Question: "Are the numbers in the Bible accurate? In Numbers 1:45–46, how could Israel have an army this size?"
Answer: Critics often argue that the numbers in the Bible are not literal or are impossible to accept. In the book of Numbers, the census of men twenty years old or older formed an army of more than 603,000 (Numbers 1:46). Would it have been possible for Israel to have an army of this size during their sojourn in the wilderness?
The first part of this question, the accuracy of biblical numbers, is one of much debate. The Bible claims to be God’s Word and therefore perfect (2 Timothy 3:16–17). That would indicate that the original communication of the biblical text is accurate. Further, studies from textual criticism related to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament reveal an extremely high level of textual integrity, indicating that what was originally written is what we have in our Bible today.
However, there remain some legitimate reasons to discuss some of the Bible’s numbers. The main issue is the differences in the numbers recorded in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made between the third and first centuries BC). Some of these differences create uncertainty about the number in the original text, but the census in Numbers 1 is not really in dispute. Rather, the question at hand relates to whether or not Israel could muster an army of that size.
In answering this question, several factors can be considered. During the time of Joseph, the family of Jacob (numbering more than seventy people) moved to Egypt. For four hundred years, their descendants lived in Goshen, an area of northern Egypt. The Bible teaches that the people “multiplied greatly” during those centuries and “became so numerous that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). The Egyptian pharaoh was so concerned that he attempted to reduce the slave numbers by pressuring the midwives to kill the Hebrews’ newborn sons (Exodus 1:8, 15). No exact numbers are given, but if the king was worried the Hebrew population could soon outnumber the Egyptians’, then there is strong reason to believe a vast number of Jewish people lived in the region at the time of the Exodus.
Estimates based on the size of the census in Numbers 1, which only included men twenty and older, are that the total number of Hebrews could have exceeded two million people. While this is indeed a large number, two factors should be kept in mind: 1) the Hebrews’ population was growing quickly, and 2) Hebrew families (as with other people of the time) generally had many children per household. If each generation averaged six children, for example, a growth from seventy people to two million people in four hundred years is not impossible or unreasonable.