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God’s Word for You

Numbers 1:2-5a The command to count

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, May 18, 2021

2 “Take a census of the entire community of the people of Israel, according to their clans and their fathers’ houses. Count the names of every male, one by one, 3 twenty years old and up, all who are of age to serve in Israel’s army. Aaron and you are to register them by their military units. 4 A man from each tribe will be with you. Every one of them will be the head of his fathers’ house. 5 These are the names of the men who will assist you:  (EHV)

The community or assembly was everyone in the nation, without any exceptions. God commanded Aaron and Moses to count, out of that group, all of the men twenty years old and older. This would have included even Moses and Aaron themselves. The nation was divided most easily into the twelve tribes, and God commanded that a family head from each tribe would assist, so that no objections could be raised. A clan was an extended family unit, the sort of group that we would count if we began with grandparents on one side and counted all the aunts, uncles, and cousins. A “father’s house” is just that, the generation up to the father: mother, brothers, sisters, spouse, and children.

God commanded this census to add up all of the men of military age. Another census is mentioned near the end of Exodus that is connected with God’s command to gather material for building the tabernacle and its furnishings. In Exodus 30:12-16, God commanded that when (emphasis added) a census was taken, each man 20 years old or older had to pay a beka or ½ shekel “as a ransom for his life at the time he is counted” (Exodus 30:12). A method of counting was even commanded that was most efficient. The men were to “cross over” (Exodus 30:13,14) as they paid their shekel from the “not yet paid” group to the “paid” group. This would avoid all confusion, clearly mark the results, and reduce every temptation toward cheating or deception. The shekel in Moses’ time was not a coin but a measurement of weight in silver. If you have never noticed it before, turn your Bible to the page after the last verse of Revelation. This is the usual location for Bible translations to include a table of weights and measures. You will find that a beka of silver was about 1/5 ounce, the size of a ring with no precious stone, or the same weight as an American or Canadian quarter.

Since a census like the once described in Exodus 30 is actually mentioned in Exodus 38:25-26, there is an impulse to ask whether this census in Numbers chapter 1 was the first or second census taken of the Israelites? Since both of the counts end up with precisely the same number of men over twenty (603,550 men, Exodus 38:26; Numbers 1:46), we can conclude that if there were two counts, they must have happened very close together in time. In a community of more than half a million grown men (perhaps 2 million people in all), you might expect a death or two within a few weeks of a count. In my congregation, out of a total of about 2,100 members, we have a couple of funerals each month (and about the same number of baptisms). It would be remarkable to have no change at all within a month or two. So while we can’t say that they were the same census, this could be a possibility. The main argument against this is that the Exodus 38 census was for the purpose of furnishing the tabernacle; a religious tax. The census here in Numbers 1:20-46 is a military roster. The phrase “of age to serve in the army” occurs 14 times in this chapter, so this is emphasized again and again.

The people assembled. The men stepped forward. Leaders from the families walked out to number the potential soldiers from each of the twelve tribes. God’s command was being obeyed, although at this point the people didn’t quite see God’s aim in counting them all. The count wasn’t for God’s benefit. He knew exactly how many men there were. No, it was for their own sake. How often God tells us to do things that are really for our own spiritual health and growth! Stay in his word. Contemplate his glorious works. Receive the sacrament often. Sing his praises. “I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me!” (Psalm 13:6). “Tell of his works with songs of joy” (Psalm 107:22). “In the night I remember your name, O Lord” (Psalm 119:55). We are constantly blessed by God, through his word and sacrament. The more we receive, the better we understand. His word is life, life here on earth, and life for all eternity in paradise. “In the way of righteousness there is life. Along that path is immortality” (Proverbs 12:28).

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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