The argument I have read is that the word often translated thousands means "fighting units" and the number after is the number of soldiers in those units. Thus, it would be "64 units, 400 soldiers from the tribe of Dan." While the Lexicons and word books such as Gesenius and Strong point out that eleph can mean "a company of troops fighting under one leader," just because a word can mean something does not mean that it does mean so in the context in question.
Brown, Driver, and Briggs Lexicon list one definition as: "2. a thousand, a company of 1000 men, as united under one superior, or leader..." Even then, they are taking it as meaning one thousand people. There are a handful of verses where it can be understood as "clan" or "division," such as 1 Samuel 10:19 where it is contrasted with tribes ("by your tribes and by your clans").
The general editor of The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament adds under the entry for eleph:
It is occasionally alleged that since eleph means a company of a thousand men it could mean any military unit, even of reduced strength. From there it came to mean a family unit or clan, even a small one. But this means that the 1000's of the mustering of the soldiers in Num 1 and Num 26 is reduced to a small figure in accord with the desire of the commentator. The wilderness wandering and its miraculous supply is also reduced to naturalistic proportions. But it should be remembered that the conquest of Transjordan and of Palestine was not accomplished by a handful of men. Also such juggling must alter the text of the Numbers passages which by the addition of their totals clearly speak of 1000's of soldiers. R.L.H.
The interpretation of division almost works for the census.
- 43 units of 730 soldiers from the tribe of Reuben
- 22 units of 200 soldiers from the tribe of Simeon
- 40 units of 500 soldiers from the tribe of Gad
- 76 units of 500 soldiers from the tribe of Judah
- 64 units of 300 soldiers from the tribe of Issachar
- 60 units of 500 soldiers from the tribe of Zebulun
- 52 units of 700 soldiers from the tribe of Manasseh
- 32 units of 500 soldiers from the tribe of Ephraim
- 45 units of 600 soldiers from the tribe of Benjamin
- 64 units of 400 soldiers from the tribe of Dan
- 53 units of 400 soldiers from the tribe of Asher
- 45 units of 400 soldiers from the tribe of Naphtali
At this point, the numbers work out. However, it does not work for the total given. Under this system, what is recorded in the text should be read as 601 units of 730 men. Yet the math simply does not work. To be consistent, the author should have listed the total as 596 units of 5,730 men. The only two counters that can logically be given to keep the understanding of "units" in the verse recording the total are:
- It was inserted later by someone who misread eleph as "thousand" instead of "fighting unit."
- It was originally written as 596 elephim, 5 eleph, 730 men. The first eleph would mean "unit" and the second, "thousand." A later scribe did not catch the shift of meaning within the verse and added the numbers together.
Another item of note in the discussion is that when the word eleph appears in the two census lists (Numbers 1 and Numbers 26), the word is singular when referring to the numbers in each tribe. That is, Numbers 26:7 states "These were the families of the Reubenites; and those numbered of them were 43,730." The Hebrew reads with the singular form of eleph. If the word was supposed to be interpreted as "units/divisions," then it should have been in the plural as no rule of Hebrew grammar would allow for the mismatch at this point. Eleph in the singular for these counts is consistent throughout the chapters with the exception of the introductory verse (Numbers 1:16), "They were the heads of the thousands [elephi the masculine plural construct of eleph] of Israel" and the totalling verse (Numbers 1:46) "And all those numbered totaled 603,550." In the latter, the number is written out as "six hundred eleph (masculine singular), and three elephim (masculine plural), and five hundred and fifty. In Numbers 26, the word appears 14 times. Elpeh for the numbers for each tribe are singular and the number for the total is also singular, six hundred eleph, and an elpeh, seven hundred and thirty.
Moreover, when you look elsewhere in Numbers to see how this word is used, you find the concept of "fighting unit" doesn't work consistently (if at all). In Numbers 3:40ff, a census is taken of all firstborn males, "one month old and upward." The total given in Numbers 3:43 is 22,273. As this number includes infants, toddlers, and small children, "fighting units" seems out of place to say the least.
Just above this census of the firstborn, is a census of the Levites, who were not a fighting tribe. They performed the holy services (some as priests, others as helpers to those priests). They are counted and listed using the same words as in the question. Their total given is 22,000.
Logically, a non-fighting tribe would not have 22 fighting units totaling 0 men.
So the solution of "thousand" vs. "fighting unit" does not make sense in the context of Numbers.