1 The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, 2 "Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head; 3 from twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go forth to war, you and Aaron shall number them, company by company. (Num 1:1-3)
The book of Numbers is so named because it begins with a census of the Israelites - this book records their numbers. Let’s note a few things. To begin with, this is the first narrative since the events of Sinai and the golden calf. The bulk of Exodus after the golden calf incident was devoted to explaining the details of the ceremonial law, which was the consequence of worshipping the golden calf idol. Next came Leviticus, which was devoted to explaining the detailed priestly laws. (In fairness, there was one narrative story in Leviticus regarding the priestly ordinations of Aaron and his sons.) Now we come to Numbers where God demands Moses take a census.
Why a census? As noted in the text, the census was to count every male age 20 and up, “who are able to go forth to war.” The purpose of a census was for military strategy – to count the number of soldiers. God was telling Moses to take this step, to prepare Israel for coming battles. This is significant. The last enemy who sent troops against Israel was Egypt; and the Egyptian army was utterly destroyed – not by an Israelite army, but by God Himself. The Israelites did nothing to defend themselves, other than to place their trust in God. Trust in the Lord is the hallmark of Faith. Had Israel real trust in God, they would have had no need for an army; God would have defeated all of their enemies for them. But they turned their back on Him and turned to a golden calf instead. Since they refused to trust in God, He stopped protecting them, leaving them to protect themselves. And so God told them to do so – prepare their men for war.
They had forgotten how God saved them from the Egyptian army:
13 And Moses said to the people, "Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still." (Ex 14:13-14)
They only had to be still and God would defend them against their enemies. The story of Israel becomes a story of trust. When they trust God, He takes care of them. When they turn away from Him and worship idols, God stops protecting them. It’s a repetitious story throughout the Old Testament. So, why do they turn to idol worship? They have a great God who takes loving care of them – why turn to a stone or metal idol? It’s not for the idol; it’s because idol worship in that time and place involved orgy. They turned their backs on God to seek pleasure. This is the very history of Judaism and Christianity; it’s the story of us. How often do we run after sin, pleasure, money, power? And when we do, God leaves us to ourselves.
After the census, God led Israel to the borders of their promised land, the land then occupied by the incestuous Canaanites. Although God had promised to give them that land, the Israelites were afraid of being conquered by the Canaanites. (I recommend reading Num 13 & 14.) God then declared that for their lack of trust, they would not enter the Promised Land.
21 “Truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the proof these ten times and have not hearkened to my voice, 23 shall see the land which I swore to give to their fathers; and none of those who despised me shall see it. 24 But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. 25 Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea." 26 And the LORD said to Moses and to Aaron, 27 "How long shall this wicked congregation murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel, which they murmur against me. 28 Say to them, 'As I live,' says the LORD, 'what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: 29 your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness; and of all your number, numbered from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me, 30 not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. 31 But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. 32 But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. 33 And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.'” (Num 14:21-34)
And so, an untrusting Israel was sentenced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years; their children would later enter the Promised Land after the first generation died off. However, after this first generation died, the second generation followed in their parents footsteps. They again turned to idols, seduced by the Moabites:
1 While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. (Num 25:1-3)
We noticed Israel was seduced, “playing the harlot,” as baal-worship involved orgy. We further note that such worship was so enticing that Israel was “yoked” to the idol Baal of Peor. As a result, God again commands a census.
As shown here, after Numbers recounts the census tally, it notes that these people were the second generation. They will still enter the Promised Land, as God had declared earlier, despite their infidelity. But they will do it by their own swords and their own blood. Had they remained faithful to God and trusted Him, instead of turning to idol worship, God would have readied the Promised Land for them. As a consequence of their sin, they will have to prepare it themselves.
So, what have we learned? A lot. The old saying, “the Lord helps those who help themselves,” is completely false. In reality, the Lord helps those who trust in Him. For those who don’t trust Him, He leaves to help themselves. We should remember the lessons of Sinai and Peor. Let’s learn to trust God; it’s very hard to do, but let’s try.