By this, I'm referring to the book of Numbers in the Old Testament and a debate that has a long and complicated history. (The debate is not nearly as complicated as that over the definition of the Bible's "inerrancy" but is often used as an example therein.) So let's walk through all of the concerns that some people have with the numbers in the book of Numbers and see what we can make of them.
Let's start with the primary numbers in the book--the narrative driver--the census. And let's just start compiling numbers. We start with a list of the adult males eligible for military service in each tribe in chapter 1 (I'll also include the generational census of chapter 26):
The "Problems" with Those Numbers
People bring up various complaints when it comes to the numbers in Numbers. Although they tend to overlap, I believe they require separate categories.
The Total Population of Israel Is Too Large for This Trip to Make Sense
If the potential military force of Israel is 603,550 (not including 22,300 Levites), that would imply that the total population of Israel is greater than 2,000,000 at the time of exodus. The world population is estimated to be 41,000,000 then (of course, nobody really knows); mighty Egypt's being maybe 3,000,000. (Sadly, most ANE groups did not keep census numbers, and if they did, I'm sure we would have the same complaints about them that people have about the Israelite's.) The Roman Census reports between 200,000 and 300,000 between 300 and 100 BC (assumed to mean adult males). Some historians estimate that the Roman Empire was comprised of as many as 65,000,000 in 150 BC; the city of Rome itself may have had 1,250,000 living in it during the time of Augustus (with an extremely high population density). According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the population of Israel/Palestine in 1800 was only 275,000(!). In 1915 it had grown to 690,000. It took the post-WWII immigration to push the population back to 2,000,000 in the 1950s. (Of course, today Israel is in a bit of an overpopulation crisis, having about 9,000,000 people in it with no slowdown of growth). In other words, based on these potential circumstances, some believe that there is no possible way Israel had a population of 2,000,000 at that time and place.
Marching Logistics. Moses offered to pass through Edom by means only of the King's Highway (Num 20:14-19; he made the same offer to Sihon king of the Amorites in 21:21). Roads would have been constructed by hand and paid for out of the king's treasury, so they would not have been larger than our highways today! Our 4-lane freeways (with median and shoulder) are about 80 feet wide. Carrying everything they own and being accompanied by lots of livestock (let's use the 4'-wide wagon from American history just as a model/a family of 8 people, 20' in length), let's do the math...20 columns...100,000 per column...8 people per 20 feet...that's a 47 mile column of people, Indeed, even those scholars who don't worry about the possible width of an ancient freeway still come up with a column length of 22 miles. Traveling at 2 miles per hour, it would have taken more than a day just to arrive at or embark from a location, and they would have arrived at most of their destinations before everyone had left camp! (see below). The complaint is that they did not have the technology to maintain control over such an immense procession (particularly if only 2 trumpets are mentioned as the only summoning instruments! see Numbers 10).
Greater Nations. I'll address this more in the next section about the military. God told the Israelites that they would encounter greater nations in their exodus (He said this to them multiple times in Deuteronomy, specifying 7: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, 7:1). That certainly does not have to mean larger in population, but there must have been enough of them to be frightening to a group of 2,000,000. In Numbers 13, when the spies report back on the Canaanites, the 10 say that the people in the land are too great and powerful to be conquered. Each one of those separate groups being too great? That would put the population of the Near East as nearly 1/3 that of the entire world! (Today, the entire Middle East and North Africa contains approximately 6% of the world's population.) Those numbers simply don't make sense. Indeed, some historians put the population of the entire region of Canaan at about 500,000. That would make the largest people groups of the region no more than 50,000. How could a nation of 2,000,000 be afraid of someone 2.5% their size? That would be like America (pop 324,000,000) fearing Switzerland (pop 8,300,000) by virtue of their greatness.
The Military Force Is Inconceivably Large
A related problem is the simple description of the army. If they had a force of 600,000, how could so many nations have a "greater" army than that? In the passage in Numbers 20 I mentioned above, it says that the Edomites came out with a large and powerful army and scared the Israelites away. Let's dive into that. China produced the first army of 10,000+ around 2000 BC; at that time, an army of 4,000 Uruks was able to completely dominate the entire Near East. Ramses the Great (Egypt) supposedly fielded the first army greater than 100,000 in 1250 BC (this would be after the Exodus; some historians peg Egypt's army at only 20,000 during the Exodus era). Cyrus the Great put 500,000 men on the field at the height of the Persian Empire in 500 BC. The Roman army never exceeded 475,000 men. And yet seven nations in the Ancient Near East would be greater than the 600,000-strong Israelite army. Some Bible readers are skeptical of that.
And then let's play that forward. Mighty Jericho was a few acres large--maybe a few thousand people in it when the Israelites attacked. How could that have been so daunting? In the attack on Ai, the death of 36 men was treated as catastrophic and disastrous. That's 0.006 of 1% of the so-called army. There's no way the army could have been so large for that loss of life to have had the effect it had. Then, just a generation later in the time of the judges, Dan could only muster an army of 600 (Judg 18). That's a shrinking of 99% in a generation or two! Were things that bad under the judges, or was the army not that large to begin with?
The Campsite Would Be Impossibly Large
This concern is similar to the length of the marching column. 2,000,000 people would take up so much space as to make any logistics inconceivable based on the technology of the day. And the modern explanations that point to the population density of large cities is inapplicable because there would be no high-rises or infrastructure! (As an aside that follows the previous argument, the current population density of Israel is less than 1,000/sqmi. For groups like the Hivites and Jebusites [which had far less than 1,000 sqmi in territory] to be rivals in strength to the Israelites, their population density would have to be significantly higher than what it is today in the region, and the technology of the day could not sustain that; remember that God supernaturally provided for Israel). So let's consider another temporary, transient group that can be measured today: refugees. The UN Refugee Agency offers a student activity based on their observations from the refugee crisis in Tanzania in 1996. They pointed out that the world's largest cities have a population density of 145 people/ha (Tokyo), 95 people/ha (NYC), and 69 people/ha (Mexico City). (FYI: ha=hectare; 258 ha/sqmi. In other words Tokyo = 37,410 people/sqmi; NYC = 24,510; Mexico City = 17,802.) The refugee camps they studied had population densities ranging from 14 - 273 people/ha, with two big ones being in the range of 80 people/ha. Of course, their primary exercise is to try to make students imagine living in an area more densely populated than Tokyo without high rises or utilities. Yikes! I found a map from 2013 of a camp just inside the border of Jordan south of Syria which had a large area of 500 people/ha. (If you're at all interested in this topic, there are lots of UN resources. One I found particularly useful gives an overview of the entire process from setup to optimization: http://www.dam.brown.edu/siam/2015/Syrian_Refugee_Camps.pdf.) So let's arbitrarily pick 80 people/ha as a population density, realizing that they would have possessions and livestock, so it would be intensely crowded and uncomfortable. We can round that off to 20,000 people/sqmi, which gives a nice round number of 100 sqmi, or a campsite 10 miles by 10 miles. (Remember, I haven't been an engineer for many years, so I am happy with round numbers.) As you can see from the map below, that would be a very large camp--large enough to encompass multiple cities. (By comparison, Jericho was about 6 acres, or 0.01 sqmi.) (By the way, I understand that the camp would not be a perfect square. If for some reason we get to a point where it makes a difference if one of the sides of the camp is 9 miles wide and another is 11 miles wide, I can be more precise.)
Population Growth in Egypt Was Too Great
Another complaint is that 70 people could not grow to 2,000,000 in just 400 years. Let's just toss that one out immediately. Lebanon currently has an annual growth rate of about 10%. If the Israelites sustained that rate, they would reach 2,000,000 in 108 years. If we cut that rate in half, they still reach 2,000,000 in 211 years. And the Bible is clear that the Israelites were very fruitful during their time in Egypt.
This Many People Could Not Survive in the Desert
Here's a complaint that I find bizarre: there is no way that 2,000,000 people could find food and water for themselves and their herds while wandering in the desert. Uh . . . er . . . ut . . . I . . . what??? That's the whole point of the story, people! God miraculously sustained them in the desert for 40 years! If you don't believe that God is capable of doing that, then don't you have bigger fish to fry in the Bible than this?
The Numbers of Levites (and Firstborn) Is Not Commensurate
People point out a few problems here. The Bible tells us (I'm now in Numbers chapter 3) the number of all Levite males a month old and more in the primary clans:
Some Proposed Solutions
Now let's walk though various "solutions" to the "problems" in the numbers.
Things to Consider
The King's Highway. Even though the King's Highway could only have been so wide, it was located on a decent-sized plain, and it is unlikely that any farms would have been built close to a heavily-trafficked path. In other words, the Israelites could have stretched far wider than the actual "highway" without violating Moses' assurance that they would never stray from the path to invade Edomite farmsteads. (In any case, they were prevented from taking that path, so this is a moot concern.) There were no width restrictions on any of the paths they took, so we should probably bring the length of the column down by several factors. And what is the problem with the idea that the advance guard was already making camp while the rear guard was still breaking camp? We learn from their hard experience that being stretched thin was a recipe for slaughter. Raiders could pick off the elderly and infirm even when they weren't stretched thin.
The Dutch Empire Effect. One thing that I want to make sure we understand is the meaninglessness of relative size when it comes to influence and power. In the 1600s, the Netherlands (population less than 2,00,000) was able to build an empire over and against the opposition of England, France, Spain, and Portugal (realizing that the politics and alliances were pretty unstable and fluid) that influenced large parts of the Atlantic coasts of South America and Africa, large parts of India and Indonesia, and several important colonies in North America. Their superior technology and unconventional methods gave them sway over local populations many, many times their size. Similar things can be said about the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, and on and on. In other words, size isn't always a big deal.
The Travel Itinerary. When I first started this section, I was thinking about the list given in Numbers 33--the stages of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Jordan River. In retrospect, I'm very sad to have opened this can of worms. The debate over the exact travel of the Israelites in the wilderness is maddening to try to get ahold of (particularly if you're not very familiar with the geography of the region), and it's really not the point of this article. (For example . . . Here's an interesting article from Tel Aviv University proposing that the itinerary is so incomprehensible as to prove its myth/fable post-exilic origins: http://www.academia.edu/30803366/The_Wilderness_Narrative_and_Itineraries_and_the_Evolution_of_the_Exodus_Tradition. This article from South Africa proposes two separate itineraries with two separate theological motivations: http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1010-99192016000300009.) Even my currently preferred interpretation from the New American Commentary series has to include multiple tables explaining how this particular list (which is not comprehensive) is actually 6 groups of 7 sites designed for theological instruction.
Full confession--I had always assumed that the exodus route looked something like this (this map is freely available on bible-history.com). I'm not sure I've changed my mind, but I do realize that there is a great deal of uncertainty. But I had also assumed that the people were basically wandering the whole time. I don't know why I thought that, but that's what was in my head. And that is definitely not the case. 40-50 stops in 40 years in an area that can be walked entirely in just a couple of weeks must obviously mean that they stayed in some locations for years. More importantly, that entire wilderness region lends itself to the travel of large groups without massive displacement because there were not the permanent human establishments to displace. But a camp of 100 square miles is daunting to imagine even in that location.
Balaam. Don't forget the details of Balaam and Balak in Numbers 22-24. The Moabites were quite concerned about the size of Israel. And Balaam went to three different high places where he could see part of their camp. That certainly implies the physical size of the camp must be very large.
So We Do We Make of These Numbers?
First of all, the Bible means what it was intended to mean. If it was intended to be hyperbolic, if it was intended to be gematric (where all the numbers are symbols), then fine. This is first a religious and liturgical document. For example, in Numbers 1:18, it says that the census was a list, name by name, of all men 20 and up by clan and family. What was included in the book of Numbers was just a summary of that census document. I have no problem accepting that Matthew telescoped Jesus' genealogy in order to make a theological illustration. And obviously these numbers were rounded at least a little bit. What is the level of "accuracy" that was acceptable in those days? Give or take 100? Give or take 1,000? Here's where being an engineer is a limitation to me--I cannot imagine a scenario in which you would report numbers that are not as close to the actual numbers as possible. Why say that Reuben had 46,500 men if Reuben had 8,312? Or 650? Or even 4,650? My brain doesn't work that way, so I have a hard time accepting that possibility (even if it might be perfectly normal for that day and age). But if it turns out that the Bible author was taking liberty with the numbers because that was standard policy in that day and age (and we know Egypt did that), then fine.
But I don't get that sense when I read Numbers. In fact, when I read this book, I get the very strong sense that the author is being as precise as his technology allows. So what happens when we take these numbers at face value?
First, the theology is good. God made a covenant with Abraham that He would make a great nation out of his descendants. And sure enough, He did, even while they were in slavery to Egypt, which would be the theological point. God's promise isn't so impressive if only a few thousand ragtag slaves sneak out of Egypt. Of course, that is the very point that some skeptics make, that the Bible authors would have inflated the numbers precisely so that their God would seem more impressive. Here's the problem: that's bad theology. God doesn't need our artificial inflation. His works are astounding as they are. This, then, is a matter of perspective. I believe that God is the God of the Bible--that He really is who He said He is in the Bible--which means that I reject the arguments of propaganda on theological grounds. God doesn't need us to toot His horn, and consequently God would not allow such language into His book. For those of you who reject theological arguments out of hand, can you at least see where I am coming from? I acknowledge that the book of Numbers could be filled with propaganda and mythology and folklore, but I don't believe that it is. The fantastic nature of the claims is precisely to me why I find it so compelling. Maintaining 2,000,000 people in the desert for 40 years? Only God could do that. And if this document really is just some propaganda piece in favor of the Hebrew tribal god, then why spend so much time talking about the ridiculous failures and cowardice of the people? The Hebrews look bad in this book. That, of course, also explains the subsequent population numbers in Israel's history. After they enter into their own conditional covenant with God, and generations of rebellion take place and they lose the blessing and protection of God, their numbers go down.
Second, the psychology makes sense. Basically, the exodus story proves that the vast majority of Israelites were scared cowards who didn't really trust God even after all they'd seen. And that's the point! God takes a stiff-necked people (who are probably less stiff-necked than the other peoples) to bring about His plan of salvation for all peoples. In this view, the larger census numbers simply make Israel a laughingstock. 2,000,000 people with an army of 600,000, and they're afraid of a a well-equipped army of maybe a few thousand? (Well, they looked really big. And it looked like there were a whole bunch of them.) Really? (Yeah, they were scary!) That's embarrassing. And clearly that's intentional. God had been blessing Israel for generations, and they couldn't see past their own noses. So as far as I'm concerned, the huge numbers of Israelites compared with the other nations actually makes better sense of the situation.
But what do we do with a statement like Deuteronomy 7:1, "seven nations greater and stronger than you"? Good question. Here's what I can make of the Hebrew. "Greater" is the word rabbim and "mightier" is the word atsumim. Rabbim comes from a root which means many or great, multitude or greatness. Atsummim comes from a root which also means mighty or numerous. This becomes a matter of translation. Yes, that could legitimately mean that those other nations were more numerous than the Hebrews, but it could just as legitimately mean that those nations were mightier and greater. That would not be taking liberty with the language at all. We know that hyperbole is normal. God said to the Israelites that they were as many as the stars in the sky (Deut 1:10) and that the cities they would conquer had fortifications to the sky (Deut 1:28). And that seems to be intentional as well; the Israelites did not have a reasonable perspective on life (accusing God of bringing them into the desert to die), so God spoke in terms that would get their attention and match their prima donna attitude. And, based on what we know of Hebrew bravery in those days, God was not stretching the truth at all by saying that all of the nations they would encounter were greater than they were. When God was not involved in the battle, the Israelite army got wiped out every time. There was not a single battle they could win on their own. So, yes, the other nations were greater and mightier.
So that brings us back to the fundamental question: are the numbers "reasonable"?
One explanation that has been given me is the idea that God only meant the firstborn of the wilderness generation--even the firstborn after the moment the Levites distinguished themselves. That's interesting, but I'm not sure how much it helps. We're talking about a complete turnover of the population; everybody over 20 has been replaced with the firstborn that we would be talking about--call it 2/3, meaning that the 600,000 is now 400,000. Give or take. Those numbers are still extreme.
Here's what I wonder: is one considered a firstborn one's whole life? In other words, is the old grandfather who was the firstborn in his family still counted as a firstborn? I'll be honest, in my mind a list of firstborn would just include those sons still living at home, so to speak. What if the eldest has moved out but the rest of the sons are still at home? I don't know--my wondering creates plenty of questions. And the Bible doesn't mention any such boundaries on the list of firstborn. But that's how it works in my head. God's census of the firstborn referred to a specific segment of the population that everyone understood (except us). If it is just one generation of firstborn (once you have a son, your time as a "firstborn" ends), then our ratio is more like 1/3 of 2/3. Or even 1/4 of 3/4. That's 2/9 (22%) or 3/16 (19%). Call it 20% to give me another round number.
If I ever say something in here that doesn't make sense, please ask me to clarify. It always makes sense in my head, but that doesn't necessary mean anything to you . . .