Israel’s army is born
Moses gets a dozen generals1 A year and a month after the Israelites left Egypt, they were camping in the Sinai badlands. There, the LORD talked to Moses in the Meeting Tent: 2 I want you to count all the people traveling with you. Take the census by family. Get the name of every man. And count the number of people in every household. 3 You and Aaron should count every man aged 20 and up—whoever seems able to go into battle. List the men by tribe. Each tribe becomes a corps of warriors. Together, the tribes will form an army. 4 Every tribe will have one leader: the corps commander who reports directly to you as your subordinate. 5 Here are names of those 12 commanders who will serve you.
Reuben’s tribe: Elizur, Shedeur’s son.
6 Simeon’s tribe: Shelumiel, Zurishaddai’s son.
7 Judah’s tribe: Nahshon Amminadab’s son.
8 Issachar’s tribe: Nethanel, Zuar’s son.
9 Zebulun’s tribe: Eliab, Helon’s son.
10 From Joseph, Ephraim’s tribe: Elishama, Ammihud’s son; Also from Joseph, Manasseh’s tribe: Gamaliel, Pedahzur’s son.
11 Benjamin’s tribe: Abidan, Gideoni’s son.
12 Dan’s tribe: Ahiezer, Ammishaddai’s son.
13 Asher’s tribe: Pagiel, Ochran’s son.
14 Gad’s tribe: Eliasaph, Deuel’s son.
15 Naphtali tribe: Ahira, Enan’s son.
16 These men will serve as tribal leaders—military commanders for what will become Israel’s army. 17 Moses and Aaron called those leaders together the same day the LORD talked to Moses. 18 Moses and Aaron presented the leaders to the Israelites. When it came time for the census, families registered together in a simple body count. But the men ages 20 and up were registered by name. 20 There in the Sinai badlands, Moses counted all the people, just as the LORD said.
Drafting an army21 This is the tally of men ages 20 and above who were fit for battle. Moses and Aaron recorded the numbers by tribe, starting with the extended family descended from Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben.
Drafting an army21 Reuben’s tribe: 46,500 men.
22 Simeon’s tribe: 23 59,300.
24 Gad’s tribe: 25 45,650.
26 Judah’s tribe: 27 74,600.
28 Issachar’s tribe: 29 54,400.
30 Zebulun’s tribe: 31 57,400.
32 From Joseph, Ephraim’s tribe: 33 40,500.
34 Also from Joseph, Manasseh tribe:
36 Benjamin’s tribe: 37 35,400.
39 Dan’s tribe: 39 62,700.
40 Asher’s tribe: 41 41,500.
42 Naphtali’s tribe: 43 53,400.
44 This is how many men Moses and Aaron counted in each of the 12 tribes, along with the 12 tribal leaders. 45 Moses and Aaron counted every man age 20 and up who was able to go into battle. 46 There were 603,550 men.
Moses’ tribe excused from military service47 Moses and Aaron didn’t count the men in their tribe: Levi’s tribe. 48 The LORD had told Moses, 49 “Levi’s tribe is the only one you’re not to count. 50 You need to put the Levites in charge of the tent worship center. Their job is to maintain the sacred property, inside and out. Also, tell them to pitch their tents in a protective circle around the worship center.
51 Whenever it’s time to break camp and move on, Levites are the ones who take down the worship center and pack it for the trip. If anyone else tries to do that, execute that person. 52 I want each tribe to camp together, with its own militia and tribal banner. 53 But I want Levi’s tribe to surround the worship center with their tents, to form a wall protecting the Israelite people from doing anything there that could upset the LORD. 54 The people did exactly what the LORD told Moses they should do.
Literally, the first day of the second month of the second year.
This is likely the tent worship center of Exodus 36-40, given the descriptions that come later, which include reference to the worship center’s altar (1:5). Yet some scholars say the Meeting Tent was not the tent worship center. The Meeting Tent was mentioned first in Exodus 33:7, before the tent worship center was built and located in the middle of the camp (Numbers 2:17). This was another place where Moses apparently spent some time, “outside the camp, at a fair distance” (Exodus 33:7). This is where people would go to hear from Moses about what the Lord had to say about any particular question they had. Some scholars say Moses likely set up this Meeting Tent outside the camp because of God’s refusal to travel with the people. Moses may have figured that if God wouldn’t come to them, they would go to God.
The army-in-the-making is built on the 12 extended families descended from Jacob. He had 12 sons, but two of the tribes are named after two of his grandsons, who were the sons of Jacob’s dearly loved son, Joseph. That means Joseph was the only one to produce two tribes of what became Israel. The tribe of Levi was unique because it provided the nation’s worship leaders of priests and the assistants who maintained the worship center and helped the priests. These Levites didn’t inherit a large territory. Instead, they inherited cities scattered through the entire land that became known as Israel. And some cities across the Jordan River in what is now the country of Jordan.
Every person was counted in the census. But it’s not clear if that number was ever reported. It seems the 600,000 tally in 1:46 was of the men alone. They’re the only ones whose names were taken and apparently written down. The rest of the family was simply counted and recorded as a total number, without taking names.
If there were about 600,000 men (also reported in Exodus 12:37), it’s a fair guess there were about 600,000 women. Put them together, and there may have been at least two children per couple. That’s about 2.4 million souls camped at the foot of Mount Sinai in the Sinai badlands, with their livestock. Those numbers seem unrealistic to many readers. A year earlier, if they had walked in rows 100 yards (91 meters) long as they crossed the parted sea (Exodus 14:22), the column of one line after another would have stretched about 20 miles (32 kilometers). Commentators have suggested a variety of solutions to these huge numbers. Here are three:
TRUST GOD. This theory embraces the biblical story as accurate history.
600 CLANS. Another suggests the Hebrew word for “thousand” elep, can refer simply to a group of people, such as an extended family known as a clan, or a group of clans, called a tribe. So, if there were 600 clans, there could have been fewer than 20,000 people—which is still a lot in a desert wasteland.
SYMBOLIC NUMBERS. Another theory sees a hidden message in names. Hebrew letters had number equivalents, as did letters in other languages. The census Moses took of the Israelites revealed that there were 603,551, if we add Moses (Exodus 38:26). When we tally up the numbers for the phrase commonly used to refer to the Israelites, “sons of Israel,” the letters add up to 603,551. So, the theory here is that all the Israelites came out of Egypt, however many there were.
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