Crunching Numbers

Congratulations! You made it through the Book of Leviticus and are now more than half-way through the Pentateuch. There are only two more books to go before we enter into material that better fits our modern expectation for order and storyline. For now, though, we have a few more pages that require a little extra thought and patience. I say this because the Book of Numbers contains such a mixed bag of material that understanding how these topics fit together can get a bit confusing. Nevertheless, God has given this book to us and so there is still much benefit to be gained in reading it.


Numbers shares the story of Israel’s 40 year journey through the wilderness to the eastern edge of the Promised Land. In the Jewish text, this book is called “In the Wilderness” (well that makes sense!) but our Bibles renamed it Numbers because of the census that takes place in the beginning and the end of the book (that makes sense too!). This census was interesting in that it only counted men of fighting age. The first census was taken to prepare them to enter The Promised Land the first time, which they failed to do. The second census came 40 years later as the next generation was counted for the same reason. This military theme is reinforced when you read through the campsite plan.


The Israelites camped out around the Tabernacle in a very ordered and consistent way. Each tribe was told to pitch their family tents on a specific side, meaning that there were three tribes on each of the four sides of the Tabernacle (north, south, east and west). God was preparing them for battle and so was communicating to them in ways they understood. Up to this time, their only point of reference had been Egypt and Egyptian ways. It should come as no surprise to us, then, that the Israelite camping arrangement is a reflection of an Egyptian war camp, the only difference being that Israel’s center was occupied by God’s sanctuary and not Pharaoh.


Speaking of the census, I need to take a moment and say something about the use of numbers in Numbers. If you try to apply 21st century Western expectations on the numbers we read, you will end up scratching your head because they don’t always make sense to our way of thinking. For instance, 3:43 reports that the total number of first born males in Israel was 22,273. That number looks pretty good. It is not rounded off and appears exact. However, if each of these firstborns had five brothers, that would bring the number of fighting men to 133,638, a number that falls far short of the fighting men census of chapter 1 (603,550). Likewise, we read of how Pharaoh had become fearful of the Israelites because of how numerous they had become (Exodus 1:7-9) while Deuteronomy 7:7 states that Israel was “the fewest of all peoples” (see also Exodus 23:29-30). Hmmmm.


Much ink has been spilled in an effort to find a solution to this puzzle, but so far none has been found. All we can say for certain is that the Scripture speaks of an ancient culture that handled data differently than we do and that their method remains a mystery to us. Our lack of knowledge does not bring the truth of the book into question. This biblical account is not in error nor is it misleading. So the issue is not with the Bible; it is with our understanding of the Bible. The struggle is that we do not yet understand how Israel would have conducted and then reported a census of this nature. The fact that the numbers do add up in a simple way (Tallying the troops of each tribe does equal 603,550. If you redeem the 273 firstborn males with 5 shekels each you do end up with 1,365 shekels) tells us that we dare not dismiss what we read for the tally can be taken at face value.


We will cover a lot of material in Numbers. Some of it feels boring and some of it feels strange. No matter what you are feeling remember that the driving force behind all we read is the covenantal promise God made with Abraham in Genesis. That is what this journey and all these laws are ultimately about. As you read, also take note of the number of times the people grumble and complain against the Lord and Moses (you won’t be able to miss it). More than the earlier writings, I believe that this book serves as a strong example and warning to us (1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Hebrews 3:7-13).


Listening for the Lord’s lessons with you.


Rob Eyman