Numbers 1:1–4:49—How accurate is this census of the tribes of Israel?

Problem: According to the census taken in chapters 1–4 of Numbers, the newly formed nation of Israel must have numbered about 2 million people. According to Numbers 1:1, this census was taken while the people were in the wilderness of Sinai at the beginning of their 40 years of wandering. However, the dry and desolate conditions of the Sinai desert would have made it impossible for such a large group to survive. So, is the census inaccurate?

Solution: The naturalistic presupposition of this criticism is contrary to the historic facts. Although there has been some controversy over the meaning of the Hebrew word which is translated “thousand,” the evidence is clear that this is the proper understanding of this word in this context. For example, Numbers 1:21 does not say, as some have claimed, that the children of Reuben numbered 46 families and 500. The verse clearly states that the number of individual men from twenty years old and up was 46 thousand and 500. According to the census in these chapters, the total number of male Israelites from 20 years old and up was 603,550. This number is confirmed by the passage in Exodus 12:37 which states that 600,000 males, along with women and children, departed from Egypt.

The fact that the arid and barren desert would not be able to sustain such a large group of people is a valid observation. However, the problem which modern scholarship has with the size of the multitude and the possibility of their survival in the wilderness rests upon an unwillingness to consider the supernatural element. Modern scholarship is decidedly anti-supernatural. Since the Book of Exodus records the divine judgments upon Egypt, and the miraculous deliverance of Israel from bondage, the daily provision for the people by the mighty hand of God is sufficient to explain the survival of the people of God in that destitute land. Indeed, many passages record the miraculous provisions which God made for His people, from the daily supply of manna (Ex. 16), which was provided for the whole nation until the new generation ate the food of the Promised Land (Josh. 5:12), to the miraculous provision of water from that supernatural rock which followed them (1 Cor. 10:4; Ex. 17:6), to the miraculous provision of meat in Numbers 11:31, to the fact that neither their clothes nor their sandals wore out in all their wanderings (Deut. 29:5). God was able to meet all their needs. Although the desert was not able to sustain, the Lord God of Israel certainly was (see also discussion on Deut. 32:13–14).

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.