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Numbers 1:5-19

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Numbers 1:5
  • Numbers 1:6
  • Numbers 1:7
  • Numbers 1:8
  • Numbers 1:9
  • Numbers 1:10
  • Numbers 1:11
  • Numbers 1:12
  • Numbers 1:13
  • Numbers 1:14
  • Numbers 1:15
  • Numbers 1:16
  • Numbers 1:17
  • Numbers 1:18
  • Numbers 1:19

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)


God names a man from each tribe to be appointed to help Moses and Aaron carry out the census.

Verses 5–15 list the names of the men who shall stand with you [Moses] while conducting the census.

Of Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur. The name “Elizur” means “my God is a rock.” Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn son, from his wife Leah, so is the first tribe listed.

Of Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai. The name “Shelumiel” means “friend of God.” Simeon was Jacob’s second son, also from Leah.

Of Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab. The name “Nahshon” means “enchanter.” Judah was Jacob’s third son, also from Leah. Levi was the fourth son, from Leah, but is not listed, as the Levites were apparently exempt from military service.

Of Issachar, Nethanel the son of Zuar. The name “Nethanel” means “given to God.” Issachar was Jacob’s fifth son born to his wife Leah.

Of Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon. The name “Eliab” means “my God is father”. Zebulun was Jacob’s sixth son born to his wife Leah.

Of the sons of Joseph: of Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud. The name “Elishama” means “my God has heard.” Ephraim was the second son of Joseph (Genesis 41:52). Joseph was Jacob’s first son born to his wife Rachel.

Of Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur. The name “Gamaliel” means “my reward is God.” Manasseh was the first son of Joseph (Genesis 41:51).

Of Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni. The name “Abidan” means “my father is judge.” Benjamin was Jacob’s second son born to his wife Rachel.

Of Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai. The name “Ahiezer” means “my brother is help.” Dan was Jacob’s fifthborn son, but was born to Bilhah, the handmaid of Rachel. He was the first son born of a handmaiden.

Of Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran. The name “Pagiel” means “my God is a rock.” Asher was the second son born to Jacob from Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah.

Of Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel. The name “Eliasaph” means “God has added.” Gad was the first son born to Jacob from Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah.

Of Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan. The name “Ahira” means “my brother is evil”. Naphtali was the second son born to Jacob from Rachel’s handmaiden Bilhah (Genesis 29:31-30).

Verse 16 is in the form of a legal statement. This verse made it official that these are they who were called of the congregation, the leaders of their fathers’ tribes. These leaders (or “ones lifted up”) were the heads of divisions of Israel. This would make them, in a sense, a captain or general.

After the men were named and placed in leadership roles over the tribes, they had to be confirmed in front of the people. So, Moses and Aaron took these men who had been designated by name, then they assembled all the congregation together on the first of the second month. The second month is according to the calendar established by God, in which the first month began based on the Passover (Exodus 12:2).

To verify their qualifications to lead their respective tribes, Moses and Aaron had them registered by ancestry in their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, head by head (v. 18). It is likely that this knowledge was held in oral tradition, and now was being committed to writing.

This was in accordance with what the Lord had commanded Moses. This phrase was used many times in Exodus to state that Moses and the people obeyed the LORD’s command, especially in the construction of the tabernacle (See Exodus 35 – 40). It will also be used frequently in Numbers. It was the LORD who was preparing them for battle. In Exodus, God stated:

“Now when Pharaoh had let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near; for God said, “The people might change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.”
(Exodus 31:17)

This indicates that God knew that Israel was not prepared to see and wage war when they first left Egypt. God waited until they were ready to give them a test, and led them to prevail (Exodus 17).

The result of Moses’ obedience here was that he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai. The leaders of Israel now have a census of military troops, they know where their soldiers are located, and they have a command structure established.

Biblical Text

5 These then are the names of the men who shall stand with you: of Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur;6 of Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai;7 of Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab;8 of Issachar, Nethanel the son of Zuar;9 of Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon;10 of the sons of Joseph: of Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud; of Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur;11 of Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni;12 of Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai;13 of Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran;14 of Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel;15 of Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan.16 These are they who were called of the congregation, the leaders of their fathers’ tribes; they were the heads of divisions of Israel.”

17 So Moses and Aaron took these men who had been designated by name,18 and they assembled all the congregation together on the first of the second month. Then they registered by ancestry in their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, head by head,19 just as the Lord had commanded Moses. So he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai.

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