Why did God number the Israelites? Why take a census? Didn’t He know how many Israelites there were? Doesn’t the God who knows how many hairs are on your head also know how many faces are in a crowd?
As I read this chapter — which repeated the census results whilst giving the layout plan for tents — it occurred to me that God didn’t need a census to know how many Israelites were living in the desert. He already knew! (Especially since He was feeding them all on a daily basis. The first thing a good cook will tell you is that she needs to know how many people are coming to dinner.)
So, why go through the process of counting? I believe God did it for the same reason He does most everything — not for His benefit, but for ours. And what benefits did the census have for the Israelites?
1. It demonstrated a fulfillment of God’s promise. God had originally promised Abraham that he would become a great nation. When Jacob moved to Egypt during the famine, his family numbered about 75 people. And now, from that fledgling nation, there were more than 2 million! I wonder if Abraham could ever have dreamed that he would be the "father" of so many. And it was good for the Hebrews to have concrete evidence that God had, indeed, blessed them as He promised He would.
2. It revealed that God is more than a distant deity. To God, the Israelites weren’t just a faceless mass of people. On the contrary, by "numbering" them, He was showing them that each of them was important to Him. Even though there were more than 2 million of them, He still cared about their personal heritage — their clans and families. And even within the different tribes, each family was registered by the head of the household. Following the census, the Israelites could no longer live under the illusion that they were just "one of the crowd." Each family had been seen and counted by God Himself. What other "god" ever interacted with his subjects in such a way! It boggles the mind that Israel ever turned back to false gods.
God is always acting in ways that benefit us. He asks questions when He doesn’t need information. He requests a census when He already knows the names of everyone in His kingdom. He asks us to worship Him even though He’s not looking for self-exaltation. Everything He does is for us.
He is for us!