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tn Heb “those numbered of them.” The form is פְּקֻדֵיהֶם (péqudehem), the passive participle with the pronominal suffix. This indicates that the number came to 46,500, but it specifically refers to “those numbered.” This expression occurs frequently throughout the book of Numbers.
sn There has been much discussion about the numbers in the Israelite wilderness experience. The immediate difficulty for even the casual reader is the enormous number of the population. If indeed there were 603,550 men twenty years of age and older who could fight, the total population of the exodus community counting women and children would have been well over a million, or even two million as calculated by some. This is not a figure that the Bible ever gives, but given the sizes of families the estimate would not be far off. This is a staggering number to have cross the Sea, drink from the oases, or assemble in the plain by Sinai. It is not a question of whether or not God could provide for such a number; it is rather a problem of logistics for a population of that size in that period of time. The problem is not with the text itself, but with the interpretation of the word אֶלֶף (’elef), traditionally translated “thousand.” The word certainly can be taken as “thousand,” and most often is. But in view of the problem of the large number here, some scholars have chosen one of the other meanings attested in literature for this word, perhaps “troop,” or “family,” or “tent group,” even though a word for “family” has already been used (see A. H. McNeile, Numbers, 7; J. Garstang, Joshua-Judges, 120; J. Bright, History of Israel, 144). Another suggestion is to take the word as a “chief” or “captain” based on Ugaritic usage (see R. E. D. Clarke, “The Large Numbers of the Old Testament,” JTVI 87 : 82–92; and J. W. Wenham, “Large Numbers in the Old Testament,” TynBul 18 : 19–53). This interpretation would reduce the size of the Israelite army to about 18,000 men from a population of about 72,000 people. That is a radical change from the traditional reading and may be too arbitrary an estimate. A more unlikely calculation following the idea of a new meaning would attempt to divide the numbers and use the first part to refer to the units and the second the measurement (e.g., 65 thousand and four hundred would become 65 units of four hundred). Another approach has been to study the numbers rhetorically, analyzing the numerical values of letters and words. But this method, known as gematria, came in much later than the biblical period (see for it G. Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament, 184; and A. Noordtzij, Numbers [BSC], 24). On this system the numbers for “the sons of Israel” would be 603. But the number of the people in the MT is 603,550. Another rhetorical approach is that which says the text used exaggerations in the numbers on an epic scale to make the point of God’s blessing. R. B. Allen’s view that the numbers have been magnified by a factor of ten (“Numbers,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 2:688–91), which would mean the army was only 60,000 men, seems every bit as arbitrary as Wenham’s view to get down to 18,000. Moreover, such views cannot be harmonized with the instructions in the chapter for them to count every individual skull—that seems very clear. This is not the same kind of general expression one finds in “Saul has killed his thousands, David his ten thousands” (1 Sam 18:7). There one expects the bragging and the exaggerations. But in a text of numbering each male, to argue that the numbers have been inflated ten-fold to form the rhetoric of praise for the way God has blessed the nation demands a much more convincing argument than has typically been given. On the surface it seems satisfactory, but it raises a lot of questions. Everything in Exodus and Numbers attests to the fact that the Israelites were in a population explosion, that their numbers were greater than their Egyptian overlords. Pharaoh had attempted to counter their growth by killing males from the ranks. That only two midwives are named must be taken to mean that they were heads of the guilds, for two could not service a population—even of the smaller estimate given above. But even though the size had to have been great and seen as a threat, we are at a loss to know exactly how to determine it. There is clearly a problem with the word “thousand” here and in many places in the OT, as the literature will show, but the problem cannot really be solved without additional information. The suggestions proposed so far seem to be rather arbitrary attempts to reduce the number to a less-embarrassing total, one that would seem more workable in the light of contemporary populations and armies, as well as space and time for the people’s movement in the wilderness. An army of 10,000 or 20,000 men in those days would have been a large army; an army of 600,000 (albeit a people’s army, which may mean that only a portion of the males would actually fight at any time—as was true at Ai) is large even by today’s standards. But the count appears to have been literal, and the totals calculated accordingly, totals which match other passages in the text. If some formula is used to reduce the thousands in this army, then there is the problem of knowing what to do when a battle has only five thousand, or three thousand men. One can only conclude that on the basis of what we know the word should be left with the translation “thousand,” no matter what difficulties this might suggest to the reader. One should be cautious, though, in speaking of a population of two million, knowing that there are serious problems with the calculation of that number, if not with the word “thousand” itself. It is very doubtful that the population of the wilderness community was in the neighborhood of two million. Nevertheless, until a more convincing explanation of the word “thousand” or the calculation of the numbers is provided, one should retain the reading of the MT but note the difficulty with the large numbers.
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