The Book of numbers sets out thus: “And the Lord spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying, Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the wilderness of Israel. . . .”
According to this Scripture, there intervened between the departure of the people of Israel from Egypt and the numbering of which this text makes mention one year and one month. The journey out of Egypt to Sinai had occupied six weeks. As the first ecclesiastical year had commenced two weeks previous to the departure from Egypt, the people of Israel on the day that the above-cited command was given, had been encamped before Sanai eleven months. During this time God’s covenant with His people had been ratified, the divine laws received, the pattern for the tabernacle revealed, the instructions for the service connected with it given, and the tabernacle reared and dedicated. So the time was at hand for the people of Israel to press on to the promised land of their abode; but they could be allowed to go forward only as a well-organized host, and with knowledge of their military strength. For awaiting them was the task of freeing, through warfare, the land of Canaan from the godless race of men by whom this land was being corrupted.
So the command came to Moses that he “take the sum of the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls, from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel”. (Num. 1:2, 3). The whole people were to be the warring host of God. But as the actual waging of war could be done only by the strong, the army of God was to be recruited from the number of males that had reached the age of twenty. At what age military service was to cease, is not stated. Perhaps the Israelite was expected to render himself available as long as he continued in the full possession of manly vigor. Then, too, going to war in Israel was a venture of faith. The warfare to be warred was that of Jehovah. Where this faith was lacking, there was fear in the heart of the recruit. There are grounds for saying that such a one was not under the compulsion of the law.
The task of taking the census consisted in recording the names of each individual to be numbered, besides the name of the family or clan to which he belonged and the names of all the forefathers that formed the genealogical line that connected him with the founder of the clan, and finally in counting all the recorded names of the living with the exception of the infirm. This must be the requirement of the language, “Take ye the sum of all the congregation,” by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names. . . .” By family is to be understood the clan, the independent, self-governing families, founded by the sons of the patriarchs. This is plain from the language which Moses employed in recording the outcome of the second numbering of the people some forty years later, “Reuben, the eldest son of Israel: the children of Reuben; Hanoch, of whom cometh the family of the Hanochites: of Pallu, the family of the Pallunites: . . . .” The houses of the fathers were the families founded by the male-offspring—sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons—of the founders of the clans; and by generation is to be understood the ancestral line of descendants of each of the persons numbered.
The method of numbering employed resulted in the figures obtained being most reliable. With this method in operation the likelihood of an individual’s purposely or unintentionally being counted twice or of his being overlooked in the numbering or of his being counted with a tribe to which he did not belong was small. Moses was assisted in the performance of his task by the head of each of the tribes. There being twelve tribes, there were likewise twelve such heads. Men renowned of the congregation they were; princes (rulers) of the tribes of their fathers (the twelve patriarchs), heads of thousands in Israel (Num. 1:16). In all probability, these heads were in turn assisted by the rulers of hundreds, and the rulers of fifties and the rulers of ten, provided by Moses from all the people on the advice of Jethro his father-in-law at the beginning of the encampment before Sinai.
We find in the first chapter of the book of numbers a tabulation of the outcome of the numbering in the following order:
(Joseph) Ephraim: 40,500
(Joseph) Manasseh: 32,200
This is the number only of the sum and total of all those from twenty years old and upward who were able to go forth to war. This is expressly stated, “So were all those that were numbered of the children of Israel . . . .all that were able to go forth to war in Israel; even all they that were numbered were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty” (1:45).
The outcome of this census tells us that the family of Jacob, during its two hundreds and fifty years of residence in the land of Egypt, had undergone a steady and rapid growth, despite its being oppressed. “(But)
the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew” (Ex. 1:11). Having gone down to Egypt numbering seventy souls, this family, at the time or the taking of the first census, was able to muster an army of approximately 600,000. This figure is not unbelievingly large. It does not, as some have thought, designate an increase that God could not affect without departing from His usual way of working. By the usual way of working is meant God’s bringing into being a new offspring by the agency of the parents through a period of nine months. Jacob went down to Egypt with 48 grandsons, not counting the sons of Levi. (Gen. 46). This number is thus made up:
Reuben: 4 sons
Simeon: 6 sons
Judah: 3 sons
Issachar: 4 sons
Zebulon: 3 sons
Gad: 7 sons
Asher: 4 sons
Benjamin: 10 sons
Dan: 1 son
Naphtali: 4 sons
Joseph: 2 sons (born in Egypt)
The period of the sojourn of the chosen family in Egypt must be reckoned at 215 years. At the end of this period this family could have numbered at least one million and a half living males, not counting the offspring of Levi, if all the 47 grandsons of Jacob and all their male descendants had married at the age of twenty and each had begotten 6 sons by the time he reached the age of 40. As the actual number of sons able to bear arms was approximately 600,000, the figure which the above calculation yields, as it includes the aged, the infirm, and all the men-children below the age of 20, may not be far out of the way. Be this as it may, what this calculation shows is that the number recorded by the sacred writer—600,000 sons of Israel from 20 years old and upward—is not indicative of an increase ordinarily impossible or even unlikely.
The notice that there were 600,000 from twenty years old and above, able to bear arms, gives us no definite information as to the total of souls. However, at the time of the taking of this second census, not counting the descendants of Levi, the family of Jacob numbered approximately 3,300,000 souls—men, women, and children, if the Israelites ceased to be available for military service at the age of fifty, if 400,000 of the 600,000 were married and each had an average of five children, and if there were 800,000 men and women in the camp from fifty years old and above. The assumption that each of the 600,000 had an average of five children is not extravagant. The average number of men-children with which each of the twelve sons of Jacob went down to Egypt is four. The names Simeon—approximately sixty-three percent. This is to be accounted for by the falling off of the birthrate but also in all likelihood by the judgments of God, that overtook the nation during this period, taking an exceptional heavy toll of life in at least some of these tribes. One such judgment perhaps is to be identified
of their daughters are not given; but it may be assumed that each son averaged three and thus that each had an average of seven children when the journey to Egypt was undertaken. What is more, there is reason for believing that during the period of sojourn in Egypt the Israelitish families on a whole were even larger than those of Jacob’s immediate sons. The statement occurs in Ex. 2 that “the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed mighty; and the land was filled with them.” And again, “But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew.” So, to assume that each of the 600,000 averaged six children manifestly is not assuming too much.
Some twenty years later, the Israelitish males from twenty years and above were again numbered; and their number was found to be 601,730 able to go forth to war, and thus 1820 less than the number which the first census yielded. So, during the period of the wanderings in the wilderness, the nation as a whole made no gains in the total of souls. There was even a slight decrease. That the total of souls remained nearly constant during this period finds its explanation in the circumstance that while some of the tribes remarkably increased, others just as remarkably decreased. The truth of this statement is borne out by a comparison of the two census arranged according to the tribes.
First Census (Num. 1)
Second Census (Num. 26)
First Census (Num. 1)
Second Census (Num. 26)
A comparison of these figures show that five of the eleven tribes decreased and especially so the tribe of Simeon—approximately sixty-three percent. This is to be accounted for by the falling off of the birthrate but also in all likelihood by the judgments of God, that overtook the nation during this period, taking an exceptional heavy toll of life in at least some of these tribes. One such judgment perhaps is to be identified with the one by which the people was overtaken immediately after its having committed whoredom with the daughters of Moab while it abode in Shittim, where there died twenty and four thousand in the plague (Num. 24:6-14). That Zimri—the man who came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman—was a Simeonite, may indicate that on this occasion the tribe of Simeon was the chief offender and was therefore the hardest smitten. Another such judgment was the one recorded in chapter 16 (of Numbers) and which was sent in connection with the conspiracy of Korah and his company—Dathan, Abiram and On. All with the exception of Korah were great-grandsons of Reuben. Korah was a Levite. Besides these four, there were 250 others involved. Princes of the assembly they were, men of renown, famous in the congregation (Num. 16:2). It is not stated of which tribes they were. But it is likely that they belonged to the tribes—Reuben, Simeon, Ephraim—that appear to have diminished so remarkably. The number that perished in connection with this rebellion was again great. Besides those that were swallowed up by the earth, there died 14,700 in the plague (Num. 16:49). That the increase and diminution of the single tribes in the numerical table Is also in part to be accounted for by males changing their tribal relation and name, cannot be. The method that was employed in taking the census—“By their generation. . . .according to the number of their names”. . . .—would of necessity expose such changes.
As to the Levites, the sum of them was not taken among the children of Israel (Num. 1:49). The members of this tribe likewise were numbered according to the three great families founded respectively by the three sons of Levi—Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, according to the sub-branches of these families (the house of their fathers) and according to the names of the individual males counted, from one month old and above. The numbers were:with the one by which the people was overtaken immediately after its having committed whoredom with the daughters of Moab while it abode in Shittim, where there died twenty and four thousand in the plague (Num. 24:6-14). That Zimri—the man who came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman—was a Simeonite, may indicate that on this occasion the tribe of Simeon was the chief offender and was therefore the hardest smitten. Another such judgment was the one recorded in chapter 16 (of Numbers) and which was sent in connection with the conspiracy of Korah and his company—Dathan, Abiram and On. All with the exception of Korah were great-grandsons of Reuben. Korah was a Levite. Besides these four, there were 250 others involved. Princes of the assembly they were, men of renown, famous in the congregation (Num. 16:2). It is not stated of which tribes they were. But it is likely that they belonged to the tribes—Reuben, Simeon, Ephraim—that appear to have diminished so remarkably. The number that perished in connection with this rebellion was again great. Besides those that were swallowed up by the earth, there died 14,700 in the plague (Num. 16:49). That the increase and diminution of the single tribes in the numerical table Is also in part to be accounted for by males changing their tribal relation and name, cannot be. The method that was employed in taking the census—“By their generation. . . . according to the number of their names”. . . .—would of necessity expose such changes.
Of the Kohathites: 8,600
Of the sons of Gershon: 7,500
Of the sons of Merari : 6,200
This, then, was the total of males in Levi’s tribe. Yet at Num. 3:39 we read, “All that were numbered of the Levites, which Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of the Lord, throughout their families, all the males from a month old and upward, were twenty-two thousand.” Thus the numbers of the tribe branches, 8600, 7500, 6200, added together gives the sum of 22,300, while the number given at Num. 23:9 is only 22,000, a difference of 300. This apparent discrepancy has an explanation. But rather than assume a blunder in the text, as some interpreters do, it is better to take the position that sufficient data is wanting to say with certainty what this explanation is. Some come with the solution that, whereas the sum total of the Levites was to determine the ratio which they bore to the sums of the firstborn in the other tribes, because the surplus of the firstborn had to be redeemed with money, the firstborn of the Levites were not included in the count, as, if they had been, there would be nullity in the calculation. So, for them 300 were deducted. It is doubtful whether this is the solution. It would seem not. For it implies that the firstborn among the Levites, by reason of their being firstborn, could not substitute for the firstborn among the other tribes and could thus not be in the service, while the fact is that they were. Besides, the high priest represented his brethren. And he was a firstborn.
A comparison of the figures thus far presented, show that the total of male members in the tribe of Levi was surprisingly small. These same figures show that of all the other tribes, that of Benjamin was the smallest. Yet at the time of the taking of the first census the total number of males from twenty years and upward in this tribe was much greater than the total of males from one month and upward in the tribe of Levi. The figures are: Benjamin 35,000; Levi 22,000. At the second census thirty-eight years later Levi had increased to 23,000 and at the census taken by King David this tribe had only increased from 23,000 to 38,000, while the rest of the tribes had more than doubled. Thus of all the tribes, Levi was the least fruitful in propagation.
The Levites were numbered with a view to their being substituted in the place of the firstborn in the other tribes. For, thirteen months previous, on the eve of their departure from Egypt, and immediately upon the slaying of Egypt’s firstborn, the Lord had spoken to Moses, saying, “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb, among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast, it is mine” (Ex. 13:2). So the firstborn among the people were counted and their number amounted to 22,273 from one month and upward. As we have seen, the total of males among the people from twenty years old and upward, able to bear arms, was 603,550. Now if this number presupposes a census of even one million males of all ages in all the tribes, then, in case the 22,273 were the sum of all the firstborn among the whole people, there would be only one firstborn to every forty or forty-five males. Just what the solution of this difficulty is cannot be ascertained with certainty, again on account of the lack of sufficient data. Profuse discussions of this subject have been carried on. Some assume that the Levites were not counted from the age of twenty, but from one month upward and that in keeping herewith the firstborn were counted in the same way. On the ground of this assumption the number of males for the generation between one month and twenty years is reckoned at 200,000 and the members of the family for each firstborn at nine. By this assumption and calculation the total of firstborn is brought in near agreement with the number reported in Scripture. This solution is weighed down by the objection that for the one difficulty that it seemingly removes, it raises others. If the Levites of twenty years old and upward were not counted and substituted for the firstborn of corresponding ages, we are driven to conclude that they were barred from serving, unless it be assumed that their numbering, though having taken place, was not recorded in Scripture. Besides, the fourth chapter of the book of Numbers contains data that shows that the figure 22,000 did include also the Levites from twenty years old and above. Having numbered the males in the tribe of Levi from a month old and upward, Moses, in obedience to the Lord’s command, now takes the sum of Levi’s sons from thirty years old and upward until fifty years old “to do the work of the tabernacle in the congregation.” And all those that were numbered were 8580. Now this figure agrees with the statement that the total of males in this tribe from one month old and upward was 22,000.
Another solution of the difficulty is that the 22,273 firstborn in whose place the Levites were substituted, include only those firstborn sons who were born during the thirteen months that elapsed since the departure from Egypt. At Num. 3:13 we read, “Because all the firstborn are mine; for on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast; mine shall they be.” On the ground of this text, it is held that all the firstborn whose birth preceded the departure from Egypt had already been hallowed on or shortly before the pascal night and were not therefore included in the count that was taken thirteen months later. This is the correct explanation as will be made plain in the sequence.
The census of the firstborn sons yielded a number in excess of the number of Levites by 273. These were redeemed for five shekels each. This total of 1,365 shekels was given to Aaron and his sons.
It has already been noted that the Levites were numbered from thirty to fifty years to perform the work in the tabernacle. The numbers of the three tribe branches added together give 8,580 priests and Levites; of the Kohathites, 2,750; of the Gershonites, 2,630; of the Merarites, 3,200. From this account it appears that out of the whole number of Levites, viz., 22,300 only 8,580 were fit for service. What is more, the family of Merari was numerically the smallest of the three tribal families. Yet it had 3200 fit for service, which was more than half their number over a month old, and more than either of the other two families. Thus the inference is warranted that these numbers give not the number of able-bodied men, but that they give only the number needed for duty and that this number was proportionate to the service to be performed. This seems to be the plain meaning of 3:49, “They were numbered. . . . every one according to his service and according to his burden.”
Each of the three families had their respective employment. The transportation of the vessels and the contents of the tabernacle is performed by the Kohathites as the immediate assistants of Eleazer, the son of Aaron. But the packing is all done by the priests. And the Ark must be hidden from the eyes of the people. It is wrapped in a covering of skins over which is spread a cloth of purple. Upon the Table of Shewbread are laid the vessels pertaining to it and over the whole is spread a scarlet cloth with a cover of skins; then the staves are set. In a like manner are the candlestick and the altar of incense covered. The altar of burnt offering is covered with a cloth of scarlet. Nothing is said respecting the golden laver.
The task of the Gershonites was to bear the “dwelling place” and the tent, its coverings and the coverings of badgers’ skins and of all the curtains and all their cords. To the Merarites was given the task of bearing the outward framework of the tabernacle with all that pertained thereto.
Such were the regulations for the bearing of the tabernacle. They were many. And they left no part, however small, to the judgment of man. No human devices might mix into the things typical of the heavenly.
The twelve tribes are divided into four divisions in the order of East, South, West, and North, with the tabernacle in the center. The four tribes whose camps are in the east are Judah, the first leader-tribe. Issachar and Zebulon. In the south was the camp of Reuben, the second leader-tribe, in conjunction with the tribes of Simeon and Gad. Ephraim was encamped on the west, at the head of Manasseh and Benjamin. To the north and under the headship of the tribe of Dan, Ashur and Naphtali are encamped. So did these tribes form a square about the sanctuary. Within this square was another inner square, the east of which was occupied by Moses, Aaron, and his sons, at the door of the tabernacle; the south by the Kohathites: the west by the Gershonites; and the north by the Merarites.
On the march the tribes headed by Judah went first. Then followed the tabernacle and the attendant Gershonites and Merarites, and thereupon Reuben’s division. Then came the Kohathites with the sacred things and after that the division under Ephraim followed by that of Dan forming the rear.
Each of the leader-tribes had his ensign, banner or flag, which was at the same time the banner of the division. The rabbinical tradition has it that the banner of Judah bore the likeness of a lion; that of Reuben the likeness of a man; that of Ephraim the likeness of an ox; that of Dan the likeness of an eagle. These are the four creatures combined in the cherubic figures of the prophet Ezekiel.