I found this to be an interesting question. I had never heard of any controversies regarding the accuracy of these censuses either. So, I contacted the Questioner to gain some insight as to what prompted this question. After that discussion and with a little checking of my own I was able to get a general understanding that, for one reason or another (which I believe all stems from the same source which I will disclose later), the accuracy of the number of Israelites that left Egypt after the 430 years of slavery, and/or entered into the Holy Land after the 40 years of wandering has sometimes been disputed or the cause of controversy.
Rather than try to discover, discuss, and dispute all the different attacks against what Scripture says on this matter, I wanted to answer this by simply answering two very important questions:
• How accurate were the censuses that were taken? Were the people of that time able to accurately count the people and does scripture support the number they came up with? Of course even this question leaves out the most important factor: the Divine, Omnipotent God who called for and oversaw, and preserved the numbers in Scripture.
• Why the attacks against their accuracy? What would be the purpose of disputing these censuses?
First, let’s look at what Scripture has to say about the accuracy of the numbers given.
The first Israelite (son or descendant of Israel, who was formerly named Jacob, the grandson of Abraham) to enter Egypt was Joseph, Jacob’s son, as recorded in Genesis 37:36. So, the number of Israelites that started out in Egypt was: one.
We understand from further reading in the Bible that this was all part of God’s plan to preserve the nation that He had chosen, when a time of great famine was going to come in the near future, and to prepare them to be a strong nation in the land He was giving them as an inheritance.
In Genesis 46 the rest of Joseph’s family (the Israelites) go to Egypt. In verses 26 and 27 of that chapter, we find out that the direct descendants of Jacob (Israel) who came to Egypt were 66 people, not including the wives of his 11 sons who came with them. Including Joseph's two sons that were born in Egypt, the house of Israel in Egypt is given at 70. The number would have been greater with the inclusion of the wives of Jacob’s sons, and the husbands of his daughters (if they were married). It could have been closer to 100 people all together.
Exodus 1:7 tells us that while the Israelites lived in Egypt they “were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them.”
By the time the Israelites leave Egypt in the Exodus (430 years later according to Exodus 12:41) we are told in Exodus 12:37 that there were about 600,000 men aside from children. This number would not have included any women or even male children under a certain age (possibly under 20 years of age according to Numbers 1:45, leading me to believe that they had only numbered the men who could fight in battle).
According to Ryrie's commentary on the Old Testament, if these 600,000 were about 1/4 to 1/3 of the total population of Israel who left, it would put the total number of Israel closer to 2,000,000 people in all.
This number would be very realistic considering that if the original 70+ people experienced an annual growth rate of only 5% - remember, though that God multiplied them greatly - at the end of 430 years they would be over 2,000,000. We cannot know the exact percentage of their growth, so the number could be anywhere between 2 and 3 million for sure.
The most accurate census probably comes from The Book of Numbers. In Numbers, we are told more than 150 times that the Lord spoke to Moses. This is God’s word, not something that Moses made up!
In Numbers 1:2 – God commands Moses to take a census of all the males, 20 years of age and older, who are able to go out to war. Excluding those who were not able to go out to war for reason of age, infirmity, handicap, or whatever other reason.
Numbers 1:46 gives us the number as 603,550. This supports the number we were given in Exodus 12:37 quite nicely! Once again, this would leave the entire population including women and children somewhere between 2 and 3 million.
But, how accurate was this number?
In Exodus 38:25-26, a few years after the Exodus from Egypt, as they are constructing the Tabernacle for the worship of God, there is mention of the silver used in accordance to those in the congregation who were numbered. The number of men who were 20 years old and older is given as 603,550.
Coincidence? I don’t think so!
Of course, the first generation of men defied God’s command to enter the Holy Land and was not allowed to enter. They would all die out in the desert as a result of their disobedience and lack of faith. All, except for two faithful men named Joshua and Caleb.
In Numbers 26 – the New Generation of Israelites is now numbered in order to see once again how many fighting men there were who were over the age of 20.
Now, while there are times in Scripture where numbers are given that are representative, symbolic, figurative, or allegorical (usually multiples of 7, 10, or 12, or rounded up or down to be even.), especially in Apocalyptic literature such as the Revelation. I do not believe that to be the case with these censuses.
Here is why:
• These counting’s were ordained by God and commanded for a purpose. God’s sovereignty and omnipotence would have assured that they were as accurate as humanly possible. Humans being the agents that counted. God preserved these numbers in His Word as they were and are.
• The preservation, care, and feeding of this large of an amount of people also gives tangible witness to God’s ability to take care of and provide for us!
• The person in charge of the census was no dummy. He was Moses, who had been educated in Egypt in the most prestigious and excellent schools in the world of that time. He would have been very exacting in carrying out God’s command. Could there have been 1 or 2 missed here or there…possibly, but only by human error, not divine.
• I believe that the people of that time were just as, if not more, intelligent that we are today. So the system they would have used for counting would have been as precise as possible. It would be very important to them to know exactly how many fighting men they had when the time for battle came. And, at the second census the time for battle had come. Remember, men fought hand to hand in that day with swords, clubs, and spears. There were no machine guns, bombs, or tanks to make up for having a smaller infantry.
I believe, in the case of the censuses, that what the Bible says is what the numbers were. I also believe that accordingly, there were definitely somewhere between 2 and 3 million Israelites who left Egypt. Almost the same amount entered into the Holy Land about 40 years later!
Regardless of why people try to discredit or debunk even the small things in scripture, at the root is the Devil doing whatever he can to get us to doubt God!
Revelation 12:10 gives us a clear statement of what Satan is all about...
“Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, "Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night.” (NASB)
While many of us remember that Satan’s tactic is to tempt us into sinning and then run to God and tell on us as soon as we do. Many forget that Satan also tries to get us to doubt God’s character and word.
Satan accuses us before God. And he also accuses God before us!
Isn’t this the exact thing he did with Eve in the Garden? In the very beginning when the first sin was committed? In Genesis 3:1-5, Satan accuses God of not being truthful or honorable. And Eve falls for it!
Genesis 3:1-5 - Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, "Indeed, has God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden '?" The woman said to the serpent, "From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.'" The serpent said to the woman, "You surely will not die! "For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (NASB)
I believe that the attacks and debates about these censuses have the same purpose at their root. I can hear the serpent now… “If these numbers are incorrect. or have been changed or incorrectly translated, then what else is not right or inaccurate in the Bible?”
1 Timothy 1:3-7 – “As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.” (NASB)
Titus 3:9 – “…avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (NASB)
In the end, the most important census will be how many people will live forever with God in His Heaven. How many of those counted will be there because you valued each individual person as much as Jesus did?
Study hard. Stand firm in your faith. And never allow the enemy to take your focus off of what’s truly important!
It’s not the five loaves that we focus on… it’s the One whose hands broke them and fed thousands!
God Bless…P. Scott