Wibble Wednesday: Numerology (Numbers 1:1–4:20)

OK, I’m way behind, but I have just about the best excuse one can have for missing a section of the Book of Numbers (which we are now starting!). I was away at, and then recovering my routine from, a math conference. But now I’m back on track, and all set to discuss פָּרָשַׁת במדבר (“In the desert” portion). Numbers is a kind of fun book, with both narrative and some kinda quirky law, so it’ll be an interesting ride.

The quick snarky summary: It is finally proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that all those references to upwards of half a million Israelites is not a clerical error or a mistranslation. Some details of just how this enormous group camps and moves are shared, conveniently ignoring the logistical impossibilities.


Most of this parsha is taken up by a long census from which the entire book derives its name. The big takeaway lesson from this census is that all the convenient dodges people use to say, “no, that 600,000 figure back in Exodus is a clerical error” don’t actually work. The most popular semantic dodge is the suggestion that the term אלף. which describes the quantity of which the Israelites had 603 of here (and 600 of back in Exodus) aren’t actually “thousands”, but rather “clans”, and that these “clans” consisted of considerably fewer than a thousand (for instance, the 40,500 men of Ephraim become 500 men in 40 clans). This kind of doesn’t hold water because here they’re actually doing arithmetic with those quantities, and there are carries of thousands from the number of “men” to the number of “אלפים”, making it pretty unambiguously clear that someone writing the Bible, at least, thought these were thousands. You could posit that Numbers 1:46, where the total is listed, is of later authorship than Numbers 1:20–44 or Exodus 12:37, and misinterpreted the word when totaling up the figures, but on the other hand the sort of people who demand that the Bible is inerrantly literal truth shy away from multiple-authors theories.

So, anyways, if we take the Torah at its word, there are upwards of 603,000 able-bodied adult males in the nation of Israel at this point. What does that mean, logistically? Well, bear in mind that that figure of 603,000 doesn’t include the women, or children, or taking the language of 1:3 literally, the old and infirm and other nondraftables. A conservatively low estimate of the size of the actual population would come in at at least 2 million people. When I asked you to envision 600,000, my description was of the incorporated city of Milwaukee. Two million is closer to Houston. If each of those people received a 70-square-foot living area—which would be astonishingly small, and in the wilderness, astonishingly unsanitary—the total area occupied by this teeming mass would be 5 square miles. And the logistics would be awful: I already mentioned sanitation, which if they occupied an area for any length of time would be catastrophic, and while their food and water needs were evidently supernaturally dealt with, the water was not supernaturally distributed. Communication and administration of such a huge crowd in a small place, notwithstanding Jethro’s plan to appoint deputy judges, would be near-impossible. You get the drift. This group simply could not have lived, and moved, at that size. Cities weren’t that large back then — centuries later, at the height of its glory, Rome would have less than half that population. I’ve looked for information of mass migratory/mobilized groups even in the modern world, and there aren’t many that moved as a cohesive unit: military movements tended to be on the shy side of 150,000 people (with the Long March mobilizing that many in a single mass, and possibly other such events), and civilian retreats from war fronts tended to be chaotic, incoherent affairs which may well have displaced millions but not in very orderly groups or all at once.

Numbers 2 explains the details of how the tribes camped. Based on the above discussion I’m more inclined to view this as a colorful mid-Iron-Age fantasy of how the ancient, strong and numerous Israelites arrayed themselves martially under their banners than an actual description of a historical happening, but the peculiar thing about Numbers 2 is the low information-density. It tells us where the Twelve Tribes camped, with three in each of the cardinal directions and the Levites in the middle, but it does so in among an exact repetition of the information already provided in Numbers 1. Like, the exact same data: tribal populations and their chieftains’ names and patronyms, which stretches out a very simple set of instructions to 34 verses. This really feels very like padding, since all that information was already related. I’m not sure even clumsy redaction explains this one. You’d think someone would look at this and say, “hmm, we can probably cut some of this out”, but apparently they didn’t.

Numbers 3 finally gets to the Levites, who have been left out of the previous censuses and instructions. Some of this reiterates themes we saw in the previous Book: that priestly service is important and is entrusted to the house of Levi, with the house of Aaron especially distinguished as their leaders. Verses 3:12–13 present a rather novel defense of this servitude: first-born males belong to God (which we actually saw mentioned back in Exodus), and he’s taken the service of the Levites as substitutionary.

Anyways, the Levites get their own census, divided up among the several subhouses of Gershon, Merari, and Kohath. Each of these clans got their own little camp, and each had their own duties, with the Gershonites responsible for Tabernacle linens, the Kohathites responsible for the furnishings, and Merarites responsible for the structural elements. A final element of this census hearkens back to that strange little bit in verses 12 and 13: since the Levites substitute for the first-born, the substitution must be numerically balanced, and there are fewer Levites than first-born by 273, so those have to be redeemed by payment of five shekels instead. This rather mundane transaction bugs me more, perhaps, than it ought. Which 273 first-born did he dun for this money? Did he pick random ones, or especially un-Levitically-matched ones, or did he collect a prorated levy of 0.06 shekels from each first-born? (digression: given the context, I looked up the etymology of the word “levy” to see if it’s related to this incident. It’s not.) And, while we’re on it, what’s with God dunning monetary taxes from the Israelites anyways? Their wealth is a result of God-condoned looting of the Egyptians, presumably for their own comfort and enrichment, and it’s more useful to them than to God. Put simply, what does God need with a starship1365 shekels?

We close off this brief discursion into Levitical matters with a topical discussion of how the Tabernacle utensils are prepared to travel. This is a segue into the next parsha’s discussion of how the whole community travels, but apparently the tribe of Kohath had a kind of weird relationship with the furnishings of the sanctuary. Tribally these things were their burden, but as non-descendants of Aaron, they were forbidden to touch them, or even to gaze on them, so the family of Aaron had the job of covering all these things up (apropos of which, our old friend the תחש, which means “seal” or “dolphin” or “badger” or maybe “unicorn”, makes a reappearance), after which the Kohathites were allowed to carry them. So a special connection apparently existed between the Kohathites and the high priesthood: the other families could just go about their duties, but the Kohathites were apparently superintended by the family of Aaron. If you think this might have engendered ill-will, well, read on and we’ll get to that part!

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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