Trusting God Through The Numbers

The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “The people of Israel shall camp each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ houses. They shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side. Those to camp on the east side toward the sunrise shall be of the standard of the camp of Judah by their companies, the chief of the people of Judah being Nahshon the son of Amminadab, his company as listed being 74,600. Those to camp next to him shall be the tribe of Issachar, the chief of the people of Issachar being Nethanel the son of Zuar, his company as listed being 54,400. Then the tribe of Zebulun, the chief of the people of Zebulun being Eliab the son of Helon, his company as listed being 57,400. All those listed of the camp of Judah, by their companies, were 186,400. They shall set out first on the march. “On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Reuben by their companies, the chief of the people of Reuben being Elizur the son of Shedeur, his company as listed being 46,500. Numbers 2:1-11

bible-and-coffeeIf like me you have read the bible through at least once, you would have read through the numbers lists and genealogies, such as the verses quoted above. And like me, you probably found it very difficult reading. Keeping concentration is hard and we struggle to put into perspective why these texts are a part of the bible. So why did God include in His word, large parts of Genesis, Chronicles, Numbers and even a chapter in Luke and Matthew each such lists? And what can we learn from them? In literature, I am unaware of any other work that labours so hard with lists, genealogies and numbers, except Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and then only in the appendixes. So why does the bible have them? And does it benefit us to read them through, and as often as we read the rest of the bible? I came up with four reasons why they are important.

  1. The genealogies and number lists demonstrate that the bible is a historical document, comprising of multiple genres of writing and written down by many different people over many many years rather than a complete fabrication out of the heads a person or group. As you know, the genres include writings, historical accounts, poetry, proverbs, law, genealogies, court records, letters, public proclamations written down and so on. Even a cursory glance through the bible will reveal this is so, and in examining some texts will Illustrate what I mean.
    Some verses are written from the first person:

    In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar a vision appeared to me, Daniel, after that which appeared to me at the first. And I saw in the vision; and when I saw, I was in Susa the citadel, which is in the province of Elam. And I saw in the vision, and I was at the Ulai canal. Daniel 8: 1-2

    or from the third person such as:

    Then Joshua rose early in the morning and they set out from Shittim. And they came to the Jordan, he and all the people of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over. At the end of three days the officers went through the camp and commanded the people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. Joshua 3:1-3

    And then there is songs:

    Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD! Psalm 150

    Or proverbs:

    Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored. A desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul, but to turn away from evil is an abomination to fools. Proverbs 13:18-19 

    And finally (by way of example) prophecy:

    The word of the LORD came to me:
    “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Ezekiel 18:1-3


    Besides all this, we see order, an account of God’s interaction with the world, from the day He created it, till the day He will destroy and remake it. And His salvation plan, starting with the Woman’s seed (Genesis 3:15) to the calling of Abraham, and his descendants, ultimately climaxing in Christ, and the events soon thereafter. No work of fiction would be able to encompass so much differing content and still be even remotely coherent.

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  2. This is probably the most important reason why genealogies and numbers are important. They tell us, Christians today in the 21st century that we are connected to an actual, unbroken and continuous line of saint, men of old who were just as much in awe and in love with our God as we were. We are connected to an actual history, and its our history. The events of the early church are the events of our church’s past. indeed, while we are not Israel, the various events of the Old Testament is part of the history of a believer. If nothing else, this should give us tremendous trust in God’s faithfulness. If He can keep the world spinning, and keep His people for so many centuries, He will certainly keep us, as He has promised. (Hebrews 13:5).
    Have you ever read your family tree? My family has several volumes covering some of the branches of my family history. I remember pouring over these books, reading about the first member of my family in South Africa (One of the 1820 Settlers in the Eastern Cape if you’re interested). Thomas Hartley and his sons, and their exploits, and how they settled, and what they did and so on. I’m sure you know what I mean. In the same way, we read of (for example) Steven, the first Martyr, and realize that he is our Ancestor in the faith, a man who, like I am, was called and converted to Jesus Christ, who boldly proclaimed Him and, as I may be, was called to lay his life down for his Lord.
  3. The numbers and genealogies is one of the nails in the coffin of the debate “Is the bible the word of God?” Because of the number of authors, as well as the different genres and the number of years over which the full text of the bible was written and compiled, the idea that it would be cohesive, let alone coherent is very difficult to imagine. It is totally understandable that unbelievers can look at the bible from a far perspective and reject it out of hand for this reason. Except when you read and study it you find it to be both coherent and cohesive, in both small portions and as a whole. God wrote it, The incredibly complex detail is impossible otherwise. And it all hangs together. Part of this coherence is the genealogies, it tells us people are involved, and that they were involved in events planned and played out by our Lord. At such and such a time, such and such happened.
  4. Finally, it tells us that the bible is not fiction. I have, in reality been saying this is the previous 3 points, but allow me to summarize in this way, because by noting it directly we can draw some particular applications. If the bible isn’t fiction, then we can, in the first place, take it seriously, knowing that its author intended it to be understood as truth. It certainly claims to be true and I have found many many reasons to believe that it is true. And if true, because of its claims, it most certainly must have and effect on our lives, it cannot help but do that.

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So in summary, God wrote the bible, and He is the author of all of it. This includes long lists of names, numbers and details of people. Boring as this may be, in the literary sense it nevertheless can teach us a number of things. It tells us about an actual history that actually happened. And we are connected to that story, we are part of the story which ultimately God is playing out. God’s word is true, trustworthy and needed for knowing God. Get hold of one and read it regularly, and remember as you read through it, especially through Chronicles or Numbers, this is from God.