Numbers 26 – 28: A Second Census and Inheritance Insights


An audio of this session can be found here:

Some 38 years earlier, at the beginning of the Book of Numbers, while Israel still camped at Mount Sinai, God commanded them to take a census.

Now it’s time for a second census. These censuses were primarily for military organization. If the Israelites were to enter into and take possession of the Promised Land, they had to know how many troops they had, and how they should best be organized. They were to count those able to fight on behalf of Israel

We can see from this table how what happened to the individual tribe’s population while they were wandering in the wilderness:

slide_15As we examine the graph one wonders whether the decrease in the tribe of Reuben may have to do with the incident recorded about Dathan and Abiram in 16:1ff. (compare what is said in vv. 9–10 with the earlier account). And has the catastrophic decrease in the tribe of Simeon something to do with the fact that Zimri (25:14), a Simeonite, was involved in the Baal of Peor disaster? And is Gad’s decrease due to the fact that they were associated with Reuben and Simeon in the order of the tribes?

Some of the most important lessons to be learned in this text are of God’s sovereignty and His faithfulness. This is what is stressed in these second census figures, particularly the faithfulness to His Word and to His promise: His covenanted promises to the patriarchs might be delayed by human sin, but they could not be ultimately frustrated. The meaning and significance of Balaam’s words in 23:19 are therefore brought out very clearly, and the apostle Paul underlines this basic truth just as emphatically in Romans 11:29: For God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable. [He never withdraws them when once they are given, and He does not change His mind about those to whom He gives His grace or to whom He sends His call.]

The chapter closes with a brief explanation of how the Promised Land territory will be divided among the tribes and a reminder that the Levites will have no physical inheritance, but as was noted before, theirs is a spiritual inheritance of God’s presence and serving His people.

Chapter 27 brings out an interesting question not before addressed in the Law or other regulations—inheritance when there are no male heirs. We have to give these daughters of Zelophedad special credit for their persistence and unwavering faith. They are thinking ahead in anticipation of the Promised Land and the issue of inheritance of this new land. Moses, as was his habit, takes the matter directly to God and God seems pleased that these women brought up the issue.

It is remarkable to find this piece of humanitarian legislation at such an early date in history, when the rights of minorities, let alone minorities of women, were so little recognized or noticed, and it emphasizes once again how advanced the Mosaic code really was. But it does something far greater: it emphasizes the reality of the fatherly care of God for all those who have been hardly used by life, those whom misfortune has buffeted, who are the poor of the land, who tend to be forgotten in the mad whirl of life, who have few to care for them, and fewer still to plead their cause.

The remainder of the chapter focuses on a different kind of inheritance— the succession of leadership. Many companies today have succession plans. If the leader retires or dies unexpectedly, there is a plan in place to replace him or her. Moses is concerned about the future and the answer is found in Joshua. Up to the point, Joshua was mostly known by his servant-like association with Moses (Exodus 24:13). He was obviously in preparation for this new role once Moses died. The chapter ends with a public presentation and laying of Moses’ hands upon Joshua. This singular act lets the whole nation know that Joshua was now the new leader and the nation should follow him.

Chapter 28 is the first of two chapters that recount the sacrificial system. While this may seem repetitive, it’s not in the context of the new generation. They, like the ancestors who died in the wilderness experience, need to be trained on the holiest days of the calendar.

We have in chapters 28 and 29 a lesson—one generation had failed, and in taking up another, God was saying in effect that the only hope of averting failure was establishing of a true pattern of worship. The significance of this is that at the heart of these instructions for worship lies the matter of a right relationship with God. It is here that everything hopeful begins, as it is the lack of such a relationship that spells foreboding and disaster for the people of God.


  1. The population didn’t increase over the 38-year wandering but increased tremendously while they were slaves in Egypt. Bishop Wordsworth commented, “When the Israelites were suffering persecution in Egypt they ‘multiplied exceedingly’ (Ex. 1:7, 20): but after their deliverance from Egypt they rebelled against God, and “He consumed their days in vanity, and their years in trouble” (Ps. lxxviii. 33)…. Here there is comfort and warning to the church and every soul in it—comfort in time of affliction, and warning in days of prosperity.”[1]
  2. There is a God in heaven who cares, who sees and understands, and will move in answer to our cries, and will provide for our needs. No one is too insignificant for Him. His tender mercies are over all His works. This is embodied supremely in the gospel narratives themselves, where we see the Son of God, Friend of sinners, making good this word to the insignificant, the poor, the oppressed—the widow of Nain, blind Bartimaeus, the women of Samaria, the lepers. He was their Champion as well as their Savior.


[1] Bishop of London and master of Trinity College at Cambridge (b. 1807); cited from C.J Ellicott, An Old Testament Commentary for English Readers, (London: Cassell & Co, Ltd, 1897), p. 554


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