The Named and the Nameless

As we started reading the book of Numbers in our chronological trek through the Old Testament, we are immediately reminded why Numbers is called “Numbers.” Numbers 1 gives a detailed accounting of the census conducted of the Israelite men of fighting age a little more than a year after they left Egypt. Numbers 2 gives, also in great detail, of how the Israelite tribes were divided into divisions, how many men were in each division, and how they were to camp around the Tabernacle. OK, so Math has never been my favorite subject and I’m sure that I would make a lousy accountant. It was tempting to “observe the Passover” and skip over the numbers in Numbers this morning.

But then it dawned on me that Numbers isn’t really about numbers at all. It is about people; the numbers reported in the opening of the book represented individual people who were loved by God. These numbers represent unknown people to us, but they were known by God. Consider for minute the men who were named as leaders over the tribes of Israel in Numbers—

Elizur son of Shedeur (Rueben), Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai (Simeon), Nahshon son of Amminadab (Judah), Nethanel son of Zuar (Issachar), Eliab son of Helon (Zebulun), Elishama son of Ammihud (Ephraim), Gamaliel son of Pedahzur (Manasseh), Abidan son of Gideoni (Benjamin), Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai (Dan), Pagiel son of Okran (Asher), Eliasaph son of Deuel (Gad), and Ahira son of Enan (Naphtali).

These men were singled out by God and appointed as leaders over the tribes of Israel. Think about the implication for these real flesh-and-blood people—they were chosen by God and given the responsibility to lead the people of God at this critical juncture in their history. These are just 12 names out of the 603,550 names compiled during census that gives Numbers its name. These were all real people with real stories. They are also really obscure.

That’s the point that struck me. The only time these men are mentioned in the rest of the story of Israel is in Numbers 7 and 10 as they do ceremonial tasks as the leaders of the tribes of Israel. Well, Nahshon is mentioned several times in genealogical lists because he is from Judah and was an ancestor of David... and of Jesus. And Eliab is mentioned in Numbers 16 only because his two sons Dathan and Abiram joined with Korah in an ill-fated revolt against Moses. But these leaders of the tribes aren’t mentioned in the failure of Israel to enter into Canaan. They aren't mentioned in any of the stories of the complaining and rebelling during the wilderness wandering. In other words, though they were appointed as leaders in Israel, they provide no real leadership for the people of God. They became just names that represent the nameless 603,548 men (all but Joshua and Caleb) who died in the wilderness because they would not trust God to lead them into Canaan.

God knew each of these 603, 550 men by name. He called a few of them by name serve in specific ways.  He called all 603, 550 of them to faithfulness in following His leadership.   And yet they all remain for us "the nameless" because they refused to trust God and follow where He was leading. Maybe if we try really hard, we can find a lesson somewhere in this for ourselves?