Census in the Bible

Major Censuses in the Old Testament and New Testament

Census Definition
The best known census in the Bible took place at the time of Jesus Christ's birth. Godong / Getty Images

A census is the numbering or registration of people. It's generally done for the purpose of taxation or military recruitment. Censuses are reported in the Bible in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Census in the Bible

The book of Numbers derives its name from the two recorded censuses made of the Israelite people, one at the beginning of the 40-year wilderness experience and one at the end.

In Numbers 1:1–3, not long after Israel's exodus from Egypt, God told Moses to count the people by tribe to determine the number of Jewish men 20 years and older who could serve in the military. The total number came to 603,550.

Later, in Numbers 26:1–4, as Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land, a second census was taken, again, to evaluate its military force, but also to prepare for future organize and property allocation in Canaan. This time the total numbered 601,730.

Census in the Old Testament

In addition to the two military censuses in Numbers, a special numbering of the Levites was also performed. Rather than carry out military duties, these men were priests who served in the tabernacle. In Numbers 3:15 they were instructed to list every male who was 1 month old or older. The tally came to 22,000. In Numbers 4:46–48 Moses and Aaron listed all of the men between the ages of 30 and 50 who were eligible for service in the Tabernacle and transporting it, with the number counted being 8,580.

Near the end of his reign, King David commissioned his military leaders to conduct a census of the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba. David's commander, Joab, was reluctant to fulfill the king's command knowing the census violated God's command. This is recorded in 2 Samuel 24:1-2.

While it's not explicit in Scripture, David's motivation for the census seemed to be rooted in pride and self-reliance. Although David eventually repented of his sin, God insisted on a punishment, letting David chose between seven years of famine, three months of fleeing from enemies, or three days of severe plague. David chose the plague, in which 70,000 men died.

In 2 Chronicles 2:17-18, Solomon took a census of the foreigners in the land for the purpose of distributing laborers. He counted 153,600 and assigned 70,000 of them as common laborers, 80,000 as quarry workers in the hill country, and 3,600 as foremen. 

Finally, during the time of Nehemiah, after the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, a complete census of the people was recorded in Ezra 2.

Census in the New Testament

Two Roman censuses are found in the New Testament. The most well-known, of course, took place at the time of Jesus Christ's birth, reported in Luke 2:1–5.

"At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant." (NLT)

The final census mentioned in the Bible was also recorded by the Gospel writer Luke, in the book of Acts. In the verse Acts 5:37, a census was conducted and Judas of Galilee had gathered a following but was killed and his followers scattered.

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Fairchild, Mary. "Census in the Bible." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/meaning-of-census-700736. Fairchild, Mary. (2021, February 8). Census in the Bible. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/meaning-of-census-700736 Fairchild, Mary. "Census in the Bible." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/meaning-of-census-700736 (accessed June 3, 2023).