Numbers 1:1-4

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Numbers 1:1
  • Numbers 1:2
  • Numbers 1:3
  • Numbers 1:4

The book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of Moses that comprise the Torah, which means “Law.” It gets its English name from the Greek Old Testament called the Septuagint (or LXX). The LXX named this book, “Arithmoi,” meaning “Numbers.” Its Hebrew name means “in the desert” or “in the wilderness.” Both names are appropriate. The Hebrew name is appropriate because Numbers covers the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness (or “desert”) from Sinai to the plains of Moab. The Greek name is also appropriate because of the many lists, and the numbers within those lists.

At the beginning of the book, the Israelites had been camped at Mount Sinai for about a year. The book of Exodus covered their escape from Egypt and their journey to Sinai. The LORD commanded Moses to organize the people in preparation to leave Sinai and go to the Promised Land. The book covers around 38 years of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, and describes many of Israel’s failures, including mutinies against Moses and outright disobedience to the word of the LORD. In Numbers, the LORD declares that the generation that left Egypt would die in the wilderness due to their disobedience. Only two, Joshua and Caleb, were allowed to enter the Promised Land, due to their faithfulness. Even Moses died without entering the Land due to disobedience.

The book of Numbers can be outlined in many ways. The most general outline involves the generation that leaves Egypt and the one after it, as seen below:
• Events Involving the Exodus Generation (Num. 1 – 25)
• Events Involving the Second Generation (Num. 26 – 36)

Another outline sees the book having three major divisions based on the major encampments of the Israelites:
• Israel at Sinai (Num. 1:1 – 10:10)
• Israel at Kadesh Barnea (Num. 10:11 – 19:22)
• Israel on the Plains of Moab (Num. 20:1 – 36:13)

Still another outline (the one followed here) is as follows:
• The Exodus Generation in the Wilderness (chaps. 1 – 25)
◦ The Israelites Prepare to Leave Mount Sinai (1:1 – 10:10)
◦ The Israelites Depart to Kadesh Barnea (10:11 – 14:45)
◦ The Israelites Journey to the Plains of Moab (15:1 – 22:1)
◦ The Israelites Are Confronted by Balaam the Prophet (22:2 – 25:18)
• The Second Generation Prepares to Enter the Promised Land (26:1 – 36:13)
◦ The Rules Concerning Inheritance (Num. 26:1 – 27:11)
◦ The Provision for Moses’ Successor (Num. 27:12 – 23)
◦ The Laws Concerning Offerings (Num. 28:1 – 29:40)
◦ The Laws Concerning Vows (Num. 30:1 –16)
◦ The LORD’s Judgment Against the Midianites (Num. 31:1 – 54)
◦ The Inheritance of the Eastern Tribes (Num. 32:1 – 42)
◦ The Review of the Journey to Canaan (Num. 33:1 – 56)
◦ The LORD’s Instructions Before Conquering Canaan (Num. 33:50 – 36:13)

There are two themes that flow from the book of Numbers. The first concerns the LORD’s infinite grace in light of the people’s many failures and transgressions. There is hardly a book in the Bible where the LORD had to exercise His grace to His people more often than this one. The book of Numbers contains a record of Israel’s failure after failure and the LORD’s gracious forgiveness after forgiveness. Even when He judged them, there was grace.

Second, and related to the first, the book stresses the importance of obedience. God chose the Israelites unconditionally; they were the LORD’s chosen people regardless of their behavior. However, He demanded obedience to show His people that their obedience results in blessing. God set forth a way of life for His people in the covenant He and the people entered into at Sinai (Exodus 19:5-8). The Ten Commandments made it clear that God would make the law, and that the pinnacle requirement of His law was for the people to respect and serve one another. The strong were to serve the weak. This was in stark contrast to the surrounding cultures, which centered around the strong exploiting the weak (Leviticus 18). God’s judgment brought discipline upon Israel in order to shepherd them toward living in harmony and service to one another.

The first chapter of the book of Numbers lives up to its name—it involves taking a census (i.e. “numbering”) of the Israelites. First, the leaders of the tribes were numbered, then a census was taken of each tribe. The exception to this census-taking was the Levites. The apparent purpose of the census was to assess their fighting strength, and determine the number of males above the age of twenty, who were eligible for military service.

Numbers 1 can be outlined as follows:
• The LORD Commanded Moses to Take a Census of Israel (Num. 1:1 – 4)
• The Tribal Leaders Were Counted (Num. 1:5 – 19)
• The Census Was Taken for Each Tribe (Num. 1:20 – 46)
• The Levites Were Exempted from the Census (Num. 1:47 – 54)

The first thing the LORD wanted Moses to do in preparation for leaving Mount Sinai was to take a census of all the tribes and families of Israel. They were to count all of the males twenty years old and older by tribes, families, and households. The reason for this was to obtain a count of how many men would be able to go to war.

The first verse of the book of Numbers has many significant features. Perhaps the most important is that it begins with the Lord spoke to Moses. This phrase, or a slight variation of it, occurs over 150 times in the book of Numbers, giving it great importance. In fact, it appears in every chapter in the book except 22 – 24, the chapters containing the story about Balaam.

It was crucial that the commands and instructions given in the book were seen as coming from the LORD, their covenant God, not Moses. As will be seen, there were occasions where Moses’ authority was questioned. However, by using this phrase, the LORD confirmed that when Moses spoke, it was to convey His revealed word, not Moses’.

The word of the LORD came to Moses while the Israelites were still in the wilderness of Sinai and Moses was in the tent of meeting, the place where the LORD met personally with Moses. The “tent of meeting” is also called “the tabernacle” (Numbers 1:51) and “the tabernacle of the Testimony” (1:50, 53).

This occasion for the LORD speaking to Moses happened on the first of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt. This is exactly one month after the construction of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:17).

The LORD commanded Moses to take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel. The count was to be taken

By their families. The word “families” (Heb. “mishpakha”) can also be translated “clan,” “tribe,” or “extended family.”

By their fathers’ households. This refers to more immediate family members.

According to the number of names. This probably means that the numbering was to be done on a family-by-family basis.

Every male. Females were excluded from military service.

Head by head. This is a Hebrew idiom (“kol-zakar legulkelotom,” lit. “all the number of skulls”). Similar to the modern phrase, “get a head count.”

From twenty years old and upward. Twenty years old was the minimum age to serve as a soldier.

Whoever is able to go out to war in Israel. This implies that the person had no physical limitations that would affect his ability to fight in a battle. This was the purpose of the census—to get a count of how many men were available for military duty in case of war.

The LORD told Moses that he and Aaron shall number them by their armies.

In verse 4, the LORD told Moses to appoint people to help with the numbering. Specifically, He said that with you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father’s household. Moses was to designate one man from each tribe to help with the census. He needed to be a “head of his father’s household.”

Biblical Text

1Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying,2 “Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head3 from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies.4 With you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father’s household.

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