There is clear significance for the Numbers in the Census if one understands the numbers to be literal and the men to represent about one-fourth of the population, then the number of the Israelites ranges from two to three million people, as we have seen before. A literal understanding of the numbers in the census is in congruence with Pharaoh's fear of the rapidly increasing Hebrews overrunning Egypt (Exodus 1:7-12), the promises made to Abraham about becoming a great nation (Genesis 12:2; 17:5-6), the earlier census taken during the first year in the wilderness (Exodus 30:12--16; 38:26), and other records of the numbers of adult males who left Egypt (Exodus 12:37; Numbers 11:21).
As usual, critics base their arguments on the smallness of their god, who is not the God of the Bible and, by ruling out His supernatural omnipotence, they argue that the numbers cannot be literal for the following reasons: 1) The Sinai wilderness did not have the ability to sustain such a large number of people and animals; 2) Israel was unable to subdue and displace the Canaanites.
This is claimed despite the clear Biblical account that shows that God both fed the people supernaturally and also brought repeated victory to Israel - but it was their disobedience that allowed some Canaanites to remain. Ironically, the chapter and verse (Joshua 11v21-231) we started from show that Moses was aware of the extraordinary size of the Israelite nation, for he questioned how God could fulfil His promise to feed them with meat until they were sick of it:
21 But Moses said, "The people, among whom I am, are 600,000 on foot; yet Thou hast said, 'I will give them meat in order that they may eat for a whole month.' 22 "Should flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to be sufficient for them? Or should all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to be sufficient for them?" 23 And the LORD said to Moses, "Is the LORD'S power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not."
Other non-literal approaches have been suggested for the reading of the numbers in the census: 1) The census totals are misplaced census lists from the time of David; 2) The census totals are part of the writer's "epic prose" style intended to express the wholeness of Israel and the enormity of God's deliverance of the people (i.e., figurative); 3) The census totals are literary fiction and/or exaggerations corrupted by centuries of revising the Pentateuch; 4) The Hebrew word for "thousands" come from the lack of vowel markings in the writings and could be read as "clan," "tribe," or even unit" (cf. Judges 6:15; Zechariah 9:7) or even "chieftain" or "armed warrior" (e.g., Genesis 36:15).
Some of the more critical writers, e.g. Hill and Walton3 write, "Hence the census lists of Numbers record either military "units" or an unspecified number of warriors or individual (armed) fighting men. Such accounting lowers the Israelites army to a figure somewhere between 18,000 and 100,000 men, with the total Hebrew population numbering between 72,000 and 400,000 people." It is argued that these drastically reduced figures are more consistent with available historical and archaeological data regarding population patterns during the period of the Hebrew Exodus and that this approach also corroborates the biblical affirmations about the small size of Israel when compared with surrounding nations (cf. Deuteronomy 7:1-7; Exodus 23:29-30).
However, this humanistic approach fails to take into account any of the supernatural elements described in the narratives, such as the promises that "there shall be no one miscarrying or barren in your land; I will fulfil the number of your days" (Exodus 23v26) contained in the same chapter supposedly supporting an Israel of limited size!
(Continued on page 509)