So Moses and Aaron took these men who were designated by name, and assembled all the congregation on the first day of the second month, and they registered by ancestry in their families (clans), by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names from twenty years old and upward, head by head, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. So he numbered them in the Wilderness of Sinai.
Numbers 1:17-19 (AMP)
So the listing of the tribal chieftain doubles as the list of census supervisors, and in verse 17 we’re told that Moses and Aaron led the chieftains into doing what the Lord had instructed.
Before we go any further notice that one significant tribe is missing from the list of tribes that are to take part in the census, the tribe the Levi.
These are the names of the men who are to assist you:
Elizur son of Shedeur from Reuben;
Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai from Simeon;
Nahshon son of Amminadab from Judah;
Nethanel son of Zuar from Issachar;
Eliab son of Helon from Zebulun;
from the sons of Joseph:
Elishama son of Ammihud from Ephraim,
Gamaliel son of Pedahzur from Manasseh;
Abidan son of Gideoni from Benjamin;
Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai from Dan;
Pagiel son of Ochran from Asher;
Eliasaph son of Deuel[a] from Gad;
Ahira son of Enan from Naphtali.
These are the men called from the community; they are leaders of their ancestral tribes, the heads of Israel’s clans.”
Numbers 1:5-16 (HCSB)
We’ll find out why that is, soon.
Verse 20 begins to announce the RESULTS of the census, which goes on for 22 more verses. And the numbers are substantial.
Remember that these numbers are NOT the total population of Israel; rather they are of the male population, 20 years of age and older (in general it was those who are suitable to participate in battle).
The largest tribe at this moment in history was apparently that of Judah, and it amounted to 74,600 warriors. The next largest was actually Joseph. Even though we don’t technically have a named tribe of Joseph at this point in Israelite history; instead his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, represent Joseph.
Therefore we arrive at the total population of Joseph by adding Ephraim and Manasseh together, which brings us a total of 72,700.
As we study Torah and all the other books of the Bible that deal with latter day prophecies, we’ll often be reminded that Ephraim and Manasseh are essentially temporary (though long term) place-holders for Joseph; that for special divine purposes the authority and rights given to Joseph have been transferred to Ephraim and Manasseh for a time.
Because these issues of the 12 tribes of Israel are so central in understanding the past, present, and future of not just Israel but of all mankind we need to constantly be making mental note that Ephraim and Manasseh must often be looked at as a conglomerate representing their father, Joseph.
The total tally of military eligible men comes to 603,550. This exactly matches the number recorded back in Exodus 38, when a census was taken for the purposes of collecting a half-shekel tax on all military aged men. And there certainly shouldn’t have been much difference between the two counts because the first census had been taken only a few months earlier than this new one.
But apparently it had been conducted in a different manner than the one we’re looking at here in Numbers. The earlier one had to do with atonement for the nation of Israel as a whole, not forming an army for Holy War.
Therefore in the Exodus census there was no breakdown by tribe, nor was there a recording of each male according to which clan he belonged to; rather all males 20 years and older were just lumped together (it mattered not which tribe or clan or family they belonged to).
In this B’Midbar census, however, a different purpose was the point; it was to establish battle order. Therefore clan and tribe mattered because the tribe one came from indicated the most basic battle unit one belonged to and fought beside.
For those of you who have studied the American Civil War you’ll know that most of the conscriptions of troops were made based on the state (or even county) one came from. Each state that joined in the war was expected to contribute a certain number of troops to the war effort.
So these Civil War battle units were usually named according to either the state or the county they were from, as they were composed primarily of men hailing from that particular state or county.
So if this were happening today we might have the Merritt Island regiment composed of men from Merritt Island, or the Orlando regiment formed from men living in the Orlando area.
The reasons for this are obvious: men who know each other or are family will be more loyal to one another and stick together. And they’ll feel like they are fighting for a land they are attached to and have a stake in, rather than some ideological or philosophical thing like a hoped for nation or confederation that may or may not result from their sacrifice of life and limb.
The same idea is taking place here in Numbers whereby the clan and the tribe one belongs to automatically determines which battle unit one belongs to. It would be pretty much unthinkable that a member of the tribe of Judah, for example, would be under the control of a commander from the tribe of Dan. So each tribe was going to be in a sense its own army.
As Israel readied for its conquest of the Land of Canaan, the situation was going to be like Desert Storm or WWII where we had different nations participating, each with their own national armies loyal to their own nation but fighting together as allies in a coordinated way. This is different than with (say) Viet Nam where we had different units of the same American army fighting under one flag and one commander for one nation.
It was going to take a very long time before this idea of Israel being one singled unified nation would come about under King David. Until then each of the Israelite tribes looked more like separate nations and they behaved more as allies of one another than as a single united nation.
Now without doubt, this enormous tally of 603,500 fighting men presents problems for historians and Bible scholars. Because depending on one’s guess mate on what the TOTAL population of Israel must have been when including woman and children, the numbers would likely have been somewhere upwards of 2 million, likely approaching 3 million people. And, there has been all manner of speculation, and downright disbelief, that this was possible.
Many attempts at justifying a supposed “error” in the reporting of these numbers have been proposed, ranging from saying that the Hebrew word elep that has been translated as “thousand” should have been translated as “hundred” or even “family”, all the way to saying that these numbers were redacted in a much later period to reflect the population of Israel at the time of the redaction and not at the time of Moses.
Others say it must simply be legend because there is no way that the Sinai could have supported 2 to 3 million people for 40 years because the Sinai was just as much a desert wasteland in Moses’ day as it is now.
Yet most scholarly arguments against the large population suggested in Numbers stem from looking at this issue from a purely secular and pragmatic point of view, using the same methods as looking at all Biblical events in which a “miracle” of God is the only possible answer.
That is, it is the assumption that there is no such thing as a “miracle of God” and therefore all proofs must be rational or lie in natural occurrences (even if rare) and in verifiable and testable scientific findings.
From that viewpoint these scholars are correct; there is utterly no earthly way whatsoever that 20,000, let alone 2,000,000 or more, Israelites could have camped and survived for 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai.
Like all matters concerning the Bible faith is at the core. If we cannot believe in miracles of God then we cannot possibly have trust in Him. When edicts and actions of God defy human logic and sensibilities, we have a choice:
- Believe the Lord, or
- Believe our intellect.
Even though we may get scoffed at and laughed at, the idea that a few million Israelites lived in the Sinai for 40 years is actually easier to believe, than the concept that God Himself came down from His heavenly throne, put on a skin suit and made Himself vulnerable to humans.
Or that He came to earth as Yeshua the Messiah and gave up his OWN life to pay the price for our iniquities, so important are we to Him that He would do such a thing. If you are one who has made the decision to trust Yeshua the Messiah then that IS what you believe.
And if you can believe that, believing all the rest is a piece of cake. And I’m here to tell you that you CAN trust the Word of God.
But be cautious because sometimes the various translations are littered with ancient and modern agendas of their translators. But once we have learned the Torah those agendas are going to be much easier to spot and to reckon with.