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Bible Commentaries

L. M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 1

Verses 1-54

THE FIRST CENSUS OF ISRAEL

(vs.1-46)

After Israel's leaving Egypt, over a year passed before we read of this census being taken. In David's time, when he determined to number the people (2 Samuel 24:2-10), his motives were those of pride in reigning over a great nation, and this resulted in the death of 70,000 people. But God's census in Numbers indicates His own vital interest in each one of His people Israel, an interest that is no less true in regard to His saints today. The difference is that in Israel only the males over 20 years of age were numbered. There would be a cut-off age also, for this involved only those who were fit for military service. Today all of His saints are fitted for spiritual warfare, women and young and old too, though by reason of age some are less active than others. Yet the lesson is also clear for us that to engage in practical conflict we require maturity or full age such as comes through knowledge and growth in the word of God. To be "a good soldier of Jesus Christ" also calls for undivided devotion, not being entangled with the affairs of this life (2 Timothy 2:3-4), for we have been called to the exclusive service of our Lord, therefore should please Him.

God Himself chose the leaders of each of these tribes, with good spiritual reasons. We must learn these reasons from the names given, for this is all scripture supplies. The leader of the tribe of Reuben was Elizur the son of Shedeur. Elizur means "God is a Rock." what a contrast to his father Reuben, of whom we read, "Unstable as water, you shall not excel" (Genesis 49:4). Reuben in the flesh was abject weakness, just as the flesh proves in all of us. But the strength and stability of God is the portion of the new nature, that which all believers are "in Christ Jesus." Shedeur means "the Almighty is fire," which adds the thought of God's consuming holiness judging the flesh and all of its works. For if we are rightly to know the strength and stabilizing energy of God, we must be "partakers of His holiness," of which the fire speaks, -- holiness which must judge Reuben's sin. It is beautifully fitting therefore that the lessons Shedeur teaches should be of first importance in enabling us for spiritual conflict.

In order of birth the tribe of Simeon is next, and the prince of Simeon was Shelumiel (v.6), meaning "at peace with God." This too is a striking contrast to Simeon's character as described by his father Jacob in Genesis 49:5-7, who, together with Levi, was guilty of cruel vicious enmity in the murder of the men of Shechem (Genesis 34:25-26). Only the grace of God could make any difference in this atrocious case. Is the flesh in us any better than in Simeon and Levi? Not at all: "the mind of the flesh is enmity against God" (Romans 8:7 --JND). Yet God has in pure grace reconciled all believers to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18), and we are "at peace with God," asRomans 5:1; Romans 5:1 declares.

Shelumiel was the son Zurishaddai, meaning "My rock is the Almighty." This reminds us that peace with God depends on the stability of God Himself, the Almighty; and in this case not only is God the Rock, by "my rock." How good it is for us if we appropriate to ourselves this living truth! This is a wonderful sustenance in warfare.

The tribe of Levi is passed over here, for that tribe was separated from the others for sanctuary service. Therefore Judah is next mentioned, with Nahshon, the son of Amminidab its prince (v.7). Nahshon means "a diviner." some diviners were satanically inspired, but others were inspired by God, and the latter is intended here, for Judah's name means "praise" and one who is a true worshiper of God will be given grace to divine, or discern all things, even the future, as he takes in the word of God. this place of nearness to God is important too in regard to spiritual warfare. Amminidab (the father of Nahshon) means "the people of the liberal giver." Certainly God is the Liberal Giver. Praise and discernment of God's ways are always associated with the realization of God's grace freely giving us all things to enjoy.

The prince of Issachar was Nethanel (v.8), meaning "the gift of God." This is a contrast to Issachar's character as described inGenesis 49:14-15; Genesis 49:14-15 as a donkey brought under bondage for hire, just as Israel under law really served for hire rather than receiving every blessing as a gift from God. In the millennium this will be beautifully reversed. Nethanel was the son of Zuar, meaning "little." How true it is that when we receive every blessing simply as a gift of God our pride will be brought low, no longer to think highly of ourselves, but like Paul, whose name means "little," to consider ourselves "less than the least of all saints" (Ephesians 3:8).

Listed next is the prince of Zebulon, who was Eliab, his name meaning "God is a Father." In Genesis 49:13 Zebulon pictures Israel in close proximity to the Gentiles, being a haven for ships, therefore compromising her proper separation to God. In beautiful contrast to this, the expression "God is a Father" reminds us of2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, where believers are exhorted to come Out from unholy associations, for in so doing they are assured by God, "I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters." Such godly separation from evil is another requisite if we are to be "good soldiers of Jesus Christ," so Eliab infers the work of God in changing us from evil associations to those pleasing to the Father. Eliab was the son of Helon, but the meaning of his name is so doubtful that we cannot be certain of its significance.

Joseph was given two tribes for his sons, to make up 12 tribes when Levi was separated for tabernacle service. Ephraim's prince was Elishama, "God has heard" (v.10). Genesis 49:1-33; Genesis 49:1-33 does not tell us Ephraim's character naturally, but this leader, "God has heard" intimates a prayerful dependence consistent with the place of spiritual conflict that is emphasized in this chapter. His father's name, Ammihud means "the people of majesty," which surely speaks of the calm dignity that prayer gives in enabling us to face warfare in some measure as the Lord Jesus did (John 18:3-11).

Manasseh's prince was Gamaliel, meaning "God is a Rewarder." In time of conflict this is a wonderful encouragement. There is no reason to look for men's approval or rewards, for if we wage war with the motive of simply desiring to please God, we shall be fully content to wait for God's time of rewards. Gamaliel's father, Pedahzur, "the rock has redeemed" is a reminder that the rewards of service must not be occasions of pride on our part, for we must remember that we are only sinners redeemed by Him who is the one stable Rock.

Abidan was the prince of Benjamin, his name meaning "My father is judge" (v.11). In Genesis 49:27 Benjamin is called "a ravening wolf." In other words he was naturally a warrior. But it is not natural fighters the Lord needs, as Peter found when he used a sword to cut off the ear of the High priest's servant (John 18:10-11), and was reproved by the Lord, who healed the man's ear. "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds" (2 Corinthians 10:4). So let us remember the lesson of Abidan, "my Father is judge." God as a Father judges according to every person's work (1 Peter 1:17). It is He who judges the value of our warfare, with perfect spiritual discernment.

Ahidan's father was Gideoni, "the cutter down." This shows us the becoming result of our recognizing the Father's judgment. When we bow to this, we learn to cut down all fleshly activity: we judge the sin of our own hearts and every idolatrous tendency. A man of similar name, Gideon, in the book of Judges, was the cutter down when he demolished his father's idols (Judges 6:25-28). In deed, only in a state of true self-judgment are we ready for spiritual conflict.

This completes the list of Jacob's sons by his two wives, Leah and Rachel.

The sons of Jacob's bondmaids are considered now, Dan being first mentioned. The prince of Dan was Ahiezer, meaning "brother of help." What a contrast to this is the character of Dan mentioned inGenesis 49:17; Genesis 49:17, "Dan shall be a serpent by the way. Rather than giving brotherly help, he would give satanic harm. Again, God makes a wonderful change by His pure grace, so that Dan would be a help in conflict. Ahiezer was the son of Ammishaddai, meaning "the people of the Almighty." A brother relationship is to be expected when the people's relationship to the Almighty is established.

Asher prince was Pagiel (v.13), which means "event of God" and his father's name Ocran, means "afflicted."Genesis 49:20; Genesis 49:20 tells us, "Bread from Asher shall be rich, and he shall yield royal dainties." Asher means "happy." But even the blessing of Asher has to be tempered with God's dealings -- events of God -- to bring affliction. For true happiness always comes through suffering, little as we might at first appreciate this. How well Paul understood this when he wrote, "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Eliasaph, meaning "God has added" was the prince of Gad. Genesis 49:19 says, "Gad, a troop shall tramp upon him, but he shall triumph at last." This is a prophecy of recovery and triumph, so that Eliasaph's name indicates that triumph will be accomplished by God's giving the increase. His father's name, Deuel, means "known of God." The sense of God's knowing us thus leads to spiritual increase in practical life. this too is connected with preparation for conflict. But God is the source of all.

Naphtali's prince (v.15), Ahira, "brother of evil" is the most difficult as regards interpretation. Genesis 49:21; Genesis 49:21 reads, "Naphtali is a deer let loose; he uses beautiful words." "Brother of evil" can then be understood only in the sense of "brother of trouble," and could refer to the sympathetic character of the believer in bearing the burden of others. This would be in some contrast to the deer let loose, but would remind us of Paul's words, "For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all" (1 Corinthians 9:19). Ahira's father was Enan, meaning "having eyes," and may speak of the concern that looks on the sorrows of others.

The tribes were then assembled, each under the authority of its chosen leader (v.18), and their numbering is seen in verses 20 to 46. We should have absolute confidence that there is spiritual significance in all these numbers, for "all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable" (2 Timothy 3:16). Our inability to discern the significance of these things is therefore our own ignorance. The total number of men over 20 in the twelve tribes was 603,550.

THE TRIBE OF LEVI SEPARATED

(vs.47-54)

The numbering did not include the tribe of Levi, for the Lord had told Moses before that the Levites were to be appointed to care for the tabernacle and its furnishings, both while it remained stationery and when it was in process of moving. They were to take the tabernacle down when it was time to move, and set it up again at each destination (v.51). No one else was allowed any part in this work, under penalty of death.

The Levites were therefore servants of the priests of the priests who were Aaron's family. In one very real sense all believers today are priests and all are Levites, that is, as priests they present acceptable sacrifices to God; as Levites they serve the needs of people. As the priests are worshipers, so the Levites have the privilege of ministry, but the two functions are distinct.

The twelve tribes were to encamp, three on each side of the tabernacle, while the tribe of Levi was inside of these, surrounding the tabernacle (v.53).

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Bibliographical Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Numbers 1". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lmg/numbers-1.html. 1897-1910.