Censuses in the Wilderness

Introduction

A Book of Numbers

The Book of Bemidbar1 opens with a command to count the Children of Israel, specifically all males above the age of twenty:

EN/HEע/E
(ב) שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת כָּל זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם. (ג) מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה כָּל יֹצֵא צָבָא בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל תִּפְקְדוּ אֹתָם לְצִבְאֹתָם אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן. (במדבר א':ב'-ג')
(2) Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, according to their families, and their father's houses, by the number of the names, every male, by their heads. (3) From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go to war in Israel, you and Aharon should count them by their hosts. (Bemidbar 1:2-3)
The Torah proceeds to record, in meticulous detail, the populations of each and every individual tribe as well as the nation as a whole. It does not, however, explain the need for this census.2 What was the purpose of this census, and why was it limited to a particular gender and age?

Two Censuses in Less than a Year?

Moreover, while the census in the beginning of Bemidbar took place in the second month of the second year after the Exodus, just a few short months before this, there had already been a command in Shemot 30 (implemented in Shemot 38) to count the nation through donations made toward the building of the Mishkan:3

EN/HEע/E
(יב) כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַה' בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם. (יג) זֶה יִתְּנוּ כָּל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לַה'. (יד) כֹּל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֻדִים מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמָעְלָה יִתֵּן תְּרוּמַת ה'.
(12) When you take a census of the children of Israel according to their number, then each man shall give a ransom for his soul to Hashem when they are counted, and there shall be no plague among them when you count them. (13) They shall give this, everyone who passes over to those who are numbered, half a shekel by the shekel of the sanctuary, the shekel is twenty geras, half a shekel as an offering to Hashem. (14) Every one who passes over to those who are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering to Hashem.

If the half-shekel donations to the Mishkan had already been utilized to tally the nation, what benefit could there possibly have been in counting the people again so soon afterwards?

Identical Tallies

Finally, a juxtaposition of the verses from Shemot 38 and Bemidbar 1 yields an astonishing correspondence:

EN/HEע/E
בֶּקַע לַגֻּלְגֹּלֶת מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ לְכֹל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֻדִים מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה לְשֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף וּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אֲלָפִים וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת וַחֲמִשִּׁים. (שמות ל"ח:כ"ו)

וַיִּהְיוּ כָּל הַפְּקֻדִים שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף וּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אֲלָפִים וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת וַחֲמִשִּׁים. (במדבר א':מ"ו)

A beka for every head, that is half a shekel, by the shekel of the sanctuary, for every one who passes over to be numbered, from twenty years old and upwards, six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty. (Shemot 38:26)

All they that were numbered were six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty. (Bemidbar 1:46)

The nation's total population in the second year of the wilderness provided in Bemidbar 1 precisely matches the earlier recorded headcount from the first year of Shemot 38, with both totaling exactly 603,550 men! How could this have happened? Were there no births and deaths in the interim, or did these coincidentally or miraculously cancel each other out?4 What might this indicate about the relationship between these two censuses?

In Approaches, we will explore the purpose of the census in Bemidbar 1 and its relationship to Shemot 30 while trying to understand whether and why there was a need for both.

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