also a more sudden generational transition than normal. When I arrived here in 1978 most of the congregation was older, living in retirement. In fact, in my first pastoral call on one of our oldest, if not our oldest member, I discovered that he had lived my entire life in retirement. Frank Lawrence had retired from the railroad in 1950, the year I was born! Most all of the people who were part of this congregation when I came to be their pastor are now with the Lord. Only a few remain: Bonnie Payne, Harry and Eunice DeSoto, Fred and Leona Johns, Joe and Barbara Gronewold, some of their children and the children of others, which children are now in middle age themselves! In increasing numbers the young adults who came in the years that followed the beginning of my pastorate, who bore and raised their children among us, have now become or are becoming grandparents. Time marches on; the generations rise and fall; one replaces the one before it, but in a less marked way. In this congregation, as is healthy, we have every demographic now represented: the elderly and the infant, the child and the middle aged, the young adult and people in their thirties and forties. The passing away of the one generation and the rising of the next is a gradual process, too often virtually unrecognized.

All of these names in Numbers 26 represent real human beings, real families: parents, children, and grandchildren. They lived, they loved, they produced children, and then they died and their place was taken by those they left behind. And the great question for them as it is for us was whether they would leave behind them in the life of the rising generation a legacy of genuine faith, of love for God, and of faithfulness to Yahweh’s covenant. Would the next generation continue in the faithfulness or unfaithfulness? In this unusual case, a bad generation was followed by a good one. That does not ordinarily happen. Usually a bad generation is followed by a worse one. In order for that not to be the case here, extraordinary steps were taken. Divine judgment reduced the former generation until it had been eliminated altogether; the new, rising generation was taught directly by the Lord and in powerful ways not to imitate its parents in their unbelief; and the spiritual decline was arrested by the faithful ministry of Moses and Aaron, Caleb and Joshua, Eleazar, and no doubt some others.

The existential question posed by our text tonight is precisely this: how will our next generation fare? How will the next generation of American Christians and of the congregation of Faith Presbyterian Church fare? Will they prove themselves better or worse than their parents? Will they by faith, hope, and love bring down still greater measures of the Lord’s blessing upon the congregation and upon the community through the congregation or, weakened by the toxic culture in which they live, will they allow our holy faith to wither in their hearts? Will the recent article in the Christian Science Monitor predicting the demise of American evangelicalism prove true or instead be proved to have been a complete misreading of the signs? What spiritual story will be told by the next census?

There are factors that are both discouraging and encouraging. Among the discouraging I would list these:

  1. The number of serious Christians in our society, so far as I can tell, is declining both absolutely and relatively. If it is impossible to say this for a certainty – surveys are notoriously unreliable measurements of genuine Christian belief – it is clear certainly that the number of Christian believers is not growing perceptibly. This means not only that evangelism is not producing high numbers of converts, but, more worrying, that Christian families and churches are not keeping their children in anything like the numbers they should. I suspect this is true of our own PCA. This is always a bad sign.
  2. The church is soft and getting softer. It worries me greatly that the second service on the Lord’s Day, the evening service that has been a part of the life of faithful Protestant Christian worship since the time of the apostles is so rapidly disappearing from churches where it has long been standard. It worries me even more that ministers themselves are conspiring in its demise. Are they content with preaching but one sermon a week? Does it not bother them that their congregation, rather than preparing to return to church for worship, is watching TV football or mowing their lawns? It worries me that the Prayer Meeting has largely disappeared from the regular schedule of Christian congregations and PCA congregations. Had it been replaced with something better, that would be one thing, but Christians have met formally for prayer, and especially prayer for the kingdom of God, since the early days after Pentecost and to attempt to confront the Devil and the world in our own strength is a recipe for disaster. In fact it worries me a great deal that almost no one in our circles is worried about the disappearance of the second Lord’s Day Service or the Prayer Meeting.
  3. The accommodation to culture proceeds apace in American evangelical and even conservative Presbyterian life. We see this in the shape of modern worship, in the subject matter of the Christian pulpit, and in a willingness to compromise with the culture at the expense of biblical authority in matters such as gender, sexuality, the Lord’s Day, divorce, cremation, and the like. More subtly it consists in greater and greater amounts of time spent before the computer and the television set, playing video games, and otherwise failing to redeem the time.
  4. At the same time the hostility of the culture continues to build toward almost everything that belongs to the core of our holy faith, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. I could continue this list of ominous developments to great length.

 

On the other hand, I also see reasons for encouragement.

  1. The development of Protestant Christian education over the last generation has been most welcome and holds promise of producing generations of Christians who have been furnished the materials with which to critique their unbelieving culture and the confidence to confront it and not back down. There are many more people nowadays than used to be the case speaking into many young Christians’ hearts and minds, helping them to understand the world biblically and nerving them to live in it as faithful followers of the Lord Jesus.
  2. There has been in general, as part of a response to the culture’s assault on the family, a growing sense of the importance of the Christian family and the nurture of children in the family which is all to the good so far as furnishing the kingdom of God with numbers of committed young adults is concerned.
  3. There is abroad in the land a much larger, more articulate, and sharply focused Christian dissent than was the case when I was a young man. Whether regarding abortion or the sexual revolution, evolution or biomedical ethics, bright and learned Christians are hard at work in scholarship, in education, in politics, in the discussion of environmental issues and in social commentary and there are many more intellectual resources for a thoughtful, committed Christian than there used to be. Christians may be losing influence in our society, but if someone wants to know how the principles of Holy Scripture bear on modern life he or she will have many able helpers.
  4. Persecution may grow against the church but that is almost invariably good for her spiritual life. It rids the body of Christ of the dead weight of the hangers-on and nerves and steels the real believers to live worthy and stand up and be counted for the Lord Jesus.
  5. The speed at which the culture is collapsing in those ways that produce the greatest amount of human woe is so great that it is hard not to believe that the deleterious consequences of unbelief and rebellion against God will become more obvious and, as a result, the case for the Christian faith will become still more easy to make on the personal level. On the moral, spiritual front, as with regard to an issue such as evolution, the case for the Bible continues to get easier and easier to make! Christianity entered the Greco-Roman world when it was prosperous, but when it was beginning to rot from the inside out. You will remember that Julian the Apostate, the nephew of Constantine, who wanted to bring the empire back to its pagan roots, said to his advisers that Christianity in his view had triumphed for three reasons. One was the courage of the Christians in the face of persecution. Another was their charity. He said it was demoralizing that the Christians were not only caring for their own poor but everyone else’s poor. And the third was their treatment of the dead. They had a hope that no one else had and they embodied that hope in very practical ways. How is not that our opportunity in almost precisely the same way as we face our culture’s spiritual collapse?
  6. There seems to be a growing consensus of Christian conviction – by which I mean the convictions of what C.S. Lewis called mere Christianity – across denominational lines. That is to say, there seems to be a natural, Spirit led ecumenical movement of believing conviction underway in our land. The convergence of evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics, of evangelical mainliners and long-time separatists, augurs for a more united front against the forces of unbelief in our land and in Western civilization in particular. We may find ourselves spending less time fighting one another and more time confronting the world.
  7. Finally, huge advances in believing Christendom in Africa and Asia may, for all anyone knows, alter the balance of belief and unbelief in the entire world in decisive ways. The Western and, in particular, the British and American churches  may no longer lead the way, but who cares about that if the kingdom is advancing powerfully in the world as a whole. There is less and less worth saving in the Western societies anyway. It will not be a bad thing if we learn that our sun is already setting and the sun is rising over the east!

 

To put the question to ourselves from the vantage point of our text, Numbers 26, we should ask this: will a census taken soon or some years from now reveal a stronger, purer, more committed, more faithful, more useful church; a growing number of young men and women ready for battle; or will it reveal, as some are predicting it will, decline and weakness and portend still worse in days to come?  The fact of the matter is that this present generation – and I’m speaking of all of us old enough to continue to have an influence – will have a great deal to say about that. That is our unique theology as Presbyterians. If enough of us are raising our children and discipling others to love and serve the Lord, I have no real concern for the future. If we are not, the kingdom will be inevitably consigned to a period of stagnation, decline, and weakness. There are many Christians who don’t seem to think this and seem to think that some how or another the future of the church is somehow unrelated to this generation’s obedience and this generation’s nurture of the church’s rising generation, but surely that is not the teaching of the Bible.

Time goes on. Generations come and go. That is inevitable. What is not inevitable is the spiritual condition of the rising generation. The Lord has not left us powerless in regard to that. A faithful generation Biblically speaking ought to produce a faithful generation and ought to produce a more faithful generation of believers. Again and again we are taught this in Holy Scripture.

“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit who is on you and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,” says the Lord. [Isa. 59:21]

“We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands. They would not be like their forefathers – a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God…” [Psalm 78:4-7]

Psalm 78 is talking about this generation that has just now finally died away in the wilderness. There is a definite promise often repeated in Holy Scripture that our faithfulness to the rising generation by the grace of God will produce in them true faith and godliness. All that is required of us is that we faithfully nurture our children and young believers by which the Bible means that we instruct them, discipline them, and set an example for them of the love of God, of his Word, of his church, of his gospel and of his cause. He will do the rest, as he has promised. And if enough of us do that, across the spectrum of believing Christianity, what is happening in the culture, the terrible disaster that has overtaken our culture morally and spiritually, will not matter so much. It didn’t matter the first several centuries after Pentecost and it hasn’t mattered in many periods of  church history since.

But a shadow cannot produce even another shadow. A weak church, a worldly church, does not produce a strong one in the next generation apart from an utterly unpredictable intervention on God’s part, an intervention that is quite rare in fact. Even serious Christians will fail to keep their children if they do not dedicate themselves to their sacred calling as Christian parents, the first and most sacred calling they have. That is the law of the kingdom of God and one we ought always to be reckoning with. This too has happened time and again: a faithful church has produced in a generation or two a dead and fruitless imitation of the real thing. It is to remind us of this possibility, to warn us against slackness in our taking up our responsibilities for the rising generation and to solemnize us in regard to these sacred duties that we are reminded four times in this genealogy, in this census, of those who lost the story and fell out of the succession of faith and life. There is no reason for that to happen; there is never a reason for that to happen. G.K. Chesterton once said that there are two ways of getting home and one of them is never to have left. Consider this prayer for a Christian child at his or her baptism.

What shall I ask for thee
Child of eternity?
Whose feet have scarce begun
Life’s unknown race to run;
As I, before the throne,
Bring this new name, thine own,
What shall I ask for thee?

Happiness comes and goes,
Human joy ebbs and flows,
With earth’s success and pride
No soul is satisfied:
Is there not something more
God has for thee in store,
What shall I ask for thee?

That he thy life may bless,
And that thou shalt confess
Christ the Lord crucified,
Savior and friend and guide:
Whatever then befall
Having him – Thou has all!
This will I ask for Thee.

It is our duty and responsibility to ask that not only for the children of our own clans but for the children of the entire church, to ask for it and then as always with faithful prayer to work for it as well. Every census in every congregation of Christians and in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ as a whole in all of its clans, what we call denominations these days, every census ought to tell a happier and happier story. If it does not, it is our fault; we have no one to blame but ourselves. If in this land we are to retake Canaan from the pagans, our children and their children will have to do the lion’s share of the suffering and the fighting and the working. Will they be ready? Will they care to do it? It is up to us!