Unless you are a mathematics postgraduate, numbers are of little use by themselves; they need context. They’re effectively adjectives, not only telling us how many there are of something, but also providing some description of an object itself (e.g. height, weight). These descriptions allow us to make well-informed decisions, such as whether to decide whether we can lift that box or whether it might be advisable to take a woolly hat with you on a cold April morning!
As an accountant, using numbers is how I make my living. I have to ensure the numbers are correct and I have to understand them, so I can concisely inform the company directors what has been happening in the company and they can then make sound decisions.
So what is the context in which the census takes place in the early chapters of the book of Numbers? Some translations (for example, the NRSV) translate the Hebrew word ‘tsaba’ as ‘company’ though ‘army’ might better convey the purpose for which they would be employed (see more here). This come out especially in chapter 13 when the spies return from Canaan and discuss their ability to overcome the present inhabitants.
This might make some Christians uncomfortable. It certainly does me. This is because across a variety of traditions there is a strong streak of non-violence, even pacifism. Yet God does not appear to warn against acts of war, which is also a strong feature in some of the Psalms. Historically, this has led some, most notably Marcion, to suppose that the God of the Old Testament is different from that of the New. This idea has been churned up again, most memorably by Richard Dawkins, possibly demonstrating that there is nothing new under the sun.
But this question is not one that should be lightly dismissed by today’s Christians. It is a serious critique worth considering. I don’t offer an answer here, but I would invite you to consider if a blind eye is sometimes turned this way, preferring to think solely of a gospel of grace. Many Jewish and Christian apologists have debated and written about this over the centuries and one could spend some considerable time listening to the abundant voices. But what do you think about it?
Chapter 14 is pivotal to the history of the Old Testament, bringing its own fresh problems to the modern reader. In particular verse 18, which amalgamates two quotes from Exodus:
“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”
I would struggle to make sense of christianity if I didn’t have a sense of justice. Here, we see at once two sides to God’s character: the God who forgives and the God who punishes. The same chapter sees the latter exemplified by the extension of the exile by 40 years, ensuring that the current generation of ‘complainers’ would die before reaching the promised land. Yet the clause about third & fourth generations doesn’t sit easy with our modern sensibilities of what justice entails.
If we worship a God who we call ‘good’ then we seem to be faced with a choice: either we expunge these awkward passages from our bibles, or else we have to allow our beliefs be shaped by these passages which may sit uneasily with us. Maybe that’s a little simplistic. I’ll let you have think about it.
Being a disciple doesn’t mean we have all the answers. It means we are constantly learning. These are just a couple of examples of areas that may cause us to pause for thought.