God does not have any lost sheep. To some, reading this census count is one of the most boring sections of the Bible. Most commentators also have little to say about it. Yet, like any data about a population, this census count is filled with interesting facts once you know what to look for. Three times, God ordered the Jews to count their people. The first census took place near the end of the building of the Tabernacle (Ex. 30:11-12). The second census took place after the Jews were ready to invade the Promised Land. Yet, this count was limited to the men of fighting age (20 years or older) from the twelve tribes who would fight, which excluded the Levites (Nu. 1:2-4). After 38 years of wondering in the wilderness, God commanded that the third census again count every man of fighting age who would fight the battle for the Promised Land (Nu. 26:2). Starting first with the big picture, the famous Jewish commentator Rashi observed that the census counts show that God loves His people and keeps careful track of them the way a good shepherd keeps track of his sheep. Jesus knows every hair on your head (Matt 10:29; Lk. 12:17). Maybe you are in a wilderness. Is any problem of yours that God either doesn’t know about or can’t deal with?
A church must keep track of its sheep as well. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd (Jo. 10:11). Yet, He has appointed many deputy shepherds to watch over His sheep until He returns. God calls the believers in Christ His royal priesthood (2 Pet. 2:5, 9). As His priests, we have a collective responsibility to carefully count and keep track of His sheep (Ex. 30:11-12). Yet, it is fashionable today for large churches not to keep member lists or to count who comes and goes to church. To be seeker friendly, no one should feel pressure to join, be monitored, or counted. People have the freedom to float in and out with no accountability. Yet, this does not follow the example God set for us with the three census counts. Can we care for God’s sheep if we don’t keep track of them or know their names?
We must also keep track of our spiritual growth. Carefully assessing growth is not just the duty of the Church, it is a responsibility for each believer as well. Do you keep track of your growth in the Lord? Have you set any goals in terms of spiritual growth? Is your walk with the Lord getting stronger each year? Or, is it languishing while you walk in the wilderness?
Many who are last will be first. If we study the trends between the second and third census counts, we find that exactly seven of the 12 tribes grew in number, a number representing divine completeness. If we then rank the seven tribes with the greatest growth we find that, in most cases, the tribes with growth were the least important tribes. Or, they were the ones near the bottom of the birth order. Jesus said that many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first in heaven (Matt. 19:30; 20:16; Mk. 10:31). If you have ever felt insignificant because of your position in life, your origin, your wealth, or your past sins, consider the facts below regarding the seven tribes that grew in number. Even if you are struggling with too much work, too little work, an illness, or a loss, these tribes show that any person can find spiritual growth in the wilderness.
(1) Manasseh (Tribe no. 7). Compare Numbers 26:28-34 with 1:34-35. Manasseh was Joseph’s second son (Gen. 41:52). Jacob was given two tribes to replace the role of Levi, which was assigned to carry the ark and the Tabernacle and to serve as priests (Nu. 4). In the third census, the ordering of Joseph’s first and second born is reversed. Manasseh moved from eighth place to take Ephraim’s seventh place. Yet, Manasseh’s mother was an Egyptian named Asenath (Gen. 41:50). Jews were not allowed to marry persons who were not Jewish (Dt. 7:3). Also, to be considered Jewish, the mother had to be Jewish. Thus, Manasseh was not technically Jewish at all. Moreover, if Joseph’s tribe had been given only one spot (which would have been the case if the Levite tribe had not been excluded), the tribe of Manasseh would not be on this list at all. Yet, it grew the most of any tribe!
Manasseh’s explosive growth. By the beginning of their journey, the Manasseh tribe had fighting men totaling 32,200 (Nu. 1:35). By the end of their 38-year-journey, their fighting men totaled 52,700 (Nu. 26:34). This was an increase of 20,500 or 63.66%.
(2) Benjamin (Tribe no. 12). Compare Numbers 26:38-41 with 1:36-37. Benjamin was the second and last son of Rachael. His was the also last of the 12 tribes (Gen. 35:18). Yet, just as Jesus said, being last did not stop it from being amongst the top tribes with growth.
Benjamin’s growth. By the beginning of their journey, the tribe of Benjamin had fighting men totaling 35,400 (Nu. 1:37). By the end of their journey, their fighting men totaled 45,600 (Nu. 26:41). This was an increase of 10,200 or 28.81%.
(3) Asher. (Tribe no. 10). Compare Numbers 26:44-47 with 1:40-41. Asher was a son of Zilphah, Leah’s maid (Gen. 30:12). His was the eighth tribe. Yet, it was the tenth tribe in the census count. Asher, like Gad and Dan, was a child of the flesh. Like Rachel, Leah had him out of jealously and a lack of faith. Today, he would be called an illegitimate child. Yet, despite its origins and being near the bottom of the list, it had the third highest growth.
Asher’s growth. By the beginning of their journey, the tribe of Asher had fighting men totaling 41,500 (Nu. 1:41). By the end of their journey, their fighting men totaled 53,400 (Nu. 26:47). This was an increase of 11,900 or 28.67%.
(4) Issachar. (Tribe no. 5). Compare Numbers 26:23-25 with 1:28-29. Issachar was the son of Leah (Gen. 30:20). He was the ninth son of Jacob. His name also appears out of order here as the fifth tribe. Issachar was amongst the brothers who wanted to kill Joseph before Judah convinced them to sell Joseph into slavery (Gen. 37:27-28). According to Jesus, his hatred was an act of murder (Matt. 5:22). Yet, despite being ninth in birth order and despite having a troubled beginning as an unloved child, this tribe had the fourth largest growth.
Issachar’s growth. By the beginning of their journey, the tribe of Issachar had fighting men totaling 54,400 (Nu. 1:29). By the end of their journey, their fighting men totaled 64,300 (Nu. 26:25). This was an increase of 9,900 or 18.19%.
(5) Zebulun. (Tribe no. 6). Compare Numbers 26:26-27 with 1:30-31. He was the son of Leah (Gen. 30:20). He was the tenth child. His name also appears out of order in the census listing as the sixth tribe. Like Issachar, Zebulun was amongst the brothers who wanted to kill Joseph out of jealousy (Gen. 37:27-28). Although he was also near the bottom of the list of tribes and had a troubled beginning, this tribe had the fifth best growth rate.
Zebulun’s growth. By the beginning of their journey, the tribe of Zebulun had fighting men totaling 57,400 (Nu. 1:31). By the end of their journey, their fighting men totaled 60,500 (Nu. 26:27). This was an increase of 3,100 or 5.40%.
(6) Dan. (Tribe no. 10). Compare Numbers 26:42-43 with 1:38-39. He was the son of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid (Gen. 30:6). He was also the fifth child. Yet, his tribe was listed out of order in the census as the tenth tribe. Like Gad and Asher, Dan was a child of the flesh. He later wanted to kill Joseph out of jealousy. Yet, none of these facts stopped the tribe of Dan from finding growth in the wilderness.
Dan’s growth. By the beginning of their journey, the tribe of Dan had fighting men totaling 62,700 (Nu. 1:39). By the end of their journey, their fighting men totaled 64,000 (Nu. 26:43). This was an increase of 1,700 or 2.71%.
(7) Judah. (Tribe no. 4). Compare Numbers 26:19-22 with 1:26-27. He was Leah’s son and Jacob’s fourth child (Gen. 29:35). After Reuben, Simeon and Levi forfeited their firstborn status through their sins, the blessings of leadership fell to Judah. Yet, Judah also led a troubled life. Out of jealousy, Judah encouraged his brothers to sell Joseph to the Midianites (Gen. 37:27-28). He also failed to raise his children in the Lord. His first and second born sons, Er and Onan, died for their disobedience to God (Gen. 38:7-10). Judah then broke the Law by withholding his third son Shelah from giving his daughter-in-law Tamar an heir (Gen. 38:11, 26). Judah later negotiated with what he thought was a “temple prostitute,” who was really Tamar in disguise (Gen. 38: 16-17). This suggested that he was involved in prostitution. Yet, God let Judah keep its pre-emanate role (Gen. 49:8-12). Caleb was from this tribe (Nu. 13:6). His faith and his example allowed this tribe to grow.
Judah’s growth. By the beginning of the book of Numbers, Judah’s tribe had grown to the largest tribe with fighting men totaling 74,600 (Nu. 1:27). By the end of their journey, they numbered 76,500 (Nu. 26:22). This was an increase of 1,900 or 2.54%.
Interestingly, the Bible does not explicitly say what these tribes did to grow while in the wilderness. Yet, God didn’t need to. He spelled out exactly what His people needed to do to achieve growth as one of his last commands in the book of Leviticus before the Jews marched toward the promised land. “If you walk in my statutes and keep My commandments so as to carry them out . . . So I will turn toward you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will confirm my covenant with you.” (Lev. 26:3, 9). This promise was conditional. These tribes grew during the 38-year-wilderness march because they kept His statutes and the Ten Commandments. Maybe you are in a wilderness. Work is either too hard or hard to find. Yet, you too can find spiritual growth. Are you being obedient to God and His Word?
Being saved by mercy and grace has some convinced that there are no consequences to sin as long as they repent. Yet, that is not the case. Being saved for purposes of salvation does not mean that you won’t suffer on Earth if you rebel against God. The third census reveals that the tribes that rebelled against God all shrank in number. This is also exactly what God warned would happen before the Jews left (Lev. 26:14, 18-39).
(1) Simeon. (Tribe no. 2). Compare Numbers 26:12-14 with 1:22-23. He was the son of Leah, and he was Jacob’s second son (Gen. 29:33). After Reuben’s sin of sleeping with his father’s concubine, the blessings of the firstborn fell to him. Yet, while in Shechem in the land of Canaan, Simeon plotted a grotesque act of revenge for the rape of his sister Dinah (Gen. 29:31-34). When Hamor, the father of the rapist, sought to make restitution for the crime (Gen. 34:8-12), Simeon and Levi tricked the people of Shechem to be circumcised to become part of God’s people. Then, while the people of Shechem recovered, they killed them in cold blood (Gen. 34:25-26). They both then stole the Shechemite flocks and looted their wealth (Gen. 28:27-29). Both then received a rebuke (Gen. 35:22; 49:3-4). Yet, Simeon’s tribe did not learn their rebuke. Zimri was a leader from the tribe of Simeon. He openly brought a temple harlot home for all to see after God began to punish the nation of Israel was for their temple prostitution (Nu. 25:6, 14). Many commentators believe that the tribe of Simeon was the most involved in acts of temple prostitution. Of the 24,000 people who died in God’s punishment (Nu. 25:9), most were believed to be from this tribe.
Simeon’s decline. At the beginning of their journey, the fighting men of Simeon totaled 59,300 (Nu. 1:23). Yet, at the end, they totaled only 22,200 (Nu. 26:14). This was a decrease of 37,100 or 62.56%. In absolute terms, Simeon went from being the third largest tribe to the smallest. Although they were once entitled to be first, they fell to dead last.
The fulfillment of Jacob’s prophesy. At the time of Jacob’s death, he warned that the tribe of Simeon was cursed for its disobedience: “Let my soul not enter into their council; let not my glory be united with their assembly . . . I will disperse them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” (Gen. 49:6-7). Unlike Levi (Josh. 13:32-14:5), the Simeon tribe never repented. Thus, they continued to diminish in strength after entering Israel, just as God foretold.
(2) Ephraim. (Tribe no. 8). Compare Numbers 26:35-37 with 1:32-33. He was Joseph’s first son (Gen. 41:51). In the third census, the ordering of Manasseh and Ephraim is reversed. Ephraim dropped from being the seventh listed tribe to become the eighth listed tribe. Jacob suffered from the sin of pride as he boasted to his brothers of his vision that his brothers would bow down to him (Gen. 37:5-11). Like Manasseh, Ephraim was both a half-bread and he wasn’t technically Jewish at all. His tribe, like many others, also previously worshipped the golden calf. Yet, we can infer that its pride led to its partial decline (Prov. 16:18). Joseph did not share in his brothers’ sins. They once had the pre-eminent role as Joseph’s first-born, and Joshua, a hero of the faith, was a member (Nu. 13:8; 14:6-9).
Ephraim’s decline. By the beginning of their journey, the tribe of Ephraim had fighting men totaling 40,500 (Nu. 1:33). Yet, after 38-years of failed leadership, their fighting men totaled only 32,500 (Nu. 26:37). This was a decrease of 8,000 or 19.75%.
(3) Naphtali. (Tribe no. 12). Compare Numbers 26:48-50 with 1:42-43. Naphtali was the son of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid (Gen. 30:8). He was the sixth son of Jacob. His tribe was listed out of order in the census as the twelfth tribe. Like Gad, Dan, and Asher, Naphtali was a child of the flesh. Rachel also had him out of jealously and a lack of faith. Gad, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali today would be considered illegitimate children. Jacob never technically married their mothers. He had each of these children out of the flesh. Naphtali later wanted to kill Joseph out of jealousy. His tribe later worshipped the golden calf. His tribe shows that some who are last in life will never use that humility to grow in the Lord. Their bitterness will instead merely fuel their acts of rebellion and their further decline.
Naphtali’s decline. By the beginning of their journey, the tribe of Naphtali had fighting men totaling to 53,400 (Nu. 1:43). By the end of their journey, their fighting men totaled 45,400 (Nu. 26:50). This was a decrease of 8,000 or 14.98%.
(4) Gad. (Tribe no. 3). Compare Numbers 26:15-18 with 1:24-25. He was the son of Zilpah, Leah’s maid (Gen 30:11). He was actually Jacob’s seventh son. His tribe is listed out of order as the third tribe in the census. With the exception of Gad, the children of all the maidservants were all listed at the end of the census count. Gad was a child of the flesh, not of God’s promise. Leah had Jacob sleep with her maid Zipah out of jealousy to have more children than her sister Rachel. Gad, like his other brothers, was also guilty of selling Joseph into slavery out of jealousy. His tribe, like the others, was also guilty of worshiping the golden calf while Moses was receiving the Law. By their decline, they may have participated in either Korah’s rebellion (Nu. 16:41-50), the complaints about the lack of water at Meribah (Nu. 20:2-5), the complaints against God’s manna (Nu. 21:5), the temple prostitution (Nu. 25:1-9). or all of the above. Sadly, some use God’s mercy and grace as a license to sin, fueling their decline.
Gad’s decline. At the beginning of their journey, the fighting men of Gad totaled 45,650 (Nu. 1:25). Yet, at the end of the journey, their numbers dropped to 40,500 (Nu. 26:18). This was a decrease of 5,150 or 11.28%.
(5) Reuben. (Tribe no. 1). Compare Numbers 26:5-7 with 1:20-21. Leah was Jacob’s unloved wife. Reuben was Leah and Jacob’s first born son (Gen. 29:30-32). Normally, Reuben would be entitled to a double blessing as the firstborn (Dt. 21:15-17). Yet, out of a lust for power, Reuben slept with his step mother, Bilhah, Rachael’s maid servant (Gen. 35:22). Leaders from the tribe of Rueben later joined in Korah’s rebellion against Moses, possibly to regain their pre-eminent role (Nu. 16:1). But those who desire to be first in power will be last in God’s kingdom (Mk. 10:31). Jacob also previously warned that Reuben would be unstable like water (Gen. 49:3-4). Water takes the path of least resistance. Like unstable water, Reuben’s tribe declined as it gave into various sins in the wilderness.
Reuben’s decline. By the beginning of the book of numbers, the tribe had grown to 46,500 fighting men (Nu. 1:22). After more than 38 years in the wilderness, their numbers totaled 43,730 (Nu. 26:7). This was a decrease of 2,770 or 5.95%.
Israel’s Stagnation. The Jews first left Israel as a clan of 70 people (Gen. 46:27). They spent approximately 400 years in captivity (Gen. 15:13- “400”; Ex. 12:40-“430”). After spending two years in the wilderness, God told Moses to assemble and count the men of fighting age who would invade the Promised Land (Nu. 1:1). At that time, the men of fighting age totaled 603,550 (Nu. 1:46). By the end of their 38-year journey, the men of fighting age totaled 601,730 (Nu. 26:51). This was a decrease of 1,820 or .30%.
Israel’s lost opportunity. Using a compound interest formula and assuming 400 years of captivity and two years in the wilderness, the normal Jewish growth rate was 2.28%. Applying this same compound growth rate to the 38-year-journey means that the Jews could have invaded the Promised Land with fighting men exceeding 1,421,286. Thus, the entire nation suffered because of the sins within certain tribes.
A nation is only as strong as its weakest link. If we consider that only five of the 12 tribes shrank in number, we realize that the entire nation was greatly impacted by their decline. The same is true with the Church. If any segment of the population withers under the effects of their sin while a nation or the Church does nothing, the entire body or nation is adversely affected. The, we cannot ignore the populations of our country and churches which are mired in drug addictions, sexual sins, or other vices and still expect to grow.
Allocation of land in Israel. In addition to identifying the soldiers for battle, the census was also for dividing up the land. To avoid disputes about who lived where in Israel, the land was divided into 12 randomly selected lots without regard to merit (Nu. 26:56). Then, to prevent the smaller tribes from having more land per capita, the map was adjusted with the census count to expend the territories of the larger tribes and to shrink the territories of the smaller tribes (Nu. 26:54). This ensured fairness. Yet, it had another implication. Because growth was tied to obedience, the Jews experience in the Promised Land was in part based upon mercy and grace (they did not deserve to be there at all) and it was in part based on their faith-led works (some got more land then others).
Store up your treasures in heaven. We also are journeying to the Promised Land. We have an inherence of eternal life based upon Christ’s death that has nothing to do with our works. Yet, Jesus also made clear that our works here impact our rewards in heaven. Jesus says that we can store treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:20). This does not mean that heaven has wealthy areas and ghettos. But it does mean that not everyone will be recognized in heaven the same. Some may store many treasures. Some may not. Like the Jews, some of our spiritual rewards in heaven are determined based upon how we live our lives here. Have you been storing any treasures in heaven or only here on Earth?
God’s grace to the Levite tribe. (Tribe no. 3). The Levites were not counted as part of the military census because their men were not expected to fight in the battle. Their count also happened after the discussion on the division of land because they would receive no land (Nu. 26:62). They were to be set apart for God’s use. At the time the journey began, the men of the Levite tribe numbered 22,000 (Nu. 4:39). At the end of their journey, their numbers totaled 23,000 (Nu. 26:62). This was an increase of 1,000 or 4.5%. Their growth shows that we can achieve spiritual growth when we are set apart for God and we repent of our prior sins. Korah, who rebelled against Moses, was a Levite (Nu. 26:58). Yet, the tribe repented and still grew by 4.5%. Your past sins also will not keep you from obtaining spiritual growth if you repent (Ro. 8:1). Are you ready to be counted as part of God’s army or as part of His holy priesthood? (1 Pet. 2:5, 9).