As we get closer to Canaan, God needs a head count of all the “soldier-ready” people he has at his disposal. Looking at this chapter from a modern, cultural Christian vantage point, I find it rather troubling. Shouldn’t God already know how many people he has? Why does he need Moses to actually go out and physically count them? Well, for whatever reason, he does and so off goes Moses.

Since – as we shall soon see – there’s a whole lot of people to count. So God tells Moses to enlist the help of a representative from each tribe – the head of the ‘primary household,’ or, in biblical terms, “the head of the house of his fathers” (v.4). Since all of these helpers are listed, I figured I’d just lump them in with the population list and get it all over with at once:

  1. Tribe of Reuben, represented by Elizur son of Shadeur, has 46,500 members.
  2. Tribe of Simeon, represented by Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai, has 59,300 members.
  3. Tribe of Judah, represented by Nahshon son of Amminadab, has 74,600 members.
  4. Tribe of Issachar, represented by Nethaneel son of Zuar, has 54,400 members.
  5. Tribe of Zebulun, represented by Eliab son of Helon, has 57,400 members.
  6. Tribe of Joseph (through his son Ephraim), represented by Elishama son of Ammihud, has 40,500 members.
  7. Tribe of Joseph (through Manasseh), represented by Gamaliel son of Pedahzur, has 32,200 members.
  8. Tribe of Benjamin, represented by Abidan son of Gideoni, has 35,400 members.
  9. Tribe of Dan, represented by Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai, has 62,700 members.
  10. Tribe of Asher, represented by Pagiel son of Ocran, has 41,500 members.
  11. Tribe of Gad, represented by Eliasaph son of Deuel, has 45, 650 members.
  12. Tribe of Naphtali, represented by Ahira son of Enan, has 53,400 members.

I don’t know if there’s any significance to this, but the tribes are listed in the same order when the representatives are given as when the numbers are given – except for the tribe of Gad. Gad appears 11th in line in the first list, but 3rd in the second.

Another interesting detail here is that the Levites are not counted (they are in charge of the tabernacle and, therefore, not eligible as soldiers – which one might say is a sweet deal until one remembers the consequences of not lighting the incense properly. I’m not sure which is actually the more dangerous profession!). But because it’s really important to keep the number of tribes listed at 12, Joseph’s tribe is split in two.

That’s a lotta people!

At 603,550 people – counting only the men 20 years and older – that’s a whole lot of people. For an idea of what these numbers might mean, BibleSlam compares it to the numbers currently in the United States Armed Forces.

Numbers 1Not only is it a lot of people, it’s an impossible number of people. Keep in mind that we started with only 70 Hebrews just 400 years ago. So what’s going on here?

An easy explanation would be that this is supposed to be a miracle, reflecting God’s promise to Abraham about having as many descendants as there are grains of dust or stars in the sky, with a secondary miracle of God being able to sustain such numbers in the wilderness for so long.

My Study Bible has a possible alternative – that the Hebrew word translated as thousand “is an old term for a subsection of a tribe, based on the procedures for military muster employed by other ancient peoples” (p. 161). In other words, the actual number of men in the group is the second number presented, and the first number indicates how many “units” that number is divided into. For example, the tribe of Reuben has only 500 men, who are divided into 46 subsections. This gives us a much more reasonable total of 5,550 men.

The interpretation of the word as meaning an actual thousand may come from later, in the monarchy  period, when the size of a military unit was standardized to one thousand men.

This still leaves the problem of the nicely rounded numbers. If this were the record of a real census, rather than just ballpark estimates, we’d expect to see more variety.

A note on genre

Commenter Brian Hitt over at The King and I pointed out how similar this chapter is to Book 2 of the Iliad. He notes:

I learned that the purpose of this boring section comes from the medium of the Iliad’s telling. It was part of an oral tradition in which epic poems such as the Homeric Epics were performed by a bard for a gathering of people, often as part of a festival. The bard would list the contributions of the particular people groups (tribes if you will) so that his audience could say “Yeah! That’s us! Go you guys!” and feel connected to the story through their ancestors.

Some suggest that the bard wouldn’t include the entire list in every performance of the epic, it would be personalized for the audience. When the epic eventually got written down, all the different verses listing all the different tribes got included for completeness (reminds me of the extreme inclusiveness of the OT).

The ancient Israelites certainly had an oral tradition as well. I think we discussed how we get glimpses of it in Genesis. I wonder if the purpose of Numbers 1 was similar. To me this seems to point to genre conventions of ancient literature/folklore that were shared throughout the Mediterranean.

Food for thought.

Location, location, location

In Numbers 2, we get to find out that each tribe has a specific spot around the tabernacle. The Levites, who called ‘shotgun,’ get to be in the centre, of course. This is a replacement of the earlier tradition we saw in Exodus 33:7, where the tent of meeting was pitched outside of camp rather than in its centre.

Rather than list all the tribes again, I found this nifty graphic that makes the locations quite clear:

12TribesEncampment

 

I wondered why these locations, in particular, were assigned to each tribe, and I wondered if maybe it reflected their later territorial positions in relation to, say, Jerusalem once they’ve settled in Israel.

If you were to draw north-south/east-west axes with Jerusalem in the centre, here’s how the territorial distribution would look:

  • North-west quadrant: Benjamin, Ephraim, Manasseh, Zebulun, Asher.
  • North-east quadrant: Nephtali, Dan, Issachar, Manasseh, Benjamin, Gad.
  • South-west quadrant: Judah, Simeon.
  • South-east quadrant: Reuben.

Some connections match up, but it looks like statistical noise to me. So I’m back to square one on the great Camp Set-Up Mystery. Anyone have any answers?

When they travel, they have to move in the following order:

  1. The east group goes first.
  2. Then the south group.
  3. The Levites with the tabernacle travel in the middle.
  4. Then the west group.
  5. And the north group brings up the rear.