Starting a new book here, one which I have read even less of than Leviticus. I blame this on the title – who wants to read a book with as dull a title as “Numbers”? Maybe if we used the Hebrew title, “In the Wilderness,” we’d all want to read it more. The Japanese isn’t much better, “the record of counting the people.” Yes, Numbers starts and ends with a census, but in between (I skimmed) there’s more laws and a lot of narrative.
But this first chapter is the census. It’s undertaken so that they can know how many able-bodied men they are able to call up in case of conflict, which they’re expecting a lot of in the future. The results are listed for all the tribes except the Levites (who are priests, and thus exempt from draft). The final total is 603,550.
Excuse me while I laugh a bit.
Okay, why is this number ridiculous? Well, remember that this is only able-bodied men over 20. To account for women, children, the infirm, and the elderly, you’d probably have to triple those numbers, which means you’re looking at a group of roughly two million people.
If two million people lived in the land of Goshen, it would have the population of density of Manhattan – only without skyscrapers.
And remember, the population of the entire world at that time was only about 200 million. So, one out of every one hundred people on the planet is an Israelite? (For the record, the current Jewish population is only 0.2% of the world’s population; admittedly there’s been a genocide or two in between, but you get my point.)
And two million people walked across the Sinai without leaving any archeological trace? Seriously, the footprint from a migration that massive would probably permanently alter the landscape!
I read one interpretation (which I really wish I had at hand) that argued that we’re all badly mistranslating these passages. His total wound up being less than a tenth of the total reached here – large, but not impossible. If I’m tempted to sympathize with this interpretation, it’s not because I’m 100% sure the Biblical account is accurate (in fact, I’m very sure it’s an exaggeration) but because “millions” isn’t a concept you encounter from texts this old. There’s a reason we use “myriad” to mean “countless” when it literally means “ten thousand” in Greek. Japanese, drawing from Chinese tradition, uses ten thousand the same way. “The Ten Thousand Things” is a Chinese term referring to “all creation.” “The 800 ten thousand gods” is a Japanese term meaning “all of the gods” (800 was a lucky number).
Regardless, I do think this is meant to give us an idea of the relative sizes of the tribes, if not during the migration than by the time they started making records during the period of the kings. Judah is the largest by more than a thousand men, while Manasseh is the smallest, with less than half of Judah’s numbers. It’s pretty clear that Judah is already seen as the most powerful tribe, foreshadowing its role as the line of kings and a nation comparable in size to the other eleven combined.
The Japanese: tenko suru “to make a muster,” koseki “family register” (v 2), shoushuusha “convenor,” sofuirai “since our ancestors” (v 16), heieki wo tsuku “to receive a call to arms” (v 22), kumitateru “to build, to assemble” (v 51), kakageru “to display, to fly (a flag)” (v 52), keigo “guard” (v 53).
The Japanese uses “family register,” which is a big deal in Japanese culture, going back at least to the Tokugawa period, where they were preserved by temples, freezing peoples’ religious affiliation. If you want to get married, you move your name to your spouse’s (usually husband’s) family register. Adoption is the same thing. It’s part of why you don’t get the option to keep your family name when you marry.