INTERPRETING THE CENSUS FIGURES IN NUMBERS
Israel in the Wilderness - Numbers 1, 26
[Written Oct 2009] In the Book of Numbers, we have two censuses taken of the military-age men of Israel. In chapter 1, we find a tally of the men of the first generation, those who came out of Egypt with the Exodus. In chapter 26, we find a similar census taken of the men of the second generation, those about to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. In each case, the number of men counted exceeds 600,000 (see also Ex 38:26).
The large numbers of male warriors has been a subject of debate over the past century or so. These numbers, which exclude, women, children and older men, would suggest a total population of over two million. The perceived problem is that these numbers appear to be exceptionally large for wandering in wilderness conditions at that time.
Summary of Suggested Solutions
Critics have proposed many "solutions" to the alleged problem which can be described with a few summations. One suggestion is to the figures may be taken at face value, but they really apply to Israel at a later date, such as during the monarchy under David or Solomon. This proposition was popular around the middle of the twentieth century, but has lost support since the population was much different during this later time, not to mention the fact that the tribes of Simeon and Judah had merged while the two censuses in Numbers clearly separates them.
Another suggestion is that the figures are meant to be a symbolic use of the numerical values (gematria) of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Numbers are used symbolically in the Bible (eg Revelation), but there are no literary clues supporting this use in the Book of Numbers. Others have thought that the Hebrew word for "thousand" might have some alternate meanings apart from its numerical connotation, such as "clans" or "chiefs". In this case, the "thousands" portion of the number might refer to the number of chiefs, while the "hundreds" might refer to the number of warriors. Thus, in the first census the 74,600 for Judah would represent 74 chiefs (or officers) and 600 fighting men. Using this method, the ratio of officers to warriors would seem to be way out of proportion. For example, would the tribe of Simeon (listed at 59,300) need 59 chiefs with only 300 soldiers? A bigger problem with this proposal is that the total number in the Hebrew text can only be reached by adding the figures as real numbers (that is taking "hundreds" as "Hundreds", "thousands" as "thousands" etc). Still others have theorized that the symbols might be tied to the astronomical periods associated with the twelve tribes (based on the sun, moon and stars of Joseph’s dream), but a consistent pattern has not been found.
Most liberal critics postulate that the numbers, similar to their opinion on the remainder of the Bible, has become corrupted during transmission. While there have been cases of some minor scribal errors, they are easily corrected by comparison with the vast quantity of other available manuscripts in the original languages, so that none of the existing texts used for translation of the Scriptures indicate any difficulty or corruption with the figures.
The Real Solution
The final position, and the correct one in our opinion, is that the figures should be taken at face value. This is the natural literary interpretation of any list of numbers claiming to be census figures. In addition, we have God’s promises to Abraham (Gen 22:17) and Jacob (Gen 32:12) that he would multiply their offspring as "stars in the sky" and "sand on the sea shores". We then see that, before even leaving Egypt, the Israelites had so increased in number that the mighty Egyptians were in dread of them (Ex 1:7-12). Moses then states that "about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children" journey from Egypt during the Exodus (Ex 12:37). After witnessing the great works of the Lord in freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt, it is certainly no stretch that He is capable of providing for and sustaining this great number in the wilderness. This is a further demonstration of God’s sovereignty and providence in dealing with His chosen people.
In all fairness to the critics, Moses struggled with the same question on how so many people could be provided for during the journey. After God had sustained the people for some time on the manna, the people complained that they had no meat, so God promised to give them meat. Moses then questioned how God could provide meat for six hundred thousand men (plus women and children). "Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?" The LORD answered Moses, "Is the LORD's arm too short? You will now see whether or not what I say will come true for you" (Num 11:21-23).
We also should not single out Moses for his doubt. God has shown His power and benevolence over and over throughout history, yet we still question Him today.
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