A Census of the People
On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying:
all who were enrolled came to 603,550.
Bamidbar picks up on the first day of the second month of the second year since the Children of Israel left Egypt. God now instructs Moses to take Aaron and a leader from each tribe and count the people. The census is to account for every male of military age, according to their households. Since God commanded earlier (back in the book of Exodus) never to count the people directly, the tribal leaders drew up lists of names and the names of those over twenty years of age were counted, though medieval commentator Rashi suggests the leaders again collected half-shekels from each qualifying individual and counted those.
The results, in the order they appear in the text, are as follows:
Reuben — 46,500
Simeon — 59,300
Gad — 55,650
Judah — 74,600
Issachar — 54,400
Zebulun — 57,400
Ephraim — 40,500
Manasseh — 32,200
Benjamin — 35,400
Dan — 62,700
Asher — 41,500
Naphtali — 53,400
Grand total: 603,550 men of military age.
The Levites were not included in the census, as God has other plans for them.
This is the first of several censuses which will be taken in the book of Numbers. In fact, the Israel Bible points out, these are what give the book its English name (its Hebrew name, like that of the portion — Bamidbar — means “in the desert”, also an apt description). While the census is taken ostensibly for war, as the Israelites should be entering the Promised Land imminently, the Sages point out that the numerous times God counts the people is also an indication of His love for them. Each individual is so precious to God that He takes the time to count them over and over.
Virtual Classroom Discussion
Seven months earlier, in Exodus 38:26, the Children of Israel number an identical 603,550. Yet we know the Levites were included in the first count and not in the second, and surely people died or turned twenty in the interim! How might you explain the static number? What do you think is the significance of this census result?