Numbers began with a census of the people. (Numbers 1-4) Now after forty years there was to be another census taken. This census had the same purpose as the first that it was to count all the men who could be soldiers in the army of Israel. The Israelites were preparing to enter into the Promised Land. They would have to fight the Midianites and then the people who lived in the land of Canaan. They would need a strong army to do this.
There was another reason for the census. When the people settled in the Promised Land Moses would have to divide the land between the tribes. Moses would need to know the size of each tribe. God would order Moses to do this in verses 52-56.
With the exception of Caleb and Joshua all the Israelites from the first census had died. Those people were young when they had left Egypt but they had not be grateful to God for the mighty things He had done for them. They were complainers and disobedient and they had not trusted Him when He told them to go into the Promised Land. God said that they would die in the desert and their offspring would inherit the Promised Land.
We can look at the numbers from the first census and compare them to this census and see the difference between the tribes. We can see which tribes became larger and which became smaller over the 40 years that had passed.
Most of the tribes had increased throughout the years. Reuben’s, Gad’s, Ephraim’s, and Simeon’s tribes had become smaller. In verses 8-11 we see two possible events mentioned that may be the reason that their tribes became smaller. We see these events in Numbers Chapter 16.
We also know why Simeon’s tribe became smaller because of the actions of Zimri who was one of the leaders. He led many astray and they sinned and they sinned in the same way that he did. It may also be that many more of his tribe died of the plaque as a result of their sin. Also Simeon, Gad, and Reuben were camped to the south and closer to the Moabites. So when the plaque came it would have effected them first and this plaque spread until Phinehas killed Zimri and Cozbi.
God wanted Moses to divide the land fairly between the tribes and this made a couple decisions to be made. One decision was how much each tribe needed based upon their size and which part of Canaan would their land be located.
God told Moses how to make these decisions. The bigger tribes receive more land than the smaller tribes. Second they would cast lots to decide the position of the tribe’s territory. The uses of lots would give each one an equal opportunity. It is not clear exactly how the lots were cast. The belief was that God controlled the outcome and not just the luck of the draw.
Levi’s tribe was not given a share of the land and neither were they allowed to join the army. Moses counted them separately as He had done in the first census.