There are two major numberings of the children of Israel, which occur during their time in the wilderness. The first occurs in Numbers chapter one. The time is the first day of the second month in the second year (Numbers 1:1, 18). The count totals 603,550 males, twenty years old and above, who are able to go to war. The second occurs in Number chapter twenty-six. The time is about thirty-nine years later (Numbers 1:1 cf. 33:38; Deuteronomy 1:3). The count totals 601,730 males, twenty years old and above, who are able to go to war.
Lesson one: There is a lesson to be learned in individual responsibility and accountability. The numberings are actually registrations for military service. Moses later, asks two tribes, “Shall your brethren go to war while you sit here?” (Numbers 32:6).
All need to be available for the work. Is it not the case that in far too many churches many are not available to do the work?
Lesson two: There is a lesson to be learned in faith. Gleason Archer Jr. has written that the two censuses reveal “they were not kept out of Canaan by their insufficient numbers. It was not the size of their army that mattered, but only the size of their faith. Although no more numerous than their fathers, the younger generation was able to conquer the Canaanites because they were willing to trust God all the way and to obey His marching orders (in a way that their fathers failed to do at Kadesh-barnea)” (Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p. 252). They have 1,820 fewer men in the second numbering. However, this generation enters into the land.
There are two reconnaissance operations before the conquest of Canaan. The first occurs in Numbers chapter thirteen (and is recounted in Deuteronomy chapter one). The second occurs in Joshua chapter two, nearly forty years later (cf. Numbers 14:34).
Who is responsible for the first reconnaissance operation? Numbers says, “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying ‘send men to spy out the land of Canaan…'” (Numbers 13:1-2). It also says that Moses sent them (Numbers 32:8). Deuteronomy says that the people came to Moses saying, “Let us send men before us, and let them search out the land for us, and bring back word to us of the way which we should go up, and of the cities into which we shall come” (Deuteronomy 1:22). It goes on to say that the plan pleased Moses (Deuteronomy 1:23). John Haley provides a reasonable explanation, “The people suggested the matter to Moses, who laid it before the Lord, and received from him an injunction to comply with the people’s request” (Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, p. 350). The spirit of unbelief had already been manifested (cf. Exodus 14:10-11; 15:23-24; 16:2-3; 17:3; Numbers 11:5-6), and may be present in this.
Regardless of the motives of the reconnaissance operation, ten of the twelve spies report that the children of Israel could not take the land. The result is that the people initially refuse to enter (Numbers 14:1-10; Deuteronomy 1:22-23). Moreover, They cannot enter. When they try, they meet defeat. They could see the land, and even taste its fruits, but they could not possess it. God is no longer with this generation in this effort. (Numbers 14:26-45).
The second reconnaissance operation does not come out of the people’s wishes, but from Joshua (Joshua 2). There is no hint of unbelief. Joshua is a man of faith. He was one of the two faithful spies of the first reconnaissance (Number 14:6-10). This is truly military reconnaissance. The men do not report to all the congregation, but to Joshua (Joshua 2:23).
The children of Israel go on to cross the Jordan (Joshua 3), and take Jericho (Joshua 6). They had faith (Hebrews 11:30), while the earlier generation did not (Hebrews 3:19; 4:6; 4:11). “Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who out-lived Joshua” (Joshua 24:31; Judges 2:7).
Lesson: Faith is needed. Gleason Archer Jr. has written, “The spiritual lesson throughout the book (cf. Numbers B.H.) is that God’s people can move forward only so far as they trust His promises and lean upon His strength. The tragedy of Kadesh-barnea was the unavoidable consequences of unbelief; only true believers can enter into God’s rest. Without faith they can only die uselessly in the wilderness (cf. Hebrews 3:7-19)” (Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p. 252).
“Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11)