In the last issue we considered one of the examples of apparent discrepancy in Bible numbers. Another issue where some suggest the numbers don’t add up is the number of Israelites who left Egypt to embark on the exodus to the Promised Land. To have 603,550 men over twenty years and fit for war if necessary (Num 2:32), suggesting a total number for the camp of possibly 2,000,000 or more is not credible we are told. The Hebrew word for “thousand,” it is suggested, can mean “family group” or a unit of number less than 1,000. Therefore imaginative recalculations are carried out to reduce these numbers substantially. What says the Scripture?

We might concede at the outset that this is an issue which many of us might have wondered about. Are the numbers too high? How did the logistics of the encampment, the movement and feeding of such numbers work? But before being swayed by speculation, as always we need to look at what the record says. In our view the numbers given in Scripture should be accepted as they stand. Th is conclusion rests on a number of foundations:

The text of Numbers chapter one and the details of the numbering of the tribes

  • The record of Exodus one, with its emphasis on the fecundity of Israel in Egypt
  • The supporting testimony of the New Testament So let us consider these foundations.

Numbers chapter one – “every male by their polls”

Th e opening words of Numbers 1 record the instruction of Yahweh to Moses to take a census of the available fi ghting men of the nation. We would need to be careless in our reading not to notice that every phrase rings with precision:

Numbers 1:1–3:

“And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation; on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of Egypt, saying, Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls; From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies.”

God not only gives these very careful instructions, but He then lists for Moses each leader of each tribe who is to assist Moses and Aaron in ensuring an accurate census; He does not even leave that detail to Moses discretion. And then we have what we might term a “certificate of compliance” in verse 19: “As Yahweh commanded Moses, so he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai”; Moses followed these exacting instructions to the letter (it is instructive, and humbling to note through the record of the books of Moses, that after receiving a divine instruction, we are so often told that Moses just proceeded to get on and do it). Are we seriously to suppose then, that after that process, we will be left wondering if they got the numbers right!

The young men of each of the twelve tribes were counted and the record of the count made according to a twelve times repeated formula from Numbers 1:20–43. The first was Reuben in Numbers 1:20, where the record tells us they were counted “according to the number of the names, by their polls.” This was a head count. And the term “polls” (in verses 2, 18, 20, 22) literally means “skulls”. So they were counted one by one. More than that, it seems their names were listed, so the NIV translates, “listed by name, one by one.” After so listing for each tribe, a grand total is reached in verse 46, namely 603,550, a total repeated in Exodus 38:26.

It is the Hebrew word “elef,” translated “thousand,” which has seemed to give a little window of opportunity for those who balk at these numbers. In an extended note on this issue, the NET Bible comments, “The word certainly can be taken as “thousand”, and most often is. But in view of the problem of the large numbers here, some scholars have chosen one of the other meanings attested in literature for this word, perhaps “troop” or “family” or “tent group”, even though the word for family has already been used…” The whole article is worth reading, but its conclusions may suffi ce here:

“…such views cannot be harmonized with the instructions in the chapter for them to count every individual skull – that seems very clear … One can only conclude that on the basis of what we know the word should be left with the translation “thousand,” no matter what difficulties this might suggest to the reader … until a more convincing explanation of the word “thousand” or the calculation of the numbers is provided, one should retain the reading of the MT (Masoretic Text) but note the difficulty with the large numbers.”

Population explosion in Egypt (Exodus Ch. 1)

The record of Numbers has given us the head count, and now the record of Exodus gives a background to that in the remarkable growth in numbers of the children of Israel. Exodus 1:7 seems just as considered in its precision as we saw in the opening verses of Numbers 1:

“And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.”

The terms are clearly referencing (using the same Hebrew terms) the divine command in the beginning: “Be fruitful, and multiply and fill the earth (land)…” (Gen 1:28 Interlinear Bible). This explosion in the population of Israel in Egypt was so disconcerting to the Egyptians that their “new king” declared “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we.” (Exod 1:9). He instructed the representatives of the midwives to kill the male babies, but they “feared God” and did not carry out that instruction. “Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied and waxed very mighty.” (v20). Th e population grew even more rapidly! So the “facts on the ground” afford verisimilitude to the Numbers’ census. Let Moses add his personal testimony: “Th y fathers went down into Egypt with threescore and ten persons; and now the LORD thy God hath made thee as the stars of the heaven for multitude.”

The testimony of the New Testament

Th e Apostle Paul in 1Corinthians 10 reviews those circumstances relating to Israel in the wilderness which he tells us “happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition.”(v11). He highlights one terrible example when Israel was right on the borders of their inheritance: “Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand.”(v8). Th e reference is to Numbers 25 and the occasion when, at the instigation of Balaam, the children of Israel cast aside the tough self-denial of the wilderness, and indulged themselves with the daughters of Moab. No one disputes that the terms Paul uses relate to twenty three thousand men, not twenty three “troops”, not twenty three “families”, not twenty three “tent groups”; simply twenty three thousand. Th is number cannot be reconciled with the forty to sixty thousand Israelites in total that some assert were all who left Egypt. If this were so, poor Joshua would likely have been left with the women, the children and a few old men to lead over Jordan.

The ringleader in sin at that time was “Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a chief house among the Simeonites” (Num 25:14). In the very next chapter, in Numbers, we read, “And it came to pass after the plague, that the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, saying, Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, throughout their fathers’ house, all that are able to go to war in Israel” (Num 26:1–2). So another census was taken, and perhaps it is significant that the tribe of Simeon diminished from 59,300 (Num 1:23) to 22,200 (Num 26:14), suggesting they suffered most from the plague.

Conclusion

The conclusion seems clear. The record of Numbers, of Exodus and of 1 Corinthians all clearly support the numbers traditionally associated with the exodus from Egypt, that is to say the numbers given in Scripture.