28 March 2019

A numbers problem in the book of Numbers

The book of Numbers is well-named. There are a lot of number in Numbers.

Take chapter three for instance. In the long last section of that chapter, God tells Moses to count the Levites [1] saying,

And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying,

Number the children of Levi after the house of their fathers, by their families: every male from a month old and upward shalt thou number them. Numbers 3:14-15

Notice that women and girls didn't count in God's census. Neither did babies (or fetuses) under 1 month old of either sex. [2]

But this post is about number problems, so I'll try to stick to that.

Moses did as God commanded and numbered the Levites.

He did so by counting the number of males in the families of Levi's three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

Here's what he came up with:

7,500 Gershonites

8,600 Kohathites

6,200 Merariites

Which, if you total them up, gives a grand total of 22,300.

But the total given in verse 39 is 22,000.

Which leads to the question: How many male Levites more than one month old did Moses and Aaron count?

I know, it's not a big deal. What's three hundred Levites among friends?

But there is a bigger number problem a little later in Numbers 3.

After Moses and Aaron were done counting Levites, God asked them to number all of the firstborn Israelite males.

They got busy doing that and came up with 22,273. (vv.42-43)

And yet Moses already counted all of the male Israelites over 20 years old, and found that there were 603,550. (Num 1:45, 2:32)

So if there were more than 600,000 Israelite males over 20 years old, there must have been more than a million males above 1 month old. And yet Numbers 3:42-43 says there were only 22,273 firstborn sons.

Which means that only about two percent of Israelite sons are firstborn sons, and the average Israelite family must have had a hundred sons and daughters.

  1. God had commanded Moses not to number the Levites in the previous two chapters. But I guess God changed his mind.

    Did God tell Moses to number the Levites?

    It is also interesting that God told Moses to take a census here, since he later will kill 70,000 people to punish David for taking a census. (See 2 Sam 24:1-17 and 1 Chr 21:2.) Oh well, I guess he changed his mind again.

    Is it OK to take a censsus?

  2. As the Harper Collins Study Bible points out, "One month seems to be the age at which personhood was believed to begin: see Lev 27:6."

    What the Bible says about Abortion

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