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The twelve tribes are numbered, from twenty years old and upwards: the Levites are exempted, as being appointed to the service of the tabernacle.
Before Christ 1490.
Numbers 1:1. And the Lord spake unto Moses— The Israelites had now left Egypt about thirteen months, and had resided near Mount Sinai almost a year, (compare Exo 19:1 with this verse) receiving all the foregoing laws and injunctions before they left this place. The Almighty orders a general muster to be made, and an exact poll to be taken of all the Israelitish men, from twenty years old and upwards, the Levites excepted; and a careful distinction to be observed in the tribes, families, and households; for these reasons: 1st, That every one might know, and deliver to his posterity, a clear account from what tribe he descended, and to what family he belonged: 2nd, That the Israelites might see how fully he had made good his promise to Abraham, of multiplying his seed: 3rdly, That they might know what strength they had for war, in case of any attack from their enemies: 4thly, That they might better dispose of their camp about the tabernacle, now that it was erected, and march more regularly when they removed from mount Sinai: and, 5thly, That hereby the genealogy of the Messiah, who was to be born of this nation, might be fully ascertained. It appears from Exo 40:17 that the tabernacle was erected on the first day of the first month of the second year after their coming out of Egypt; and, as this muster was to be taken on the first day of the second month of the same year, it appears, that what is related in the foregoing book, must have passed in the space of that first month.
Numbers 1:2. Take ye the sum— See Exodus 30:12; Exo 38:26 and the 26th chapter of this book. The tribes were divided into families, the families into houses or households, Jos 7:16-18 but here the house of their fathers seems of the same import with the tribes of their fathers: so in Num 1:4 the princes of the tribes, are called, heads of the houses of their fathers; and Num 1:44 the house of their fathers is the same as the tribe of their fathers, Numbers 1:47.
Numbers 1:3. All that are able to go forth to war— Hence it appears, that the aged and infirm, such as were unable to go to war, were not numbered: and, accordingly, Josephus tells us, that after fifty years they were not obliged to pay the half shekel which was due upon such musters. Among several other nations, as well as the Jews, particularly the Romans, all who were of age to bear arms were obliged, upon some occasions, to go forth to battle. Hence it is, that we read of the kings of Israel bringing such numerous armies into the field.
Numbers 1:5. And these are the names of the men, &c.— It is observable, that the tribes are placed not in the order of their birth, but of their mothers; first, the children of Leah, then of Rachel, and, after them, those of the two hand-maids. One cannot help remarking from most of the names here, how much God was in the thoughts of those who imposed them upon their children; for Elizur signifies, my God a rock; Shelumiel, God my peace; Zuri-shaddai, my God all-sufficient; Nethaneel, the gift of God; Gamaliel, God is my reward; and so of the rest. Deuel, mentioned in the 14th verse, is called Reuel, ch. Num 2:14 the letters daleth and resh being sometimes put one for the other.
Numbers 1:16. These were the renowned, &c.— Houbigant renders this, these were called from the multitude, convocati; which is agreeable to the Hebrew. From ch. Numbers 7:2, &c. we see, that these must have been persons of the first distinction.
Note; 'Tis not our being among professors, but our being born of God, and Abraham's children by faith, which entities us to a place in the church of the Redeemed.
Numbers 1:46. Even all they that were numbered, &c.— Upon an exact poll, wherein every man's name was distinctly set down and his pedigree stated, the number of true-born Israelites, from twenty years old and upwards, stood thus in the gross: (for there seems no room to doubt, that a few odd numbers were neglected, in order to make the several sums round as we find them; see Calmet, and Exodus 38:26.)
In the tribe of Reuben
Numbers 1:47. But the Levites—were not numbered— We find in chap. Numbers 3:16, &c. that the Levites were to keep a distinct register of their own; though, as being separated from the rest of their brethren for the service of the tabernacle, and therefore excused from war, they are not numbered here with those who were to go to war, Numbers 1:3. In all nations, the ministers of religion have been exempted from war, as incongruous to their profession. Strabo notes this custom to have been as old as Homer's time; and Caesar observes of the ancient Druids in Britain, that they were freed not only from the wars, but from tribute also: Druides a bello abesse consueverunt; neque tributa una cum reliquis pendunt, militiae vacationem omniumque rerum habent immunitatem. "The Druids were never engaged in military affairs, neither did they bear any part of the public taxes, but were allowed a perfect immunity and leisure, both from war, and from all civil employments." Caes. de Bell. Gall. lib. vi. c. 13.
Numbers 1:53. That there be no wrath— The service of the Levites, respecting the tabernacle, being mentioned in the preceding verses, it is here particularly enjoined, that they should pitch their tents round about it, that no man might approach nearer than was allowed, and thus incur the Divine wrath or displeasure.
REFLECTIONS.—1st, As the Israelites were about to march, they must be regimented. Order in an army is of the last importance. Those who were commanded were expeditious in their work, and in less than three weeks the review, and the register, were completed. Zeal to serve God makes quick work. Every tribe gave account of the families in it; every family, of the houses; every house, the number and age of the males. And in their numbers we see the prophecies eminently fulfilled, in Judah's increase, in Ephraim's surpassing Manasseh, and in Reuben, though the eldest, being inferior to many others. Thus they might confirm their faith in future promises, by seeing the fulfilment of past predictions.
2nd, The sum total is exactly the same as when they were numbered before, Exodus 38:26. If the Levites were then reckoned, so many of the other tribes had come of age as equalled their number; or they who died were supplied by those who were now passed their twentieth year. God's providence continues to keep up a proportion between births and burials; and if one militant saint or minister is gone, another springs up in his stead. We may observe here,
1. How fully God accomplished his promise to Abraham. Against every human probability, faith waits patiently, and is fully answered at last.
2. All these, except two, died in the wilderness for their unbelief. Death, the wages of sin, makes dreadful havock; let us fear lest we fall after the same example of unbelief.
3. When God's Israel shall go up to possess their inheritance in glory, they shall be such a multitude as no man can number.
3rdly, The Levites, being a kind of body-guard to the tabernacle, must not be numbered with the host. Their office was to take down and carry in their marches the holy things; nor must any of the other tribes, on pain of death, intrude into their business. Whilst each man pitched his tent under his own standard, the Levites encamped around the tabernacle, to prevent profane intrusion, and to be ready in waiting on the service. Note; 1. It must be every minister's care to restrain the people from sin. 2. They who are called to the service of God, should have no other engagements, that they may wholly give themselves up to the work of the ministry.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 1". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
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