The book of Numbers Chapter 25 ends by the Lord declaring war on the Midianites, people who seduced the rather effortlessly led Hebrews into worshipping other gods and into unlawful sexual activity. The coming war against Midian (and naturally, their ally Moab) meant that a call to arms of Israel’s army would be needed; and as was always done before beginning a war or conquest a census would be taken. A census would both alert the men to arm themselves and give the leader a count of his troops. And this is what Numbers 26 is going to concern itself with.
READ NUMBERS CHAPTER 26
We now enter a new phase in the formation of Israel as a nation, the conquest of the Land of Canaan. The final 11 chapters of the Book of Numbers deals with this process of battles, settling, and then moving on over and over again to possess the Promised Land.
The first census taken in the first two chapters of Numbers was of the 1st generation of the Exodus (a generation that no longer essentially exists). The census we just read about in Numbers chapter 26 is of the 2nd generation, the new generation, of Israel. And this census is for two primary purposes: to determine how many soldiers each tribe would muster and then calculate the amount of territory each tribe would receive when Canaan was divided up among the tribes the Israel.
As with the 1st census (and all Biblical census’), only men were counted, and then only men of an age that could carry arms and fight. As a contrast, however, we’ll see that while that 1st generation of the Exodus was always whining, rebelling, and longing for the good old’ days back in Egypt. The new generation was more faithful, more passionate about their mission, and more willing to put their lives on the line to achieve what had been promised to Abraham over 600 years earlier: a land of his own and countless people to fill it.
Israel was camping just to the east of Jericho on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. No doubt everyone within 500 miles in any direction knew exactly where this large population of 3 million Hebrews was; there were too many of them, and their exploits are too well known for it to be otherwise.
Since Aaron is dead and buried on Mt. Hor his son the new High Priest Eleazar is spoken to directly by Yehoveh who tells him how to conduct this new census. The Lord says to take a count of the WHOLE Israelite community, the families who came up out of Egypt. But as we’ll soon find out the WHOLE community of Israel no longer includes the tribe of Levi so indeed they will NOT be part of the census (however there will be a separate poll conducted especially for them).
We won’t examine every aspect of the census; I’ll just point out some outstanding features. First in verses 8 – 11 we see that there are descendants of Rueben and Korah that remain. The reason that this is important is due to the terrible wrath of the Lord against the tribe of Rueben and the clan of Korah, when the earth opened up and swallowed them and (it appeared at that moment) their entire family.
But, here we see that there indeed were survivors because their clan names are listed. In fact, the family of Korah went on to be quite an important tribe of Levites, as they became the singers at the Temple.
At the end of the list, we get the final tally: 601,730 men aged 20 and up, able to be part of the military.
The Second Census
|TRIBE||CENSUS (Chapter 1)||CENSUS (Chapter 26)|
|Reuben (vv. 5-11)||46,500||43, 730|
|Simeon (vv. 12-14)||59,300||22,200|
|Gad (vv. 15-18)||46, 650||40,500|
|Judah (vv. 19-22)||74,600||76,500|
|Issachar (vv. 23-25)||54,400||64,300|
|Zebulun (VV. 26, 27)||57,400||60,500|
|Joseph (vv. 28-37)||32,200||52,700|
|Manasseh (v. 34)||40,500||32, 500|
|Ephraim (v. 37)||35,400||45,600|
|Benjamin (vv. 38-41)||35,400||45,600|
|Dan (vv. 42,43)||62,700||64,400|
|Naphtali (vv. 48-51)||43,400||45,400|
Now, look at the chart of tribes above. We find that some tribes increased while others decreased. Further, we see that there were about 1800 fewer men now than there were almost 40 years earlier.
Now, this does NOT necessarily indicate that Israel was, overall, a very slightly smaller population. It could be, and it likely was, that this was a much younger population with so many children being born and replacing the older ones who originally came out of Egypt.
When you factor in that we’re talking about a quarter of 1% difference, then we can say that for all practical purposes despite the several battles, plagues, and judgments against the Israelites, the population, remained level with only a shift among the tribes as to which grew and which shrunk.
We can see by the chart that Manasseh had the largest population increase, amounting to more than 60% during those 40 years. On the other end of the scale was Simeon, which was decimated: the tribe of Simeon was now, by far, the smallest of the tribes, having LOST 60% of its population.
No doubt the Lord’s hand guided the increases and decreases, but just as certain, this was not supernatural per se. Likely Simeon experienced not only an inordinate amount of deaths versus births but also suffered many defections of their tribal members into other more robust Israelite tribes.
Conversely, Manasseh had a slightly better birthrate and lower mortality rate as compared to the 11 other tribes. But as they started out in the Exodus as the largest tribe, and (as sons of Joseph) wielded a lot of power, it was natural that other lesser tribes and particularly little Simeon would find it attractive to be part of a more dominant tribe like Manessah.
In verse 52 one of the two primary reasons for taking the census is put into use: the division of the land. And, there are two (seemingly at odds) criteria that are to be employed by Moses to divvy up Canaan:
- The size of the territory shall be proportional to the scale of the tribe, and
- The land shall be apportioned by lot.
The obvious question is: how can it be both ways at the same time? Was the choosing of the lots a simple game of chance, or (as the Israelites saw it) as the Lord’s providence that was going to coincide with the population of each tribe miraculously? No.
Here’s how the Sages of old say it worked: the general location of each tribe (where it was situated in Canaan) would be assigned by lot, but actual population determined the SIZE. There were areas of Canaan that were more fertile and others that were mostly desert. There were coastal areas that permitted shipping and fishing just as there were mountainous regions that were suitable for grazing. There were places along well-established trade routes for the merchants and other areas that bordered next to difficult enemies.
So the lot would determine the region, and then Moses would define the boundaries of each tribe in that field using the rule that the bigger the tribe, the more expansive were its borders.
The final section of Numbers 26 deals with the entirely separate census of the Levites and its clans are listed. They are listed as distinct because
- The Lord sees them as no longer part of Israel, and
- As such they were not entitled to land; the Lord Himself was their portion.
The Levites were to be funded and supported by the 12 tribes (if you counted Levi as a tribe of Israel there would be 13 tribes), and so their needs beyond what was provided were seen as small. Rather, the Levites were given 48 cities scattered throughout the territories of the 12 tribes.
In verse 62 we see that their number was 23,000 males. That number is deceiving however because it counted all males beginning at one MONTH of age and up. The census of the 12 tribes had a lower limit of 20 years and a ceiling of around 50 years; so Levi was easily the smallest of all the tribes.
I think it is fascinating that by this point in history, the 2nd and 3rd born sons of Jacob (the ones who had led the terrible and ungodly raid of revenge upon the helpless male citizens of Shechem about 500 years earlier) were now the least of them all.
Back in Genesis 49, we studied the prophetic blessings of Jacob called Israel upon each of his sons. Simeon and Levi were the ONLY sons grouped together and given one ordinary blessing by Jacob, and it was nearer a curse than a blessing. Let me recall it for you.
“Simeon and Levi are two of a kind. They are men of violence and injustice.O my soul, stay away from them. May I never be a party to their wicked plans. For in their anger they murdered a man, and maimed oxen just for fun. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce and cruel. Therefore, I will scatter their descendants throughout Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)
This almost five-century-old blessing was realized at the same moment that the 6-century-old promise given to Abraham was also coming about.
The chapter ends with the reminder that all that remained of the males who were under age 20 when Israel fled Egypt, were Joshua and Caleb; 600,000 men had died during those 40 years in the Wilderness. Man, that is a LOT of funerals. Joshua and Caleb were the 2 out of the 12 spies who did their best to convince the leaders of Israel to advance into Canaan 38 years earlier.
In my next blog post, we’ll begin chapter 27.