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Organizing the Census of the Israelites

[a] Now the Lord[b] spoke[c] to Moses in the tent of meeting[d] in the desert[e] of Sinai[f] on the first day of the second month of the second year after[g] the Israelites[h] departed from the land of Egypt.[i] He said:[j] “Take a census[k] of the entire[l] Israelite community[m] by their clans and families,[n] counting the name of every individual male.[o] You and Aaron are to number[p] all in Israel who can serve in the army,[q] those who are[r] twenty years old or older,[s] by their divisions.[t] And to help you[u] there is to be a man from each[v] tribe, each man[w] the head[x] of his family.[y] Now these are the names of the men who are to help[z] you:

from[aa] Reuben, Elizur son of Shedeur;
from Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai;[ab]
from Judah, Nahshon[ac] son of Amminadab;
from Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar;
from Zebulun, Eliab son of Helon;
10 from the sons of Joseph:
from Ephraim, Elishama son of Ammihud;
from Manasseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur;
11 from Benjamin, Abidan son of Gideoni;
12 from Dan, Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai;
13 from Asher, Pagiel son of Ocran;
14 from Gad, Eliasaph son of Deuel;[ad]
15 from Naphtali, Ahira son of Enan.”

The Census of the Tribes

16 These were the ones chosen[ae] from the community, leaders[af] of their ancestral tribes.[ag] They were the heads of the thousands[ah] of Israel.

17 So Moses and Aaron took these men who had been mentioned specifically by name, 18 and they assembled the entire community together on the first day of the second month.[ai] Then the people recorded their ancestry[aj] by their clans and families, and the men who were twenty years old or older were listed[ak] by name individually, 19 just as the Lord had commanded Moses. And so he numbered them in the desert of Sinai.

20 And they were as follows:

The descendants of Reuben, the firstborn son of Israel: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name individually. 21 Those of them who were numbered[al] from the tribe of Reuben were 46,500.

22 From the descendants of Simeon: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males numbered of them[am] twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name individually. 23 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Simeon were 59,300.

24 [an] From the descendants of Gad: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 25 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Gad were 45,650.

26 From the descendants of Judah: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 27 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Judah were 74,600.

28 From the descendants of Issachar: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 29 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Issachar were 54,400.

30 From the descendants of Zebulun: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 31 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Zebulun were 57,400.

32 From the sons of Joseph:

From the descendants of Ephraim: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 33 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Ephraim were 40,500. 34 From the descendants of Manasseh: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 35 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Manasseh were 32,200.

36 From the descendants of Benjamin: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 37 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Benjamin were 35,400.

38 From the descendants of Dan: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 39 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Dan were 62,700.

40 From the descendants of Asher: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 41 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Asher were 41,500.

42 From[ao] the descendants of Naphtali: According to the records of their clans and families, all the males twenty years old or older who could serve in the army were listed by name. 43 Those of them who were numbered from the tribe of Naphtali were 53,400.

44 These were the men whom Moses and Aaron numbered[ap] along with the twelve leaders of Israel, each of whom[aq] was from his own family. 45 All the Israelites who were twenty years old or older, who could serve in Israel’s army, were numbered[ar] according to their families. 46 And all those numbered totaled 603,550.

The Exemption of the Levites

47 But[as] the Levites, according to the tribe of their fathers,[at] were not numbered[au] among them. 48 The Lord had said to Moses,[av] 49 “Only the tribe of Levi[aw] you must not number[ax] or count[ay] with[az] the other Israelites. 50 But appoint[ba] the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony,[bb] over all its furnishings and over everything in it. They must carry[bc] the tabernacle and all its furnishings; and they[bd] must attend to it and camp around it.[be] 51 Whenever the tabernacle is to move,[bf] the Levites must take it down, and whenever the tabernacle is to be reassembled,[bg] the Levites must set it up.[bh] Any unauthorized person[bi] who approaches it must be killed.

52 “The Israelites will camp according to their divisions, each man in his camp, and each man by his standard. 53 But the Levites must camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that the Lord’s anger[bj] will not fall on the Israelite community. The Levites are responsible for the care[bk] of the tabernacle of the testimony.”

54 The Israelites did according to all that the Lord commanded Moses[bl]—that is what they did.


  1. Numbers 1:1 sn The book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch, traditionally called the Law of Moses. It provides a record of the experience of the Israelites during the wilderness wanderings, and records the laws for the camp as they traveled from place to place. The book focuses on the difficulties of the Israelites due to their lack of faith, rebellion, and apostasy. It also records God’s protection of his people from opposition from without. The book makes a fitting contribution to the collection of holy writings as it shows the spiritual and physical progression of the company of the redeemed toward the promised land. The book has to be studied in conjunction with the other books of the Pentateuch. It builds on the promises made to Abraham in Genesis and the redemption from bondage in Exodus; it completes the cultic instructions for Israel that were laid down in Leviticus, and it concerns the worship in and the movement of the tabernacle that was built in Exodus. But the information here, both legal and historical, was not the major concern in those books. The book gets its title in English (following the Greek tradition) from the two censuses taken of the people, one at the beginning of the wanderings and the other at the end (although the Hebrew title is taken from the beginning of the book, בַּמִּדְבָּר [bammidbar], “in the wilderness”). In these lists particular emphasis is given to the leaders of the clans, a theme that will continue in the book as the focus is on how the leaders function in all the trials and temptations of the journey. The material in this book is essentially a theological interpretation of historical events, and as such it stands as an integral part of the revelation of God. In the study of the book of Numbers, when these issues of the nature of the text are significant to the interpretation and acceptance of the text, the notes will comment on them briefly. The indication at the outset of the book is that Moses had a good number of people who were able to help him compile the statistics and the facts of the wandering community. In Num 11:16-18 there is a group of leaders known as שֹׁטְרִים (shoterim). This term was used in Exod 5:16-19 to describe the officers or foremen of the Israelites. They were appointed supervisors of the clans by Moses, and by the time of Joshua (Josh 1:10) they were a literary guild. The Hebrew word, cognate with Akkadian sataru, means “to write.” These people were to Israel what the scribes and chroniclers were to the pagan nations. They assisted Moses and the priests in their keeping of records. So no matter what they were called from time to time, there was a group of literate people who could keep the records and preserve the information from the very beginning. Their work matches the activities of scribes in the ancient world who used all the literary devices to preserve the material. There is no reason to doubt that the events recorded were attested to and preserved by such eyewitnesses. But their work would have been essentially to serve the leader, Moses. The book essentially follows the order of the events chronologically, more or less. Where it departs from that order it does so for literary or theological reasons. At the center of the theological concern is the tabernacle, its significance to the faith, and therefore the care in using it and in moving it. Its importance explains the presence and the arrangement of the ritual laws. With the records and statistics provided for him, Moses could then introduce into the record the great events in the wilderness experience of Israel, which were to become warnings and encouragements for all time. Most of this material comes from the two years at the beginning of the experience and the two years at the end. But this itself may be a literary device (merism) to show the nature of the wanderings throughout. The Hebrew text of the book of Numbers has been preserved fairly well. It has not been preserved as well as Leviticus, which was most important to the ministry of the priests and Levites. But in comparison with some of the prophetic writings, Numbers represents a well-preserved text. The problems will be discussed in the relevant passages. So Numbers is essentially a part of the unfolding revelation of the Torah, the Law. It shows God’s faithfulness to his covenant plan and to his covenant people, but it also shows the problems incurred by the people’s lack of faith and obedience. The book focuses frequently on the nature of the holy Lord God, for at the center of all this material is the person and the works of the Lord. This provided the standard for the faith and practice of the people. For more information on chapter one, see W. F. Albright, “The Administrative Divisions of Israel and Judah,” JPOS 5 (1925): 17-54; A. Cody, A History of Old Testament Priesthood; A. Lucas, “The Number of the Israelites at the Time of the Exodus,” PEQ 76 (1944): 351-64; G. E. Mendenhall, “The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26, ” JBL 77 (1958): 52-66; E. Nielsen, “The Levites in the Old Testament,” ASTI 3 (1964): 16-27; L. A. Snijders, “The Meaning of זר in the Old Testament: An Exegetical Study,” OTS 10 (1954): 1-154; and J. W. Wenham, “Large Numbers in the Old Testament,” TynBul 18 (1967): 19-53.
  2. Numbers 1:1 sn The holy name is “Yahweh.” This is the ancient name for the God of the covenant community. The name was explained or interpreted by Moses for the Israelites by the etymological connection to the verb “to be.” God said that its significance was “I am that I am” (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, ʾehyeh ʾasher ʾehyeh) using the first person of the verb; the name, the third person of the verb, would therefore mean “He is.” The name indicates that God is the sovereign Lord of creation, the eternal God, the covenant Lord; he is sovereignly independent of all creation, but he is intimately involved with all his people. Most English translations do not use it, but follow the Jewish custom of using substitute words for the holy name, such as “the Lord,” “the Eternal One,” etc.
  3. Numbers 1:1 tn The book begins with the vav (ו) consecutive and the preterite, “and he spoke.” This does not indicate that the book is a continuation of the previous material, for in that case certain other books in the canon would have to be linked with the writings of other people just because they followed them. This form is simply the narrative verb; the conjunction need not be translated. The verb should not be limited to a literary formula, but does indicate the divine source of the command for Moses. God was speaking to Moses throughout the wilderness wanderings from the tent, and so the ideas are from him, and not from the “will of man.”
  4. Numbers 1:1 sn This was one of several names by which the tabernacle was known. This was the tent with its furnishings that the Israelites built according to the book of Exodus. While that tabernacle was being built, the Lord met with Moses in a tent of meeting nearby (Exod 33:7), but when the project was finished, the title was transferred to the tabernacle. It may be that the expression “tent of meeting” refers to the inner tabernacle where God revealed himself to Moses and Aaron, and the word “tabernacle” refers to the whole shrine, the curtained structure with all its contents. This would mean that God addressed Moses from between the cherubim in the holy of holies (see R. A. Cole, Exodus [TOTC], 191). The point is clear, though—the shrine was functioning as the sign of God’s actual presence and leadership among his people.
  5. Numbers 1:1 sn The English word “wilderness” is workable for the Hebrew term, because it describes land that is wild. The term “desert” works if one thinks of land deserted by people. But to many modern readers “desert” suggests the idea of an arid land without growth. The word must not be pressed to mean only sand dunes; it describes land that has rocks, canyons, oases, shrubs and trees occasionally, some animal life, and of course sand.
  6. Numbers 1:1 sn The exact location of Mount Sinai has been debated for some time. The traditional view from very early times is that it is located in the south, Jebel Musa, south of the monastery of St. Catherine. The other plausible suggestion is Ras es-Safsafeh, which is on the other end of the valley near the monastery. The mountain is also called Horeb in the Bible. The wilderness of Sinai would refer to the large plain that is at the base of the mountain. See further G. E. Wright, IDB 4:376-78; and G. I. Davies, The Way of the Wilderness.
  7. Numbers 1:1 tn The construction uses the infinitive construct of יָצַא (yatsaʾ, “to go out”), with a suffix serving as the subjective genitive, and the lamed preposition providing the temporal indication: “according to the going out of them.” The Israelites are clearly intended as the subject.
  8. Numbers 1:1 tn Heb “they”; the referent (the Israelites) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
  9. Numbers 1:1 sn This means that the Israelites had spent nine months at Sinai, because they had arrived there in the third month following the exodus. This account does not follow a strict chronology (see Num 9:1). The difference of one month in the narrative is not a critical difference, but a literary general reference. Here begins a new section of major importance to the future of the nation—the numbering for war and for settlement.
  10. Numbers 1:1 tn Heb “saying.” A new sentence was started here in the English translation for stylistic reasons.
  11. Numbers 1:2 tn The construction is literally “lift up the head[s],” (שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ, seʾu ʾet roʾsh). This idiom for taking a census occurs elsewhere (e.g., Exod 30:12; Num 26:2). The idea is simply that of counting heads to arrive at the base for the standing army. This is a different event than the one recorded in Exod 30:11-16, which was taken for a different purpose altogether. The verb is plural, indicating that Moses had help in taking the census.
  12. Numbers 1:2 tc Smr lacks the Hebrew word “all” here.
  13. Numbers 1:2 tn Heb “the congregation of Israel.”
  14. Numbers 1:2 tn The tribe (מַטֶּה, matteh or שֵׁבֶט, shevet) is the main category. The family groups or clans (מִשְׁפְּחֹת, mishpekhot) and the households or families (בֵּית אֲבֹת, bet ʾavot) were sub-divisions of the tribe.
  15. Numbers 1:2 tn This clause simply has “in/with the number of the names of every male with respect to their skulls [individually].” Counting heads, or every skull, simply meant that each person was to be numbered in the census. Except for the Levites, no male was exempt from the count.
  16. Numbers 1:3 tn The verb (פָּקַד, paqad) means “to visit, appoint, muster, number.” The word is a common one in scripture. It has as its basic meaning the idea of “determining the destiny” of someone, by appointing, mustering, or visiting. When God “visits,” it is a divine intervention for either blessing or cursing. Here it is the taking of a census for war (see G. André, Determining the Destiny [ConBOT], 16).
  17. Numbers 1:3 tn The construction uses the participle “going out” followed by the noun “army.” It describes everyone “going out in a military group,” meaning serving in the army. It was the duty of every able-bodied Israelite to serve in this “peoples” army. There were probably exemptions for the infirm or the crippled, but every male over twenty was chosen. For a discussion of warfare, see P. C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, and P. D. Miller, “The Divine Council and the Prophetic Call to War,” VT 18 (1968): 100-107.
  18. Numbers 1:3 tn The text simply has “from twenty years old and higher.”
  19. Numbers 1:3 tn Heb “and up.”
  20. Numbers 1:3 tn The noun (צָבָא, tsavaʾ) means “army” or “military group.” But the word can also be used for nonmilitary divisions of labor (Num 4:3).
  21. Numbers 1:4 tn Heb “and with you.”
  22. Numbers 1:4 tn The construction uses the noun in a distributive sense: “a man, a man for a tribe,” meaning a man for each tribe.
  23. Numbers 1:4 tn The clause expresses a distributive function, “a man” means “each man.”
  24. Numbers 1:4 sn See J. R. Bartlett, “The Use of the Word ראשׁ as a Title in the Old Testament,” VT 19 (1969): 1-10.
  25. Numbers 1:4 tn Heb “the house of his fathers.”
  26. Numbers 1:5 tn The verb is עָמַד (ʿamad, “to stand”). It literally then is, “who will stand with you.” They will help in the count, but they will also serve as leaders as the camp moves from place to place.
  27. Numbers 1:5 tn The preposition ל (lamed) prefixed to the name could be taken in the sense of “from,” but could also be “with regard to” (specification).
  28. Numbers 1:6 sn This name and the name Ammishaddai below have the theophoric element (שַׁדַּי, shadday, “the Almighty”). It would mean “the Almighty is my rock”; the later name means “the Almighty is my kinsman.” Other theophoric elements in the passage are “father,” “brother,” and “God.”
  29. Numbers 1:7 sn Nahshon was an ancestor of Boaz and David, and therefore of Christ (Luke 3:32-33).
  30. Numbers 1:14 tc The LXX and Syriac reflect ר (resh) rather than ד (dalet), suggesting the name Reuel.
  31. Numbers 1:16 tc The form has a Kethib-Qere problem, but the sentence calls for the Qere, the passive participle in the construct—“the called of….” These men were God’s choice, and not Moses’, or their own choice. He announced who they would be, and then named them. So they were truly “called” (קָרָא, qaraʾ). The other reading is probably due to a copyist’s error.
  32. Numbers 1:16 tn The word is נָשִׂיא (nasiʾ, “exalted one, prince, leader”). Cf. KJV, ASV, NAB “princes.” These were men apparently revered or respected in their tribes, and so the clear choice to assist Moses with the leadership. See further, E. A. Speiser, “Background and Function of the Biblical nāśīʾ,” CBQ 25 (1963): 111-17.
  33. Numbers 1:16 tn Heb “exalted ones of the tribes of their fathers.” The earlier group of elders was chosen by Moses at the advice of his father-in-law. This group represents the few leaders of the tribes that were chosen by God, a more literate group apparently, who were the forerunners of the שֹׁטְּרִים (shotterim).
  34. Numbers 1:16 tc The Hebrew text has אַלְפֵי (ʾalfe, “thousands of”). There is some question over this reading in the MT, however. The community groups that have these leaders were larger tribes, but there is little certainty about the size of the divisions.
  35. Numbers 1:18 tc The LXX adds “of the second year.”
  36. Numbers 1:18 tn The verb is the Hitpael preterite form וַיִּתְיַלְדוּ (vayyityaledu). The cognate noun תּוֹלְדוֹת (toledot) is the word that means “genealogies, family records, records of ancestry.” The root is יָלַד (yalad, “to bear, give birth to”). Here they were recording their family connections, and not, of course, producing children. The verbal stem seems to be both declarative and reflexive.
  37. Numbers 1:18 tn The verb is supplied. The Hebrew text simply has “in/with the number of names of those who are twenty years old and higher according to their skulls.”
  38. Numbers 1:21 tn Heb “those numbered of them.” The form is פְּקֻדֵיהֶם (pequdehem), the passive participle with the pronominal suffix. This indicates that the number came to 46,500, but it specifically refers to “those numbered.” This expression occurs frequently throughout the book of Numbers.
  39. Numbers 1:22 tc Some witnesses have omitted “those that were numbered of them,” to preserve the literary pattern of the text. The omission is supported by the absence of the expression in the Greek as well as in some MT mss. Most modern commentators follow this.
  40. Numbers 1:24 tc The LXX has vv. 24-35 after v. 37.
  41. Numbers 1:42 tc The verse does not have the preposition, only “the descendants of Naphtali.”
  42. Numbers 1:44 tn The construction uses both the passive participle הַפְּקֻדִים (happequdim) and the verb פָּקַד (paqad), giving a literal translation of “these were the numbered ones, whom Moses and Aaron numbered.”
  43. Numbers 1:44 tn Heb “they were one man for the house of his fathers.”
  44. Numbers 1:45 tn Literally the text has, “and all the numbered of the Israelites were according to their families.” The verb in the sentence is actually without a complement (see v. 46).
  45. Numbers 1:47 tn The vav (ו) on this word indicates a disjunction with the previous sequence of reports. It may be taken as a contrastive clause, translated “but” or “however.”
  46. Numbers 1:47 tn The construction is unexpected, for Levites would be from the tribe of Levi. The note seems more likely to express that all these people were organized by tribal lineage, and so too the Levites, according to the tribe of their fathers—individual families of Levites.
  47. Numbers 1:47 tc The form in the text is הָתְפָּקְדוּ (hotpaqedu); if this is correct, then it is an isolated instance of the reflexive of the Qal of פָּקַד (paqad). Some, however, explain the form as the Hitpael without the doubling of the middle letter and with a compensatory lengthening of the vowel before it (G. B. Gray, Numbers [ICC], 10).
  48. Numbers 1:48 tn Heb “had spoken to Moses, saying.” The infinitive construct of אָמַר (ʾamar), sometimes rendered “saying” in older English translations, does not need to be translated, but can be taken simply as the indicator of direct discourse. Most recent English translations, including the present one, leave the form untranslated for stylistic reasons to avoid redundancy.
  49. Numbers 1:49 sn From the time the Law was given, the priesthood was the prerogative of the tribe of Levi. There were, however, members of other tribes who served as priests from time to time (see Judg 17:5).
  50. Numbers 1:49 tn The construction has literally, “only the tribe of Levi you shall not number.” The Greek text rendered the particle אַךְ (ʾakh) forcefully with “see to it that” or “take care that.” For the uses of this form, see R. J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 65, §388-89.
  51. Numbers 1:49 tn Heb “lift up their head.”
  52. Numbers 1:49 tn Heb “in the midst of the sons of Israel.”
  53. Numbers 1:50 tn The same verb translated “number” (פָּקַד, paqad) is now used to mean “appoint” (הַפְקֵד, hafqed), which focuses more on the purpose of the verbal action of numbering people. Here the idea is that the Levites were appointed to take care of the tabernacle. On the use of this verb with the Levites’ appointment, see M. Gertner, “The Masorah and the Levites,” VT 10 (1960): 252.
  54. Numbers 1:50 tn The Hebrew name used here is מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת (mishkan haʿedut). The tabernacle or dwelling place of the Lord was given this name because it was here that the tablets of the Law were kept. The whole shrine was therefore a reminder (הָעֵדוּת, a “warning sign” or “testimony”) of the stipulations of the covenant. For the ancient Near Eastern customs of storing the code in the sanctuaries, see M. G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King, 14-19, and idem, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 35-36. Other items were in the ark in the beginning, but by the days of Solomon only the tablets were there (1 Kgs 8:9).
  55. Numbers 1:50 tn The imperfect tense here is an obligatory imperfect telling that they are bound to do this since they are appointed for this specific task.
  56. Numbers 1:50 tn The addition of the pronoun before the verb is emphatic—they are the ones who are to attend to the tabernacle. The verb used is שָׁרַת (sharat) in the Piel, indicating that they are to serve, minister to, attend to all the details about this shrine.
  57. Numbers 1:50 tn Heb “the tabernacle.” The pronoun (“it”) was used in the translation here for stylistic reasons.
  58. Numbers 1:51 tn The construction uses the infinitive construct with the temporal preposition; the “tabernacle” is then the following genitive. Literally it is “and in the moving of the tabernacle,” meaning, “when the tabernacle is supposed to be moved,” i.e., when people are supposed to move it. The verb נָסָע (nasaʿ) means “pull up the tent pegs and move,” or more simply, “journey.”
  59. Numbers 1:51 tn Here we have the parallel construction using the infinitive construct in a temporal adverbial clause.
  60. Numbers 1:51 tn Heb “raise it up.”
  61. Numbers 1:51 tn The word used here is זָר (zar), normally translated “stranger” or “outsider.” It is most often used for a foreigner, an outsider, who does not belong in Israel, or who, although allowed in the land, may be viewed with suspicion. But here it seems to include even Israelites other than the tribe of Levi.
  62. Numbers 1:53 tc Instead of “wrath” the Greek text has “sin,” focusing the emphasis on the human error and not on the wrath of God. This may have been a conscious change to explain the divine wrath. tn Heb “so that there be no wrath on.” In context this is clearly the divine anger, so “the Lord’s” has been supplied in the translation for clarity.
  63. Numbers 1:53 tn The main verb of the clause is the perfect tense with vav (ו) consecutive, וְשָׁמְרוּ (veshameru) meaning they “shall guard, protect, watch over, care for.” It may carry the same obligatory nuance as the preceding verbs because of the sequence. The object used with this is the cognate noun מִשְׁמֶרֶת (mishmeret): “The Levites must care for the care of the tabernacle.” The cognate intensifies the construction to stress that they are responsible for this care.
  64. Numbers 1:54 tc The LXX adds “and Aaron.”