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, “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company. And there shall be with you a man from each tribe, each man being the head of the house of his fathers. And these are the names of the men who shall assist you… These were the ones chosen from the congregation, the chiefs of their ancestral tribes, the heads of the clans of Israel.
Moses and Aaron took these men who had been named, and on the first day of the second month, they assembled the whole congregation together, who registered themselves by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names from twenty years old and upward, head by head, as the LORD commanded Moses. So he listed them in the wilderness of Sinai.
The people of Reuben, Israel’s firstborn, their generations, by their clans, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go to war: those listed of the tribe of Reuben were 46,500…those listed of the tribe of Simeon were 59,300… etc.
These are those who were listed, whom Moses and Aaron listed with the help of the chiefs of Israel, twelve men, each representing his fathers’ house. So all those listed of the people of Israel, by their fathers’ houses, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war in Israel—all those listed were 603,550. (Numbers 1:1-46 ESV)
God has brought Israel from Egypt, where they were in bondage, to the wilderness and to Mt. Sinai, where He gave them the Law, and now is ready for them to move from Sinai to the promised land of Canaan. But first God commands a census to be taken to assess Israel’s fighting capacity. Men are chosen from each tribe to help Moses count the men capable of fighting and then after adding up the number from each tribe, the total is 603,550 for the army of Israel. This is where the book of Numbers gets its name in our English Bibles. Another census will be recounted at the end of this book.
Jesus teaches us to count the cost before we engage in any endeavor, but elsewhere in Scripture it is made clear that Israel is not to assess its fighting strength unless God commands such an assessment. David does so without God’s permission (2 Sam 24) and is disciplined for it. God does not want us to believe that our own strength is what wins battles for us. He wants us to trust Him, no matter the odds. He will demonstrate this to Israel over and over, and to us.
Jesus, when he mentioned counting the cost, was not talking about determining if I have the resources to be his disciple, but deciding whether I was willing to bear my own cross and renounce all that I have to be his disciple. That is the cost of following him. That was what God was asking Israel to do. Determining how many fighting men there were was not to see if they had enough to go to battle against the Canaanites but to show that war under God’s direction was going to be the cost. Will we follow Him no matter where He leads?
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)