Numbering the People
Posted by foryourfaith on October 20, 2013
On three occasions God gave instructions to Moses on counting the Israelite nation. The basic law for conducting a census is recorded in Exodus 30:11-16. The Lord ordered the taking of the first census while the Israelites were still at Sinai, in the second month of the second year after the Exodus (Numbers 1:1-49). The Israelites were again counted 40 years after the Exodus, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. These two censuses give the Book of Numbers its name.
Like modern governments, ancient societies used the census for two primary purposes: taxation and military recruitment. The Israelites had the same concerns. The census law in Exodus was meant to provide financial support for upkeep of the tabernacle. “Each who is numbered in the census shall give . . . half a shekel as an offering to the Lord” (Exodus 30:13).
However, the same instructions were also the source for a traditional Jewish taboo against the direct counting of people. God says, “when you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them” (Exodus 30:12). Each Israelite gave half a shekel, a piece of silver of a specific weight; evidently, the money was then counted and the population was calculated by multiplying the figure by two.
The Israelites took seriously the Lord’s threat to send a plague if they directly counted heads. The Bible reports that King David ordered a direct census “through all the tribes of Israel” (2 Samuel 24:2). His sin was punished with a pestilence that killed 70,000 people.
The Israelites, traveling through a desert populated by potentially hostile tribes had to be ready for war at a moment’s notice. Thus, the military purpose of the biblical censuses is also clear. Only males above the age of twenty were counted, “all in Israel who are able to go forth to war.”
Moses’ last census, taken immediately before his death and the invasion of the Israelites into Canaan, had yet another purpose. “To these the land shall be divided for inheritance,” God told Moses, “according to the number of names. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance according to its numbers.”
Why is direct-numbering opposed in the Bible? The prohibition may be of superstitious origin, stemming from the idea that somehow an “evil eye” will do harm to a group of people if their number is known. In Jewish tradition, however, there was great stress on a moral lesson implicit in the taboo. The rabbis teach that the Jewish people are not simply a collection of individuals rather they are part of a nation. Census-taking lays stress on the individual, whereas the contribution of a half shekel helps bind the nation. Thus each Israelite, rich or poor, gave half of a shekel. No one member of the community is whole without the participation of his fellows.
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