The numbers game
The Bible is at times a thrilling book, filled with suspense and intrigue. There are portions that contain stories we love to read over and over and tell to our kids. And then there are those other sections—the ones comprising genealogies and censuses. The story of Samson, for example, is far more exciting than the opening nine chapters of 1 Chronicles. The stories in the Gospels are the stuff of which Sunday school curricula are made; I have yet to come across a children’s Bible story that includes the events of Numbers 1.
The opening chapter of Numbers records a census. It begins with these words:
The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent 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 people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company. And there shall be with you a man from each tribe, each man being the head of the house of his fathers.”
The remainder of the chapter contains a list of names and numbers. The record is brought to a conclusion in vv. 44–46 with the total of those counted: 603,550. We often struggle to know what to make of chapters like this. At the same time, we who hold the Bible in high regard know that there is something here for us. We’re not quite sure what it is, and we may be reluctant to put in the hard work that is necessary to mine its riches, but we at least admit that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for us (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
Numbers are not the problem
While it is true that most believers do not find a great deal of joy in lists of names and numbers in the Bible, the names and numbers themselves are not the problem. The fact is, we all have certain areas in life in which names and numbers interest us. For example, we may immediately be intrigued when a list of 22 names is produced for the national rugby squad. Expectant parents may obsess over lists of names in the hunt for the perfect name for their child.
Similarly, there are times in which numbers hold great interest for us. For some, numbers related to the stock exchange hold great significance. Others will obsess over numbers that define the speed of a computer processor or memory. Still others are intrigued when it comes to numbers as they pertain to sporting statistics.
The problem, then, is not with lists and numbers in and of themselves. Given the right context, we are all interested in names and numbers. And so, when it comes to the census of Numbers 1, it is fair to say that our interest will be piqued if only we can understand the significance of the names and numbers listed.
What’s with the list?
This chapter records a census and when we understand the purpose of the recorded census, the lists will soon appear more interesting to us. A biblical census speaks to the covenant responsibilities and privileges of being part of God’s people.
A census, by its very nature, teaches us something about responsibility. In Bible times, as today, a census served two essential purposes. The first related to taxation and the second to warfare.
In terms of taxation, a census revealed how many people were in a nation and how much tax could therefore be expected. This was the primary purpose of the census at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:1–7). On the other hand, a census served a military purpose. David performed a census to determine the size of his army (2 Samuel 24:1–2ff).
The census in Numbers 1 served this dual purpose. The primary purpose was clearly military, but Numbers also emphasises the need for God’s people to contribute to the ministry of the tabernacle (cf. Exodus 38:21–31).
Each of these responsibilities is shared by the new covenant believer. As a member of a local church, you have responsibilities of as a steward and a soldier. It is right for a local church to expect its members to contribute financially to the work of the ministry. At the same time, to be a believer is to be a soldier. If you are a believer, you are, as the Sunday school song says, “in the Lord’s army—yes sir!” Every believer is engaged in spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10–20). This is part of the responsibility of covenant membership in God’s family.
But local church membership is not all about responsibility; there are also wonderful privileges that attend. Consider three privileges evident from this chapter.
First, those counted in the census were part of a family. The census was taken in that fashion: Tribes and families were counted within the nation. Everybody that was counted was part of some family. Church membership is a family issue. Fellow church members are brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a wonderful thing to be a part of a local church family.
Second, every member of the family counted had a share in the inheritance of the Promised Land. Even those who were once part of the “mixed multitude” had a guaranteed inheritance. That was the ultimate goal of the exodus—and it was guaranteed. Those who are a part of God’s family are guaranteed an eternal inheritance. Jesus said he left in order to prepare a place for his people.
Third, every member of the covenant people was a recipient of his faithfulness. God had made a promise to Abraham that his descendants would be a great nation (Genesis 12:2). It has been estimated that the Israelites must have numbered in the region of two million at this stage. God had certainly fulfilled his word. The census was a tangible reminder of this. God’s people today can similarly testify to his faithfulness. The redeemed soul rejoices with Jeremiah: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (Lamentations 3:22–24).
At the same time, while the census was a tangible reminder of God’s faithfulness, it was also a tangible reminder that further faithfulness was to be expected. God’s promise to Abraham was of an innumerable seed. The census proved that Abraham’s descendants could still be numbered, and so God’s promises yet awaited a greater fulfilment.
That fulfilment, of course, looked forward to Christ. It was through his person and work that Gentiles would be included in the spiritual ancestry of Abraham. We are children of Abraham by faith in Christ. And while we are thankful for God’s faithfulness to us in the past, we (like Israel) can look forward to greater faithfulness, for God has promised to save us not only from the penalty of sin, but also increasingly from its power and pleasures, and one day completely from its presence.