The Book of Numbers begins with a census – hence its name. This was a census initiated by God. According to the Word of God, the taking of a census is fraught with risks. In Exodus 30:11-12, we see that a census, taken improperly risks bringing a plague to the nation. In fact in the days of David, God’s anger was greatly aroused against David for the census that he took. The issue lies not in the taking of the census, but the way in which the census is taken.
In Numbers 1:2, we’re given an insight into the way God sees a census. The phrase that’s used for the counting process is “se’u et rosh”, which literally means “lift the head”. This is a highly unusual expression because there are many far more commonly used verbs for counting. God could’ve chosen to use any of the simpler words for counting, but instead He chose a roundabout expression – “lift the heads” of the people.
Really, this is the key to understanding God’s take of a census versus the way by which we count. When we count, we’re often after the final number at the end of the count. The politician is interested in the total electoral votes he receives. The businessman counts the number of employees he has under his employment. The pastor counts the total number of people that attends the services of the church.
The problem with such counting is that it devalues the individual and it makes people replaceable. We become obsessed with the total numbers, and we naturally attribute a greater number as a measure of greater success. The larger the total, the stronger the army, the more popular the team and the more successful the church.
This is where our faith runs contrary to the values and systems of this world. We point out to all from the beginning that God created us in His image and His likeness, thus our insistence of the dignity and integrity of the individual. We remind people that God knows their name and has numbered even the hair on their heads. All these to point people to their unique status as one fearfully and wonderfully made by God.
Isn’t it natural then that when God makes a count, He doesn’t count heads, but He “lifts the head” of every individual to ensure that they’re aware that they count and make a difference. He counts in such a manner to tell us that we’re valued as individuals, with unique gifts and temperaments. The census was to be done as a gesture of love and recognition as God takes the effort to lift the heads of every individual.
Still it’s important to realise that there’s a difference between individuality and individualism. Individuality means that I’m a unique and valued member of a team. Individualism means that I’m not a team player at all and am only interested in myself. Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, noted that more people in the US are playing ten-pin bowling instead of joining teams. He called it “bowling alone”.
The implication of this census is important for us to grasp – that Israel was counted individually to constitute one nation. This is individuality without individualism. As leaders, we need to mobilise the people to work together while respecting the individual and valuing them individually through the act of “se’u et rosh”.