“All the persons of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy” (Gen 46:27). 430 years later (Exod 12:40–41; Acts 7:6; Gal 3:17), for all the interesting observations that could be made about the size of the biblical numbers of Israel’s population (cf. Exod 12:37; 38:26; Num 1:46; 2:32; 26:51),1 conservative commentators who take these numbers literally suggest that Israel had grown to a population of somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 million people. Such a number could have meant that Israel’s population multiplied about 10 times larger than it was every 100 years in Egypt.
One commentator explains the math of how to get to such a number: “If one takes the figure of 603,550 males conscripted for the Israelite army [cf. Exod 38:26; Num 1:46], which was probably only about 70 percent of the adult male population, and add equal numbers (probably more) of females, and then reckon another 25 percent for children, the total population could have been in the range of 2.0 to 2.5 million.”2 Holding to a high view of Scripture and of God Himself, another commentator concludes, “It seems best then to take the facts and figures literally and to view the movement and provision of this vast host as a part of the Lord’s miraculous provision.”3
This being said, the book of Numbers speaks of a lot of death in Israel. Using a low estimate of Israel’s population according to the explanation above, the nation could have been roughly 1.5 million people both before and after their 40 years in the wilderness (cf. Num 1:46; 26:51). After recording the numbers for Israel’s second census, Moses stated, “But among these there was not one of those listed by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had listed the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai….except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun” (Num 26:64–65). Matching this statement to the estimates of Israel’s population before and after their 40 years in the wilderness, roughly 1.5 million people died in the wilderness. An average of 37,500 people died per year, and an average of just over 100 people died per day. Everywhere Israel went in the wilderness, they left a graveyard behind .
A look at these numbers in Numbers warns us against a lack of belief in the power of God, whether in general or just for a moment, and especially against speaking rashly in such a time. For the Israelites, they doubted God’s power to bring them into Canaan and lamented, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!” (Num 14:2). In response, God stated, “As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you” (Num 14:28). And the dead bodies of an entire generation of Israelites fell in the wilderness as a result (cf. Num 14:29–35; Heb 3:17).
May we persevere by our fear of the judgment of God, and may we also persevere out of gratitude in that Christ took the judgment of God for us!
- For a survey of problems and solutions related to these numbers, see Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 60–66; R. Dennis Cole, Numbers (NAC 3B; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 78–82; and David M. Fouts, “A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Large Numbers in the Old Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40 (1997), 377–87. [↩]
- Cole, Numbers, 78. [↩]
- Eugene. H. Merrill, “Numbers,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (eds. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck; Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1:217. [↩]