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In chapter on one the book of Numbers, we read that God commands Moses to take a census:

“The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company.” (ESV‬‬)

This raises an apologetics question of sorts: if God is all knowing, why does he need to call a census? Can’t he just say to Moses: “there are X Israelites among you”?

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  • This may not be a full census but just a census of fighting aged men: "From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them". Does that alter your question? Feb 22 at 1:49
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    @MikeBorden no, it really wouldn't. God could still provide that for them right?
    – Luke Hill
    Feb 22 at 4:34
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    @LukeHill It hardly concerns divine omniscience, for He does not tell: "make census and inform me that My ignorance may be healed". It is for their own benefit that they should count. Similarly, when Lord asks about number of people on whom Siluam tower fell, or number of people fed by Him miraculously, He does not ask them to remind Him something He does not know or has forgotten, but for a pedagogic purpose. Feb 22 at 8:29
  • @Levan Gigineshvili Agreed. Most of the Bible you can ask the question why didn't God just do it himself ? The answer is he wanted "co-labourers". He gave humanity "dominion" over the earth and he was training and developing Israel to live out that purpose on the earth. This is just a step on that path. Counting, organising and structuring the populous.
    – Marshall
    Feb 25 at 16:45

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It's too obvious for words that the census was not for God's benefit because - as you point out - God already knew the total number that would be arrived at.

There were three census counts, so this one needs to be dealt with for it was different to the other two. This one was to count all the eligible males to be used to fight. That is why no women or children were included, and only males of a certain age were to be counted. What would be the benefit to Moses and the Israelites to know the number, and why would God not just tell him?

First, those counted were all on one 'level', all equal, all included as a body of men. There was no individuality here. The count would remind them that they were a nation that had to band together with an army of fighting men, to go forward according to God's plan that they inhabit the Promised Land. This would remind them of what lay ahead and of teamwork that would be required.

Second, Moses and the others needed to organise themselves with this army, again, for what lay ahead. Although God had promised Abraham and themselves with that land, it was not going to be handed to them on a plate - as if God was getting them to think, "Well, I fought your battles for you to get you out of bondage in Egypt, and you can continue to sit back and see what I shall do for you." Although there was truth in that, also in how God did perform miracles when their army fought and they obeyed God's instructions (e.g. in how they saw the walls of Jericho come tumbling down), God knew the nation would need to develop a trained, experienced army. The census was the first step towards that. But the specifics would be written down, not just numbers, for family and tribal details needed to be known, to organise into units. God stating the total number would not enable all the details to be written down.

Third, God gets his people to mature in faith, and obedience to God is vital for that to happen. God did not tell Moses the number because Moses had work to do. He had to be seen leading the nation and carrying out God's instructions in order to do that. God is not a data-base we can consult by asking him questions that he will obligingly answer for us. He does not have to prove anything to us! He's not out to convince us that he "knows it all"! We are the ones who need to learn to know him, and we do that by being obedient to his directions and commands. When David took a census that was against God's will, there were dreadful consequences.

You may find helpful information on this, from the Israeli point of view, at this link: https://www.chabad.org/search/keyword.asp?kid=13860&page=2&jewish=Census-of-the-Israelites.htm

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God is a Father. Fathers begin by providing all the needs of their children, but slowly teach them how to meet those needs by themselves. A goal of a parent is to prepare their children for full maturity, able to stand on their own. This is evident in Ecclesiastes, where Solomon - teaching his son - speaks of twenty-eight times in chapter 3. These times, grouped in quartets, correspond to seven stages in growth from infancy to maturity, to acquire:

  • security (of food, shelter and emotional support),
  • ability (mental and physical),
  • stability (as expressed by verbal and physical self control in weeping, laughing, mourning and dancing),
  • amity (cooperation and intimacy in friendship and romance),
  • opportunity (tangible material acquisition as well as intangible opportunities and responsibilities),
  • community (such as tearing and mending of relationships)
  • loyalty (as expressed in love, hate, war and peace)

Ecclesiastes also has sections on the mature worker as well as the physical and mental decline that precede death.

The above phases of growth not only apply to individuals, they have analogies that apply to nations and civilizations as well.

Since conducting a census is a normal function of a government that must make plans according to the size of the population, God was teaching the people the basics of how to govern themselves and advance civilization. Since this is a census to count soldiers ready for war, it may relate to the first phase of development, security, or to the last phase, loyalty (which includes war).

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  • This analogy of a father fails because God would always be there for the israelites.
    – Luke Hill
    Feb 22 at 4:34
  • In my reading of history and Scripture, the process of bringing Israel and the church to full maturity is not yet complete. That awaits Christ's return and the Wedding supper of the Lamb. So I agree that God has always ben there for Israel, but his role of teaching is still underway. Feb 22 at 14:06

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