Numbers 1-3: The First Census

Moses takes a census of the Israelites and God assigns camping locations.


Photocredit: Vermaas
In Numbers 1-3, Moses details the first census he takes of the Israelites and the layout of the encampment, as well as, identifies the leader of each tribe. God commands that Moses take the sum of all men 20 years or greater that are able to go to war. When Moses carries out this task, he splits the tribe of Joseph into two—the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh—per Jacob's adoption. Since the tribe of Levi is set aside for God and does not receive any land, they are not included in the 12 tribes or the main census, though Moses does number the Levites separately. When Moses counts the Levites, he counts males from one month and older. God instructs Moses to carry out this task on the 1st day of the 2nd month, in the 2nd year after their departure from Egypt. Thus the census was likely completed during that month sometime.

Census Results

Tribe # of Army Eligible Men Camp Location
Judah 74,400 East
Issachar 54,400 East
Zebulun 57,400 East
Reuben 46,500 South
Simeon 59,300 South
Gad 45,650 South
Ephraim 40,500 West
Manasseh 32,200 West
Benjamin 35,400 West
Dan 62,700 North
Asher 41,500 North
Naphtali 53,400 North
Total 603,550 -
Levites # of Men Over 1 Month Old Location @ the Center
Gershon 7,500 West
Kohath 8,300 (possibly 8,600: see below) South
Moses, Aaron & Sons East
Merari 6,200 North
Total 22,000 -
In the KJV, Numbers 3:28 lists the total number of Kohathites as 8,600, but this gives us a total of 22,300 instead of the 22,000 suggested in Numbers 3:39. Sources confirm that adding one letter in the original language would change the translation from 8,600 to 8,300.[4] Since "original" manuscripts of the Bible are old and often torn, it is very possible that this letter may have been in the original text.

First Born of Israel

The first borns of Israel are to be redeemed by the Levites. God declares that regardless of birth order, the Levites will serve as the first born of Israel. For this reason, Moses also numbers the first born males which totals to 22,273. Since there are more first born males than Levites—who are chosen to take the place of the first borns and become the first born of Israel—a sum is paid to account for the difference. This further proves that the number of Kohathites must have been 8,300 and not 8,600, because there would be no need for compensation if the Levites numbered 23,000. Many scholars argue that 22,273 is too few for the first born sons. They argue that if this number was be accurate, each man would have had about 26 brothers. Moses counts "all the firstborn of the males of the children of Israel from a month old and upward," to which the Bible declares "all the firstborn males" summed to 22,273. Does this number refer to the number of people in the tribe who were both male and firstborn, firstborns of the males only, or the first male in born to a family? Further, who is to say that firstborn in the family for many of the men was not a woman or dead? In addition, when we consider the number of children people had back then, 26 brothers doesn't seem completely out of the question. Once suggestion for the low number is that it reflects only the first borns that were born after leaving Egypt.[4] I don't know that I follow this logic; why wouldn't God state "all firstborn males after the Exodus?" Now, it could be possible that like in the case of the original census, only those eligible for war were counted. Perhaps first borns over a particular age were no included which would likely reduce the number drastically. There are many proposed resolutions, but I think the fact that the number seems off only proves that it is a real number. As mentioned the last time the number of Israelites was discussed, the fact that it is an exact number (not rounded to the nearest ten) and causes one to think, to me, show authenticity. If I were going to make up a number, wouldn't I go out of my way to make up a believable number? Which reminds me, in the post I wrote on Exodus 35-40, I talked about the possibility of the census totals being the sum of the money owed; this would make the number of non-Levite Israelites 60,355 and the average number of brothers for our 22,273 first borns 2.7.

Jesus' Substitution

What's more important than the number of firstborns, is how this parallels Jesus' sacrifice. In Moses' day, the Israelites owed their first born child because of God's final plague on Egypt. When God sent Jesus, His only and thus firstborn son, to die for us, He sent us redemption. Naming the Levites as the firstborn put them between the citizens and God; they had the responsibility to steer the children into the right place. The Levites handled all cleansing rituals and interceded to God when they kindled His anger. Similarly, Jesus is God's firstborn and only son. Like the Levites had done in previous years, Jesus stands between man and God. Jesus handles purification of His followers, intercedes on our behalf. The only difference is that where the Levites' redemption of the first borns was automatically accepted, we much accept Jesus' redemption.[5]

Interesting Findings

This is one of those sections I probably skim-read as a child. What's so important about how many Israelites were present or where they encamped? At first glance, it doesn't seem important, and perhaps thats why it isn't often talked about. Then again, why would God waste time telling us something we didn't need to know? I looked into the text deeper, and discovered some hidden awesomeness of this information.

Foreshadowing of the Cross

Rectangular Formation
When God assigns each tribe a location to camp, there are a few possibilities as to how they could have carried out His order. One way would be to set their tents in neat and orderly rows and columns; this would seem more logical and reduce chaos within the camp (though it may have been trickier to arrange). Whether they arranged themselves in an orderly lines or not, each direction would have had a width and height. Assuming no one camped NW, NE, SW, or SE (which seems unlikely since they were commanded specifically to a direction), the Israelites' camp would have looked like one of the two camps pictured to the right. God commands a "dominate" or "leading" tribe to camp in a particular direction, then commands another tribe to camp next to them (assumably in the same direction). While we cannot say they formed neat and orderly lines with their tents, there must have been some form of order, otherwise it would have been impossible to operate. The tribes may have created a square around the tabernacle, as shown in the image labeled "square formation" or they may have followed the size of the tabernacle and created a rectangular formation. Either way it becomes obvious that the Israelites encampment would have looked like a cross from the sky. Perhaps this is part of the reason God insisted we have these numbers and locations.
Square Formation

Symbolism: A Cherub in the Wilderness

The formation of a cross isn't the only interesting thing we can find when looking at the information Moses gives us about the encampment. One thing that is stands out, is that in each direction, a particular tribe is placed in charge. In the East, we have the tribe of Judah, and in the West, we have the tribe of Ephraim. In the North, we have the tribe of Dan, and in the South, the tribe of Reuben. Now, if you think about it, the tribe of Reuben being in charge makes sense, as he was the first born son of Israel. Upon first glance, I thought the were ordered based on birth order, but if that were the case, the tribe of Judah would have camped with the tribes of Reuben and Simeon (since Levi camped near the tabernacle). Dan, Napthali, and Gad would have camped together with Dan in charge. Asher, Issachar, and Zebulun would have camped together with Asher in charge, and Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, would have camped with Benjamin with Manasseh in charge. That is not what God commands. Neither does God take the 4 oldest sons of Israel excluding Levi—Reuben, Simeon, Judah, and Dan—to be leaders. The ordering seems completely based on God's will. We know that Joseph was Jacob's favorite son, hence placing one of his sons in charge. We also know that Judah was blessed to "carry the sceptre," eventually producing the kingly lineage of Solomon, David, and Jesus, and we can assume that Reuben was guaranteed a place in leadership as the first born. What was the claim of fame for Dan?

Interestingly, Dan is not listed as one of the twelve tribes in Revelation 7. Whether the listing provided defines a literal descendant of these tribes or a spiritual descendant is a discussion for that chapter. Either way, it is clear that those who descend from Dan will not be a part of the 144,000 that stand strong during the final days. Many think this is because the tribe of Dan struggled with idolatry. Yet, God placed the tribe of Dan in charge in the wilderness, knowing they would fall. Was this symbolic of the false doctrines and idolatry that have infected the modern church? Perhaps He was foreshadowing the fact that all who have the right to claim they are part of Israel (the body of Christ) will not behave as though they are part of Israel (the body of Christ), and will be severed in the end.

Of course, there is also the matter of symbolism. Each tribe of Israel is known by a symbol (perhaps a predecessor of crests). Some tribes were known for more than one symbol, and most relate to the prophecies given in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33. Since God appoints Judah, Ephraim, Reuben, and Dan as the leaders in each respective direction, I'm going to focus on their symbols, as they relate to cherubim. Ezekiel 10 tells us that cherubim, a type of angel mentioned often in the Bible and the type of angel sent to lead the Israelites to the promised land, have four faces: one like a man, one like an ox, one like an eagle, and one like a lion. These faces almost exactly match the symbols of the leading tribes in the encampment as well.[1][2][3][8][9]


Judah's symbol is agreed to be the lion.
Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?Genesis 49:9 KJV


Reuben is usually assumed to have either the symbol of man (per Deuteronomy 33:6) or water (per Genesis 49:3-4).
Let Reuben live, and not die; and let not his men be fewDeuteronomy 33:6 KJV
3Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: 4Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.Genesis 49:3-4 KJV


Ephraim's symbol is generally agreed to be the ox.
His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim and they are the thousands of Manasseh. Deuteronomy 33:17 KJV
The mentioning of a unicorn—meaning an animal with 1 horn, not the fiction creature—is thought to refer to a now extinct wild ox by many scholars. This is the Biblical basis for Ephraim's symbol.[6][7]


Dan is where the theory of the leading tribes representing the faces of the cherubim becomes shaky and starts to fall apart. According to Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33, Dan's symbol should be a lion's whelp or a serpent, some consider a horse since one verse mentions a horse's heels. Yet, many attribute the eagle to Dan, giving us the perfect symbolism of a cherub in the camp. One Rabbi suggests that the tribal flags and group flags were not exactly the same. He suggests each camp chose a flag and that the camp of Dan chose the eagle to mirror the angel God had sent them.[10]
16Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. 17Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.Genesis 49:16-17 KJV
And of Dan he said, Dan is a lion's whelp: he shall leap from Bashan.Deuteronomy 33:22
While I think this explanation is trying to force the theory to work, I do agree that there has to be some rationale to God's chosen leaders. Something I noticed, which may be more likely, is that in today's society, an eagle is associated with justice (a trait prescribed to Dan). After the rise of the Eagle as a symbol of justice is the only time period where mankind had the technology to fly over the campsite to see a cross structure, thus probably the first to consider what the camp would like from above and attempt to mine more information from knowledge God has given us. Possibly this message was meant for us, not for the men and women of that day, sort of like a hidden message to further prove God's omniscience and show to us that He put His plan in motion from the beginning.


  1. "The Cross in the Wilderness". 2015
  2. "Israel's Symbols and Heraldry". 2015
  3. Dankenbring, William F. "The Emblems of the 12 Tribes of Israel". 2015
  4. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible. pg.235-236. 2014
  5. Pope, Kyle. "Jesus and the Levite Redemption of the Firstborn". Biblical Insights. June 2004
  6. Slick, Matt. "Why does the Bible mention the mythical unicorn". Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. 2016
  7. Mitchell, Elizabeth. "Chapter 32: Unicorns in the Bible?". Answers in Genesis. February 2015
  8. "Ezekiel 10:14". Bible Hub. 2016
  9. "7.2. The Camp of Israel". Bible Study Tools. 2016
  10. Rabbi Daniel. "Snake or Eagle". Messiah Truth. February 2011

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