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The census that really counts

Author: Neil Rees, 19 March 2021

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The United Kingdom has held a census every 10 years since 1801, and the next one is on 21 March 2021. The earliest one in England was the Domesday book made in 1086.

But history’s most famous census is a biblical one. This census was ordered by Caesar Augustus. He ordered that everyone in the Roman Empire be registered, which caused Joseph to go to Bethlehem and take Mary with him. It is recorded in Luke 2.1, and it is recalled every Christmas.

The Romans held a regular census for taxation and military purposes. Another one is mentioned in Acts 5.37 when ‘Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered’. This was mentioned by the historian Josephus and historians believe it occurred in AD 6.

But censuses were nothing new then. The earliest census in the Bible took place many centuries earlier; there is even a book named after it. Moses had liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Each of the tribes would have to pay its share for maintaining sacrifices and worship for the tabernacle, and men had to be ready to fight. Numbers 1.2 explains: ‘You and Aaron are to take a census of the people of Israel by clans and families. List the names of all the men twenty years old or older who are fit for military service.’ The exception was the tribe of Levi which was put in charge of the tabernacle. The book then lists all the numbers of men from the census, which is why it is called the Book of Numbers.

After 40 years in exile another census was held to record all men 20 years old or above who were fit for military service. They assembled in the plains of Moab across the River Jordan from Jericho. It was almost totally a new generation of people; Numbers 26.64–65 says, ‘There was not even one man left among those whom Moses and Aaron had listed in the first census in the Sinai Desert ... except for Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua.’ This census was used to help divide Canaan amongst the tribes.

Later King Saul seems to have taken a census of men from Israel and Judah (1 Samuel 11.8). Then his successor King David gave orders to Joab, the commander of his army: ‘Go with your officers through all the tribes of Israel from one end of the country to the other, and count the people. I want to know how many there are’ (2 Samuel 24) which is also recorded in 1 Chronicles 21. David’s army commanders opposed his plan as showing a reliance on mere numbers rather than on the grace and power of God. In 2 Chronicles 2.17 King Solomon took a census of all the foreigners who were in the land of Israel, following the census which his father David had taken.

Later, after the return from captivity in Babylon, another census was held of those who returned to Jerusalem and Judea. The results of this census are recorded slightly differently in Ezra and Nehemiah.

In 1851 the British government held a census of attendance at places of worship and a form was sent to every church and synagogue in the land. This showed that about a third of the population, with local variations, were at worship that weekend. Since 2001 the British census has had a voluntary question on religion, and in 2021 you can fill in the form yourself online.

The last and final census in the Bible is the final roll-call in the Book of Life, in which God records the names of those who are saved for Heaven. In the NET Bible translation it is called ‘the census book of the nations’ (Psalm 87:6).

Will your name be in that final census?

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