It starts out with God commanding Moses to get together the leaders of all the tribes, who he calls out by name, while they’re still on Sinai and have them take a census of all of their men over twenty years old who are able to fight. The Levites are excepted from this census. So Moses gets them together and they start counting.
“Num 1:20 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: 21 those listed of the tribe of Reuben were 46,500.”
Now, you see those words up there? Repeat them eleven more times, changing only the name of the tribe and the number counted at the end. That’s how the Bible lists this census. Because why use one word when you can bore your audience to tears with way, way more words than you can possibly need? Here, I can summarize about twenty-seven verses just like this:
Naphtali: 53, 400
See? Isn’t that nice and succinct? Wouldn’t you agree that something that’s trying to teach you facts ought to do so in a clear and concise manner? The Bible seems to disagree.
By the way, the Bible doesn’t make a point of mentioning this, but remember earlier there was a law put in place that whenever the Israelites take a census they’re supposed to give half a shekel per person counted to God (i.e. the priests, i.e. Moses’ brother and his family)? That would mean that this particular “command from God” netted the Moses family about 300,000 shekels of silver, or roughly 120,000 ounces (roughly $2.4 million at today’s prices). Hot damn, the “talking to God” business was profitable!
Anyhow, God moves on to explain that the Levites are to be set aside from the census, and that they are going to have the responsibility of guarding, caring for, and transporting the tabernacle. As such, they are instructed to camp around the tabernacle whenever the Israelites are encamped.
Now God’s apparently a bit of a micromanager, because he then goes on to specify exactly where each of the tribes is supposed to camp whenever they stop, and what order they are supposed to leave camp when they move. So we get Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun camping in the eastern quarter of the camp, and they always set out first. Reuben, Simeon, and Gad camp in the south, and they set out second. Then the Levites from the center set out. Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin are in the west, and set out after the Levites. And finally, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali are in the north and set out last. Apparently the author felt it was important to let us know, as well, how many people that meant would have lived in each quarter of the camp, and then repeat the total number it added up to again. Told you this book was appropriately named.
Then we get a brief recounting of the names of all of Aaron’s sons, along with a reminder that God killed two of them for deviating from their consecration ceremony with the unauthorized incense burning. This segues into an instruction for the Levites to gather around for Aaron to minster to them, then into a discussion of the specific duties of the Levites. God also tells Moses that he claims the tribe of Levites for his own in place of the firstborn from among the Israelites (hopefully you remember back in Exodus when God claimed all the firstborn as his).
The Levites are to act as guards for the tabernacle and for Aaron and his sons, with standing orders to kill any outsiders who mess with them. They are also assigned additional duties with respect to the tabernacle and camping spaces, according to their clans (which appear to be subgroups within the tribe based on which particular member of Levi’s family you’re descended from). Also, all of them a month or older are supposed to be counted at this point. So we get:
Gershonites: 7,500, west side (tabernacle, tent with its coverings, screen for the tent entrance, hangings of the court, the door to the court).
Kohathites: 8,600, south side (ark, table, lampstand, altars, vessels).
Merari: 6,200, north side (frames, bars, pillars, bases and accessories).
We’re told that the total number of Levites added up to 22,000. Add up those numbers. What do you get?
OK, sure, so they’re off by 300. Maybe it’s just an estimate, not really a mistake. No big deal, right? But then… get this.
The next thing God orders Moses to do is to take another census, this time to figure out how many firstborn are among the Israelites. Because, remember, God is claiming all the Levites in place of the firstborn. And the number of firstborn they come up with is 22,273. That’s 273 more firstborn than Levites if you use the 22,000 number, which means God is getting 273 fewer people than he is “owed.” So “God” charges the Israelites a “redemption fee” of 5 shekels for each of those 273 people.
But wait… in order to do that, the 22,000 Levites has to be treated as a real number, not as an estimate. But it’s fucking wrong! The numbers of the Levite clans add up to 22,300, which means there are more Levites than firstborn. If anything, God owes the Israelites money!
I did a little looking about the ‘net to see what apologists say about this. The big two explanations I found were 1) somewhere along the line some scribe made a transcription error (key word: error), 2) there were 300 firstborn among the Levites, and since firstborn couldn’t be used to redeem firstborn (for some reason not stated in the text) they couldn’t be counted in the total (but for 300 people out of 22,300 to be firstborn, that would mean an average family size of 74, which is simply ridiculous). Nobody seemed to take seriously the possibility that Moses just straight-up ripped the Israelites off, and the math error is so basic and obvious that it does seem hard to believe that was the case. But who knows? We kind of take for granted these days that people are versed in basic math, but how many people in those days would have done anything more than throw their hands in the air when confronted with numbers in the tens of thousands?
But draw your own conclusions.
Anyhow, I think that’s enough for today. This is turning out to be another dry book, but I have hopes that, like Leviticus, it’ll still produce enough ridiculousness worth commenting on that it’ll keep some interest. In the meantime, take care all!