One of the prominent (and obvious) features of the book of Numbers is that it begins and ends with a census – or numbering – of the people of Israel. By tribe and family, the men of fighting age are counted, reported, and tallied over the course of several slow-going chapters. Few readers find this riveting stuff, placing Numbers near the bottom of the popular favorites list for many Christians.
It should be noted that a large portion of the middle of the book does contain a collection of unique and insightful stories about the travels and exploits of God’s people during the majority of the 40-year wilderness period. The censuses at the beginning and end of the book are tallies of the people near the beginning and the end of that long stretch of time, so what is contained in between is the majority of what we know for those forty years!
That being said, it is the numbers in Numbers that this article is dealing with. In both the beginning and the end of the book, the reported total number of men of fighting age in Israel is over 600,000. When women, children, and elderly persons are added, the reasonable population assumption lads around 2 million. For many people, this is the comfortable assumption and the number is given no further thought.
However, there are a great many problems with this number. The Bedouin tribes of the Sinai have never surpassed a population of a few thousand; the logistics of moving two million people (despite accounting for God’s miraculous provision of food and water) are staggering; the book of Judges notes that the people of Israel are too few to occupy the Promised Land fully, so they have to conquer the land in stages; the population of Palestine only reached one million in the late 19th century, and only skyrocketed beyond that in the 20th century when Jews began mass immigrations; Israel is frequently accounted in the Old Testament to be small compared to its neighbors. This mass of biblical and historical evidence is impossible to ignore.
One of the first likely lines of correct understanding of the numbers in Numbers is dealing with the word for “thousand.” Eleph in Hebrew, this is a word that can refer to a herd of cattle, a company of troops, or even a family or other sort of group. This would mean that instead of the tribe of Reuben having “forty-six thousand five hundred men”, it actually had “forty-six families: five hundred men.” A similar theory is that the eleph is the number of captains or group-leaders. These sorts of theories bring the total Israelite population down to 72,000, 20,000, or even 5,500, all of which are considerably more realistic for that point in history.
Other interpretations of the numbers in Numbers is that they’re anachronistic or symbolic. Some scholars have posited that the population tallies were updated by later scribes to reflect the tribes of Israel in the glory days of King David. Others have found connections to astronomical signs and numbers, citing the Old Testament comparison between God’s “hosts” in heaven (the planets and stars) and God’s “hosts” on earth (the people of Israel) (cf. Joshua 5:14, Judges 5:20).
A third group of theories posit that the numbers are greatly inflated to demonstrate the glory of God’s people, or even completely fabricated to demonstrate the might of God’s earthly army.
Each of these theories have their strong and weak points. Like much of biblical history, we have the big picture, but many of the details are hazy. At the end of the day, we are reminded that the Bible is both a divine document and a human document. By virtue of its divine authorship, the Bible is infallible in its communication of its subjects: God, his promises and covenants, his people, the words of law and grace, the call to see and know Jesus as Christ and Lord. By virtue of its human authorship, the Bible is written in languages and set in historical contexts that are very foreign to us today, and often rather difficult to understand to the fullest. This is no challenge to its divine authority, simply a reminder that what is earthly is fallible and liable to pass away while what is divine endures forever.
We may never agree on the exact numbers of Israelites that made the exodus from Egypt and lined up 40 years later to conquer Palestine, but we can always agree that the Lord was with them as he is with us. Similarly, we can never be sure how many Christians there are today – none can look into the heart but God himself – yet we worship and minister together in the name of Christ in the hopes that all will call on the name of the Lord and be saved.