Numbers and their meaning (Numbers 1)

According to Numbers 1 there  were in the exodus generation 603,550 combat-ready men aged twenty years and older. This figure suggests an enormous overall population, perhaps as large as two million. The obvious question is how this many people could have survived in the desert.
What other indication does the Bible offer concerning the Israelite population at the time of the exodus?
* When all the census figures of Numbers 1 are added up, the total is indeed 603,550, suggesting that the tally be taken at face value.
* Exodus 1:7-9 states that the Israelites had multiplied so steadily that the pharaoh complained that “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us“. But the pharaoh may have been describing how he perceived the Israelites, based on his fear and hatred of foreigners.
* In contrast, Deuteronomy 7:7 states that Israel was “the fewest of all peoples” (cf. Exodus 23:29-30).
* It is difficult to visualize an army of over 600,000 being panic-stricken at the prospect of being pursued by only 600 chariots (Exodus 14:5-12).
* It is curious that all Israel is purported to have used only two midwives (Exodus 1:15). Some theorize that they were actually representative leaders of a large midwifery guild.
* Numbers 3:43 reports 22,273 firstborn males in Israel. This would suggest that only 22,273 mothers had borne sons. Taking into account the many sons under the age twenty, there would have to have been at least one million males in total. The implication, absurd as it may be, s that each mother had at least 44 sons!
* Looking at the data another way, if there were 22,273 firstborn sons, each of whom had an average of five brothers, the total number of men would still have been around 133,638, a figure still far too low to reconcile with the census results in Numbers 1.
* If there were 603,550 men-at-arms, the majority of whom would likely have been married, how is there that there were only 22,273 firstborn sons?
We could attempt to adjust the estimated total number of births per mother by assuming that many households were polygamous, resulting in more mothers than firstborn sons. But polygamy was not widely practiced among commoners, and few slaves could afford more than one wife.
Scholars have agreed that the word translated “thousand” (eleph) can also mean something like “squad” and that the data represent both the number of squads and the number of men in them. The figure for Reuben, using this hypothesis, would be reduced from 45,500 to “46 squads of men”. If we add up all the numbers in this way, the final tally for men-at-arms in Numbers 1 is 5,500 (i.e. 5 eleph – here meaning “thousands” – plus 550). This could explain the 603,550 in Numbers 1:46: The final figure (“603 eleph 550) could equate to “598 eleph – squads – 5 eleph – thousands – plus 550 men”. If so, the total population would have been about 20,000.
But this theory, too, has some difficulties:
* The numbers for the Levites (Numbers 3) seem to have been computed differently. For example, Gershon is numbered at 7,500 (Numbers 3:22), which would mean “7 squads: 500 men”. But why would the number of men per “squad” (over 71) be so much higher here that in Numbers 1 (approximately 10)? It may be that the priestly groups had more men per “squad” because the organizational structure for priests and Levites was different from that used for soldiers.
* If the total population of Israel was only about 20,000, what are we to make of the 22,273 firstborn males alleged in Numbers 3:43? We cannot take the total number of firstborn males to be only 273, since the text says that there were 273 more firstborn than there were Leivites.
Whatever we make of all the difficulties described above, it is clear that the ancient Israelites had ways of dealing with numbers that are perplexing to us. The Bible is an ancient book from an ancient culture, and we cannot assume that it handles data in the same way a modern census-taker would. It is important to realize that the Biblical account is neither erroneous nor delberately misleading. We simply do not understand how the Israelites conducted and reported either a military or a Levitical census.
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