Day 58 (Feb. 27): Tribes assigned place in camp, Levites to serve priests, Levites register, Firstborn sons redeemed through Levites

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Numbers 2-3

Questions & Observations

Q. (Numbers 2-3): Why is the number of people and the number of eligible warriors important to Bible readers?

A. Honestly, there’s not a great answer to that question for us today.  To the original readers (ancient Jews), this section would have been important as it relates to their own genealogy, something we have established is an important purpose of the OT.  This section — I’ll count chapters 1-3 — provides information on the current tribal leaders in the wilderness (1:5-15), the marching order for the army (note who’s out in front, Judah’s tribe, not Reuben’s), the arrangement of the camp, and a section for the genealogy of the Levites.  These are important considerations for this early post-Exodus nation.  Jews to this day use the Exodus as a marker or divider of time and history, the way Christians do with the Incarnation in the move between BC and AD.  So to them, this is a very crucial period between their ancestor’s freedom and the establishment of their own kingdom.

Q. (3:14): Can you tell us why the Levites were chosen for holy work?

A. No, I can’t tell you, because I don’t know.  God does not ever fully reveal the reason He selected the Levites for this task, only that He has chosen them.  It might be because Moses and Aaron were of that tribe, but ultimately, it is an issue of God’s sovereign choice.

But this passage (v. 11-13) does provide some interesting insight into the mindset that God is using: the Levities are designated to be the “first born” of the tribe, which from the Passover God tells us that the “first borns” belong to Him.  They were to be a people set apart, as a representation of the entire nation, in the same way that the entire nation was to be set apart from the world around them.  So you could say the Levites were “chosen” by God in the same representative manner that the entire nation was “chosen”.  Why them?  Only God knows!

Q. (3:43): The number of firstborns in this verse (22,273) seems much too small for a population of that many people.  What gives?

A. Actually, you’ve hit on one of the major problems of this text: what to do with the large numbers the text presents.  If added together (I looked it up, I didn’t calculate this number myself), you get a population of somewhere around 2 million people, which seems a bit too large for this period.  There are a few ways of looking at how the number is reached, but ultimately there is no definitive answer.  One way, for example, is that the Hebrew word for “thousand” is not actually what the word means here.  I wouldn’t get too hung up on the numbers: the most important thing that we can discern from this census is that the population had grown substantially in Egypt from the 12 sons of Jacob, and they will use this growth and mustered army to become a powerful nation, with God’s help, in the book of Joshua.

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