Numbers begins with the first-ever census of Israel. Scholars argue over the accuracy of the head-count, but that’s not the point. The point is, essentially, a record of the first “draft” in Israel’s history. The men of Israel are being conscripted into an army. In the process, the people are organized into tribes, clans, and families… the basic structure of ancient Israeli society.
Most of chapter one is a series of repetitive paragraphs, as follows:
From the descendants of Reuben the firstborn son of Israel: All the men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army were listed by name, one by one, according to the records of their clans and families. The number from the tribe of Reuben was 46,500.
From the descendants of Simeon: All the men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army were counted and listed by name, one by one, according to the records of their clans and families. The number from the tribe of Simeon was 59,300. (Numbers 1:20-23)
…and so on. The sheer repetitiveness makes the modern reader want to skip ahead to chapter two. But hold on a second! There’s a reason why these paragraphs are repeated. In ancient writings, repetition indicates importance. So what is it that’s important here? That everything was done fairly and in order? That God’s commands were carried out? That the names of tribal leaders would be remembered? That all these people were important enough to God that they should be publicly acknowledged? I think yes… and more.
As I took time reading these paragraphs, my mind’s eye wandered to the scene at New York City’s Ground Zero and the reading of the names of those who died there. I think maybe this was a similar moment. The people of Israel had been through a great deal, and were now standing at the beginning of a covenant relationship with a mysterious and powerful G-d… and it was appropriate to take time to acknowledge each tribe and each man individually by name.
But there is one tribe that is not counted: the tribe of Levi. The Levites were not to serve in the army but rather were to serve in the Tabernacle. God will have more to say about this later.
While they’re at it, God also organizes the order in which the tribes are to move, and the pattern in which they are to camp. Here’s an illustration:
Here’s where a careful study of the text offers a great deal. Whenever Israel packed up and started moving, the easternmost tribes (to the right) would start out first. They would be followed by the southern tribes (bottom), then the Levites with the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant (center), then western tribes (left), then the northern tribes (top).
Looking at the numbers:
- The tribes of Judah and Dan (the first tribe and the rear guard tribe) were by far the largest and most powerful of the tribes, affording the people great safety.
- When camped or when moving, the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle were always surrounded by Levites and always in the center of the people — a beautiful picture of God being in the midst of them.
- The weakest, smallest tribes — Benjamin and the half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (interestingly, the descendants of the patriarch Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, and therefore related to Joseph) — were always closest to God’s presence. This is a recurring theme throughout scripture: God favors the poor and has mercy on the weak.
All of this speaks of a God who is remarkably consistent throughout scripture: a God who speaks, who knows the name of every individual, who cares about families and tribes, who provides protection for the poor and less fortunate. A God worthy of praise.