When we first begin in numbers we see that God has asked Moses to take a census of all the men who were able to serve in the Hebrew army. “And there shall be with you a man from each tribe, each man being the head of the house of his fathers.” (Numbers 1:4). The numbers of these men total to 603,550; and that is excludes the Levi tribes! This suggests that the number of people that Moses and Aaron were guiding through the wilderness was over 2,000,000. (Answers.com). When looking into the numbers I found multiple scholars who agreed that if the army was in fact over 600,000; the amount of people traveling through the wilderness was 2,000,000 to 2,500,000.
That seems like quite a large group to be camping with. My question this week is, did this story get lost in translation, exaggerated over time, or is it plausible that these numbers are correct?
My first reaction is that the story got lost in translation. When looking into this theory I found that the Hebrew word for “thousand” is the same for the word “chief”. This could mean that we used the wrong meaning and the real numbers are supposed to be translated as one figure less. “For example, the 46,500 of Reuben (1:20) is read as 45 chiefs and 1,500 fighting men, the 59,300 of Simeon (1:23) is read as 58 chiefs and 1,300 fighting men, etc.” (Biblestudytools.com). When I started to research more I found more information to back this theory that the translation is wrong. “The Hebrew word translated as “thousand” in these population figures actually refers to an indeterminate-size clan, troop or family. The Hebrew word itself is transliterated ‘elep and also carries the meaning of a family complex or clan in some cases, such as family. This would mean that the results for the first census adds up to 598 families or troops consisting of a total of 5550 men and the results for the second census is nearly the same at 596 families or troops consisting of 5730 men.” (Accuracyingenesis). Both of these sources imply that the population, though still large, would be around 20,000 to 40,000.
One theory is that in fact, these are true numbers. The Bible has covenants and promises to the Hebrew people that will prosper with big tribes and large nations. If you look back at what the earlier books say, it seems acceptable that the Iseralites were traveling with that many people. If we look back to the book of Exodus we see the Egyptian pharaoh deciding to make the Isrealites his slaves because he was worried about their numbers they might be able to over power them. “He was so concerned that he attempted to reduce the slave numbers by pressuring the midwives to kill the Hebrews’ newborn sons (Exodus 1:8,15). No exact numbers are given, but if the king was worried the Hebrew population could soon outnumber the Egyptians’, then there is strong reason to believe a vast number of Jewish people lived in the region at the time of the Exodus.”(Gotquestions.org)
Finally, another way to look at these numbers is to look at them as symbolic not mathematical.The research that I found would agree with the theory that the Isrealites may have exaggerated just a bit in their numbers. “The numerical value of the Hebrew letters in the expression bene yisra’el equals 603 (the number of the thousands of the fighting men, 1:46); the remaining 550 (plus 1 for Moses) might come from the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters in the expression “all the men . . . who are able to serve in the army” (1:3).” (biblestudytools.com). This simply means that the these books are supposed to be translated symbolically not literally.”In the same way that most do not understand creation to have occurred in the span of 168 hours. The Bible is to be read seriously but not literally.” (http://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/).
After all this, I believe that the translation was lost somewhere over time. If we misunderstood the translation of the word thousand and instead of 2,000,000 there were 20,000 traveling it makes more sense.