Numbers 1-4: Censuses and duties.

September 7, 2015.

Daily Reading: Numbers 1-4.

Background: The book of numbers is the fourth book of the Torah, covering the time from when the children of Israel were on Mount Sinai (where Moses was given the Law) though their journey to the promised land, the subduing of which was halted by God because of their complaints and murmuring against Him. The book of Numbers serves as the concluding book of the Genesis-Numbers series, as Deuteronomy is of a somewhat different nature and purpose than the first four books. Numbers is sometimes broken up into three sections based on the location of the people of Israel in each section (Mount Sinai, Kadesh-Barnea and the plains of Moab) which are joined together by two sections in which the children of Israel are traveling to their next local. True to its name, the book of Numbers contains a good amount of accounting of the people and various offerings of the children of Israel. There are two overall censuses taken in the book, one in the first chapter and one in the 26th chapter, and each count about the same number of people even though there is a 40 year time difference in between them. Numbers tells the story of the Israelite’s attempt/commission to take the promised land, their fear and lack of faith in God which would cause the wandering of Israel in the wilderness, and finally to the new generation’s position in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, poised once again to take the promised land, which is where the book of Joshua picks up (see Deuteronomy 34 and Joshua 1).

Concepts and Connections.

Chapter 1

The first census: The book of numbers opens with a word from the Lord to Moses as the children of Israel were in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, telling him to take a census of the people of Israel, numbering those who were twenty years old and upward and able to go to war. This would leave out the numbering of women and children, along with the tribe of Levi who were not to be numbered, but rather to be appointed over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it. The final number came out to be 603,550 men above twenty who were able to go to war, which means the total number of the people of Israel were likely at least two times this number, perhaps even 2.5-3 times more. Thus, there were likely well over a million Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai at this time (perhaps even upwards of two million). The numbers of each tribe is displayed below in table format (the tribe of Joseph is split into two half tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh).

Tribe Number of people
Simeon 59,300
Gad 45,650
Judah 74,600
Issachar 54,400
Zebulun 57,400
Ephraim 40,500
Manasseh 32,200
Benjamin 35,400
Dan 62,700
Asher 41,500
Naphtali 53,400
Total (men above 20 who were able to go to war) 603,550

Chapter 2

Arrangement of the camp: When there are as many people in one place as the Israelites, seen from the previous chapter, organization and planning is vital to group movement and getting things done. This is what we see in this chapter, as the Lord directs Moses how to arrange the camp when they are stationary and how they are supposed to move when the time comes. In the middle of the camp was the tent of meeting and the tribe of the Levites, who were the ministers to the Lord for the people. On the east side of the tent of meeting were to be the tribe of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. They would be the first to march when the children of Israel set out on a journey. Then the tribes to the south of the tent of meeting were to be Ruben, Simeon and Gad, and they were to march out second after the tribes on the east side. After the eastern and southern tribes marched out, the tent of meeting and the tribe of Levi were to set out after them, each in position, standard by standard. The tribes on the west side, Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin, were to set out after the Levites. Finally, the tribes on the north side of the tent of meeting, Dan, Asher and Naphtali, were to set out last. Thus the children of Israel arranged themselves by the command of the Lord.

Chapter 3

1. Duties of the Levites: The bulk of this chapter deals with the duties of each of the clans of the Levites, what they were to keep guard over for all of Israel. The chapter starts out with a short lineage of Aaron, with a reminder of the sin of Nadab and Abihu (see Leviticus 10:1-3), and thus Eleazar served as priest. Then the duties of the Levites are given according to their clan, as can be seen in the table below. This also gives us a census of the tribe of Levi, numbering all the males from a month old and above, which totaled to be 22,000.

Clan in Levi Number of People Side to Guard What to Guard
Gershonites 7,500 West Tabernacle, tent with its covering, screen for the entrance of the tent of meeting, hangings of the court, screen for the door of the court that was around the tabernacle and the altar, and its cords—all the service connected with these
Kohathites 8,600 South Ark, table, lampstand, altars, the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister, and the screen—all the service connected with these
Merari 6,200 North Frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories, pillars around the court, with their bases and pegs and cords—the service connected with these
Moses, Aaron and sons n/a East Sanctuary

2. Redemption of the firstborn: The Levites had been chosen by the Lord to be the firstborn in place of the firstborn of the rest of the tribes. Here, Moses is told to number the firstborn of the rest of the tribes, from a month onward, and he came out with 22,273. It is likely that only the children that had been born in the time since the exodus were numbered as first born, as this number is low. Since there were 22,000 firstborn of Levi, this number of Levitical children were taken as the Lord’s in place of the firstborn of the rest of the tribes. For the remaining 273 that didn’t have a Levitical firstborn counterpart, however, they were to be redeemed with five shekels per head to be given to Aaron and his sons for a redemption price. There are different ideas on how these 273 children were chosen (as it would be their parents that would have to pay the redemption price, whereas the parents of the 22,000 would not), whether by lot, age or some other way of choosing.

Chapter 4

Duties of the Kohathites, Gershonites and Merari: This chapter expounds on the duties of the Kohathites, Gershonites and Mushites, specifically dealing with what they were to carry when Israel set out on march. The Kohathites were given the service of the most holy things, and these were what they were to carry after Aaron and his sons prepared them to be moved. Though the Kohathites were to be the ones to move the holy things (in a very specified manner), such as the ark, they were not to touch them, lest they die (as Uzzah did when the ark was improperly moved during the reign of David, see I Chronicles 13, 15). A census of the males, ages 30-50, who were able to minister before the Lord was issued to be taken of each of these clans. The census yielded: Of the Kohathites, 2,750; of the Gershonites, 2,630; of the sons of Merari, 3,200. In total, there were 8,580 Levites in these clans who were male, between the ages of 30-50, who could come on duty for service in the tent of meeting, each with their given task.

Tomorrow’s Reading: I Chronicles 5-9.

The Lord grant you peace.


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