Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
I. Preparations for the Departure of Israel from Sinai - Numbers 1:1-10:10
Numbering of the People of Israel at Sinai - Numbers 1-4
Four weeks after the erection of the tabernacle (cf. Num 1:1 and Exo 40:17), Moses had the number of the whole congregation taken, by the command of God, according to the families and fathers' houses of the twelve tribes, and a list made of all the males above twenty years of age for service in the army of Jehovah (Num 1:1-3). Nine months before, the numbering of the people had taken place for the purpose of collecting atonement-money from every male of twenty years old upwards (Exo 30:11., compared with Num 38:25-26), and the result was 603,550, the same number as is given here as the sum of all that were mustered in the twelve tribes (Num 1:46). This correspondence in the number of the male population after the lapse of a year is to be explained, as we have already observed at Exo 30:16, simply from the fact that the result of the previous census, which was taken for the purpose of raising head-money from every one who was fit for war, was taken as the basis of the mustering of all who were fit for war, which took place after the erection of the tabernacle; so that, strictly speaking, this mustering merely consisted in the registering of those who had been numbered in the public records, according to their families and fathers' houses. It is most probable, however, that the numbering and registering took place according to the classification adopted at Jethro's suggestion for the administration of justice, viz., in thousands, hundred, fifties, and tens (Exo 18:25), and that the number of men in the different tribes was reckoned in this way simply by thousands, hundreds, and tens-a conclusion which we may draw from the fact, that there are no units given in the case of any of the tribes. On this plan the supernumerary units might be used to balance the changes that had taken place in the actual condition of the families and fathers' houses, between the numbering and the preparation of the muster-rolls, so that the few changes that had occurred in the course of nine months among those who were fit for war were not taken any further into consideration, on account of their being so inconsiderable in relation to the total result. A fresh census was taken 38 years later in the steppes of Moab (Num 26), for the division of the land of Canaan among the tribes according to the number of their families (Num 33:54). The number which this gave was 601,730 men of twenty years old and upwards, not a single one of whom, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, was included among those that were mustered at Sinai, because the whole of that generation had died in the wilderness (Num 26:63.). In the historical account, instead of these exact numbers, the number of adult males is given in a round sum of 600,000 (Num 11:21; Exo 12:37). To this the Levites had to be added, of whom there were 22,000 males at the first numbering and 23,000 at the second, reckoning the whole from a month old and upwards (Num 3:39; Num 26:62). Accordingly, on the precarious supposition that the results obtained from the official registration of births and deaths in our own day furnish any approximative standard for the people of Israel, who had grown up under essentially different territorial and historical circumstances, the whole number of the Israelites in the time of Moses would have been about two millions.
(Note: Statistics show that, out of 10,000 inhabitants in any country, about 5580 are over twenty years of age (cf. Chr. Bernoulli, Hdb. der Populationistik, 1841). This is the case in Belgium, where, out of 1000 inhabitants, 421 are under twenty years of age. According to the Danish census of 1840, out of 1000 inhabitants there were -
Place Under 20 yrs. of age Above 20 yrs. of age Denmark 432 568 Schleswig 436 56 Holstein 460 540 Lauenburg 458 542
According to this standard, if there were 600,000 males in Israel above twenty years of age, there would be in all 1,000,000 or 1,100,000 males, and therefore, including the females, more than two millions.)
Modern critics have taken offence at these numbers, though without sufficient reason.
(Note: Knobel has raised the following objections to the historical truth or validity of the numbers given above: (1.) So large a number could not possibly have lived for any considerable time in the peninsula of Sinai, as modern travellers estimate the present population at not more than from four to seven thousand, and state that the land could never have been capable of sustaining a population of 50,000. But the books of Moses do not affirm that the Israelites lived for forty years upon the natural produce of the desert, but that they were fed miraculously with manna by God (see at Exo 16:31). Moreover, the peninsula of Sinai yielded much more subsistence in ancient times than is to be found there at present, as is generally admitted, and only denied by Knobel in the interests of rationalism. The following are Ritter's remarks in his Erdkunde, 14 pp. 926-7: "We have repeatedly referred above to the earlier state of the country, which must have been vastly different from that of the present time. The abundant vegetation, for example; the larger number of trees, and their superiority in size, the destruction of which would be followed by a decrease in the quantity of smaller shrubs, etc.; also the greater abundance of the various kinds of food of which the children of Israel could avail themselves in their season; the more general cultivation of the land, as seen in the monumental period of the earliest Egyptians, viz., the period of their mines and cities, as well as in Christian times in the wide-spread remains of monasteries, hermitages, walls, gardens, fields, and wells; and, lastly, the possibility of a better employment of the temporary flow of water in the wadys, and of the rain, which falls by no means unfrequently, but which would need to be kept with diligence and by artificial means for the unfruitful periods of the year, as is the case in other districts of the same latitude. These circumstances, which are supported by the numerous inscriptions of Sinai and Serbal, together with those in the Wady Mokatteb and a hundred other valleys, as well as upon rocky and mountainous heights, which are now found scattered in wild solitude and utter neglect throughout the whole of the central group of mountains, prove that at one time a more numerous population both could and did exist there." (2.) "If the Israelites had been a nation of several millions in the Mosaic age, with their bravery at that time, they would have conquered the small land more easily and more rapidly than they seem to have done according to the accounts in the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, which show that they were obliged to tolerate the Canaanites for a long time, that they were frequently oppressed by them, and that it was not till the time of David and Solomon that their supremacy was completely established," This objection of Knobe's is founded upon the supposition that the tribes of Canaan were very small and weak. But where has he learned that? As they had no less than 31 kings, according to Josh 12, and dwelt in many hundreds of towns, they can hardly have been numerically weaker than the Israelites with their 600,000 men, but in all probability were considerably stronger in numbers, and by no means inferior in bravery; to say nothing of the fact that the Israelites neither conquered Canaan under Joshua by the strength of their hands, nor failed to exterminate them afterwards from want of physical strength. (3.) Of the remaining objections, viz., that so large a number could not have gone through the Arabian Gulf in a single night, or crossed the Jordan in a day, that Joshua could not have circumcised the whole of the males, etc., the first has been answered on pp. 350, 351, by a proof that it was possible for the Red Sea to be crossed in a given time, and the others will be answered when we come to the particular events referred to.)
When David had the census taken by Joab, in the closing years of his reign, there were 800,000 men capable of bearing arms in Israel, and 500,000 in Judah (Sa2 24:9). Now, if we suppose the entire population of a country to be about four times the number of its fighting men, there would be about five millions of inhabitants in Palestine at that time. The area of this land, according to the boundaries given in Num 34:2-12, the whole of which was occupied by Israel and Judah in the time of David, with the exception of a small strip of the Phoenician coast, was more than 500 square miles.
(Note: The German mile being equal to about five English miles, this would give 12,500 square miles English.)
Accordingly there would be 10,000 inhabitants to each square mile (German); a dense though by no means unparalleled population;
(Note: In the kingdom of Saxony (according to the census of the year 1855) there are 7501 persons to the square mile; in Belgium (according to the census of 1856) 8462; and in the district of Dsseldorf there are 9832 square miles and (according to the census of 1855) 1,007,570 inhabitants, so that there must be 10,248 persons to the square mile. Consequently, not only could more than five millions have lived in Palestine, but, if we take into account on the one hand what is confirmed by both biblical and other testimonies, viz., the extraordinary fertility of the land in ancient times (cf. v. Raumer, Pal. pp. 92ff.), and on the other hand the well-known fact that the inhabitants of warm countries require less food than Europeans living in colder climates, they could also have found a sufficient supply of food.)
so that it is certainly possible that in the time of Christ it may have been more numerous still, according to the account of Josephus, which are confirmed by Dio Cassius (cf. C. v. Raumer, Palstina, p. 93). And if Canaan could contain and support five millions of inhabitants in the flourishing period of the Israelitish kingdom, two millions or more could easily have settled and been sustained in the time of Joshua and the Judges, notwithstanding the fact that there still remained large tracts of land in the possession of the Canaanites and Philistines, and that the Israelites dwelt in the midst of the Canaanitish population which had not yet been entirely eradicated (Jdg 3:1-5).
If we compare together the results of the two numbering in the second and fortieth years of their march, we shall find a considerable increase in some of the tribes, and a large decrease in others. The number of men of twenty years old and upwards in the different tribes was as follows: -
Tribe 1st Numbering 2nd Numbering Reuben 46,500 43,730 Simeon 59,300 22,200 Gad 45,650 40,500 Judah 74,600 76,500 Issachar 54,400 64,300 Zebulon 57,400 60,500 Ephraim 40,500 32,500 Manasseh 32,200 52,700 Benjamin 35,400 45,600 Dan 62,700 64,400 Asher 41,500 53,400 Naphtali 53,400 45,400 Total 603,550 601,730
Consequently by the second numbering Dan had increased 1700, Judah 1900, Zebulon 3100, Issachar 9900, Benjamin 10,200, Asher 11,900, Manasseh 20,900. This increase, which was about 19 per cent. in the case of Issachar, 29 per cent. in that of Benjamin and Asher, and 63 per cent. in that of Manasseh, is very large, no doubt; but even that of Manasseh is not unparalleled. The total population of Prussia increased from 10,349,031 to 17,139,288 between the end of 1816 and the end of 1855, that is to say, more than 65 per cent. in 39 years; whilst in England the population increased 47 per cent. between 1815 and 1849, i.e., in 34 years. On the other hand, there was a decrease in Reuben of 2770, in Gad of 5150, and Ephraim of 8000, in Naphtali of 8000, and in Simeon of 37,100. The cause of this diminution of 6 per cent. in the case of Reuben, 12 per cent. in Gad, 15 per cent. in Naphtali, 20 per cent. in Ephraim, and nearly 63 per cent. in Simeon, it is most natural to seek for in the different judgments which fell upon the nation. If it be true, as the earlier commentators conjectured, with great plausibility, on account of the part taken by Zimri, a prince of the tribe (Num 25:6, Num 25:14), that the Simeonites were the worst of those who joined in the idolatrous worship of Baal Peor, the plague, in which 24,000 men were destroyed (Num 25:9), would fall upon them with greater severity than upon the other tribes; and this would serve as the principal explanation of the circumstance, that in the census which was taken immediately afterwards, the number of men in that tribe who were capable of bearing arms had melted away to 22,200. But for all that, the total number included in the census had only been reduced by 1820 men during the forty years of their journeying through the wilderness.
The tribe of Levi appears very small in comparison with the rest of the tribes. In the second year of their journey, when the first census was taken, it only numbered 22,000 males of a month old and upwards; and in the fortieth year, when the second was taken, only 23,000 (Num 3:39; Num 26:62). "Reckoning," says Knobel, "that in Belgium, for example, in the rural districts, out of 10,000 males, 1074 die in the first month after their birth, and 3684 between the first month and the twentieth year, so that only 5242 are then alive, the tribe of Levi would only number about 13,000 men of 20 years old and upwards, and consequently would not be half as numerous as the smallest of the other tribes, whilst it would be hardly a sixth part the size of Judah, which was the strongest of the tribes." But notwithstanding this, the correctness of the numbers given is not to be called in question. It is not only supported by the fact, that the number of the Levites capable of service between the ages of 30 and 50 amounted to 8580 (Num 4:48), - a number which bears the most perfect proportion to that of 22,000 of a month old and upwards, - but is also confirmed by the fact, that in the time of David the tribe of Levi only numbered 38,000 of thirty years old and upwards (Ch1 23:3); so that in the interval between Moses and David their rate of increase was still below that of the other tribes, which had grown from 600,000 to 1,300,000 in the same time. Now, if we cannot discover any reason for this smaller rate of increase in the tribe of Levi, we see, at any rate, that it was not uniform in the other tribes. If Levi was not half as strong as Manasseh in the first numbering, neither Manasseh nor Benjamin was half as strong as Judah; and in the second numbering, even Ephraim had not half the number of men that Judah had.
A much greater difficulty appears to lie in the fact, that the number of all the male first-born of the twelve tribes, which was only 22,273 according to the census taken for the purpose of their redemption by the Levites (Num 3:43), bore no kind of proportion to the total number of men capable of bearing arms in the whole of the male population, as calculated from these. If the 603,550 men of twenty years old and upwards presuppose, according to what has been stated above, a population of more than a million males; then, on the assumption that 22,273 was the sum total of the first-born sons throughout the entire nation, there would be only one first-born to 40 or 45 males, and consequently every father of a family must have begotten, or still have had, from 39 to 44 sons; whereas the ordinary proportion of first-born sons to the whole male population is one to four. But the calculation which yields this enormous disproportion, or rather this inconceivable proportion, is founded upon the supposition that the law, which commanded the sanctification of the male first-born, had a retrospective force, and was to be understood as requiring that not only the first-born sons, who were born from the time when the law was given, but all the first-born sons throughout the entire nation, should be offered to the Lord and redeemed with five shekels each, even though they were fathers or grandfathers, or even great-grandfathers, at that time. Now if the law is to be interpreted in this sense, as having a retrospective force, and applying to those who were born before it was issued, as it has been from the time of J. D. Michaelis down to that of Knobel, it is an unwarrantable liberty to restrict its application to the first-born sons, who had not yet become fathers themselves-a mere subterfuge, in fact, invented for the purpose of getting rid of the disproportion, but without answering the desired end.
(Note: This is evident from the different attempts which have been made to get rid of the difficulty, in accordance with this hypothesis. J. D. Michaelis thought that he could explain the disproportion from the prevalence of polygamy among the Israelites; but he has overlooked the fact, that polygamy never prevailed among the Israelites, or any other people, with anything like the universality which this would suppose. Hvernick adopted this view, but differed so far from Michaelis, that he understood by first-born only those who were so on both the father's and mother's side, - a supposition which does not remove the difficulty, but only renders it perfectly incredible. Others imagined, that only those first-born were counted who had been born as the result of marriages contracted within the last six years. Baumgarten supports this on the ground that, according to Lev 27:6, the redemption-fee for boys of this age was five shekels (Num 3:47); but this applies to vows, and proves nothing in relation to first-born, who could not have been the object of a vow (Lev 27:26). Bunsen comes to the same conclusion, on the ground that it was at this age that children were generally dedicated to Moloch (sic!). Lastly, Kurtz endeavours to solve the difficulty, first, by referring to the great fruitfulness of the Israelitish women; secondly, by excluding, (a) the first-born of the father, unless at the same time the first-born of the mother; (b) all the first-born who were fathers of families themselves; and thirdly, by observing, that in a population of 600,000 males above 20 years of age, we may assume that there would be about 200,000 under the age of fifteen. Now, if we deduct these 200,000 who were not yet fifteen, from the 600,000 who were above twenty, there would remain 400,000 married men. "In that case the total number of 22,273 first-born would yield this proportion, that there would be one first-born to nine male births. And on the ground assigned under No. 2(a), this proportion would have to be reduced one-half. So that for every family we should have, on an average, four or five sons, or nine children, - a result by no means surprising, considering the fruitfulness of Hebrew marriages." This would be undoubtedly true, and the facit of the calculation quite correct, as 9 x 22,273 = 200,457, if only the subtraction upon which it is based were reconcilable with the rules of arithmetic, or if the reduction of 600,000 men to 400,000 could in any way be justified.)
If we look more closely at the law, we cannot find in the words themselves "all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb" (Exo 13:2, cf. Num 3:12), or in the ratio legis, or in the circumstances under which the law was given, either a necessity or warrant for any such explanation or extension. According to Exo 13:2, after the institution of the Passover and its first commemoration, God gave the command, "Sanctify unto Me all the first-born both of man and of beast;" and added, according to Num 3:11., the further explanation, that when the Israelites came into the land of Canaan, they were to set apart every first-born unto the Lord, but to redeem their first-born sons. This further definition places it beyond all doubt, that what God prescribed to His people was not a supplementary sanctification of all the male first-born who were then to be found in Israel, but simply the sanctification of all that should be born from that time forward. A confirmation of this is to be found in the explanation given in Num 3:13 and Num 8:17 : "All the first-born are Mine; for on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, I hallowed unto Me all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast." According to this distinct explanation, God had actually sanctified to Himself all the first-born of Israel by the fact, that through the blood of the paschal lamb He granted protection to His people form the stroke of the destroyer (Exo 12:22-23), and had instituted the Passover, in order that He might therein adopt the whole nation of Israel, with all its sons, as the people of His possession, or induct the nation which He had chosen as His first-born son (Exo 4:22) into the condition of a child of God. This condition of sonship was henceforth to be practically manifested by the Israelites, not only by the yearly repetition of the feast of Passover, but also by the presentation of all the male first-born of their sons and their cattle to the Lord, the first-born of the cattle being sacrificed to Him upon the altar, and the first-born sons being redeemed from the obligation resting upon them to serve at the sanctuary of their God. Of course the reference was only to the first-born of men and cattle that should come into the world from that time forward, and not to those whom God had already sanctified to Himself, by sparing the Israelites and their cattle.
(Note: Vitringa drew the correct conclusion from Exo 13:11-12, in combination with the fact that this law was not carried out previous to the adoption of the Levites in the place of the first-born for service at the sanctuary - that the law was intended chiefly for the future: "This law," he observes (in his Obs. ss. L. ii. c. 2, 13), "relates to the tabernacle to be afterwards erected, and to the regular priests to be solemnly appointed; when this law, with many others of a similar kind, would have to be observed. The first-born were set apart by God to be consecrated to Him, as servants of the priests and of the sacred things, either in their own persons, or in that of others who were afterwards substituted in the goodness of God. This command therefore presupposed the erection of the tabernacle, the ordination of priests, the building of an altar, and the ceremonial of the sacred service, and showed from the very nature of the case, that there could not be any application of this law of the first-born before that time.")
This being established, it follows that the 22,273 first-born, who were exchanged for the Levites (Num 3:45.), consisted only of the first-born sons who had been born between the time of the exodus from Egypt and the numbering of the twelve tribes, which took place thirteen months afterwards. Now, if, in order to form an idea of the proportion which this number would bear to the whole of the male population of the twelve tribes of Israel, we avail ourselves of the results furnished by modern statistics, we may fairly assume, according to these, that in a nation comprising 603,550 males above 20 years of age, there would be 190,000 to 195,100 between the ages of 20 and 30.
(Note: According to the census of the town of Basle, given by Bernoulli in his Populationistik, p. 42, and classified by age, out of 1000 inhabitants in the year 1837, there were 326 under 20 years of age, 224 between 20 and 30, and 450 of 30 years old and upwards. Now, if we apply this ration to the people of Israel, out of 603,550 males of 20 years old and upwards, there would be 197,653 between the ages of 20 and 30. The statistics of the city of Vienna and its suburbs, as given by Brachelli (Geographie und Statistik, 1861), yield very nearly the same results. At the end of the year 1856 there were 88,973 male inhabitants under 20 years of age, 44,000 between 20 and 30, and 97,853 of 30 years old and upwards, not including the military and those who were in hospitals. According to this ratio, out of the 603,550 Israelites above 20 years of age, 187,209 would between 20 and 30.)
And, supposing that this was the age at which the Israelites married, there would be from 19,000 to 19,500 marriages contracted upon an average every year; and in a nation which had grown up in a land so celebrated as Egypt was in antiquity for the extraordinary fruitfulness of its inhabitants, almost as many first-born, say at least 19,000, might be expected to come into the world. This average number would be greater if we fixed the age for marrying between 18 and 28, or reduced it to the seven years between 18 and 25.
(Note: From a comparison with the betrothals which take place every years in the Prussian state, it is evident that the number given in the text as the average number of marriages contracted every years is not too high, but most assuredly too low. In the years 1858 there were 167,387 betrothals in a population of 17,793,900; in 1816, on the other hand, there were 117,448 in a population of 10,402,600 (vid., Brachelli, Geog. und Statistik von Preussen, 1861). The first ration, if applied to Israel with its two millions, would yield 19,000 marriages annually; the second, 22,580; whilst we have, in addition, to bear in mind how many men there are in the European states who would gladly marry, if they were not prevented from doing to by inability to find the means of supporting a house of their own.)
But even without doing this, we must take into consideration the important fact that such averages, based upon a considerable length of time, only give an approximative idea of the actual state of things in any single year; and that, as a matter of fact, in years of oppression and distress the numbers may sink to half the average, whilst in other years, under peculiarly favourable circumstances, they may rise again to double the amount.
(Note: How great the variations are in the number of marriages contracted year by year, even in large states embracing different tribes, and when no unusual circumstances have disturbed the ordinary course of things, is evident from the statistics of the Austrian empire as given by Brachelli, from which we may see that in the year 1851, with a total population of 36 1/2 millions, there were 361,249 betrothals, and in the year 1854, when the population had increased by half a million, only 279,802. The variations in particular districts are, as might be supposed, considerably larger.)
When the Israelites were groaning under the hard lash of the Egyptian taskmasters, and then under the inhuman and cruel edict of Pharaoh, which commanded all the Hebrew boys that were born to be immediately put to death, the number of marriages no doubt diminished from year to year. But the longer this oppression continued, the greater would be the number of marriages concluded at once (especially in a nation rejoicing in the promise of numerous increase which it had received from its God), when Moses had risen up and proved himself, by the mighty signs and wonders with which he smote Egypt and its haughty king, to be the man whom the God of the fathers had sent and endowed with power to redeem His nation out of the bondage of Egypt, and lead it into Canaan, the good land that He had promised to the fathers. At that time, when the spirits of the nation revived, and the hope of a glorious future filled every years, there might very well have been about 38,000 marriages contracted in a year, say from the time of the seventh plague, three months before the exodus, and about 37,600 children born by the second month of the second year after the exodus, 22,273 of them being boys, as the proportion of male births to female varies very remarkably, and may be shown to have risen even as high as 157 to 100, whilst among the Jews of modern times it has frequently been as high as 6 to 5, and has even risen to 3 to 2 (or more exactly 29 to 20).
(Note: According to Bernoulli (p. 143), in the city of Geneva, there were 157 boys born to every 200 girls in the year 1832. He also observes, at p. 153: "It is remarkable that, according to a very frequently observation, there are an unusual number of boys born among the Jews;" and as a proof, he cites the fact that, according to Burdach, the lists of births in Leghorn show 120 male children born among the Jews to 100 female, whilst, according to Hufeland, there were 528 male Jews and 365 female born in Berlin in the course of 16 years, the proportion therefore being 145 to 100. And, according to this same proportion, we have calculated above, that there would be 15,327 girls to 22,273 boys.)
In this way the problem before us may be solved altogether independently of the question, whether the law relates to all the first-born sons on the father's side, or only to those who were first-born on both father's and mother's side, and without there having been a daughter born before. This latter view we regard as quite unfounded, as a mere subterfuge resorted to for the purpose of removing the supposed disproportion, and in support of which the expression "opening the womb" (fissura uteri, i.e., qui findit uterum) is pressed in a most unwarrantable manner. On this point, J. D. Michaelis has correctly observed, that "the etymology ought not to be too strongly pressed, inasmuch as it is not upon this, but upon usage chiefly, that the force of words depends." It is a fact common to all languages, that in many words the original literal signification falls more and more into the background in the course, of years, and at length is gradually lost sight of altogether. Moreover, the expression "openeth the womb" is generally employed in cases in which a common term is required to designate the first-born of both man and beast (Exo 13:2, Exo 13:12-15; Exo 34:19-20; Num 3:12-13; Num 8:16-17; Num 18:15; Eze 20:16); but even then, wherever the two are distinguished, the term בּכור is applied as a rule to the first-born sons, and פּטר to the first-born of animals (comp. Exo 13:13 with Exo 13:12 and Exo 13:13; and Num 34:20 with Num 34:19 and Num 34:20). On the other hand, where only first-born sons are referred to, as in Deu 21:15-17, we look in vain for the expression peter rechem, "openeth the womb." Again, the Old Testament, like modern law, recognises only first-born sons, and does not apply the term first-born to daughters at all; and in relation to the inheritance, even in the case of two wives, both of whom had born sons to their husband, it recognises only one first-born son, so that the fact of its being the first birth on the mother's side is not taken into consideration at all (cf. Gen 46:8; Gen 49:3; Deu 21:15-17). And the established rule in relation to the birthright, - namely, that the first son of the father was called the first-born, and possessed all the rights of the first-born, independently altogether of the question whether there had been daughters born before, - would no doubt be equally applicable to the sanctification of the first-born sons. Or are we really to believe, that inasmuch as the child first born is quite as often a girl as a boy, God exempted every father in Israel whose eldest child was a daughter from the obligation to manifest his own sonship by consecrating his first-born son to God, and so demanded the performance of this duty from half the nation only? We cannot for a moment believe that such an interpretation of the law as this would really be in accordance with the spirit of the Old Testament economy.
Muster of the Twelve Tribes, with the Exception of that of Levi. - Num 1:1-3. Before the departure of Israel from Sinai, God commanded Moses, on the first of the second month in the second year after the exodus from Egypt, to take the number of the whole congregation of the children of Israel, "according to their families, according to their fathers' houses (see Exo 6:14), in (according to) the number of their names," i.e., each one counted singly and entered, but only "every male according to their heads of twenty years old and upwards" (see Exo 30:14), viz., only צבא כּל־יצא "all who go forth of the army," i.e., all the men capable of bearing arms, because by means of this numbering the tribes and their subdivisions were to be organized as hosts of Jehovah, that the whole congregation might fight as an army for the cause of their Lord (see at Exo 7:4).
Moses and Aaron, who were commanded to number, or rather to muster, the people, were to have with them "a man of every tribe, who was head-man of his fathers' houses," i.e., a tribe-prince, viz., to help them to carry out the mustering. Beth aboth ("fathers' houses"), in Num 1:2, is a technical expression for the subdivisions in which the mishpachoth, or families of the tribes, were arranged, and is applied in Num 1:4 according to its original usage, based upon the natural division of the tribes into mishpachoth and families, to the fathers' houses which every tribe possessed in the family of its first-born. In Num 1:5-15, these heads of tribes were mentioned by name, as in Num 2:3., Num 7:12., Num 10:14. In Num 1:16 they are designated as "called men of the congregation," because they were called to diets of the congregation, as representatives of the tribes, to regulate the affairs of the nation; also "princes of the tribes of their fathers," and "heads of the thousands of Israel:" "prince," from the nobility of their birth; and "heads," as chiefs of the alaphim composing the tribes. Alaphim is equivalent to mishpachoth (cf. Num 10:4; Jos 22:14); because the number of heads of families in the mishpachoth of a tribe might easily amount to a thousand (see at Exo 18:25). In a similar manner, the term "hundred" in the old German came to be used in several different senses (see Grimm, deutsche Rechts-alterthmer, p. 532).
This command was carried out by Moses and Aaron. They took for this purpose the twelve heads of tribes who are pointed out (see at Lev 24:11) by name, and had the whole congregation gathered together by them and enrolled in genealogical tables. התילּד, to announce themselves as born, i.e., to have themselves entered in genealogical registers (books of generations). This entry is called a פּקד, mustering, in Num 1:19, etc. In vv. 20-43 the number is given of those who were mustered of all the different tribes, and in Num 1:44-47 the total of the whole nation, with the exception of the tribe of Levi. "Their generations" (Num 1:20, Num 1:22, Num 1:24, etc.), i.e., those who were begotten by them, so that "the sons of Reuben, Simeon," etc., are mentioned as the fathers from whom the mishpachoth and fathers' houses had sprung. The ל before שׁמעון בּני in Num 1:22, and the following names (in Num 1:24, Num 1:26, etc.), signifies "with regard to" (as in Isa 32:1; Psa 17:4, etc.).
Moses was not to muster the tribe of Levi along with the children of Israel, i.e., with the other tribes, or take their number, but to appoint the Levites for the service of the dwelling of the testimony (Exo 38:21), i.e., of the tabernacle, that they might encamp around it, might take it down when the camp was broken up, and set it up when Israel encamped again, and that no stranger (zar, non-Levite, as in Lev 22:10) might come near it and be put to death (see Num 3:10). The rest of the tribes were to encamp every man in his place of encampment, and by his banner (see at Num 2:2), in their hosts (see Num 2), that wrath might not come upon the congregation, viz., through the approach of a stranger. קצף, the wrath of Jehovah, breaking in judgment upon the unholy who approached His sanctuary in opposition to His command (Num 8:19; Num 18:5, Num 18:22). On the expression "keep the charge" (shamar mishmereth), see at Gen 26:5 and Lev 8:35.