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Holman Bible Dictionary
Moses took a census of Israel at Mount Sinai and assessed a half-shekel tax to each male over twenty to support the tabernacle (Exodus 30:13-16 ). Another census counted Israel's manpower available for war. This census excluded the Levites, separating them for service in the tabernacle (Numbers 1:1 ). Another census was taken in Moab at the end of the wilderness wanderings, again excluding the Levites. The Hebrew may indicate the units used in the count reflect tribal units and not thousands, thus accounting for the large totals. David also counted Israel's warriors. 2 Samuel 24:1 says that the Lord incited David to carry out the census, and 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that Satan moved David to do so. In both accounts a pestilence was sent upon Israel because of the census. Ezekiel 2:1 accounts for those who came out of Exile with Zerubbabel and Nehemiah.
The first census referred to in the New Testament concerns the decree by Caesar Augustus “that all the world should be taxed.” This “first census” was taken by Cyrenius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-5 ). Luke used this benchmark both as a general time reference and, more importantly, to set the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the ancestral city of David. This passage has presented problems in that: one, there is no specific record of such a census outside the Lukan account and two, the date of Cyrenius's governorship (A.D. 6-9) appears to be inconsistent with the previous statement that Jesus' birth was in the reign of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5 ), who died in A.D. 4. However, Luke's account is consistent with Roman practices, and such a census could well have been ordered by Cyrenius functioning as a military governor alongside the political governor Sentius Saturnius around 6 B.C., when most scholars date the birth of Jesus. The other reference is that of Gamaliel's remark about Judas of Galilee, who rose up “in the days of the census” only to later perish (Acts 5:37 NIV).
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Census'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/c/census.html. 1991.