The story opens with a spotlight on Moses. He's still hanging with the Israelites in Sinai, where they've been since Exodus. At this point, it's been a year and two months since they made a run for it from Egypt. It's not exactly paradise, but hey, pretty much anything beats slavery.
Anyway, Moses is sitting in the "tent of meeting" (a.k.a. the tabernacle) when God tells Moses that he needs to take a census of all the people. Every man who's over twenty years old should have his name recorded. This will give Moses a good idea of who's gonna be able to go to war should the need arise. Plus, God is just kind of a fan of record-keeping.
God lists out twelve specific men to help with the census (one from each of the tribes of Israel). That's handy. God really has a future in HR.
So, Moses and Aaron get these guys together and they go ahead and register everyone in the community. We're guessing it takes awhile.
Yup. Once all the names of the over twentysomething males are written down, it ends up being exactly 603,550 battle-ready bros.
(Quick historical side note: There's no way this number is actually an accurate count. Think about it. When you add in women and children and the guys from the tribe of Levi (who haven't been counted yet) you're talking nearly two million people. That means there were as almost many people living in the wilderness in Sinai as there are in Boston today. See? Insanity. [Source 114.])
The Levites (the guys who descended from Jacob's son Levi from back in Genesis) aren't included in this number. Hmm… we wonder why?
Good question. See, they're not expected to take up arms in battle. These guys are gonna be responsible for babysitting the tabernacle.
Sounds like a sweet gig? Not quite.
These guys will live around the tabernacle (which is basically a big tent that sits in the middle of the Israelite's camp and stands in for the presence of God).
They protect it (no touching!), perform basic upkeep, carry it from place to place (it was pretty bulky), and take it down and set it back up wherever the Israelites camp. Oh, and they have to kill anyone who sets foot near it. It's a pretty intense job.
Anyway, the Israelites go ahead and do everything that God says. Things are looking up for these guys. What could go wrong?