Image from an etching by Philip James de Loutherbourg from the opening page of Numbers from the Bible published by Thomas Macklin, 1791, currently at The British Museum

A new book! Numbers! The name for this chapter in the Christian Bible comes from the Septuagint, the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Torah, and is based on the censuses of the ancient Israeli tribes that comprise the initial chapters. It is traditionally given that Moses wrote the chapter as part of the Pentateuch, but Biblical scholars pretty much believe that its final form comes from the Yahwistic source that was later edited by the Priestly source (who had a hand in writing all the material dealing with ancient Israelite rituals and genealogies) at some point in the early Persian period, 5th century BCE. It’s a transitional chapter, following the narrative of the Israelites leaving captivity in Egypt and receiving God’s laws and covenant, while they’re on their way to taking possession of God’s Promised Land of Canaan.

Fun Facts! The Hebrew name for the same chapter in the Torah is Bemidbar, which means ‘in the desert [of Sinai],’ which is really a better title as it describes the Israelites’ years of wandering the desert.

Chapter 1 opens with God telling Moses to take a census of all the Israelites, categorizing them by clan and family, and especially accounting for all men who are at least 20-years-old and able to serve in the future army. The totals for all men 20 or older in each tribe are:

  • Reuben: 46,500
  • Simeon: 59,300
  • Gad: 45,650
  • Judah: 74,600
  • Issachar: 54,400
  • Zebulun: 57,400
  • Joseph: 72,700
  • Benjamin: 35,400
  • Dan: 62,700
  • Asher: 41,500
  • Naphtali: 53,400
  • Total: 603,550

Notice anyone missing? God says not to count the Levite men in the list, as they’re priests and aren’t to serve in the army. They’ll have enough to do with transporting all the Tabernacle things, putting everything up and taking it all down every time they move and such.

Things They Don’t Talk About in Sunday School: Those are some nice, neat even numbers. Either some of those clans got tired of counting and just started rounding, or God was very specific about the population growth among the tribes. Also, in my brain, when imagining the Israelites wandering the desert they seem like a little band of hardy nomads, forging their way – but if there were 603,000+ of able-bodied men aged 20+, imagine how many more wives, children, older non-able-bodied men, etc. there were. We’re likely talking about well over a million Israelites traveling all together. It’s as if the entire population of Austin, Texas (about a million people) got up and just started walking together with all their farm animals and possessions and everything.

In Chapter 2, God says the Israelites are to camp around the tent of meeting a little ways from it, and each group is to fly banners showing their tribe or family. There are specific places each group is to camp, with the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun to the east, so they’ll all be the ones to go first in the travels. The tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad are to camp to the south of the tent of meeting, and they’ll follow the eastern ones. The Levites will be in the middle, nearest the tent of meeting. On the west will be the tribes of Joseph (the Ephraimites and Manassehites) and Benjamin, and they’ll follow the Levites. To the north will be the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naphtali, and they go last.

Among the Levites, the group is divided by clan as:

  • Gershonites – led by Aaron’s 3rd son Eleazar
  • Kohathites – led by Aaron’s 4th son Ithamar
  • Merarites – also led by Aaron’s 4th son Ithamar

Chapter 3 starts by reminding us of the unfortunate story of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, that they were among the first anointed priests but they lit an unauthorized fire and were smited (smitten?) by God. God reminds Moses that the remaining male Levites and all their male descendants are to serve as the priestly class and perform the work of the Tabernacle. He then has Moses count all the Levite males, all those at least a month old, and there are 22,000. Moses then is to count all firstborn non-Levite males at least a month old, and there are 22, 273. As there are 273 more non-Levite males at least a month old than those who are Levite, the Israelites must redeem them and pay the 1,365 redemption shekels to Aaron and his sons. God states that the Levites are to be thought of as being first among the tribes of Israel, as if they were first-born of the tribes. In Numbers 3:12-13: “I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether human or animal. They are to be mine. I am the LORD.”

Wait, What? What’s Going On Here? If Moses (or the Yahwist source, even) had taken some of my J-School classes in college back in the day, he’d know that starting a story with a census that just lists numbers is not the best way to grab attention and gain the interest of the reader. So what’s the deal? Biblical scholar David A. Clines explains in his book, The Theme of the Pentateuch, that the the main theme of the first five books of the Torah (or Bible) is that God fulfills His promises, for posterity (descendants), the Promised Land (Canaan), and a divine relationship (they are God’s chosen people). Therefore, Numbers starts by reflecting on God’s covenant with Abraham for innumerable descendants and showing how He has followed through (although at this point it would seem they are still numerable, as we just counted them but that’s me being ticky). By reiterating the information about the Levites as the priests, God is reminding us of His connection to them, and in later parts of the book we’ll see more about His promise of the Promised Land.

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