April 04, 2007

Numbers 1-2: Roll call!

Today's reading is Numbers 1-2 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a census of the various Israelite tribes, listing the number of adult men per tribe, their leader, and where they camped.

The summary I just gave is essentially the entire two chapters. The two chapters consist of statistics that would cause social historians to drool but make the rest of us to sink into a glassy-eyed stupor. However, way back in Genesis I was able to tease some meaning out of the genealogical tables, and I'm certainly going to try to do my best to make some sense out of these chapters as well.

The first thing we need to know about the census is who commissioned it and why. The answers, respectively, are "God" and "to know how many warriors were in the camp." Though it might seem strange at first that God was the one who requested the census, this should not be particularly surprising. After all, almost half the book of Exodus and the entire book of Leviticus was a prolonged monologue by God, explaining what the Hebrews needed to do. It shouldn't be particularly surprising that God has asked the Israelites to perform yet another task for him, nor that they did it.

The reason behind the census is slightly more interesting. Most modern censuses (censi?) are commissioned for tax purposes. Even the eleventh-century Domesday Book, the first census of Norman Britain, was done for this reason. If you know how many people are living in your lands and what they own, then you know how many taxes you're entitled to and consequently whether you're being short-changed. The Israelite census was done for a corollary reason: warriors. In the same way that modern censuses can be used to determine who is eligible for a draft, the Israelite census determined how many able-bodied men there were in the Hebrew camp. The census specifically counted "from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel." (Num. 1:3, KJV)

Why, we might ask at this juncture, did the Israelites need to know how many warriors were in the camp? Aren't the Jews a race of scholars, often stereotyped today by Woody Allen: timid, neurotic, and mildly bumbling? That is certainly true, at least today. But three thousand years ago, the Jews (or, at the time, the Hebrews) were a warrior race. In the four hundred years of their captivity in Egypt, other races had moved in to their old real estate. The Hebrews were on their way back home, and they needed to oust the squatters, who quite logically considered the land as theirs. The Hebrews, in other words, were about to have a war on their hands.

It is good, therefore, that the Israelites had so many warriors in their camp. If the numbers presented in chapters 1-2 can be trusted, there were a lot of Israelite men, twenty years and older, able to go into battle. Over six thousand, in fact. Specifically, 603,550. And that's not even counting the Levites, whom we'll be discussing in the next essay. They didn't count in the census because they were priests, not warriors.

So, imagine now that you have six hundred thousand grown men able to go to war in your nation. Adding women and children to the total, and we probably need to double or even triple that number. Now imagine you've got to move them in some semblance of order through a desert to stage a war of conquest. You don't have cell phones, walky-talkies, or any other modern communication devices. Yet somehow you've got to get them from point A to point B with all those warriors still in fighting condition.

This is where the second and third pieces of information provided in the census become vital, namely, who was in charge and where did they all live? The information is provided in chapter 2, along with a recap of the numbers by tribe.

The names of the leaders of each tribe are important as a reminder of who has absolute responsibility. Certainly, Moses had the direct ear of God and Aaron was the high priest. But they had 600,000 people to care for, and that's a lot for any two men to handle. So they delegated to the heads of tribes, who only needed to handle 30-75,000 men. No doubt these delegated even further, but the text doesn't bother with the details. The point is that if the tribe of Asher was camped south of the tabernacle, when they should be camping north, Moses knew who to speak to.

And, while we're on the subject, how did the tribe of Asher know to camp south of the tabernacle in the first place? This information is also provided in Num. 2. Specifically, we find out that the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun were camped east of the tabernacle and marched out first. After them were the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad, who camped south of the tabernacle. Then came the tabernacle itself, in the keeping of the Levites. Behind that were the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin, who camped westwards. Finally, bringing up the rearguard were the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naptali, who camped to the north. Each of these four groups contained between a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand men. You never know when you might be on Jeopardy and find this information useful.

So where does this leave us? We know that there were a lot of people in the Israelite nation. We know that many of them were warriors, and that they were kept in line by twelve men. We know that at least the rudiments of a marching order were in place by the time they left Sinai. At least, we know all this if we believe the text. The fact that there is no archaeological record for such a large movement of people is, as always, completely beside the point when talking about a literal interpretation of the Bible.

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