The purpose of this numbering of Israelite males over twenty years of age is to determine the number of soldiers who will
be able to go to war (v. 3
) in the upcoming battles for the conquest of Canaan. However, the later rebellions of this generation of Israelites will
disqualify them from taking part in the battles for Canaan (chs. 13–14
). A similar census in ch. 26
will number an entirely new generation of Israelites whom the LORD will allow to enter the promised land of Canaan (
Israel's camp has been situated in the wilderness of Sinai since Ex 19.1–2
. The tent of meeting covers the tabernacle
, a portable sanctuary or shrine. The tent is the place where Moses, the leader of Israel, receives oracles
and instructions from the LORD. Formerly, the tent of meeting stood outside Israel's camp, but now it will be situated in the middle of the camp (see Ex 33.7–11; Num 2.2
). The first day of the second month means one month has elapsed since Israel finished constructing the portable tabernacle or shrine (Ex 40.17
Israel was divided into twelve tribes. Each tribe contained a number of smaller groups called clans
. Each clan in turn contained a number of smaller family groups called ancestral houses.
This list of the twelve tribes of Israel largely reflects the sequence of the births of the twelve sons of Jacob in Gen 29.31–30.24 and Gen 35.16–18
, grouped according to the status of their mothers. The children of Leah and Rachel (Jacob's favored wives) are listed first.
The children born of the servant women (Bilhah and Zilpah) are listed last.
The numbers for each individual tribe as well as the total number of male warriors for all twelve tribes (603,550; vv. 44–46
) have seemed impossibly high to many commentators. The number of soldiers assumes a total population of men, women, and children
of around two million Israelites. Several solutions have been offered to bring down the number to a more plausible figure.
However, the present form of the text assumes the full number of 603,550 Israelite soldiers. As such, the census numbers demonstrate
the LORD's partial fulfillment of the promises of innumerable descendants made earlier to Israel's ancestors (Gen 15.5; 22.17
The tribe of Levi (v. 49
) stands apart as a priestly tribe exempted from military service and dedicated to the care and administration of the tabernacle of the covenant
). Therefore, the Levites have their own separate census. The tabernacle is the portable sanctuary or shrine at which the powerful and holy presence of God could be present in the midst of the Israelites.
The Levites camp around the tabernacle as a protective buffer between God's presence and the rest of the Israelite camp so
that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the Israelites (v. 53
). An outsider in this case is anyone who is not from the priestly tribe of Levi (v. 51
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