Today in this blog post we are going to talk about the census of the Levites. Please read Numbers 4:34-40 before we continue.
The leaders of Israel registered the tribal families as prescribed and then totaled their numbers. The total of the Kohathites stood at 2,750 eligible males who could perform the service. The Gershonites numbered 2,630 and the Merarites 3,200.
The census came by direct command of the Lord and was done as commanded. The divine sanction of this census raises key questions about another census taken in Israel that fell under divine wrath.
What Makes A Census Proper or Improper
A census was an administrative device that aided a government in everything from tax collection to a military draft. At the Lord’s command, Moses numbered the people and levied them for a sanctuary tax so he could construct the tabernacle (Exodus 30:11-16). He counted males twenty years old and above who could go to war.
Later another census was taken following the Baal incident and other rebellions of Israel. These censuses all seemed normal and even sanctioned by God and duly carried out.
Years later, however, David took a census that was severely judged by God (see 2 Sam. 24; 1 Chron. 21). In the Samuel passage, the Lord ordered David to take a census of Israel, but in the Chronicles passage, Satan moved him to count Israel. David even felt remorse following the actual count, but the Lord still sent a terrible plague that has stayed only by David’s sacrificial intercession.
Scholars have considered the merits of arguments and counterargument about why David’s census was considered evil by God. Most conclude that David’s arrogance led him to measure his military readiness, while some believe he didn’t raise the prescribed census tax ordered earlier by God.
Yet God did seem at some point to order the census. Perhaps David took a levy from the people, which was excessive. Nearly all conclude that David’s pride played a role in the census.
The earlier censuses involved some elements that David’s did not and perhaps supply the key to their legitimacy.
- First of all, they were clearly ordered by the Lord. The Lord specifically told Moses what to do and how to do it. David might have disobeyed the Lord in some detail that the biblical account is silent about.
- Second, they had a clear purpose. Either they were raising revenues for a holy purpose, such as constructing the tabernacle or mustering the young men for a war ordained by God.
- Third, the order was carried out precisely as the Lord required. The Lord went to battle against Israel’s enemies but used its army to win those wars.
A census could be quite helpful. We also know the census helped Joshua and Eleazar determine how much land to allow the individual tribes since the land was distributed in accordance with each tribe’s relative size.
But for now, they carried out this numbering as ordered by God and prepared to transport the tabernacle.
Lord God, Creator of heaven and earth, ruler of all nations, and Lord over all, I want to stop for a moment and be reminded of how much you love. As you stationed each tribe around the tabernacle, station me if life at the precise place where I can serve you best. Remind me to be fruitful and faithful in the days you give me. In Jesus’ name! Amen.
Holman Old Testament Commentary – Numbers