While Israel was still encamped at Mt. Sinai a census was taken the men of war with a view of the Conquest of Canaan. Numbers 1:46 states, “all who were numbered were six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty.” Only those age twenty and older were counted (1:45), and the tribe of Levi was excluded.
That high number has been dismissed as improbable or even impossible by many and has given rise to numerous explanations of what is meant other than a literal reading. For example, R.D. Cole in the New American Commentary explores six possible explanations of the passage and then writes,
More recently D. Fouts has suggested that the hyperbolic use of numbers in the Book of Numbers presents a parallel to ancient Near Eastern texts from Mesopotamia that utilize large hyperbolic numbers in military conscription texts and other population counts.
Israel’s power was not in the size of their armies or their enormous population but in their God. He would send angels before them to fight their battles and confuse their enemies. The hyperbolic use of numbers was not for misrepresentation but for powerful demonstration of Yahweh’s continuing blessing upon Israel in the past, multiplying seventy persons into more than sixty thousand or six hundred thousand or three million, and the numbers were a statement of confidence in a God who would continue to multiply his people like the stars of the heaven.
I have several problems with this kind of explanation:
1. There is nothing within the text or context of Numbers 1:46 to indicate that there is a hyperbolic or poetic usage of numbers.
2. There are related passages that have a bearing on the matter. For example, each man age 20 and upward was required to pay 1/2 shekel as an offering to the Lord (Ex. 38:26). Exodus 38:25 states, “The silver of those of the congregation who were numbered was 100 talents and 1,775 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary.” 1 talent equals 3,000 shekels, thus 100 talents equals 300,000 shekels. That plus the additional 1,775 shekels listed would total 301,775 shekels. Since each paid 1/2 shekels, 301,775 shekels would be payment for exactly 603,550 men. Must we now find Mesopotamian parallels or conclude that this passage also make hyperbolic usage of the numbers in this text?
3. Months earlier when the Exodus occurred, the record states, “Then the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children” (Ex. 12:37).
4. When the rebellion occurred, the refusal of the men to conquer Canaan, all of them died in the wilderness. In the 40th year it was necessary to take another census. That total was 601,730 (Num. 26:51), which is slightly less but for all practical purpose approximately the same as the first numbering.
Conclusion: What we see is that the numbering of Num. 1:46 is consistent with the total for the 1/2 shekel offering, the record in Ex. 12:2, as well as the second numbering. My conclusion is that the Numbers census of Num. 1:46 should be taken at face value.