Meaning of Census in the Bible

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

Definition: A census is the numbering or registration of people generally for the purpose of taxation or military recruitment.

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, 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.

Numbers 1:1–3
A year after Israel's departure from Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the Tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai. On the first day of the second month of that year he said, "From the whole community of Israel, record the names of all the warriors by their clans and families. List all the men twenty years old or older who are able to go to war. You and Aaron must register the troops ... (NLT)

Later, in Numbers 26, 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.

Numbers 26:1–4
After the plague had ended, the LORD said to Moses and to Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, "From the whole community of Israel, record the names of all the warriors by their families. List all the men twenty years old or older who are able to go to war." So there on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho, Moses and Eleazar the priest issued these instructions to the leaders of Israel: "List all the men of Israel twenty years old and older, just as the LORD commanded Moses." This is the record of all the descendants of Israel who came out of Egypt.


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.

Numbers 3:15
"Record the names of the members of the tribe of Levi by their families and clans. List every male who is one month old or older ..." (NLT)

Numbers 3:39
When Moses and Aaron counted the Levite clans at the LORD’s command, the total number was 22,000 males one-month-old or older. (NLT)

Numbers 4:46–48
So Moses, Aaron, and the leaders of Israel listed all the Levites by their clans and families. All the men between thirty and fifty years of age who were eligible for service in the Tabernacle and for its transportation numbered 8,580. (NLT)

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.

2 Samuel 24:1-2
Once again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he caused David to harm them by taking a census... So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army, "Take a census of all the tribes of Israel--from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south--so I may know how many people there are." (NLT)

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, Solomon took a census of the foreigners in the land for the purpose of distributing laborers:

2 Chronicles 2:17-18
Solomon took a census of all foreigners in the land of Israel, like the census his father had taken, and he counted 153,600. He assigned 70,000 of them as common laborers, 80,000 as quarry workers in the hill country, and 3,600 as foremen. (NLT)

And 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:

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.


The final census mentioned in the Bible was also recorded by the Gospel writer Luke, in the book of Acts:

Acts 5:37
After him, at the time of the census, there was Judas of Galilee. He got people to follow him, but he was killed, too, and all his followers were scattered. (NLT)

More Christmas Words