Israel had been free from Egypt for a whole year. No longer could they fear being enslaved by their former oppressors – Yahweh had kept them safe in the wilderness this entire time. They hadn’t been without their struggles, but here they were, advancing nearer and nearer to the Promised Land. After setting up civil and religious establishments, they were ready for the next stage of organization.
Out of the myriad of Israel, Yahweh raised an army. All the men age twenty and above were numbered and ordered. No one in this group was overlooked; all were expected to be registered and prepared to fight if called. Soldiering was not for select professionals, all able-bodied men were necessary: “whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies” (Numbers 1:3, NASB).
Imagine the Israelites realizing there would be battles ahead of them, bigger battles than they’d faced yet, battles for the land God wanted them to possess. He had rescued them in the past, from Egypt and from the Amalekites, but now He was transferring them to another level of combat, one where His presence would not always be so plain.
Thus it is with the battles we face after we are saved. None of us are exempt; we’re all the army of God. Like Israel, we must be “strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” (Ephesians 6:10). Moses told them in Deuteronomy 31:3, “It is the LORD God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them.” But as the Book of Joshua shows, Israel still had to fight. They just were not to forget whose strength won the victory. As you and I face spiritual frays, we, too, must get our power from God – actively and consciously, as the rest of Ephesians 6:10-18 explains. All the armor to gain victory over the devil comes from God. He equips us like He equipped Israel.
Ephesians 6:12 provides another parallel to Israel: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Reading about the battles the army of Israel fought against the Amorites, the Midianites, the Canaanites, and the rest, we might not immediately recall that these were spiritual battles as well. Satan had a special interest in the Israelites’ failure to conquer the land of promise and their elimination by any of these nations (Genesis 3:15). Israel had to spiritually prepare for their physical battles just as much as we do for any of ours, physical, spiritual, and otherwise. Deuteronomy 20:8 dismisses the soldier without faith. The people are constantly urged to be strong and courageous. And in our parashah, Numbers 1:49-53, the Lord arranges protection for the spiritual center of the nation – the Levites are kept out of the normal army so they can take care of and guard the sanctity of the Tabernacle. (The Levites were some of the most courageous fighters of all Israelites, if the way they stood against the golden calf worshipers is any indication – see Exodus 32:26-29.) Spiritual preparation was essential to the success of Israel’s battles.
Like it or not, all of us believers are soldiers in the great spiritual war. Some of the attacks are physical, others are not. But either way, we can’t ignore the fight, and we must prepare ourselves by following Paul’s injunction in Ephesians 6 – know and act on the truth (girding our waist with truth); walk in righteousness (putting on the breastplate of righteousness); ready to give an answer (fitting our feet with the preparation of the Gospel of peace); strengthen our faith (taking up the shield of faith); rely on God’s salvation (taking the helmet of salvation); know His Word (taking the sword of the Spirit); and pray whenever we can, both for ourselves and for others. It’s a full-time calling, but drawing our strength from God is the only way to win.
The Numbers census was also for the purpose of portioning out the Land of Promise. After conquering their enemies in the Land by the Lord’s grace, the men (of the second generation) who were counted received an inheritance for themselves and their descendants. And if we fight the good fight and stay true to our King, “from the Lord [we] will receive the reward of the inheritance” (cf. Colossians 3:23-25). By God’s gift we have an eternal heritage.