Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying: “Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male individually, from twenty years old and above—all who are able to go to war in Israel. You and Aaron shall number them by their armies.
Numbers 1:1-3 (NKJV)
The timing of this first chapter is that this is the month after the Wilderness Tabernacle was completed and the priesthood was ordained into existence. The Israelites have been gone from Egypt for 13 months, which means they had been camping at the foot of Mt. Sinai for about 1 year and they have yet to move on.
On this day the Lord orders a census of all the people, and that is the focus of this chapter. In fact it is this census of Israelites that led to the English title for this book, Numbers.
But this is a terrible choice for a title and leads the uninitiated into thinking that this book is about lists and minute details; nothing could be further from reality. The Hebrew name for this book is B’Midbar, which means, “In the Wilderness”. And that is exactly what this book is about: the many stories of Israel’s wilderness journey.
Although this begins with census results there is a lot of information here that can be useful for us to know besides the population of each tribe. For instance in the ancient world the 1st day of each month was usually a holiday (Rosh Hodesh, the New Moon) and it was the regular day that the tribal elders would meet; and after the meeting, instructions or decisions regarding the community would be communicated throughout population.
Now the logical question is, why does God want a census of the Israelites to be taken?
Does He not know how many Israelites there are?
The point of this census is to organize an army; this is all about preparing for war.
Just as the meeting of leadership on the 1st day of the month (the New Moon) was customary among all known societies for that era, so was the taking of a census prior to going to war.
Typically the census was repeated immediately after the battle as well so as to tally the loss of life and determine what remained of the army’s strength.
Therefore we get the instruction in verse 3 that all Israelites are to be counted and that every male from the age of 20 upward is to be recorded according to his tribe. In other words there is not to be merely a sum total, the statistics are to broken down tribe by tribe.
Just as every nation today has a minimum age for military service, generally speaking it was the same back then; and that age was 20 years. By way of comparison the Roman age of military conscription some centuries into the future would be 17 years of age. During the Viet Nam era in modern times it was 18 in America. In some European nations, not even 150 years ago, the age for military service was as young as 12 and 13 depending on how dire their situation was.
Interestingly there is no upper age limit set for this census. When we look at other societies from that era we find that when there was a particularly important war coming, the usual deferment for the elderly was set aside, and the aged were expected to contribute to the war effort in whatever way they could, even if it was not fighting; but, they were considered part of the military nonetheless.
Further this census was accomplished by means of separating people according to their family units within their tribes.