I’ve not visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, but I’ve seen many pictures of the 50 thousand plus men and women who died in that dreadful war. It’s a list of heroes! It’s a remarkable wall of names. People from all over the country come to that wall to see the name of their father, brother, or husband that’s been recorded there and will remain for as long as our country remains. There will be no hero wall for the names of those named in the first census of the Book of Numbers. This generation failed to take the land because they were afraid of the giants that lived there. They would all die in the wilderness. Numbers 1:17-19 tells us, “Moses and Aaron took these men who had been named, and on the first day of the second month, they assembled the whole congregation together, who registered themselves by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names from twenty years old and upward, head by head, as the Lord commanded Moses. So he listed them in the wilderness of Sinai.”

We recognize the names on the Vietnam Memorial wall as heroes. Those on the list that Moses and Aaron compiled in the Judean wilderness were not heroes at all. All the names recorded in the first chapter of Numbers are recognized as the cowards of the nation that were afraid to face the enemy. None of these people, 20 years old and upwards, will ever see the promised land. Brown says, “Sadly, these prospective soldiers died in the wilderness; it is the book’s second census (26:1–65) that preserves the names of those who entered Canaan. The first list became a tragic catalog of grumblers, doubters, and rebels, people who did not fulfill their potential, a sad reminder of life’s lost opportunities. Between the first and second censuses in this book lies the tragic tale of Israel’s failure to believe the God who speaks and acts. They would not obey his voice and did not trust his power.”[1]

I don’t think the purpose of the census God called Moses to take, as recorded in Numbers, was commanded to create a list of the failures. I could be on many lists that I’m not proud of. Maybe you could also. I think the point of the census was expressed well by one commentator over 100 years ago. He writes, “The object of the census was to individualize them, to separate each from the mass, to register each name that the record might be kept before God. He wanted them all to feel that He knew them and was interested in them. There is a tendency in man to think that he is lost in the mass and that the great God is not interested in him. This tendency is very pernicious; it leads to sin and then to despair. The Bible all through combats it, and there is no doubt that it was one great design of this census. This chapter is to us like the microscope in nature—revealing to us God’s greatness by the interest He takes in the individual. It is a grand truth to feel, God sees me, knows all about me, cares for me. He is not some cold abstraction, indifferent, inaccessible, and unmindful of us, far from it. The Bible and Christ bring Him near to us, showing Him to be full of interest in us. He feeds the fowls, clothes the lilies, knows the varying market price of sparrows, numbers the hairs of our heads, knew the street, house, and person where Peter lodged. Struggling, anxious, suffering one, single yourself from the crowd. God knows, loves, cares for thee.”[2]

[1] Brown, Raymond. 2002. The Message of Numbers: Journey to the Promised Land. Edited by Alec Motyer and Derek Tidball. The Bible Speaks Today. England: Inter-Varsity Press.

[2] Jones, William. 1892. Numbers. The Preacher’s Complete Homiletic Commentary. New York; London; Toronto: Funk & Wagnalls Company.