In Romans 15:4, Paul tells us that those things that were recorded afore, in the Old Testament, were recorded for our learning as examples for our own Christian experience. They really happened, they emphasized a real lesson for those Israelites, they had a real impact on their lives—and looking at them through the lens of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are promised finding equally important lessons for ourselves.
So let’s put Paul to the test and examine Numbers 1 – 2; a chapter fraught with boring information, organized in an equally boring fashion, recorded in painstaking detail, revealing astoundingly repetitive language in a book that does a job of often doing the same thing merely to get people ready for a big walk in the wilderness toward the Promised Land. What can we possibly see there that is important for our experience?
Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying…
Thus the sons of Israel did; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so they camped by their standards, and so they set out, everyone by his family according to his father’s household. —Numbers 1:1, 2:34
The first thing we see, spread across these chapters (and functioning as a backdrop throughout the entire book of Numbers) is that the movements and activity of the Lord’s people is predicated and dependent on the Lord’s calling, mandates and instruction (Numbers 3:1, 4:1, 5:1, 6:1, 7:4, 8:1, 9:1, 10:1, 13:1, 14:26, 15:1, 16:20, etc). It is the Lord who calls them, it is God who gathers them, it is God who commands them, it is God who instructs them, and it is God who they are to obey—even when the command is something as innocuous as a census (Num 1:2, 4:2, 26:2-4). The Lord calls, they act. The Lord speaks, they are to listen. The Lord commands, they are to obey. The Lord moves, they are to realize it and follow (Num 2:17).
“Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies. “With you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father’s household….So Moses and Aaron took these men who had been designated by name, —Numbers 1:2-4, 17
Second, we see that the children of Israel were organized by name of their familial leaders and those households. This tells us that the people knew their heritage and pedigree—they knew their family name. It was the thing that defined them and it was the thing that uniquely defined them as part of something greater than themselves This didn’t only apply to the regular tribesman, it applied to their leaders (they knew they were head of house—Num 7:2), it was also something that concerned the Levites (Num 3:15, 20, 30, 4:2). They all knew who was the name of that defined them and their family.
from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies. —Numbers 1:3
These are the ones who were numbered, whom Moses and Aaron numbered, with the leaders of Israel, twelve men, each of whom was of his father’s household. So all the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their fathers’ households, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war in Israel, even all the numbered men were 603,550. —Numbers 1:44-46
Third we should notice that these people weren’t merely organized by family for the sake of knowing their general household—these people were organized for a purpose. They were to be ready to fight, gathered as a fighting force. The numbering was of those who were actively able to go out to war.
Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance. “Now those who camp on the east side toward the sunrise shall be of the standard of the camp of Judah, by their armies, and the leader of the sons of Judah: Nahshon the son of Amminadab, and his army, even their numbered men, 74,600. “Those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Issachar, and the leader of the sons of Issachar: Nethanel the son of Zuar, and his army, even their numbered men, 54,400. “Then comes the tribe of Zebulun, and the leader of the sons of Zebulun: Eliab the son of Helon, and his army, even his numbered men, 57,400. “The total of the numbered men of the camp of Judah: 186,400, by their armies. They shall set out first. —Numbers 2:1-9
Forth, the people are organized in such a way that they not only know who they stand with (their familial name by pedigree), not only did they understand the purpose of their stand (by army, ready to battle), but they also knew that where they stood. One group, the foremost group consisting of the tribes of Judah (as a first) followed by Isaachar and Zebulon: they stood right in front of the opening to the tent of meeting, at the East. Going clockwise around the tabernacle, each of the remaining tribes camped by three around the tabernacle knowing where they stood and knowing the importance of that position.
“The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance. —Numbers 2:2
Fifth, the children of Israel weren’t camped in an arbitrary fashion: they were camped around what was central to their experience. For, it was in the center, in the tabernacle, that the children of Israel offered their worship (Num 7), gathered in the congregation (Num 10), worked with God (Num 8), dealt with the matters of life and practice (Num 5), dedicated to the Lord (Num 6) and received instruction as to where to camp, where to move, and what to do during their festivals (Num 9). They walked surrounding the center (although Numbers 10 seems to hint that the tent of meeting was alone on the vanguard—I don’t think that’s necessarily the case but it may have happened on one occasion) with the intention of protecting it if anything came too close. They would fight and die defending the presence of God in their midst.
Five points (1: dependant on the calling and speaking of the Lord; 2: organized by their pedigree; 3: for the purpose of doing battle; 4: knowing where they were to stand and 5: around what was central to them—the presence of God in their midst) that have direct correlation with our own Christian experience.
For we discover in the New Testament that although the Israelites were walking toward an inheritance, we as Christians are also walking toward an inheritance which is incorruptible, undefiled and doesn’t fade away. Indeed, the book of Ephesians might even echo some of these themes—itself being a book concerned for the walk of Christians (Eph 4:1).
We notice that believers also find their calling and gathering and purpose and instruction by the Lord. For it is according to his purposes that we have been chosen to be holy and blameless before him (Eph 1:3-4) and to walk in the good works which he has set up before us (Eph 2:9-10). He knows the path, he knows the difficulties and he calls with the end goal of having us walk rightly.
We see that believers are organized by pedigree. I don’t mean by my last name or by your last name, but rather by the name and pedigree into which we have been adopted as sons (Eph 1:5) through Jesus Christ. Other portions of Scripture would call us sons according to Promise (Gal 3), heirs with Israel (Eph 3:6), even Sons of Abraham in some sense—but we are ultimately the Sons of God (Rom 8:14), coheirs of Christ (Rom 8:17). Indeed, it is Christ Himself, speaking to Mary and sending back a message who makes the connection of our new pedigree and heritage clear when he says:
…but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’ ” —John 20:17
We realize that believers are organized ready to fight. Paul would tell believers that they’re not merely fighting a battle against flesh or blood, but against principalities and powers. It’s a spiritual war which results in believers needing to be spiritually armed for battle. Sword in hand, shield on arm, breastplate worn, helm at the ready, waist girded and feet covered—all ready for a battle. The attacks might be a personal attack via the wiles of the devil, but with prayer and supplication making our prayers known for the protection and benefit of the saints (Eph 6:10-18) and the expansion of the Gospel via the Church’s workers (Eph 6:19-21)
If we look about us, we are confident on what we stand. That same chapter where Paul speaks about being ready to fight, he talks about standing firm against the devils scheme, against him and at the ready (Eph 6:11-14). And yet, we can only stand like that because we have both been called in Christ, built up in Christ and given a future in Christ as an administrator (Eph 1:9-10) to the full stature of Christ (Eph 4:13) as adults (Eph 4:14).
Why? Because we are standing on and around what is to be central in our own experience—the presence of God in our midst. We’ve been gifted by Christ, empowered by God, baptized in the Spirit, and fit together with Christ as our source of direction and power. We are the ones that Christ, who is the light of the world, can say “You are the light of the world.”(Matt 5:14) So we must prove our calling in our walk, being blames and without reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil 2:15).
Thank God for recording this example in Scripture, yes, this organization of the tribes (Numbers 1 and 2)—as such we see the importance and lessons for our own situation: we know our calling, we know our family name, we know what we’re ready for, we know where we’re to stand and we know what is central to our situation: the Lord in our midst.