Notice, too, that this order is based on their descent from the sons of Jacob / Israel. The most basic identity of all the Israelites will not be their profession, their career, their birthplace or their personal preferences but their genealogical relationship with Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. This relationship defines them individually and defines them in their families and communities. And for many, it defines them spiritually. At one time even the apostle Paul, like many Israelites for so many generations, felt great pride and an assurance of spiritual security due to his physical lineage: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:4-5). For them, being counted in a census like Numbers 1 – 4 shows Yahweh’s complete approval, that they are heirs of the promises declared to Abraham.
Notice also that this census has a military purpose, to count all of the males 20 years of age and above who could serve in battle. They are not preparing to go on vacation; they will enter the Promised Land with a mission to destroy the Canaanites and clear the land of their perverse idolatry and contamination by force.
And wherever the Israelites go, Yahweh will be in the center of His people. All the tribes have a place around Yahweh’s Presence in the tabernacle; not a single one will be left out. For the devout Israelites, there is no better place. They will be able to say along with the sons of Korah, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10).
With the census of Numbers 1 – 4 another question arises that will resonate for the rest of the Bible. How is somebody identified with Yahweh’s people? Do you and I have a place around Yahweh’s Presence? What will happen to those of us who are not physical descendants of Abraham? Or to put it in terms that we read in the book of Genesis, how will Abraham become a blessing to the nations? We have more to read before we see the complete answers to these questions, but at least we have many decisive steps in that direction – the holy God who can dwell in the midst of His chosen people, the God who accepts the sacrifice of a perfect substitute, the faithful God who fulfills His promises, the redeemer God who counts all of His own without missing a single one.