The book of Numbers starts with an order to count all the men of fighting age in preparation for war. The numbers are large, more than six hundred thousand plus the Levites.
But the point of this book is not the numbers, but their purpose. The Hebrew name for this book is In the wilderness, and it covers the Israelites’ time between Egypt and Canaan, which ended up being closer to 40 years than the year or two it should have been.
Most of the objections to the very large numbers of Israelites, possibly around two million once you add women and children and the elderly, are based around a lack of belief: could so many people really have left Egpyt then wandered around the desert for some 40 years?
- How could the land have supported them? Manna, quail and water from rocks come to mind!
- Why did they leave no record? They were nomadic, runaway slaves. Nomads leave few traces of their existance, and the Israelities’ belongings would have been largely Egyptian.
That said, there is some uncertainty about the use of the word thousands in this part of the text. This article looks at whether the word could mean tribe, clan, military unit, or thousand (scroll down to ‘Special Problem’), and this article discusses the issue in more detail. And while we like to be precise about these things, it might not be possible.
And it probably doesn’t matter. Just look at the way the word billion has changed: it used to mean a million million, until the American usage took over and now it means a thousand million. When the take-over started, we used to have to ask whether we were talking about a ‘real’ billion or the smaller American billion! Someone who measured a British billion was accurate when they did it, but it would look like they had made a huge mistake if we just took their numbers at face value today.
Similarly, the writer of Numbers, who is traditionally assumed to be Moses, would have been accurate when he recorded the census. Our capacity to interpret the record some thousands of years later is not quite so good.