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Scripture reading – Numbers 1-2

An Introduction to the Book of Numbers

Our chronological study of the Scriptures brings us to the Book of Numbers, the fourth of the five books known as the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The author of Numbers is Moses, and the setting is stated as the “first day of the second month, in the second year” following Israel’s exodus out of Egypt (Numbers 1:1).

You might wonder why events that took place thousands of years ago are significant to 21st-century believers.

Paul spoke to that question in his letter to believers in Corinth when he wrote, “Now all these things [historical events of the Old Testament Scriptures] happened unto them for ensamples [pattern; model]: and they are written for our admonition [warning]” (1 Corinthians 10:11). It is essential to know the Old Testament because the Scriptures are instructive in God’s providences, blessings, and judgments. Therefore, the more you study the Bible, the more you understand God’s ways and will.

A Background of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

The Twelve Tribes of Israel were descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, the Old Testament patriarch whose name God changed to Israel.  Jacob (Israel) was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, of whom two sons were born. Ishmael was the firstborn son of Abraham, born to Hagar, an Egyptian whose lineage we identify as a branch of the Arabic people. God, however, rejected Ishmael as Abraham’s heir. In his old age, his wife Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac, whom God had chosen as his father’s heir. The Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3) passed to his son Jacob and his twelve sons who fathered the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Numbers 1 – The First Census

The Twelve Tribes of Israel were named and numbered in Numbers 1 and 2. That census revealed the number of Israel’s men of war by tribe, but excluded the priestly tribe of Levite (1:47-50). Taking its name from the census, the Book of Numbers records two head counts (the first recorded in Numbers 1-4 and the second in Numbers 26-27). Its purpose was to document the number of able-bodied men of war and totaled by tribe and household, those who were “twenty years old and upward” (1:3).

Able-bodied Males, Twenty Years and Older, and Fit for War (1:17-43)

The LORD charged Moses and Aaron with the responsibility of numbering the men of Israel; however, the census excluded the priestly tribe of Levi, whose duty was to serve the LORD as Israel’s spiritual guardians (1:47-54; 2:33). The Twelve Tribes included the lineages of the sons of Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh (1:32-35), who were adopted by Jacob and replaced his sons, Reuben and Simeon (Genesis 48:5).

The census total of fighting men in Israel, not including the men of Levi, numbered 603,500 (all of whom but two, Joshua and Caleb, would die in the wilderness because of their lack of faith and disobedience).

Numbers 2 – The Arrangement of Israel’s Encampment by Tribe

Numbers 2 gives the organization of Israel’s encampment. The Twelve Tribes were organized into four divisions (east, south, west, and north). With the Tabernacle as the central object, each division consisted of three tribes and was assigned a standard (banner).

On the east side of the Tabernacle was the Tribe of Judah, and assigned to its banner were Issachar and Zebulun (2:3-9). Under the banner of Reuben, on the south side of the Tabernacle, were Simeon and Gad (2:10-16). West of the Tabernacle was the standard of Ephraim, and under its banner were Manasseh and Benjamin (2:18-24). Dan’s banner was on the Tabernacle’s north side, and under it were Asher and Naphtali (2:25-31). Finally, the Tribe of Levi was within the encampment of the other tribes, and its tents were pitched around the Tabernacle (1:53; 2:17).

Closing thoughts:

God’s presence, represented by the Tabernacle, was the dominant focus of Israel. Because worshipping and serving the LORD was central to Israel, the Tabernacle was located in the center of the encampment with the tribe of Levi encamped around it (1:53). The Levites were charged with the responsibility of the Tabernacle, and the vessels used for worship and offering sacrifices (Numbers 1:50; 3:8).

We are reminded that the LORD was the Shepherd of Israel, and He alone ordered His people’s starts and stops. When it was time to move, the Levites were charged with taking down the Tabernacle. When it was time to stop, the Levites erected the Tabernacle amid the tribes (Numbers 1:51, 53).

Who orders the starts and stops in your life? Who is central to your heart and focus? Remember, the LORD accepts no place but the first place in your heart, thoughts, and affections! (Romans 12:1)

Questions to consider:

1) Who was to be numbered in the census taken by Moses and Aaron? (Numbers 1:3-4)

2) What tribe was not to be counted in the census? (Numbers 1:47-49; 2:33)

3) Who oversaw the Tabernacle, its furniture, and its vessels? (Numbers 1:50-51)

4) Where was the Tabernacle to be pitched about the arrangement of the other tribes of Israel? (Numbers 2:2, 17)

Copyright © 2023 – Travis D. Smith

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