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Numbers 1:20-46

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Numbers 1:20
  • Numbers 1:21
  • Numbers 1:22
  • Numbers 1:23
  • Numbers 1:24
  • Numbers 1:25
  • Numbers 1:26
  • Numbers 1:27
  • Numbers 1:28
  • Numbers 1:29
  • Numbers 1:30
  • Numbers 1:31
  • Numbers 1:32
  • Numbers 1:33
  • Numbers 1:34
  • Numbers 1:35
  • Numbers 1:36
  • Numbers 1:37
  • Numbers 1:38
  • Numbers 1:39
  • Numbers 1:40
  • Numbers 1:41
  • Numbers 1:42
  • Numbers 1:43
  • Numbers 1:44
  • Numbers 1:45
  • Numbers 1:46

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)


Verses 20 – 46 relates the count of the number of men qualified for warfare by each tribe. The last three verses record the totals.

The material in this section of the chapter is very repetitive. The record for each tribe is two verses long. The wording used to describe the number of qualified men in each tribe is practically identical. The numbers at the end of each tribal record was the number of young men that would serve as soldiers during battle along the journey in the wilderness.

The presentation for each tribe is as follows:

Of the sons of [tribal name]

Their genealogical registration by their families

By their fathers’ households

According to the number of names

From twenty years old and upward

Whoever was able to go out to war

Their numbered men of the tribe of [tribal name] were [number of men]

This created a record of available fighting men. Their location was known, based on their family connection. Each tribe camped together, so each person would be relatively easily located. The goal was to have a written record of those who were able to go out to war on behalf of Israel.

The conclusion and summary of the census is found in verses 44 – 46.

The following is a table of the numbers of men in each tribe qualified to serve in the military:

TRIBE# OF MEN
Reuben46,500 (vv. 20-21)
Simeon59,300 (vv. 22-23)
Gad45,650 (vv. 24-25)
Judah74,600 (vv. 26-27)
Issachar54,400 (vv. 28-29)
Zebulun57,400 (vv. 30-31)
Ephraim40,500 (vv. 32-33)
Manasseh32,200 (vv. 34-35)
Benjamin35,400 (vv. 36-37)
Dan62,700 (vv. 38-39)
Asher41,500 (vv. 40-41)
Naphtali53,400 (vv. 42-43)

The order of the tribes presented here appears to align with the order of encampment given in Numbers 2 and 3. This makes sense, since part of the usefulness of the census would be the ability to locate each soldier. This would be a natural reason for the census to follow family lines, since the people camped according to their tribal affiliation. The list begins on the south, with the camps of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad. Then it proceeds to the eastern camps of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. Then it skips to the western camps of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. Then finally to the north and the camps of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. Levi is left off the list. It was not numbered, since it was exempt from military service. There are still twelve tribes numbered, since Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh are each numbered as a tribe.

Reuben is first on the list and called Israel’s firstborn. Reuben and Simeon, the next on the list, were the two oldest sons of Jacob by his wife Leah (Genesis 29:31 – 33). Levi was the third son of Jacob, by his wife Leah, but was not listed here because the Levites were exempt from serving as soldiers in the army (Numbers 1:47 – 54). Leah had six sons in all. The other six sons of Jacob were born to different mothers, two each to Jacob’s second wife Rachel, Zilpah (Leah’s handmaid), and Bilhah (Rachel’s handmaid). The accounts of these births can be found in Genesis 29, 30, and 35. Rachel’s son Joseph had two sons that became tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh.

Verses 44 – 46 summarize the census which listed the ones who were numbered, whom Moses and Aaron numbered. This provided Israel’s leaders a full written census of available military troops, from the twelve fighting tribes, along with their location, since the families camped together with their tribes (Numbers 2-3). These fighting tribes were numbered with the leaders of Israel, twelve men. Each of the twelve tribes had a leader who would lead that tribe into battle. The phrase each of whom was of his father’s household indicates that each leader was from the tribe they led, someone the tribe would know and trust. This was done just as the LORD had commanded them.

The result was that all the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their fathers’ households, from twenty years old and upward, were able to go out to war in Israel. This indicates that able males that were twenty years old and upward were eligible for military service, other than those from the tribe of Levi. These were the men of Israel who were able to go out to war.

The total of all the numbered men were 603,550. If one added the other members of the Israelite society (women and those unfit for military duty), the total number of Israelites would likely be around two million and possibly much more. Some think this number seems too large to be feasible, and have questioned the translation or interpretation. The word translated “thousand” can also be translated as “family” or “clan” (see Judges 6:15 and 1 Samuel 10:19 for examples). Some suggest that interpretation should be applied here.

Thus, in the case of Judah, the phrase would be interpreted as 74 families plus 600 persons (the Hebrew text here is “74 eleph and 600”). If each family (or “eleph”) had 100 members, the total number of individuals in the tribe of Judah would be 7,400 plus 600 individuals in the tribe, making the total population of the tribe of Judah 8,000. This is significantly lower than the literal number of 74,600 as seen in v. 27.

Others have given different suggestions, but none of them seem to harmonize with the text. It seems best to take the word “eleph” as meaning thousand. This census is similar to the number of male Israelites just prior to departing from Egypt (Exodus 12:37). There is no reason to think the number had dwindled. The miraculous provision of the Lord for two hundred thousand does not materially differ from the miraculous provision for two million. Manna for two million can be thought of as manna for one person two million times. Either is equally miraculous. There were seventy people who left Israel to move to Egypt in Genesis 46:27. They remained in Egypt for 430 years before departing for the Promised Land (Exodus 12:40). The population growth rate required to go from seventy to two million in 430 years is about 2.4 percent per year. This is robust, but seems reasonable, since one concern voiced by Pharaoh was the excessive fertility of the Hebrews (Exodus 1:12-16).

Biblical Text

20 Now the sons of Reuben, Israel’s firstborn, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,21 their numbered men of the tribe of Reuben were 46,500.

22 Of the sons of Simeon, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, their numbered men, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,23 their numbered men of the tribe of Simeon were 59,300.

24 Of the sons of Gad, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,25 their numbered men of the tribe of Gad were 45,650.

26 Of the sons of Judah, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,27 their numbered men of the tribe of Judah were 74,600.

28 Of the sons of Issachar, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,29 their numbered men of the tribe of Issachar were 54,400.

30 Of the sons of Zebulun, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,31 their numbered men of the tribe of Zebulun were 57,400.

32 Of the sons of Joseph, namely, of the sons of Ephraim, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,33 their numbered men of the tribe of Ephraim were 40,500.

34 Of the sons of Manasseh, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,35 their numbered men of the tribe of Manasseh were 32,200.

36 Of the sons of Benjamin, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,37 their numbered men of the tribe of Benjamin were 35,400.

38 Of the sons of Dan, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,39 their numbered men of the tribe of Dan were 62,700.

40 Of the sons of Asher, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,41 their numbered men of the tribe of Asher were 41,500.

42 Of the sons of Naphtali, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war,43 their numbered men of the tribe of Naphtali were 53,400.

44 These are the ones who were numbered, whom Moses and Aaron numbered, with the leaders of Israel, twelve men, each of whom was of his father’s household.45 So all the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their fathers’ households, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war in Israel,46 even all the numbered men were 603,550.

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