Twice God instructed Moses to take a census. The first was of the first generation, those who came out of Egypt (1:1-46). The second will be of the second generation, those who will actually enter the Promised Land (26:1-65). After opening directives (vv. 1-3), Moses is assigned a representative from each tribe, except that of Levi, to assist in the project (vv. 4-16). The census included “males twenty years old and above” from the twelve tribes (vv. 17-46) but exempted the Levites (vv. 47-54). The totals were as follows (with six tribes supplying 50,000 and six tribes less than 50,000):
This census was God's idea (v. 2), not Moses'. But the responsibility for expediting the census was Moses' (and Aaron's). God did not volunteer information to Moses vis-a-vis the number of recruits available and qualified to bear arms. God was commander. Moses was executor. The purpose of the census was to determine the size of Israel's potential army (all the men in Israel twenty years old or more who are able to serve in the army,v. 3). God will give Canaan to his people as he promised, but Israel will not inherit the land without confronting militarily the indigenous occupants.
The size of available soldier power was admittedly staggering. Add women and children, and Israel's population topped the two million mark, a whopping increase from the meager “seventy” of Ge 46:8-27 and Ex 1:1-5.
A number of modern scholars (e.g., Mendenhall, Gottwald) have attempted to reduce substantially the numbers in the census by redefining the meaning of the Hebrew word 'eleph (“thousand”) or 'alaphim (“thousands”). Mendenhall, for example, understood the Hebrew word originally to have designated the military unit of the tribe. Thus, according to this reading, Reuben contributed not 46,500 soldiers, but rather 500 soldiers from a total of forty-six military units. The overall total, by this reckoning, is in the range of 5,000-6,000, not half a million plus.
To be sure, the high numbers must be understood as a fulfillment of God's repeated promises to Israel's founding fathers to make their descendants numerous and prosperous (Ge 12:2-3; 13:16; 15:5; 17:2; 22:17; et al.). On the other hand, impressive statistics as these were an enticement to substitute manpower for Godpower. Gideon's 32,000 and 10,000 were “too many” for Yahweh in liberating his people from the Midianites; instead 300
Naphtali Asher Dan
Ephraim Manasseh Benjamin
Tent of Meeting
Judah Issachar Zebulon
Reuben Simeon Gad
Figure 1. Arrangement of the tribes
sufficed (Jdg 7). Counting noses must never become a surrogate for counting on God.
An ominous note appears in vv. 47-54, a section that briefly notes the threefold responsibility of the Levites vis-à-vis the tabernacle: dismantling, porterage, and reassembly. Any outsider (v. 51), i.e., any non-Levite, anybody from one of the lay tribes who attempts to overstep his limits and usurp Levitical responsibilities, shall die. (The word is concealed in the niv). Israel must not be careless in preparing for the enemy (vv. 1-46), but neither should she be indifferent or casual when it comes to entering into the presence of the Holy One (vv. 47-54).