The children of Israel were counted in a census at the beginning of the book of Numbers, approximately thirty-eight years earlier at Mount Sinai. But due to the rebellion of Numbers 14 in which most of them refused to go forward into the promised land because of fear and unbelief, the Lord declared that no one aged twenty and up (other than Joshua and Caleb) who had seen His miracles in Egypt and in the wilderness would enter the promised land. During the years that have passed, most of the faithless generation have passed away, and the time is soon approaching to finally enter and begin taking over the land of Canaan. A new census is necessary to count the men who are currently able to serve in the army.
Another reason a count is necessary right now is because a plague occurred in our previous chapter in which 24,000 men lost their lives for committing idolatry and sexual immorality with pagan women. A plague also occurred in Chapter 16 in which 14,700 men died. The nation needs to see where it stands at the moment, militarily speaking, and the Lord instructs Moses and Eleazar to conduct a new census.
"After the plague the Lord said to Moses and Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest, 'Take a census of the whole Israelite community by families---all those twenty years old or more who are able to serve in the army of Israel.' So on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho, Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them and said, 'Take a census of the men twenty years old or more, as the Lord commanded Moses.'" (Numbers 26:1-4a) Though the Lord removed from their number the men who sinned so shockingly in Chapter 25, He isn't going to break His promise to Abraham to give the land of Canaan to Abraham's descendants and make a great nation of them. Human beings sometimes go back on their word, but the Lord doesn't operate like that. He promised to make a great nation of Israel and that's exactly what He still intends to do. He knows every mistake Israel has ever made or ever will make, just as He knows every mistake you and I have ever made or will ever make, but He doesn't turn His back on Israel and abandon her. He hasn't turned His back on you or me either.
"These were the Israelites who came out of Egypt: The descendants of Reuben, the firstborn son of Israel, were: through Hanok, the Hanokite clan; through Pallu, the Palluite clan; through Hezron, the Hezronite clan; through Karmi, the Karmite clan. These were the clans of Reuben; those numbered were 43,730." (Numbers 26:4b-7) You'll recall from Genesis that the Lord gave Jacob the name "Israel". In the Bible we'll often find these names used interchangeably. This is why Reuben, in verse five, is called "the firstborn son of Israel". This is the same as calling him "the firstborn son of Jacob". The tribe of Reuben is smaller than it was thirty-eight years earlier. In the first census there were 46,500 fighting men; now there are 43,730. The Lord, however, is the strength of Israel's army. Whether the fighting men are few or many, the Lord is the one who gives victory.
"The son of Pallu was Eliab, and the sons of Eliab were Nemuel, Dathan and Abiram. The same Dathan and Abiram were the community officials who rebelled against Moses and Aaron and were among Korah's followers when they rebelled against the Lord. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them along with Korah, whose followers died when the fire devoured 250 men. And they served as a warning sign. The line of Korah, however, did not die out." (Numbers 26:8-11) You'll recall the incident known as "Korah's Rebellion" from Numbers 16. The sons of Korah did not perish with him, either because they weren't spiritually corrupt enough to rebel or because they were too young to join their father in his rebellion, and we will find eleven psalms attributed to "the sons of Korah". These psalm writers were not Korah's literal sons but the descendants of his sons, for their psalms were probably written during the era of King David's reign. But we see from these psalms that the Lord redeemed the line of Korah and did not wipe it out. We find the descendants of Korah praising the Lord and considering it an honor to serve in His house, unlike Korah and his band of misfits who felt they needed to hold higher positions in the Lord's house than those which the Lord assigned them. For some reason, even though you'd think they had no horse in this race, two Reubenites joined with Korah in his rebellion: Dathan and Abiram. Dathan and Abiram are mentioned here in this census record to show why they are not counted in the census: they died as a result of their rebellion.
Now we move on to the census taken of the family line of Simeon, who was Jacob's second son. "The descendants of Simeon by their clans were: through Nemuel, the Nemuelite clan; through Jamin, the Jaminite clan; through Jakin, the Jakinite clan; through Zerah, the Zerahite clan; through Shaul, the Shaulite clan. These were the clans of Simeon: those numbered were 22,200." (Numbers 26:12-14) Simeon's tribe has suffered a tremendous reduction in the number of fighting men. In the first census there were 59,300. Where did they go? I think a large portion of the rebellious men of Israel may have belonged to the tribe of Simeon. In Numbers 16, after Korah's rebellion, we were told a plague broke out when many men of the community turned on Moses and Aaron. A total of 14,700 died in that plague. In Chapter 25 we found 24,000 men losing their lives due to idolatry and sexual immorality. I think men from Simeon's tribe made up a great portion of the number of men who died in both these plagues. In addition, Israel has been in the wilderness for almost forty years now while the generation who rebelled against the Lord in Numbers 14 dies out. A large percentage of those who rebelled in Chapter 14 may have been from the tribe of Simeon.
It would be easy to focus on the number of men lost instead of on the number of men the tribes of Reuben and Simeon have retained. Unfaithful men have died but faithful men still remain. Reuben still has 43,730 men in the army. Simeon still has 22,200 men able to serve. God can do just as much with this number of men as He could have done with a higher number of men. As we noted yesterday, the actions of the priest Phinehas stopped a plague and saved many lives. One man's faith and one man's desire to honor the Lord caused a disaster to come to an end. If God can do great things through only one person, He can certainly do great things with an army, even if that army is not as large as it once was.
Join us tomorrow as we continue to take note of changes in the number of fighting men among the tribes of Israel. But we must keep in mind that God is the strength of Israel and that, as the saying goes, "Little is much when God is in it."