We begin today through the book of Numbers, so called because of the two censuses that are taken in the book. We see in 1:1 that Israel is still at Sinai over a year after the Exodus. God commands Moses to take a census of all the males over the age of 20 (v. 3). God Himself appoints a member from each tribe to assist (vv. 4-17). Verses 20-46 provide the number of qualifying men from the 12 tribes. Note that Judah was the most populous tribe (v. 27). Note also that Ephraim and Manasseh are part of the 12 tribes according to Jacob’s adoption of the boys as his own (See Gen 48:5), and that Ephraim is equated with the tribe of Joseph (v. 32). Overall, we see the grace of God in the protection that He provided for His people in the face of the attempts by Egypt to limit their reproduction (v. 46). In verse 47, we see why the tribe of Levi was not included in the census. They were set apart by God for the service of the Tabernacle.
Chapter 2 details how the 12 tribes will be arranged when they make camp around the Tabernacle. They are arranged facing the Tabernacle (2:2) in four sets of three, according to the four directions of the compass. The picture is of the four corners of the earth (that is, the whole earth) turned to God. We see later that the book of Revelation uses the same symbolism to represent the church of all time (see Rev 21:9-14), using the four sets of three tribes set at the compass points to represent the Old Testament saints.
Chapter 3 details the setting apart of Levi further than just for the ministry of the care of the Tabernacle. Remember that the firstborn of all of Israel belongs to God because the firstborn are those saved at the Passover. So the firstborn are those saved by the blood of the lamb. We saw that this was pointing to those spiritually saved by the blood of Christ and how we belong to God. Here, we see that God instead takes all the tribe of Levi in place of the firstborn of all Israel (3:11-13). We see here how those saved by the blood of the Lamb not only belong to God, but that we are His priesthood. We see that the number of firstborn exceeds the number of Levites God called in their place (22,000 Levites in v. 39, 22.273 firstborn in v. 43). God then makes a way for redemption (v. 48).
When we are reading our Bibles and come to those troublesome counts, genealogies, etc., we should pause to realize that God’s redemption happens in history. This is a story of redemption, but it is a story that actually happened. Details of history – no matter how boring we may find them – are a reminder that God saved us in actual history. It is the history that the Son stepped down into to save us.