The book of Numbers talks about counting the numbers of the Israelites. Do you know the true meaning behind the census?
Recently I have started to study the book of Numbers. It is not a popular book for bible study as most people tent to think that it is a book of boring numbers (and so it seems in chapter 1 and 2). But in the Hebrew Bible, the name of this book is called “In the Wilderness”. In fact, only 5 chapters out of the total 36 talks about census. The rest of the book have many stories about how the Israelites lived and wondered in the wilderness. I will try to write more about their wondering later.
The First Census in Exodus
The first census in the Bible was actually mentioned in Exodus 30:11-16 and 38:25-28.
“The silver obtained from those of the community who were counted in the census was 100 talents and 1,775 shekels, according to the sanctuary shekel— one beka per person, that is, half a shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, from everyone who had crossed over to those counted, twenty years old or more, a total of 603,550 men. The 100 talents of silver were used to cast the bases for the sanctuary and for the curtain—100 bases from the 100 talents, one talent for each base. They used the 1,775 shekels to make the hooks for the posts, to overlay the tops of the posts, and to make their bands.” Exodus 38:25-28 NIV
God told Moses to perform a census and collect half a shekel of silver from all who were counted. And these silver were used to build the tabernacle. See the below diagram for the base and the hooks (made in silver) of the tabernacle.
The First Census in Numbers
In chapter 1 of Numbers, God told Moses to perform another census. This time, the purpose was to count the number of men who can join the army.
“The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt. He said: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one. You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army.” Numbers 1:1-3 NIV
Why do they need an army? God has redeemed the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt and have made a covenant with them, to bring them into the Promised Land (Canaan). The one and only one condition to God’s covenant is for the Israelites to obey and follow His commands.
Therefore in preparation of entering Canaan, they need to count the size of their army and prepare for war. Back then in ancient times, one key factor to win a war is to outnumber your enemies with the size of your troops.
Counting the huge numbers could be a very proud moment for the Israelites. In fact, King David did exactly that to show off his power in the book of 2 Samuel chapter 24. However, his census made God angry. He has totally missed the point that the kingdom and the power he has, was given to him by God, not by his own abilities. God is the only one who should initiate a census.
How does this relate to us now?
In both Exodus and Numbers, performing a census were initiated by God. Other than to count for an army, they were to count, remember and be thankful for God’s redemption and blessings. And to have faith to receive the promised land later.
Do you count your blessings? Have you ever prayed for something such as passing an exam, having a job, a child, a spouse or recovering from sickness? But after you got them, did you give thanks and glory to God? Or did you become busier than before and therefore have forgotten and have spent less time with God?
Numbers began with a good lesson reminding us to give thanks to God. Both chapter 1 and 2 end with a statement that the Israelites did what God has told them to.
“The Israelites did all this just as the Lord commanded Moses.” Numbers 1:54 NIV
“So the Israelites did everything the Lord commanded Moses; …” Numbers 2:34a NIV
Let’s follow God’s command and give thanks to Him.