“Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies.”
Monday’s Bible reading is Numbers 1–4. Exodus 1–18 tells of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from Pharaoh and their travels on to the wilderness of Sinai. Once there, the rest of Exodus and the book of Leviticus record Moses’ receiving of the Ten Commandments and the Law from the Lord as well as the events during their sojourn there. Numbers is the story of the wandering of Israel in the wilderness. Gleason Archer introduces the book:
“The Hebrew title for this book is Bemidbār (in the wilderness of), taken from the first verse: “And Jehovah spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (ASV). The LXX [Septuagint] labels it Arithmoi, or Numbers, because of the prominence of census figures in this book. And yet the Hebrew title is quite appropriate to its general theme: Israel under God’s training in the wilderness. Historical narrative occupies a larger proportion of this book than is the case in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, and the period of years involved is far greater (forty years of discipline) than in the other books of the Pentateuch (excluding Genesis).
“The spiritual lesson enforced throughout the book is that God’s people can move forward only so far as they trust His promises and lean upon His strength….The purpose of the census prior to the failure at Kadesh (Num 1–4) and of the census of the later generation at the plains of Moab (Num 26) was to show that they were not kept out of Canaan by their insufficient numbers. It was not the size of their army that mattered, but only the size of their faith.”1
One of the interesting things in these opening chapters is the arrangement of the tribes of Israel around the Tabernacle and the assignment of duties to the branches of the tribe of Levi. The Levites are in red in the table. Moses, and the priests—Aaron and his sons—are on the east side of the Tabernacle where the entrance was located.
The tribe designated as leader of its side is in purple. On the east: Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. To the south: Reuben, Simeon and Gad; On the west: Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin. To the north: Dan, Asher and Naphtali. I looked at a couple of diagrams. One had the leader in the center, while another put the leader at the end of each side in the order in which they are named in Scripture (no rationale was given). For this table I followed the order in which the tribes are named.
UPDATE: You may have noticed that rather than twelve tribes of Israel, there are thirteen tribes named: the tribe of Levi, that surrounds and is closest to the Tabernacle and then twelve other tribes surrounding the Levites. If you look back at Genesis 48, when Jacob is in his final illness Joseph brings his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to Jacob. Jacob adopts them as his own sons and gives the birthright and blessing of Reuben, his first-born, to Joseph’s younger son, Ephraim. Derek Kidner comments:
“This declaration of adoption (cf. 16b) left its lasting mark on the structure of Israel, in which Ephraim inherited the headship of the whole twelve, forfeited by Reuben (cf:49:4) 1 Chronicles 5: 1,2 states the position: ‘[Reuben’s] birthright was given to the sons of Joseph…; though Judah became strong among his brothers and a prince was from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph.’”2
This is why there’s no tribe of Joseph. The descendants of his sons became two tribal groups. In Scripture Manasseh is frequently referred to as the half-tribe of Manasseh (i.e., Joshua 21:1–7).
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1Gleason L. Archer, Jr., “Leviticus and Numbers,” A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, pp. 243–244, 245.
2Derek Kidner, Genesis An Introduction & Commentary, p. 213.
Original content: Copyright ©2011 Iwana Carpenter