It’s time to get organized! I believe this is where the book of “Numbers” gets its name. God directs the two million Israelites to be organized into companies. This is a census for war. Numbers 1:2-3 says, “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head.  From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company.” I expect this might be the first official census recorded in the world, however, I haven’t researched other civilizations. There have always been censuses in the world. I have some records of the 1895 census from Omaha that has my great grandfather, Louis Larsen as the head of household with his wife Anna and their six kids, with Earnest, my grandfather being 9 years old at the time. But the census that Moses was to take of the Israelites was of those 20 years old and older. They had to be capable of going to war before they made it into the census.

It appears that the general organization of the huge nation began with the fact that they were divided into the twelve tribes according to which patriarch they descended from Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, Manasseh, Ephraim (the two sons of Joseph) and Benjamin. The tribes were subdivided into clans. Then into patriarchal houses and finally into families. But the phrase “company by company” lets us know that the census was in preparation for war. One of the ancient Akkadian texts uses similar language for “mustering the troops.” Some commentators want to understand this census as simply a numbering of the people like the censuses we have taken in various cities. But, as one commentator says, “The wording is so patently military in nature, however, that this escape is simply not possible. The point of the census was to prepare the armies of Israel for their triumphal war of conquest against the peoples of Canaan. In fulfillment of the promise the Lord made to father Abraham.” The Israelites were being prepared in inherit these promises of becoming a great nation by taking the promised land that was “inhabited by numerous nations and ethnic groups. Those nations and groupings were pervaded with evil; the sins of the Amorites had now reached their full measure (cf. Gen 15:16); the campaign of conquest was soon to begin.”[1]

Duguid says, “The census was thus a tangible, physical reminder that God had been faithful to the promises he had made to multiply his people and to bring them out of Egypt (see 1:1). God had been faithful to his Word: the numbers don’t lie. This should have been a source of great encouragement to God’s people as they headed into battle to take the Promised Land. They certainly didn’t lack the resources to do the task that God had assigned them. Since God had been faithful to his promises in the past, he could be counted on also in the future.”[2] The sad end of the book of Numbers records a different census. The only two still in the census were Joshua and Caleb. The rest died in the wilderness never realizing their dream. They died between slavery and freedom. Indeed, they never faced war, but they never tasted freedom either. William Wallace, of Braveheart fame, is supposed to have said, “Everyman dies, but some never truly live.”

[1] Allen, Ronald B. 1990. “Numbers.” In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, 2:704–5. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Duguid, Iain M., and R. Kent Hughes. 2006. Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.