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A SECOND CENSUS OF ISRAEL
As at the first of the wilderness journey a census of the nation was taken (ch.1:46), now as they near the end of that journey another census is required by God. Again it is those 20 years old and above who are included, all who were able for military service (v.2). Of those living at the time, Moses, Joshua and Caleb would be the only people over 60 years of age, and Joshua and Caleb were still able for war (Joshua 14:6-11).
The tribe of Reuben decreased in population from 46,000 (v.1:21) to 43,730 (v.7). Reuben was the firstborn of Israel, but because of his sin his natural primacy was taken from him. Also in the wilderness two Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, were leaders in rebellion against the Lord (Numbers 16:1). they were swallowed up when the earth opened, but afterwards the people complained about this, and 14,000 were killed by a plague (Numbers 16:49).
The death of Dathan and Abiram is mentioned in verses 9 and 10, together with Korah, when the earth opened and swallowed them up, and when fire devoured 250 men who followed them. Yet it is mentioned here that the sons of Korah did not die at that time (v.11), indicating that they were not involved in his guilt.
But the tribe of Simeon depleted drastically in numbers during the wilderness journey, from 59,300 (ch.1:23) to 22,200. what is the reason for this'? Likely it is seen inNumbers 25:14; Numbers 25:14. Zimri was a leader of a father's house among the Simeonites and became a leader in the corrupting mixture of Israel with the Midianites. How true it is that even rebellion (as seen in Reuben, with Dathan and Abiram) does not have as devastating effects on the people of God as does their being yoked together with unbelievers or with principles of unrighteousness. This is seen in the address of the Lord Jesus to Pergamos inRevelation 2:12-17; Revelation 2:12-17. Pergamos dwelt "where Satan's seat is" (v.13), that is the world, a compromising mixture that is offensive to the Lord and damaging to themselves. Too frequently we do not suspect the harm there is in unholy associations until we are trapped by them. May the Lord preserve us.
Gad's numbers were decreased also, from 45,650 (Numbers 1:25) to 40,500 (v.18), though we cannot point to any incident that might have caused this. It is possible they sympathized with the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram or were involved in the corruption of Peor, for it seems neither of these was confined to one tribe.
Judah, however, is in happy contrast to the previous decline, for it increased from 74,600 (Numbers 1:27) to 76,500 (v.22). This is a testimony to the fact that we need not be weakened by the trials of the wilderness journey, but may be strengthened. This depends on the reality and consistency of our faith in the living God. Judah's name (meaning "praise") may remind us that the spirit of praise increases fruitfulness.
Isaachar increased more greatly still, from 54,400 (Numbers 1:29) to 64,300 (v.25). This may at least teach a most valuable lesson, that one who is not prominent in any public way may gain far more for the Lord than more prominent people do. The judgment seat of Christ will no doubt give us some acute surprises along this line.
Zebulon similarly showed an increase, from 57,400 (Numbers 1:31) to 60,500 (v.27), not so great as Issachar, but more than Judah. Zebulon too was not so prominent, as Judah was, or Reuben.
But Manasseh increased amazingly from 32,200 (Numbers 1:35) to 52,700. Manasseh means "forgetting" and may impress on us Paul's words of Philippians 3:13-14: "Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." If we have this attitude of Paul in forgetting past achievements and making Christ the object of living, we shall increase more and more in fruitfulness for God.
Ephraim, however, whose name means "fruitfulness," stands in sad contrast to Manasseh, for this tribe decreased from 40,500 (Numbers 1:33) to 32,500 (v.37). This may teach us that if we depend on our reputation for bearing fruit, the fruit itself will be depleted greatly because self has become our object rather than Christ. Self-complacency is one of the most damaging attitudes we can adopt.
Benjamin showed a lovely increase from 35,000 (Numbers 1:37) to 45,600 (v.41). Dan, already large, showed some increase, from 62,700 (Numbers 1:39) to 64,400 (v.43). Asher was greatly increased, from 41,500 (Numbers 1:41) to 53,400 (v.47). Naphtali, in contrast, fell badly from 53,400 (Numbers 1:43) to 45,400 (v.50). Whatever the reasons for all of these, at least they tell us that in glory some will be commended for their increase in spiritual fruit, while others will have to bow to the sad fact that they did not produce as they might have (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
The increases or decreases in the twelve tribes of Israel have been seen in the first 50 verses of this chapter. Now as to the nation itself, verse 51 tells us that at the end of the wilderness journey its total population of men able for military service was 601,730. This was a decrease, for in Numbers 1:46 that number had been 603,550. What a lesson for us, that though the Church of God has been so greatly blessed by God, show has not as a whole responded in a practical and thankful way to such grace, for she has too sadly followed the example of Israel. Yet the failure of the testimony of the Church is no excuse for the failure of any individual believer, for as we have seen, some of the tribes increased greatly, others also in a lesser measure.
HOW THE LAND WAS TO BE DIVIDED
The census being complete, the Lord then instructed tribe was to receive when in the land of promise. according to the size of its population, the larger tribes smaller a smaller inheritance (vs.52-54). Their size journey decided this. This may well teach us that the measure of enjoyment of our heavenly inheritance will have a close connection with the measure of our enjoyment of Christ at the end of our earthly history.
"But the land shall be divided by lot" (v.55). None could choose what property he might have. For Proverbs 16:33 tells us, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." The Lord decided this, and all were to be content with His decision. We are not told how the size was coordinated with the Lord's decision, but this would be no problem for Him.
THE LEVITES NUMBERED
The Levites were numbered independently of the other tribes since they had no specific property as an inheritance. Also they were not required to go to war, but to serve the Lord. Therefore their census did not begin with those of the age of twenty years, but with one month old boys (v.62). When one is to be trained in the things of God, this is to begin virtually from his birth, while training for physical warfare requires the strength of manhood.
In spite of the rebellion of Korah, who was a Levite, the tribe increased from 22,000 (ch.1:39) to 23,000 (v.62). Thus we learn that the Lord does graciously recover from failure, so that we must not be discourage when we do fail.
We are reminded in verses 64 and 65 that no individuals remained to be included in this last census who had been numbered in the first census, except Joshua and Caleb, for all those who were over 20 years at that time died in the wilderness except these two men. Even Moses died before Israel entered the land of Canaan. Of course the Levites who had been under 20 years, though numbered in the first census, would not necessarily have died before the second census.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Numbers 26". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16