The Mystery of The Numbers in Numbers

May 12, 2015 — Leave a comment


Over the past several weeks, I’ve been continuing on through the book of Numbers as part of my devotional reading. I told you about snakes on the plain a few weeks back, and how they are some very instructive stories scattered through Numbers. The barrier to getting to these stories is usually working through the opening 10 chapters which are mostly geneological, hence Numbers.

Unless you’ve done some background reading, you might not be aware that there are problems with the numbers in Numbers. Mainly, the issue is that the numbers are very large (600,000+ people in Israel) and there is genuine lack of archaeological evidence that a people group that large was assimilated in to Egypt at some point and also wandered the Arabian peninsula for 40 years. While archaeological evidence does not determine the truthfulness of the biblical record, there is something to be said for considering how to take the numbers in Numbers. If nothing else, people were instructed to go outside the camp for certain, shall we say, business, and if there are over a million people present, that’s a long walk for a bathroom break.

Gordon Wenham outlines the four main problems with accepting the numbers at face value:

First, it is very difficult to imagine so many people surviving in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years. When women and children are included, the census figures suggest there were about two million people all told. Even allowing for heaven-sent quails and manna and occasional miraculous supplies of water, there would be great difficulties in providing for all the physical requirements of such a multitude, the more so when they are all supposed to have camped neatly round the tabernacle (Num. 2) and marched together, and so on. The bedouin population of modern Sinai amounts to only a few thousand; and until relatively recent Jewish immigration into Israel, the total population of Palestine, a much larger and more fertile area, was only just over a million.

The second difficulty about accepting these figures is that they appear internally inconsistent. The most obvious point concerns the ratio of adult males to first-born males, roughly 27 to 1. This means that out of every 27 men in Israel only 1 was the first-born son in his family. In other words an average family consisted of 27 sons, and presumably an equal number of daughters. The average mother must then have had more than 50 children! This figure would be reduced if multiple polygamy were common in Israel and only the father’s first child counted as the first-born in the family. But other evidence suggests bigamy was unusual in Old Testament times, and that multiple polygamy was restricted to the very rich.

The third difficulty arises from other texts which apparently acknowledge that initially there were too few Israelites to occupy the promised land all at once (Exod. 23:29f.; Deut. 7:6f., 21f.). But two million Israelites would have more than filled the land. Indeed, in the judges period the fighting men of the tribe of Dan numbered only 600 (Judg. 18:16; cf. Num. 1:38–39).

The fourth point is a mathematical oddity, and does not prove anything, though it may suggest these figures are not quite what they appear. Not only are most of the figures rounded off to the nearest hundred, the hundreds tend to be bunched: 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700 occur but never 000, 100, 800 or 900. This concentration of hundreds between 200 and 700 suggests the totals are not random as might have been expected in a census. (Wenham 69-70)

He then suggests four solutions:

  1. The numbers are accurate
  2. The numbers are accurate, but reflect a later time, probably David’s
  3. The numbers have suffered textual corruption
  4. The numbers are symbolic

He leans toward the latter, but still has nagging questions. While we might not be able to completely solve the problem, Timothy Ashley’s conclusion seems appropriate:

No one system answers all the questions or solves all the problems. Rather than assuming this complex (mis-)use of ’lp, one might be better served to assume that a zero needs to be dropped from all the figures involved. This would give a fighting strength of 60,355 and a total population of between 200,000 and 250,000 (still quite high by ancient standards). The flaw in this suggestion is that the mistake in zeros would easily occur only where numbers were represented by figures rather than by words. We have little or no evidence that figures were used in the biblical texts during the biblical period.

A weak point in all the solutions that understand ’lp as “tribal subgroup” is that the text of Numbers understands it as “thousand.” The editor simply totals the figures to get 603,550. Using the ’lp = “group” solution, the total is (according to Flinders Petrie and Mendenhall) 598 groups of 5,550 men. To understand ’lp in any other way than “thousand” assumes a misunderstanding and mistransmission of the text in all the census lists of Exodus and Numbers (not to mention other texts). Since both the LXX and the Sam. Pent. basically agree with the MT, the misunderstanding must have taken place as early as the 5th or 4th cent. B.C.

In short, we lack the materials in the text to solve this problem. When all is said and done one must admit that the answer is elusive. Perhaps it is best to take these numbers as R. K. Harrison has done—as based on a system familiar to the ancients but unknown to moderns. According to Harrison the figures are to be taken as “symbols of relative power, triumph, importance, and the like and are not meant to be understood either strictly literally or as extant in a corrupt textual form.” (Ashley, The Book of Numbers, 65–66)

Ashley’s discussion is worth reading in full if you can get your hands on his NICOT volume. Wenham’s is more accessible (price-wise), and I’d highly recommend picking it up if you want to look into this further. At the end of the day, there is much to learn in reading the Old Testament and often that means leaving certain things in tension and awaiting further resolution.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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