Boring Numbers? Maybe Not

II Timothy 3:16-17

16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

In Numbers, we have two accounts of the number of the children of Israel — the first in chapter 1, and the second in chapter 26.  Why?  And what’s the value to us of knowing how many men of fighting age there were in the tribes of Israel?  How is this “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness?”  Isn’t it just a bunch of boring numbers?

The Primary Reason For the Numbers

In Numbers 1, the primary purpose of the numbering probably has to do with redemption from Egypt, the firstborn, and the Levites.  Perhaps I will write another article on that later.

In Numbers 26, the primary purpose of the numbering is to prepare for the dividing of the Promised Land into areas for each tribe.  The numbering demonstrates that the land division was equitable.

Looking at the Numbers More Closely

I believe a closer look at the numbers can lead us to some other valuable lessons as well.  Below I show the tribe of Levi but do not include them in the total, as they are not included in the totals in Numbers 1:46 and 26:51.  Perhaps this is because the other tribes show the number of men of fighting age, while for the Levites (the priestly tribe) the number shown is for males from one month old and up.

Tribe First Numbering Second Numbering
Reuben 46,500 43,730
Simeon 59,300 22,200
Gad 45,650 40,500
Judah 74,600 76,500
Issachar 54,400 64,300
Zebulun 57,400 60,500
Ephraim 40,500 32,500
Manasseh 32,200 52,700
Benjamim 35,400 45,600
Dan 62,700 64,400
Asher 41,500 53,400
Naphtali 53,400 45,400
Levi* 22,000 23,000
Total 603,550 601,730

As you look at the numbers, you see most of the tribes didn’t change all that much during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness.  Manasseh had a large increase, Ephraim and Naphtali had significant decreases, but mostly the numbers are reasonably close.

What Happened to Simeon?

Most may be similar, but one tribe, Simeon, had a major change by the time Numbers 26 came around.  They lost more than 60% of their population.  What happened?  We don’t know, but there might be a clue in the preceding chapter.

Numbers 25:14

Now the name of the Israelite that was slain, even that was slain with the Midianitish woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a chief house among the Simeonites.

In Numbers 25 there was a plague among the people because they had committed immorality with the women of Midian, and begun to worship their gods.  This sin had become so acceptable among the Simeonites that one of their chiefs thought nothing of doing so openly and blatantly.  Perhaps the sin was so prevalent within the tribe that many of them perished in the plague.  That it is recorded just before the second numbering, with its dramatic drop, could be in part an explanation of the drop.

The Total Number

With Simeon, we’re left with “maybe that is what happened.”  With the total number, there is no “maybe”.  The total number is almost identical, a difference of less than 2000.

Through the time in Egypt, the children of Israel had a very, very high birth rate and multiplied so significantly that Pharaoh became concerned and tried to stop it (Exodus 1).  Yet, during these forty years, the population stayed virtually identical, declining very, very slightly — despite having bread, meat, and water provided for them.  The only real explanation is that God stopped the population growth.

I would see two lessons in this.  The first is that God is righteous, and He isn’t going to bless disobedience and unbelief.  The growth of the nation while in Egypt turned out to be a tremendous blessing, but that was not going to continue while the people were in the wilderness because of unbelief.

The second lesson is that God will not give His glory to another, or to many others.  The claim had been made — that 600,000 fighting men were not enough to take the land, even if God were with them.  That was the foolish sin of Numbers 13-14.  God was not going to give them a bigger army than that when He brought them back.  If they had followed Moses into the land in faith, they would have taken the land with 600,000 fighting men.  When they followed Joshua in faith, they took the land with 600,000 fighting men.

There were very real, practical reasons for the two numberings to happen, and reasons why it was recorded in Scripture.  But beyond those reasons, there really are some spiritual lessons to learn.  God saw fit to let us (and them) know that the population hadn’t grown between the sin of Kadeshbarnea (Numbers 13-14) and the entry in belief under Joshua.  600,000 fighting men really were enough!

Even those ‘boring’ numbers have a point, if you look.

Also:  Boring Numbers?  What About Those Offerings of the Princes?

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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