'Studies in the Old Testament'

God leads Israel into Canaan - 1

February 2010

The Biblical use of round numbers

We read that Joshua had over 600,000 fighting men at his command ready to enter the land of Canaan and perform a military assault in order to occupy the territory and  Numbers 26:51, where the new census was recorded, puts the actual count of the numbered men at precisely 601,730.  Accusations are made by liberals and critics regarding the use of round numbers in Scripture and we need to ask ourselves whether these criticisms are valid. As Christians it should be easy for us to accept that Moses knew the exact number, but we need to consider why even biblical authors usually use round numbers for convenience sake. In Numbers 11:21, Moses says, "The people, among whom I am, are 600,000 on foot" 1. Since we know from Numbers 2:32, also authored by Moses, that the numbered men at that time totalled 603,550 we can easily accept that Numbers 11:21 is an example of using round numbers for convenience.  Thus we find a perfectly acceptable explanation to the critics' problem and accusation that Scripture is inaccurate when it refers to numbers, in that round numbers are often used for convenience, but when necessary Scripture is very plain and specific with exact numbers.

An examination of the manner in which the figures are accumulated in Numbers quickly shows that many of the figures are the result of rounding up numbers for the purpose of the particular census which was taken for a number of reasons, i.e., to  ascertain and recruit manpower for war (Numbers 1:3), to allot work assignments in the forced labour gangs and the religious organisation (Numbers 3:4), to establish a basis for taxation (cf. Exodus 30:11-16), to order the Hebrew tribes in marching and camping formations (Numbers 2), and to contribute to the organization of former slaves into a unified people.

Two censuses are taken in Numbers (1 & 26): the first census was taken in the second month of the second year after the Exodus (Numbers 1:1) numbering the first generation of post-Exodus Israelites; the second census was taken in the fortieth year after the Exodus numbering the second generation of post-Exodus Israelites (Numbers 20:1, 22-29; 33:38).  Both censuses were taken of Israelite men who were of fighting age (twenty years of age and older -  Numbers 1:1-4; 26:1-40).

A comparison of figures from the literature shows how rounding up was used regularly, yet shows a consistent pattern2:

'God leads Israel into Canaan!'

The Biblical use of round numbers

Canaan in the time of Joshua

Siege warfare

God shows that it was His war!

Miracle at the Jordan River

The great symbolic victory at Jericho

The Sin of Achan and its' impact on Israel

Spiritual lessons from Achan!

The result of the treaty with the Gibeonites

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)

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