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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Census Taking

It is the year of the U.S. Census. Every ten years, the United States embarks on an ambitious (and quite expensive) effort to count the people who live here. In modern times, the U.S. government has seen fit to expand the scope of this census to include some basic demographic information as well. They're now looking for basic data on things like race, nationality, and even socio-economic status.

These latter bits of information have become somewhat of a contentious issue among some Americans. This is especially the case for Americans who are suspicious of the government and not trusting of its motives. They'd rather not give such information out. Add to them the number of Americans who aren't successfully contacted and who refuse to cooperate at all with door-to-door census takers --- and it is questionable how accurate the census ends up being.

Statisticians would probably say, however, that statistical probabilities can be calculated that give the government (and its people) a reasonable sense of accuracy with the census results. Said differently, that means they allow a margin for errors and conclude, with that margin, that the information reflects reality.

In my household we cooperate with the U.S. Census every ten years. We also file our tax returns every year on time and pay our taxes. It's not that we trust the government any more than the next guy. We just believe we are supposed to obey our government so long as it doesn't ask us to violate any Biblical principles.

But I have to be honest and wonder about the value of the census. I know, the government says it is so federal dollars can be allocated proportionately to the different areas of the country. That of course suggests that federal funding for things like highways or education is done on a per capita basis. And it ignores the reality that Congressional representatives battle each other for federal pork --- which is federal money that's not proportional to demographic or population needs --- but is rather dispensed based on high velocity politics.

Taking of a census isn't a new thing. In the Bible, God told Moses to take a Census of the Israelites a couple of times. The first time was right after they left Egypt and the second was thirty some years later, as they were preparing to finally enter the promised land. (Read about that one in the 26th chapter of Numbers.)

The question that occurs to me about those different census exercises is the same one that occurs to me now. What was the value of taking a census? Why was a census necessary? I'm sure you're thinking something like, "To count the people. Duh!" But let's keep in mind that God has a live, error-free, constantly up-to-date census of even the very hairs on our heads!

Let's face it, God already knew how many Israelites there were. He knew how many of them were men of fighting age. He knew how many women there were. He knew how many children there were. Heck, He even knew how many fetuses there were! But yet He instructed Moses to take a census. You really have to ask yourself why.

I doubt that a Biblical census of the Israelites after thirty some years in the desert probably didn't look like a U.S. census of today. But I expect it was nevertheless a rather cumbersome process. The Bible counts (in Number 26) tens of thousands of people in each clan and tribe. Certainly counting the people and putting them into categories as an administrative, time-consuming and laborious effort on the part of many people. Maybe the Israelites wondered if it was worth it.

Maybe the Numbers 26 census was to help Moses and his people see what they were equipped for. Perhaps that would give them confidence that they were up to the challenge ahead of them. Or perhaps it would shake their confidence and make them realize that God would have to be their victory.

Possibly this Numbers 26 census would help Moses and his people assess how blessed they were with children and relatives. Maybe it would help them see that, despite the fact that a whole generation had nearly died out in 38 years, their numbers were still strong and they had, in fact, grown as a people.

We may never know the real purpose of the various forms and times of census that were recorded in the Bible. Similarly, we may not know the real purpose of any modern day census efforts. At times, a census in the Bible was considered to be sinful. On the other hand, God Himself occasionally called for a census to be taken. So it seems safe to assume that there can be a righteous, God-honoring purpose to a census. The thing is, the motive for the census matters. And there it is, the whole purpose thing.

What is the purpose of a census? That may well be the most important question that really does deserve an answer. As in Biblical times, there are probably both sinful and righteous purposes or reasons for a modern day census. Strangely enough, I suspect there may be both at the same time. Our challenge will be to wade through the inappropriate motives for the census, focus on the appropriate motives - and somehow, as a nation, find value in the census that we take.

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