3–9 April 2016.
Numbers 26 begins by mentioning the plague in chapter 25 that killed off the last of the old generation of Israelites. God had threatened them before that none of the generation that left Egypt would enter the promised land. This was their punishment for all the ways they had rebelled against God for 40 years. Now the threat is almost complete. Aaron is dead and has been replaced by Eleazar. And while Moses lives for now, his death is quickly coming.
From that original generation, only Caleb and Joshua remain. So the time has come to count the people once again.
Now we have to be careful whenever numbers are mentioned in the Old Testament. For the ancient Jews, numbers were more than just a way to count, they had special meanings and people believed they could be used to even reveal secrets about God and the universe. This number system is called “gematria”. Hebrew letters were also given a number each, which meant that words and names each had a secret value. A famous example of this is the name in Revelation which has the number 666. Even today in Taiwan numerology is common. Many people still believe that numbers are important, and that the date and time of your birth reveal secrets about your life.
Like in Numbers 1, today’s text talks about counting men over 20 who can serve in the military, and it gives us the census numbers. But if those numbers were right, it would mean the whole community would have been more than 2 million people! That’s double the size of ancient Rome! That many people couldn’t be supported in fertile land, let alone in the desert! That’s a good hint that we should look for a deeper meaning here.
Some Jewish scholars tell us that if you take the Hebrew phrase “The Children of Israel”, exchange the Hebrew letters for their secret numbers, and then add those numbers together, it equals the number given in the census. So here we see God’s hidden promise: Even though the old generation have all died, this new generation still counts as Israel’s children. And God will remember his promise to them too.
Pastor Stephen Lakkis