Critics often argue that the numbers in the Bible are not literal or are impossible to accept. In the book of Numbers, for example, an early census indicated that 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 Bible claims to be God’s Word and therefore perfect (2 Timothy 3:16–17). So, the original communication of the biblical text was accurate. Further, studies from textual criticism related to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament reveal an extremely high level of textual integrity, assuring us that what was originally written is preserved in our Bible today.
However, there remain some legitimate reasons to discuss some of the Bible’s numbers. One issue is the discrepancy between numbers recorded in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made between the third and first centuries BC). The census in Numbers 1 falls into a different category of dispute, however. In Numbers 1, the question is whether Israel could muster an army of that size. A military force of 603,000 implies a general population of at least 2.4 million—over half the population of Egypt at the time.
In examining the accuracy of the numbers in the Bible, several factors should be considered:
1) Just because a number is surprisingly large does not mean it is inaccurate. The Bible teaches that the Israelites “multiplied greatly” during their 430 years in Egypt and “became so numerous that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). The Egyptian Pharaoh was so concerned with their population increase that he attempted to reduce the slave numbers by pressuring the Hebrew midwives to kill the 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 Israelites lived in the region at the time of the exodus.
The census in Numbers 1, which only included men 20 years old and older, suggests that the total number of Hebrews could have exceeded 2 million people. While this is indeed a large number, it is not impossible. It would require a population growth rate of 2.6 percent—extraordinarily high, but not too far above the 2.2 percent growth rate seen worldwide in the middle of the twentieth century. If each generation averaged six children, a growth from 70 people to 2 million people in 400 years is not unreasonable.
2) The Bible’s accuracy in numbers is related to a proper translation of the text. We’ll take the census numbers in Numbers 1 as an example (noting that the same can be applied to the census of Numbers 26):
In Numbers 1:21, the men of fighting age in Reuben’s tribe are “six and forty thousand and five hundred” (Young’s Literal Translation), rendered as “46,500” in almost every other translation. However, two words in this phrase are subject to variations. The Hebrew term translated “thousand” is used elsewhere in Scripture as a general reference to groups, not as a specific number. For example, the word is applied to tribes (Numbers 10:4), clans (Joshua 22:14), families (Joshua 22:21), and divisions (Numbers 1:16).
Further, the word translated “and” can also mean “or,” depending on the context. Exodus 21:15 and Exodus 21:17, for instance, use this word in a context in which it obviously means “or.”
So, if the word for “thousands” is a reference to family groups, and the second instance of the word for “and” is understood to mean “or,” then Numbers 1:21 would be translated “six and forty clans, or five hundred.” The tribe of Reuben, then, would have had 500 fighting men from 46 family groups.
3) Belief in the Bible’s accuracy in numbers allows for the possibility of scribal error. Numbers 1:46 gives the final tally of the troops from all the tribes of Israel: “The total number was 603,550.” That number, implying a total population of 2.4 million, is debated. But, if we assume a scribal error in the copying of this verse, the total military count would be “598 families with 5,550 men.” This number would be in keeping with the lower census numbers: the total population of Israelites would be about 22,200.
Such a typographical error is entirely plausible. While the Hebrew language itself represents numbers using words, ancient people often used a type of shorthand, employing lines or dots similar to modern-day tally marks. Such marks would have been relatively easy to misread, and most potential scribal errors in Old Testament manuscripts involve exactly that type of discrepancy (2 Samuel 10:18; 1 Chronicles 19:18; 1 Kings 4:26; 2 Kings 24:8; 2 Chronicles 9:25; 36:9).
Whether the size of the Israelite army was over 600,000 or closer to 5,500, the accuracy of the Bible, in its original autographs, is not in question. What is debatable is our translation of certain Hebrew words and the accuracy of a scribe’s recording of a numerical phrase.