These are those that were numbered, which Moses and Aaron numbered, and the princes of Israel, being twelve men…
The Bible abounds in statistics. The historical books, in particular, bristle with genealogies and census-tables. "Numbers" gets its name from the circumstance that it contains the tabulated results of two distinct numberings. The statistical chapters are commonly passed over in the consecutive reading of the Scripture, in the family, and in the Church. The wine of the kingdom does not flow from them freely; all the rather ought care to be taken to read and expound them occasionally. All Scripture is profitable; and the statistical chapters, hard and barren as they look, are no exception.
I. For one thing, these chapters serve admirably to ANCHOR THE RELIGION OF THE BIBLE ON THE FIRM GROUND OF HISTORY. The Lord Jesus was not a mythical character, not a mere play of glorious colour on a bank of unsubstantial vapour. He was the son of a daughter of David's house. His genealogy is extant; and a long chain of family registers, imbedded in the historical books of the Old Testament, afford the means of verifying it. The sacred writers are never afraid to descend from the region of moral and religious disquisition into the region of exact numbers, which can be sifted and weighed in the light of our modern statistical science. The importance of all this can hardly be exaggerated, especially for an age like the present, which so confidently calls in question the historical verity of the Scriptures. To come to these census chapters in Numbers. The critics laugh at the idea that a nation of two millions and more were led out of Egypt by Moses and sojourned in the wilderness for forty years. Objections formidable enough are brought forward; but the objectors have to face the fact that the history, besides giving the round numbers, explain how they were made up. What is more; the details are found, on examination by men expert in statistics, to have such an air of reality that the ablest commentator (Knobel) of the Critical School, can think of no more feasible explanation than to suggest that some Levite must have laid his hands on the report of some real census, taken in a later age, and inserted it here in the Pentateuch. How writings so dishonestly compiled should have reached the high moral elevation of the Pentateuch, the critic has omitted to explain. He is certainly right in taking the chapters in Numbers for veritable census-tables.
II. NOR IS IT ONLY IN THIS GENERAL VIEW OF THEM THAT THESE STATISTICAL CHAPTERS ARE INSTRUCTIVE, The facts recorded (like all the authentic facts of God's providential government of men) are very suggestive.
1. Observe how unequally the several tribes have multiplied. Compare Judah and his 74,600 with Benjamin and his 35,400. All family histories and national histories are full of similar inequalities. There are great nations (France, Spain) in which the population is stationary or receding; others, similarly situated, in which there is steady increase (Germany, Russia). In the course of two or three centuries, facts like these must powerfully affect the history of the world. What hopes with regard to the future are excited by observing that, as a rule, it is the Protestant nations that are multiplying, and replenishing the earth, and subduing it!
2. How the blessing delivered by Jacob bears fruit after he has gone; in Genesis 49, two sons - Judah and Joseph - are honoured above the rest.
(a) To Judah is assigned the primacy of honour and power forfeited by Reuben, the firstborn (verses 8-12). How the fulfillment of this comes to light in the census at Sinai! His tribe outnumbers all the others save one; his tents occupy the place of honour in the camp, being pitched towards the rising of the sun; his standard (the lion of the tribe of Judah) leads the van in the march; in the captain of his best, Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, we recognize the ancestor of our Lord.
(b) Joseph, the best-beloved of the twelve, was to be a fruitful vine, a fruitful bough by a well, whose branches run over the wall. His two sons were to become each a several tribe, "as Reuben and Simeon they shall be mine" (Genesis 48:5, 6; Genesis 49:22-26). This also is exactly accomplished; not only are Ephraim and Manasseh reckoned as two tribes, but each takes rank with the other tribes in respect both to honour and numbers. Contemplating these facts in the light of Jacob's blessing, we can perceive a moral purpose in them; Joseph and Judah were the two who excelled in godliness and magnanimity. The faithful God keepeth covenant to a thousand generations (comp. Psalm 103:17).
3. How a family, which at one time promised well; may catch a blight and fade away. Mark the story of Simeon; at Sinai he was one of the most populous of the tribes; thirty-eight years later he is much the smallest. From nearly 60,000 he has shriveled into about 22,000 (comp. 1 Chronicles 4:27). This downward course went on after the conquest. Simeon's allotted inheritance was next to that of the tribe of Judah; and ere many generations passed he seems to have been absorbed by his more energetic and prosperous brother. The statistics of the Bible, being the digested statement of facts in the Divine government of families and nations, are mines where those who choose to dig find much silver. "The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein." - B.
Parallel VersesKJV: These are those that were numbered, which Moses and Aaron numbered, and the princes of Israel, being twelve men: each one was for the house of his fathers.