The First Chapters Project – Numbers 1


Often neglected in Bible studies and commentaries, the book of Numbers can hardly be considered a popular book. The book of Numbers seems to be even more singular than the book of Leviticus. Whereas Leviticus is a legal book, Numbers is essentially a compilation of statistical records, a population census similar to the population and vital statistics reports that are annually being produced by any modern country.

At first glance, the first chapter of Numbers indeed seems a mere enumeration of demographic records. But just as Leviticus 1 is not just an enumeration of rules like a typical legal code, Numbers is not just a statistical report. In Leviticus 1, all rules are illustrated with examples, explanations, side-notes and even examples of what happens when a rule is not observed. Similarly, the demographic information in Numbers 1 is commented and put in perspective. It is far less boring than a standard statistical report. All provided information is relevant and tells a story.

Numbers is also one of the oldest written statistical records, and this fact is noteworthy in itself. Numbers could actually be seen as one of the first documents belonging to the modern science we now call demography. Facts are given with a high degree of precision and detail.

The use of demography (and research in general) for strategic and political purposes is highlighted in this chapter. The census in Numbers 1 points to the fact that demographics are essential to political decision making. A ruler of a country needs to know about his population, its resources and its needs. He needs to know how the population is structured; which “clans and families” it is composed of (v.2). In times of war, he needs to know how many of his people “are able to serve in the army” (v.4).

This is what makes Numbers 1 relevant for our understanding of Christian politics. In politics (and in any other field), decision making should always be based on sound and objective information! Christian politics is not only about having the right world-view, promoting the right values or behaving ethically. Doing proper research and diagnosing the issues at stake are essential, before taking any decision.

The style of Numbers 1 is similar to Leviticus 1. Again, the book starts with “The Lord spoke to Moses” (v.1), reminding us once more that our Lord is a personal God, who speaks directly to and through His servants. In Numbers 1, God again choses to speak in a very special place: the tent of meeting. Both aspects underline once more that our Lord is a relational God, and a God of covenants.

The fact that God requests Moses to “take a census of the whole Israelite community” confirms this conclusion. Beyond the strategic and political use of the census, God once again expresses His love for His people and His desire to know every one of them personally. Indeed, Moses is requested to “[list] every man by name, one by one” (v.2). All people are important to God!

This is why in Jewish tradition, ancestry and genealogy are so important. It’s because genealogy reveals their connection with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the founding fathers of their people, and the receivers of the covenants that bond their descendants with the Creator. For us as Christians, it’s our spiritual ancestry that bonds us to Jesus, connects us with His Father, who through Jesus becomes our Father as well.

In the Bible, no detail is superfluous. Why did God request this census to be carried out exactly on “the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt” (v.2)? Perhaps this is because the first year after the exodus was needed for the Hebrew people to get used to the changes in their lives. After one year, it was time to move forward and bring structure and order to society.

Regarding the biblical design for society, Numbers 1 underlines the core function of the family as the basic pillar of society. The family as the main subdivision of society had already been instituted in Genesis 1, but is clearly recalled in Numbers 1 in the instructions for the census. Contrary to modern censuses, the census is not individual, but family-based.

This again is an essential finding in our discovery of the essentials of Christian politics. The family should be the basic unit of decision-making, and policy needs to be designed to respond to the needs of families, not the needs of individuals. Focusing on families is therefore absolutely key for social transformation.

As far as religious freedom is concerned, Numbers 1 describes the specificity of the tribe of Levi, who was not be counted in the census nor be required to serve in the army. The Levites were specifically set apart for the service in the tabernacle. This points to the direction that religious service is a distinct sphere of society that should not be treated as any other sphere of society. The autonomy of the church sphere is to be respected always.

Finally, the census in Numbers 1 reminds of two other censuses in the Bible. The first is the census commanded by King David in 2 Samuel. Motivated by pride, David wanted to know how many subjects he had and how powerful he was, which angered God. The second is the census commanded by emperor August: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1).

When Caesar Augustus commanded the census, he put himself in the place of God (Roman emperors were considered gods). This should have been humiliating to the Hebrew people of the time because of the contrast with the census in Numbers 1 which God commanded personally. But, the census in Luke 2 was actually the beginning of something beautiful. It was this census that drove Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ earthly parents, to Bethlehem, the place where He was born in fulfillment of the prophecy that the Saviour of the World would be born in that town. Implicitly, the census in Numbers 1 points to that wonderful event in the history of humanity.

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Dennis P. Petri
Dennis P. Petri is Director of Plataforma C, Platform for Christian Politics. A political scientist by training, he specializes in comparative politics with a specific interest in Latin America. He is currently working on a dissertation about religious freedom at VU University Amsterdam.

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