All men over twenty years of age were to be counted and a “sum” or grand total tabulated (see Exod. 30:13-14). This chapter lists the tribal leaders and the numbers counted. The census was necessary, with the loss of 24,000 men in the recent plague involving the women of Moab (see Num. 25:9), with the men dying in the wilderness, and others being born during the many years of wandering in the wilderness. Only Joshua and Caleb from the original Exodus generation were guaranteed an inheritance in the Promised Land.
Notice the total number counted in this census was 601,730 (v. 51). The Hebrews originally departed with 600,000 armed men (see Exod. 12:37), and after nearly forty years of wandering, their number had only increased by 1,730. This is because all men over twenty who departed from Egypt had to die before the new generation could cross the Jordan River and possess the land.
The book of Numbers tallies the number of people counted as follows:
• 603,350 (Num. 1:46)
• 603,550 (Num. 2:32)
• 600,000 (Num. 11:21)
• 601,730 (Num. 26:51)