The large numbers in the census’s in the book of Numbers have troubled critics and evangelicals alike for some time. The numbers, for various reasons, seem too large to be realistic. These are the issues raised:
1. Israel’s army seems much too large in comparison to other armies of the time. Egypt and Assyria were the great military powers, but their armies consisted of only tens of thousands of men. The censuses in Numbers places Israel’s military at around 600,000 (ZEPB, 4:465; cf. Allen, EBC, 709; Harrison, WEC, 45-48).
2. Joshua seems to present an Israelite army with numbers more comparable to other militaries of the day. Joshua 8:3, 11, 12 places the size of Joshua’s army at 30-40,000, depending on how the numbers are understood (ZPEB, 4:465).
3. Most commentators estimate that if an army of males over the age of 20 numbers 600,000, then the total population would be between two to three million people. They note that providing sanitation, food, and even room for setting up camp would provide major difficulties. In such a situation morale would be a problem (Gray, ICC, 12; ZPEB, 4:465; ISBE2, 3:565; cf. Harrison, WEC, 45-48).
4. Archaeologists estimate that the population of the entire area of Canaan did not reach 3 million people at this time. Yet Numbers 13:27-29 presents Israel as afraid to attempt to conquer the land, a strange fear if it possessed such numerical superiority. Also the large numbers in Numbers make it difficult to explain how, after the conquest, less numerous Canaanites were able to keep the Israelites pent up in the hill country (ZPEB, 4:465; ISBE2, 3:565). Related to this, Exodus 23:29-30 says that the Canaanites would not be driven out by Israel all at once due to the smallness of Israel.
5. Some numbers seem internally inconsistent. Numbers 3 includes legislation on the redemption of the first born, and 3:43 provides the number of firstborn. The comparison of numbers between chapters 1 and 3 leads to the conclusion that "the ratio of firstborn males to adult males is 1:27." Thus "each family would need to have on average 27 males and possibly as many daughters" (ISBE2, 3:565; cf. Gray, ICC, 13).
These issues have generated a number of proposed solutions. One popular solution is to understand אלף as a military group rather than as a thousand. There is clear evidence elsewhere in Scripture that אלף can indicate a captain over troops (אלוף; Gen. 36:15; Ex. 15:15) or a troop of men (Judg. 6:15; 1 Sam. 10:19). In this view, Numbers 1:21, "six and forty ‘elep and five hundreds" is interpreted as "forty-six clans/troops and (comprising) five hundred men." (DTOP, 408). This interpretation runs into some serious problems, however. Numbers 1:46; 2:32 clearly take אלף as thousand (Harrison, WEC, 46).
Another common solution is to propose that the numbers are symbolic. Some say they are purposely inflated to underscore the theological truth that God has multiplied Abraham’s seed (Allen, EBC, 688; ZPEB, 4:465; ISBE2, 3:565). But this raises the question of the value of a theological point based on invented numbers. Furthermore, the large numbers of the Numbers’ censuses are consistent with Exodus 12:37-38, which indicates that the Israelites who left Egypt numbered around 600,000 men besides women and children, and with Judges 20:2, which indicates that shortly after the conquest a voluntary army of 400,000 was quickly gathered (Gane, Leviticus/Numbers, NIVAC, 497; DOTP, 408). Unless the symbolism proposed in Numbers is extended to these other passages, a contextually unlikely proposition since both are separate historical reports, it is best not to treat the numbers in the Numbers’ censuses as inflated or symbolic.
Some have suggested that the numbers were corrupted in transmission (ISBE2, 3:565). But this would require the same corruptions to have occurred at Exodus 12:37-38 and at Judges 20:2 as well. Others say there is not enough information for a solution (ISBE2, 3:565-66).
Since the alternative proposals are not satisfactory, the objections to taking the numbers of Numbers at face value must be examined in greater detail.
1. The greater size of Israel’s army relative to those of Egypt and Assyria is not as great a problem as may first be supposed. The censuses in Numbers mark the number of men in the entire nation who are aged 20 and above and who are able to fight. The number of fighting men in an entire nation is bound to be higher than the armies of nations, even nations such as Egypt and Assyria.
2. Joshua 8 may not be as great an obstacle as it first appears. What the ESV translates as "all the fighting men" and the NIV as "the whole army" (cf. HCSB), is better translated "all the people of war" (KJV, NKJV, NASB) (8:1, 3, 11). Howard notes, "This phrase ‘all the people of war’ is found in the Old Testament only in the Book of Joshua (8:1,3,11; 10:7; 11:7). These uses seem to emphasize the unity of the entire nation in doing battle (cf. the concern for unity in 1:12-15), even though it was most likely only the men who actually engaged in battles" (Howard, NAC, 203; Woudstra, NICOT, 134, n. 4). The 30,000 of Joshua 8 thus need not have been all the men of Israel but rather were a selected force (Calvin, Joshua, 123). Also, the numbers in Numbers are consistent with the numbers elsewhere in Israel’s early history (Exodus 12:37-38; Judges 20:2). This makes the numbers in Joshua 8, rather than those of Numbers, the outlier.
3. The wilderness narratives in Exodus and Numbers note repeatedly the difficulty of providing food and drink to the people along with the miraculous provision of food and water. Sanitation was regulated in the Torah. The issue of room to camp is not as easy to address since there is disagreement on the route of the Israelites. Nonetheless, E. J. Young notes that "if the people were encamped in the plain of Er-Rahah before Jebel es Safsaf, they were in a plain about four miles in length and quite wide, with which several wide, lateral valleys join (Young, Introduction, 89). The wilderness narratives are also frank in their description of the people’s low morale at various points. These objections are therefore either addressed in the text or are not accurate in their statement of the problem.
4. The disparity in population between Israelites and Canaanites may not be a major problem. The Israelites were afraid of the Canaanites for their physical (not numerical) size and for their fortified cities. The Canaanites had home field advantage, fortified cities, and experienced fighting forces. Exodus 23 may not be so much about the relative population sizes as about the transition period needed to establish a civilizing presence in the land after the current one is removed, though it must be admitted that this is a stronger challenge than the others.
5. The ratio between firstborn males and other males also seems to be a greater problem than some of the others. It seems to be an issue of internal consistency. One plausible solution is that the redemption of the firstborn applies only to those born between the exodus from Egypt and the events of chapter 3 (Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 268).
In the end, the objections against taking the numbers of Numbers have responses that are more convincing than the alternative explanations. In fact, some of the solutions to the large numbers of Numbers result in a population so small that one wonders what Pharaoh was worried about (Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 266; a similar argument could be mounted with regard to the Canaanites in Joshua, though the emphasis there is admittedly on the power of Yahweh rather than on the size of Israel; Josh. 2:9, 24; 9:24). The numbers in Numbers 1 should therefore stand as a historical fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to multiply his seed and make him into a great nation (Theodoret of Cyrus, The Questions on the Octateuch, 87).
In his treatment of these verses Calvin reminds his readers of the need to keep the supernatural working of God in view while interpreting such passages as Numbers 1. His comments are worth pondering:
Such is the perverseness of men, that they always seek for opportunities of despising or disallowing the works of God; such, too, is their audacity and insolence that they shamelessly apply all the acuteness they possess to detract from his glory. If their reason assures them that what is related as a miracle is possible, they attribute it to natural causes,—so is God robbed and defrauded of the praise his power deserves; if it is incomprehensible, they reject it as a prodigy. But if they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the interference of God except in matter by the magnitude of which they are struck with astonishment, why do they not persuade themselves of the truth of whatever common sense repudiates? They ask how this can be as if it were reasonable that the hand of God should be so restrained as to be unable to do anything which exceeds the bounds of human comprehension. Whereas, because we are naturally so slow to profit by his ordinary operations, it is rather necessary that we should be awakened into admiration by extraordinary dealings (John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses arranged in the Form of a Harmony, 1:22).