Tag Archives: dennis cole

The Large Numbers in the Book of Numbers

We began our study of the book of Numbers at church last night and I spent a little bit of time talking about the HUGE numbers in the book. If you have done much reading on the book of Numbers, then you know that this is a subject that every commentary addresses and for good reasons. Below is a summary of the issue. This summary was adapted from  Dennis Cole’s commentary on Numbers in the New American Commentary series, pages 78-82. Timothy Ashley (NICOT) and Gordon Wenham (TOTC) also have helpful information on this subject in their commentaries on Numbers. My concluding thoughts will follow the summary.

  • Problems with taking the large numbers of Numbers literally – If the number of males who can go to war (1:3) is 603,550 (between 2 and 2.5 million total)
    • 2 – 2.5 million people could not have fit into the land of Goshen
    • The Israelites only had two midwives (Exodus 1:15)
    • Why did God have to intervene to deliver them from Egypt, at the Red Sea, at Jericho, and in the conquest of Canaan?
      • The best historical evidence suggests that Pharaoh’s army at the time of the Exodus was between 20,000 and 25,000
      • The Israelites would have had no problem leaving Egypt with or without weapons and the sight of the Egyptian army closing in at the Red Sea would have been comical
      • The battle stories in the books of Numbers and Joshua show the Israelites to be outnumbered (God was the one doing the fighting)
    • The Old Testament suggest that the Israelites were not large enough to fill the Promised Land – with recent migration, today, the land of Israel is inhabited by just over 1 million people (and it is crowded)
    • The number of firstborn males was 22,273 (3:43) – this means that one out of every 27 men was the firstborn. So every male had, on average 26 brothers plus sisters! Rampant polygamy could not even account for this.
    • While no doubt God could have sustained 2.5 million people in the desert, the simple act of marching 2.5 million people through the mountainous desert would have been a challenge for everyone involved! For Moses to have spoken to the entire population would have been a “logistical nightmare!”
  • Possible Solutions:
    • The numbers are literal and accurate
      • The people were not fully restricted to the land of Goshen
      • The midwives mentioned were not the only two, but representative of all midwives (or possibly the “head midwives”)
      • The Israelites were not trained to fight like the Egyptians – when you tie a baby elephant to a tree it learns that it cannot break away, so even a full grown elephant can be tied to a tree by a little rope (I learned that in 1st grade!)
      • The number of firstborn are those born since coming out of Egypt
      • There are quite a few issues that have to be addressed
    • These numbers come from the Davidic kingdom and a later editor added it into the text of Numbers
      • There is nothing in Samuel/Kings/Chronicles to support this position
      • Most argue that this total number is still too large for the time of the United Kingdom
    • The numbers represent a form of gematria
      • Each letter is given a numerical value
      • “sons of Israel” = 603
      • “every head” = 551, rounded to 550
      • This does not explain the tribal numbers and is very subjective!
    • The Hebrew term for “thousands” for be read as “group” or “clan”
      • Therefore, the tribe of Judah was made up of 74 clans, 600 people
      • This brings us to a total of 598 clans with 5,550 fighting men
      • However, this creates a problem with the census totals
      • This leaves the tribe of Levi with 22 clans of 0 men
      • There are variations of this idea and all of them have similar problems
    • The numbers are symbolic
      • God told Abraham to look at the stars of the sky, the number of stars were symbolic of Abraham’s future decedents
      • These numbers are in accordance with Mesopotamian mathematics and astronomy
      • But would the Israelites been familiar with this type of thought and astronomy?
      • A problem still remains for the tribe of Levi
      • Timothy Ashley said it best, “[it] seems more clever than convincing”
    • The numbers are deliberate hyperbole
      • The numbers of this census are purposefully exaggerated to bring glory to God, fear to the enemy, and point to the future fulfillment of God’s promises
      • One proponent of this position argues that the numbers were inflated by 10
      • This would give us an army of 60,355 with an approximate population of 250,000
      • This does away with the problem of the firstborn – 22,270 firstborn for 60,355 makes for about 2.5 – 3 males per household which is about what we see in the OT
      • These numbers are still large but would still require the hand of God to provide for and protect them – we still have miracles “but miracles that fit the geography, topography, and the times” – R. B. Allen
      • This solution yields some inconsistencies in redeeming the firstborn (this is the biggest problem with this position – if there were 22,270 firstborn but only about 2,200 Levites, then the redemption section of chapter 3 has to be reworked)
      • Would such exaggeration have been confusing to the original readers? Absolutely not! They would have known whether these numbers were accurate or whether they had been inflated and they would have understood why!

In my humble opinion, only the first or last solution work. I do not have a problem with the last solution, other than the inconsistencies it produces. And let me be clear, the argument is that Moses did it on purpose (with inspiration from the Holy Spirit) – no one is saying Moses was just wrong.

At this point in time, I still believe that these are the exact numbers – they are literal and accurate (though I would argue that they have been rounded). I know that such large numbers create some questions here and there, but these large numbers also seem to fit the rest of the numbers we read in the Pentateuch.

And one final comment – just so no one thinks otherwise – God can provide for and protect a group of any size in the wilderness! The main issue here is not God’s ability to provide for 2.5 million people in the Sinai desert. The main issue is whether or not such numbers fit all the details of the exodus story – and I think they can!

Official statement: This is really just a collection of thoughts. This is not meant to be some official position or statement – just me working through the issues, details, options, problems, and potential solutions. I hope you will work through them with me!


Posted by on September 30, 2010 in Bible Study


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