After forty years of camping in the desert, about which God reveals very little, the children of Israel were ready to enter the land promised to their ancestors. All who had left Egypt, twenty years and older (excluding Moses, Joshua and Caleb) died during those years. They died as punishment for first doubting God, and then for not obeying God.
A second census is taken. The census effectively enrolls all men of age in Israel’s army. All are expected to fight. They are the community of God, and that community must stick together. In the second census report, mention is made that Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh had no sons. This will introduce us to the problem of inheritance in the next chapter.
Another reason for the census is to determine the allotment of the land. Each tribe received an amount of land according to its size.
Two further points about the census are important: First, the book of Numbers makes a historical presentation. Names are given, people numbered and totals provided – a very dangerous way of telling a story that is supposed to be true, if in fact, it is false. Second, note that the population of Israel is substantially the same as it was just after the Exodus. God has taken care of his people, and preserved them in the desert.