When we began to study the book of Numbers, I said that it could be divided up in several ways. For instance, it alternates between history and law. So, chapters 1 to 4, for instance, contain historical narrative, while chapters 5 and 6 contain legal instructions; then chapters 7 to 9 contain historical narrative again, but the first half of chapter 10 contains instruction. And that alternating pattern continues throughout the book.
Another way of dividing the book is according to geography. So, from the beginning to verse 10 of chapter 10, the people are still at Sinai. Then from chapter 10 to chapter 20 verse 21, they’re travelling from Sinai to Kadesh. Then for the rest of the book they’re travelling to the plains of Moab.
But then the book can also be divided into two main parts which are chapters 1 to 25 and then chapters 26 to 36. And the reason for dividing the book into those two main parts is that chapter 1 contains a census and chapter 26 contains a second census. The first census took place shortly after they left Egypt; and the second census took place at the end of their forty years in the wilderness. The first census was of the people who came out of Egypt, but who died in the wilderness; the second census was of their children, the new generation who would enter the Promised Land. So, a major division in the book takes places here in chapter 26 which records how the second census was taken.
And so, let’s turn to chapter 26 now and to this second census. And the chapter can be divided into five parts. First, there’s the introduction in verses 1 to 4. Second, we have the list of tribes and clans in verses 5 to 51. Third, the Lord explains how the land was to be divided among the tribes in verses 52 to 56. Fourth, the Levites are listed in verses 57 to 62. And fifth, the conclusion is in verses 63 to 65.
Verses 1 to 4
Verses 1 to 4 are the introduction to this second census. After the plague — which we read about in chapter 25, which the Lord sent on his people because their men indulged in sexual immorality with Moabite women; and ate with them; and joined with them in worshipping their false gods — after that plague, the Lord commanded Moses and Eleazer to take a census of the people and to count all the men aged 20 years or older who can serve on the army. In chapter 1, God gave the same command to Moses and Aaron. Aaron is now dead; and his son, Eleazer, has succeeded him as High Priest. And, as before, there was a military purpose to the census: when they entered the Promised Land they would face many enemies who would oppose them and try to prevent them from taking the land which the Lord had given them. Therefore they had to have an army ready and know who would serve in it.
And so, while they camped on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from the city of Jericho, they began to count the men. Although it says in verse 4 that these were the Israelites who came out of Egypt, verse 64 makes clear that virtually all of the people who came out of Egypt died in the wilderness; and the people who were counted in this second census were the new generation of Israelites. It’s likely, however, that verse 4 is put in this way in order to match what we read in Genesis 46:8. Genesis 46 lists the names of the Israelites who went up to Egypt in the days of Joseph. And so, Genesis 46:8 says:
These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt.
And then, years later, we read in verse 4 of Numbers 26:
These were the people of Israel who came out of Egypt.
In the days of Joseph, the Lord led them out of the Promised Land and into Egypt. Now, in the days of Moses, the Lord led them out of Egypt and back into the Promised Land.
And the point is that the Lord is able to keep his promises. You see, he promised Jacob in Genesis 46 that he, the Lord, would make Jacob and his descendants into a mighty nation in Egypt. And, as we’ll see from this census, they did become a mighty nation. And the Lord promised that he would bring them out of Egypt and back to the Promised Land. And as we’ll see, at the end of this chapter, the Lord gave instructions to them about how to divide up the Promised Land.
The Lord is able to keep his promises; and despite the bitter hatred of the Pharaoh, and despite all the troubles and trials in the wilderness, despite the faithlessness of his people even, the Lord was able to work out his plans for Israel in accordance with all his promises. And that’s an encouragement to the Lord’s people in every generation, when we think about the troubles and trials and the opposition we face as we make our way to our Promised Land.
When we think about our own shortcomings and weaknesses, it’s good to know that the Lord our God is able to keep his promises and nothing can stop him from keeping those who trust in him from evil and from bringing them at last into his presence in the glory to come. And so, we ought to trust in him to keep us. Instead of being like those Israelites who doubted him, we should be like Joshua and Caleb who trusted the Lord and who were able to enter the Promised Land along with this new generation of Israelites.
Verses 5 to 51
Let’s move on to verses 5 to 51 which contains the list of tribes and clans. The list goes through each of the twelve tribes, beginning with Reuben and ending with Naphtali. Of course, the Levites are not listed here, because they did not serve in the army, but in the tabernacle. And the descendants of Joseph formed two tribes, because from Joseph there came the tribe of Manasseh and the tribe of Ephraim. And so, even though the Levites are not listed, there are still twelve tribes.
One thing to notice is that the first census gave only the total number of men in each tribe. The second census is more detailed, listing the names of clans that made up the tribes. This is another connection with Genesis 46 where the clans are listed. Another thing to notice is that, while some of the tribes have increased in number, others have decreased in number. Nevertheless, the remarkable thing is that the total number of men in the second census is not very different to the total number of men in the first census: 601,730 compared to 603,550. The difference is only 1,820 men. Though the first generation had been unfaithful and had fallen in the wilderness, the Lord multiplied their descendants so that the total number who entered the Promised Land was virtually the same as the total number who left Egypt.
Remember, of course, that the only ones who were counted were the men who could serve in the army. And so, the total number of Israelites was far, far higher than 601,730. The Lord had done what he said he would do; and he had made Abraham’s and Israel’s descendants like the stars in the sky and like the sand on the seashore. They had become a mighty nation.
Verses 52 to 56
And in verses 52 to 56 the Lord explained how the land was to be allotted. It was to be done according to the size of the tribes. So, a larger portion of the land was to be given to a larger tribe; and a smaller portion of the land was to be given to a smaller tribe. No tribe was to have too much; no tribe was to have too little. As to the location of their allotted land, that was to be decided by lot, which was used in those days in order to determine God’s will, because, of course, he’s the one who controls the outcome when lots were cast.
Verses 57 to 62
Just as the Levites were counted in chapter 3, so they’re counted here in verses 57 to 62 of chapter 26. You might recall that the Levites were divided into three main clans: the Gershonites; the Kohathites; and the Merarites. These are listed here again along with sub-clans. The Levites were not to serve in the army, but in the tabernacle and temple. And they did not receive any of the land as an inheritance, but received a living from the people for the work they did to help the priests. The total number of Levites had gone up since the first census: 23,000 here compared to 22,000 before.
Verses 63 to 65
We come to the conclusion in verses 63 to 65. We’re told in verse 64 that not one of the ones counted in this second census were among those counted in the first census apart from Joshua and Caleb. The previous generation had died in the wilderness, because they did not believe the Lord who had promised to help them to overcome their enemies and to take over the land. Instead of trusting in him and in his promises, they grumbled and complained and talked about returning to Egypt. And so, because of their sinful, unbelieving heart, which caused them to turn away from the Lord, they fell in the wilderness and did enter the Promised Land.
What happened to them is a warning to us to believe God’s promises and to trust in him to do all that he has said he will do.
He has promised to deliver us from our sin and misery in this present evil age by his Son, Jesus Christ. He has promised us everlasting rest in the new heaven and earth which is our Promised Land. And he has promised that the number of believers who will come into the new heaven and earth to worship him forever will be like the stars in the sky and like the sand on the seashore. There will be a great multitude from every nation which cannot be counted.
The Lord has promised all of this. And he’s able to do it, because didn’t he deliver the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt? And didn’t he bring the people of this new generation into the Promised Land? And didn’t he multiply them so that they became a mighty nation?
He was able to do all these things. And now he calls on us to believe in him and to believe his promises. And so, we’re to believe that he’s able to deliver us from our sin and misery. We’re to believe that he’s able to bring us to our Promised Land in the new heaven and earth. And we’re to believe that he is able to multiple his people throughout the world, so that despite all the schemes of the Devil and the opposition from an unbelieving world, and despite all the persecution and trials his people may face, and despite our own weaknesses and shortcomings, he will build his church here on earth and bring them all to glory.
And so, when you confess your sins and ask God to pardon you for the sake of Christ, you must believe, and not doubt, that he will pardon you. When you’re faced with troubles and trials and wonder how you will cope, you must believe, and not doubt, that he is able to keep you from evil and bring you to glory. When you’re anxious about the darkness in the world, and wonder how the church will survive, let alone grow, you must believe, and not doubt, that the Lord our God will build his church and make it like the stars in the sky. And all of God’s people, all who have been redeemed by Christ the Saviour, will gather before the Lord and worship him for what he has done to save us and to bring us to glory.