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Introduction to Numbers; A Census in the Wilderness
Numbers doesn't sound like an interesting name for a book of the Bible. But don't let that fool you. The name of the book, translated from its title in the Greek Septuagint, comes from the first counting or numbering of Israel, which takes place 13 months after the Exodus from Egypt. "Take a census of all the congregation of all the children of Israel" (verse 2). Yet Numbers is not filled with endless genealogies, as one might expect. Quite the contrary, it contains a great deal of interesting information on the people of Israel as God leads them out into the "wilderness," i.e., a wild, uninhabited land. Indeed, the Hebrew name for the book is Bemidbar, taken from the first words in the book, translated into English as "In the Wilderness." Herein they are taught principles, lessons and even doctrine. Moreover, the book of Numbers reports on many of God's miraculous acts that are mentioned nowhere else. Furthermore, it is filled with many parallels, pictures or symbolic representations of Jesus Christ. The priesthood and tabernacle service anticipates His ministry.
The focus is on the wilderness because previous revelations of the Lord had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Book of Numbers covers the remaining 39 years of the 40-year history of the Israelites in the wilderness. Only 11 of the tribes of Israel were numbered—a total of 603,550 men who were able to go to war. The numbering, or census, was conducted by tribal leaders, each head of the house of his father's tribe. Because of their tabernacle duties, the Levites were not included in this numbering for battle (verse 47). The Levites were instructed to make camp near and around the tabernacle, and all others were to keep their distance on pain of death.
Organization of the Families
In chapter 2 we find the organization of the tribes of Israel. God made it clear to Moses that every Israelite was personally responsible for pitching his camp with his tribe. There was a recognizable standard—akin to the national flags of more modern times—that bore the emblem or ensign of each tribe and marked the area of encampment. A leader was chosen for each tribe, the same man who had been charged with taking the tribe's census.
In the center of all the camps were the Levites, surrounded by the 12 other tribes. The 12 tribes were sorted into four main assemblies. First in the order of procession of this great body of people was Judah on the east with Issachar and Zebulun. On the south side of the camp, Reuben was accompanied by Simeon and Gad. The tribe of Ephraim was in the west with the tribes of Manasseh and Benjamin. Dan took the northernmost camp with Asher and Naphtali. Not only did all Israel camp in this fashion, they traveled in this order, all 603,550 men with their wives and children, in addition to the Levites in the center of the formation with the tabernacle.
The four main standards surrounding the tabernacle, those of Ephraim, Judah, Reuben and Dan, probably carried the emblems of a bull, a lion, a man and an eagle respectively. This is fascinating when we discover that these are the respective faces of the four living creatures surrounding God's throne in heaven (Revelation 4:7)—and that cherubim have all these faces (Ezekiel 1:10).