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According to Numbers 1:20-46 (NJPS):

They totaled as follows: The descendants of Reuben, Israel’s first-born, the registration of the clans of their ancestral house, as listed by name, head by head, all males aged twenty years and over, all who were able to bear arms—those enrolled from the tribe of Reuben: 46,500.

....

Those are the enrollments recorded by Moses and Aaron and by the chieftains of Israel, who were twelve in number, one man to each ancestral house. All the Israelites, aged twenty years and over, enrolled by ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms—all who were enrolled came to 603,550.

That is a remarkably large number for an ancient society and, since it only claims to count the men of fighting age, isn't a complete count of the entire community of Israel. This has led some scholars to translate the Hebrew word eleph as some smaller number than "a thousand" and others to interpret the entire Exodus story as non-historical.

How should we understand these, apparently, huge numbers of people?

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A related question exists on the Skeptics site. –  Jon Ericson Nov 12 '11 at 0:14
    
Related: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/4072/208 –  Gone Quiet Feb 18 '13 at 21:16

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The choices seem to be:

  1. We correctly understand the text and it was a miracle. Two million or so people left Egypt and (mostly) died in the desert, where their bones were never found (looking would be a huge archeological task). If we can accept the miracles of the plagues, the crossing of the sea of reeds, the giving of torah, and sustaining everybody for forty years with manna, accepting the number is not such a great leap.
  2. That's not what elef means, as cited in the question. See an argument here for it meaning a military unit. If we go down this path then we have to look at all uses of that word, not just the ones in the question, and that may pose problems -- see, in particular, the use of the word to refer to presumably non-military virgins.
  3. An exodus happened and the translation is correct but is not meant to be read literally, in the same way that most do not understand creation to have occurred in the span of 168 hours. (I feel like there ought to be a hermeneutical principle for "read seriously but not literally", but if so I don't know its name.)

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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2  
I see you don't actually answer the question, but provide three options. ;-) #2 is the one I'd be most interested in exploring, myself. #1 is the "safe" answer for most believers. –  Jon Ericson Nov 14 '11 at 18:00
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On #3: are there any hints this should be taken in a "mythological" sense? Genesis fits into the creation-myth genre, but is there an exodus-myth genre? It just seems like there's so many trappings of history in the majority of the Torah it would be hard to take it as anything but a historical account. –  Jon Ericson Nov 14 '11 at 18:03
    
@JonEricson, three for the price of one. :-) The next step on #2 should probably involve a concordance; I'll see what I can do later if somebody else doesn't get there first. On #3, I'm not aware of any classical Jewish sources that argue for mythology; the exodus as history is pretty central to Judaism. There are some modern scholars who question whether the exodus happened or could have happened, but it's not a popular interpretation and I haven't studied it. (I lean toward #3 myself but don't discount #1.) –  Gone Quiet Nov 14 '11 at 20:15
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Regarding #2, you could also throw in there the offering if 100 fighting units of sheep‌​! –  Jas 3.1 Feb 28 '13 at 19:55

Short Answer: The numbers are accurate as they have been translated. There were ~600,000 Israelites in the Wilderness (and in Egypt).

Count and re-count

These are those who were numbered of the sons of Israel, 601,730. -Numbers 26:51

Earlier in the chapter we are given the counts of each individual tribe. They are recorded as follows:

  • 1) 43,730 from the tribe of Reuben
  • 2) 22,200 from the tribe of Simeon
  • 3) 40,500 from the tribe of Gad
  • 4) 76,500 from the tribe of Judah
  • 5) 64,300 from the tribe of Issachar
  • 6) 60,500 from the tribe of Zebulun
  • 7) 52,700 from the tribe of Manasseh
  • 8) 32,500 from the tribe of Ephraim
  • 9) 45,600 from the tribe of Benjamin
  • 10) 64,400 from the tribe of Dan
  • 11) 53,400 from the tribe of Asher
  • 12) 45,400 from the tribe of Naphtali

The total, if you add all of these numbers up is 601,730 ... exactly what Numbers 26:51 recorded the total as.

"Soldiers"?

A user on Christianity.SE claimed that the Hebrew words for "thousand" and "soldier" were mixed up in the transcription and translation of the Bible, presenting an extreme exaggeration in the number of Israelites in Egypt and in the Wilderness.Now, if you consider the "thousands" to actually be "soldiers," and the others to be non-soldiers, you get the following count:

  • 1) 43 soldiers and 730 non-soldiers from the tribe of Reuben
  • 2) 22 soldiers and 200 non-soldiers from the tribe of Simeon
  • 3) 40 soldiers and 500 non-soldiers from the tribe of Gad
  • 4) 76 soldiers and 500 non-soldiers from the tribe of Judah
  • 5) 64 soldiers and 300 non-soldiers from the tribe of Issachar
  • 6) 60 soldiers and 500 non-soldiers from the tribe of Zebulun
  • 7) 52 soldiers and 700 non-soldiers from the tribe of Manasseh
  • 8) 32 soldiers and 500 non-soldiers from the tribe of Ephraim
  • 9) 45 soldiers and 600 non-soldiers from the tribe of Benjamin
  • 10) 64 soldiers and 400 non-soldiers from the tribe of Dan
  • 11) 53 soldiers and 400 non-soldiers from the tribe of Asher
  • 12) 45 soldiers and 400 non-soldiers from the tribe of Naphtali

The total, if you add all of these numbers up is 596 soldiers and 5,730 non-soldiers, which is not what the Hebrew text records.

(Furthermore, it is odd to think that the soldiers would be counted down to the last man while the non-soldiers would be rounded off to the nearest hundred ... except in one case!)

Conclusion

The idea that the "thousands" in Numbers 26 (and similar passages) should have been rendered "soldiers" has no exegetical basis. This attempt at making the text of the Hebrew Scriptures more palatable is the equivalent of undermining the veracity of the text; it is no more legitimate than claiming that the numbers were fabricated.

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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:

  1. It was inserted later by someone who misread eleph as "thousand" instead of "fighting unit."
  2. 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.

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Great additions. Thanks. –  Jas 3.1 Feb 18 '13 at 21:57
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It also doesn't work for virgins. :-) –  Gone Quiet Feb 18 '13 at 22:30
    
@MonicaCellio, guess not. Is there anywhere in Numbers that aleph works as "unit"? Beyond taking a verse in isolation of its context? –  Frank Luke Feb 18 '13 at 22:39
    
@FrankLuke, this answer to the question about the fight against Midian could be one place -- except that the virgins come from the same incident and that would have to be reconciled. –  Gone Quiet Feb 19 '13 at 3:32
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@MonicaCellio, I might be noticing a pattern. If the word appears with numbers, it means "thousand." If it appears without numbers, it may mean division but does not have to. That's a preliminary hypothesis and would need more research. –  Frank Luke Feb 19 '13 at 4:15

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