Another census, this time of the “new generation.” By this they mean that there has been a near complete turnaround over the last few decades (it’s not clear how long they’ve been in the desert at this point), so that “[a]mong these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had enrolled the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai.” (v 64) The exceptions were Caleb and Joshua, who manage to live into the next book. That’s… a lot of breeding and dying going on. It makes the most sense if you assume this is the full 40 years in, which would put the youngest people of the first census now at age 60, which wasn’t an unusual age to die at even in the twentieth century.

A few thoughts before I get into the meat of this chapter, i.e. the number crunching:

It’s nice to have confirmation that Korah’s sons were not killed for their father’s mistakes (v 11).

Large tribes get more land than small tribes, and it’s assigned by lot to be very fair and equal. (v 53-56) This sounds a lot like the land reforms we did in Japan after WW2, and that the Chinese did after their communist revolution. There’s a lot of concern in the Hebrew Bible for equitable land distribution, about not letting too much land fall into the hands of too small a group of people. It’s what caused Egypt’s downfall under Joseph, it’s what the Jubliee is meant to prevent. Whether they were fleeing slavery in Egypt or overthrowing Egyptian occupation, you can see how a class-egalitarian society would appeal to an ancient people.

All right, now for the numbers. The Israelite people have, overall, lost about .3% of their total male fighting population. Given how often they’ve been smote or attacked, that’s a pretty good survival rate.

However, not all tribes fared equally well, and given that death and fertility are treated as signs of God’s disapproval and approval respectively, these censuses can serve as a score card on which tribes behaved well or poorly during their wandering.

The winners:

  • Manasseh: 64% increase, rising from position #12 to #6
  • Benjamin: 29% increase, rising from #11 to #7
  • Asher: 29% increase, from #9 to #5
  • Isaachar: 18% increase, from #5 to #3
  • Zebulon: 5% increase, remains #4.
  • Dan and Judah: both 3% increases, remain in the #1 and 2 slots

The losers:

  • Reuben: 6% decrease, falling from #7 to #9. The text itself indicates that this is because most of Korah’s supporters were Reubenites.
  • Gad: 11% decrease, falls from #8 to #10. No reason given.
  • Naphtali: 15% decrease, falls from #6 to #8. No reason given.
  • Ephraim: 20% decrease, falls from #10 to #11. No reason given.
  • Simeon: 73% decrease, falls from #3 to dead last. It doesn’t say why here, but you can make a guess based on the previous chapter, where the Israelite who gets spitted with his Midianite wife to stop a plague caused by Moabites is explicitly labeled as a Simeonite (25.14). The twenty-four thousand who died in the plague (25.9) could potential account for about 65% of their population loss.

So was that maybe part of the point of these stories – not the individual “don’t do this” lessons, but a just-so account justifying why certain tribes were smaller and thus weaker and with less land. Why were Reuben and Simeon, the eldest brothers, reduced to some of the smaller tribes? Because they rebelled against Moses and because they married the wrong kind of women.

This is all still me just trying to get in the heads of people living more than twenty-five centuries ago. It’s a strange sensation, but I think it’s a good exercise. Even if you’re not religious, you should practice it with old texts, like the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh, or, yes, the Bible. You might want to scoff at how backwards they are, but it’s worth the humbling pause of consideration that people twenty-five centuries from now will probably look at us the same way we now look at the ancients.

The Japanese: heieki ni tsuku “to serve in the army” (v 2), douchou suru “to sympathize with, to join” (v 9), bunpai suru “to distribute, to divide” (v 53), kuji “lot” (v 55), seigo “after one’s birth” (v 62).

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