The Mystery of the Tribe of Simeon

Posted on September 23, 2019

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By David Ettinger

Fascinating Facts
For those who delve deep into the wonders of the Bible, there is a lifetime worth of lessons, information, knowledge, and fascinating facts to discover.

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One of these fascinating facts is found in the fourth book of the Old Testament, Numbers, and concerns one of the 12 tribes of Israel, Simeon.

What Happened?
In Chapters 1 and 26 we read of two separate censuses taken of “all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army” (1:3). The two counts were 38 years apart – the first shortly after the Children of Israel came out of Egypt, and the second shortly before they were to enter the promised land of Canaan.

The first count netted a result of 603,550, the second 601,730. Odd that the population dropped slightly, but the reason was that God had been disciplining the Israelites due to their rebellion against Him (Chapter 14).

Some of the tribes made great gains in population. Manasseh grew by a whopping 20,500; Asher by 11,900; and Benjamin by 10,200. However, several tribes lost population, among them Ephraim and Naphtali, down 8,000.

But no shift was as staggering as that of the tribe of Simeon. In the first census, Simeon numbered 59,300 (Numbers 1:23). However, 38 years later, the count was 22,200 (Numbers 26:14), a drop of 37,100 – way more than half its population.

What in the world happened to the tribe of Simeon?

Sordid Event
The Bible doesn’t tell us directly what happened, but a keen mind will reveal the answer. The key lies in the previous chapter, Numbers 25, where we read this shameful account:

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them” (vs. 1-3).

As a result of this sordid event, the Lord sent a plague to punish the Israelites, resulting in the death of 24,000 (v. 9). This accounts for a chunk of the national population loss, but what about the astronomical 37,100 loss in the tribe of Simeon?

Honing In
Let’s hone in further, to when Moses was chastising the Israelites: “Then an Israelite man brought into the camp a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (v. 6).

A zealous Levite named Phinehas (Moses’ nephew) followed this couple into their tent and speared both to death (v. 7). The Lord was appeased, and the plague was ended.

Later, we are given the identity of the couple who so blatantly sinned before all Israel: “The name of the Israelite who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family” (v. 14, emphasis added).

There it is: “the leader of a Simeonite family.” Though not explicitly noted, scholars believe that vast majority of those 24,000 killed by the plague were of the tribe of Simeon as they were likely those who most participated in the great sin (following the example of their leader Zimri).

By comparing Scripture to Scripture we are able to attain a reasonable and judicious explanation for why the Simeonites lost so much of its population from the first to the second census. The rest can be attributed to attrition as in the case of the tribes of Ephraim and Naphtali.

Two Lessons
There is much to be learned here, one being that God is a holy God and DOES punish sin. He may not do so as dramatically today, but be assured, God will not endure sin.

One other lesson we can learn from this is that the Bible – all 66 books – is filled with fascinating gems to be mined if we will only approach our Bible reading with enthusiasm, anticipation, and sincerity.