The First Census
The Israelites had been estimated at the time of the Exodus as “about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children” (Exodus 12:37). Now, a more accurate census was to be taken. This census was for the purpose of levying the half-shekel tax which was needed for the building of the tabernacle. So, the Lord commanded:
“When you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them” (Exodus 30:12 also 38:26).
In the same sense that insurance “covers” a man and frees him from further duty, the people were obligated to God; they might free themselves from that obligation by paying the “ransom.” Their lives were considered surrendered to God until God’s claim upon them was met. In paying, they admitted God’s goodness.
A half shekel would weight about one fifth of an ounce (5.7 gr.), and a gerah one tenth of that amount. Being a relatively small sum, the tax would not be a burden on anyone. It was a minimum gift. It also showed that all men are of equal worth in the eyes of God (Deuteronomy 10:17; Acts 10:34; Romans 3:22).
At the age of twenty, the Israelite was regarded to have reached manhood, to be ready for military service (2 Chronicles 25:5), and start the duties of citizenship. The Levites began their service in the tabernacle at this age (1 Chronicles 23:24, 27; 2 Chronicles 31:17; Ezra 3:8).
The Second Census
God spoke to Moses in the tabernacle, in the Wilderness of Sinai, and commanded him to number the people (Numbers 1:2-3). The Hebrews had now been in the wilderness nearly a year (Exodus 19:1; Numbers 10:11, 12). This was one month after the erection of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:2, 17; Numbers 9:1, 2).
This second numbering was less of a census than an plan to round up the men of military age by tribes and smaller divisions, with a leader assigned for each tribe. “And with you there shall be a man from every tribe, each one the head of his father’s house. These are the names of the men who shall stand with you: from Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur” (Numbers 1:4, 5). This was clearly a military registration. No such rule was given in the previous census (Exodus 30).
Aaron was to help in taking the census, though the Levites as a whole were excluded from it because they were chosen as the priestly tribe. They were responsible for the duties in the Lord’s tabernacle and the offerings. The Lord instructed:
“Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor take a census of them among the children of Israel; but you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the Testimony, over all its furnishings, and over all things that belong to it; they shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings; they shall attend to it and camp around the tabernacle” (Numbers 1:49–50). Instead of the levites, men of wisdom, respect, and honor were chosen to help in this work. Numbers 1:5–15 contain a list of 12 chief men, whose names are again mentioned in Numbers 2, 7, and 10.
The enumeration and classification of males was a needed step to secure well-ordered arrangements for the encampment and for marching. And this was shown by the fact that the numbering was clearly accomplished by the twentieth of the same month, the same day on which Israel started from the Wilderness of Sinai to head to the Wilderness of Paran (Genesis 10:11).
In His service,
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