#218. The total number of Levites is 22,300 OR 22,000? (Num 3:22, 28, 34 vs Num 3:39)


The numbering of Levites from one-month old and up as recorded in Numbers 3 contains a minor textual discrepancy, which I shall nonetheless count as a contradiction.

Numbers 3:39 states that “the total number of Levites which Moses and Aaron tallied by order of Yahweh, by their clans, all males one-month of age and older amounted to 22,000.” This total sets the stage for the Levite redemption of all firstborn males in the verses that follow, where it is stated that there were 273 more firstborn Israelite males than Levites to redeem them—thus 22,273 firstborns—and these leftovers were required to be redeemed through a monetary sum of 5 shekels a head.

However, if we count the number of Levites per tribe as noted in Num 3:22, 28, and 34, we would get a total of 22,300 Levites: 7,500 Gershonites; 8,600 Kohathites; and 6,200 Merarites!

Deferring to a colleague whose Hebrew is better than mine, Levine notes that the discrepancy might have conceivably crept into the manuscript tradition by writing “60o” (šš) instead of “30o” (šlš) in verse 28 (Numbers 1-20, Anchor Bible, 161).

While we’re talking about numbers, we might make some additional comments. In Numbers 2, the total number of Israelite males excluding Levites from 20 years of age and older amounted to 603,550. We already noted this Priestly writer’s total contradicted the even 600,000 noted in the earlier Elohist tradition (#116), a count which most likely included Levites! Obviously the biblical writers were prone to exaggeration, and sought out some sort of sexigesimal system. But the numbers themselves are sheer fabrications and conveniences.

For example, in the Elohist tradition it is stated at Exodus 12:37 that there were 600,000 males that left Egypt. The same Elohist tradition notes that there were still an even 600,000 men at Numbers 11:21, despite the fact that the same tradition records the slaughtering of 3,000 men for the Golden Calf sin (see #162). But more disturbing, imposing the later Priestly writer’s chronology onto the Elohist tradition, as it now stands in the redacted JEP text, 2 years and 2 months separate the “action” of Exodus 12 and Numbers 11, yet the number of Israelite men remain a convenient 600,000!

I’m inclined to argue that this discrepancy was not part of the original Elohist tradition. Numbers 11 is a doublet of the quails episode—both E and P left behind different versions of the story (#125). When the redactor was faced with redacting these two versions of the same story into the composite text he was creating, he ultimately decided to place the Priestly version before Sinai (Ex 16) and the Elohist version after Sinai (Num 11). In the original Elohist tradition, however, the quails story with its 600,000 men most likely immediately followed the departure from Egypt, where the Redactor placed P’s version instead. As Friedman and others have repeatedly noted, one of the most significant pieces of evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis is that when the source are reconstructed, what we get are unified whole complete narratives that lack narrative discrepancies, such as I’ve just down by reconstructing the original place of E’s quail story! The textual discrepancy, like the contradictions posted on this site, are the result of redacting together different, and competing, textual traditions.

In the Priestly tradition, we will get a new census in Numbers 26 after Yahweh has wiped out this entire generation for their lack of faith in the spy-scouting episode (Num 13-14). But like the Elohist, the Priestly writer also may have had a rational for his 603,550 Israelite males and 22,000 Levites—yielding a total of 625,550. Exodus 38:26 also records a total of 603,550 non-Levite males who participated in the donation of a ½ shekel a head for the silver needed to construct the tabernacle—obviously leftover silver from what had previously been donated for the fabrication of the Golden Calf (cf. #158)!

Finally, as one reader noted, here, for a total of 603,550 male Israelites there seems to be too few firstborns, only 22,273. Furthermore, the Priestly writer gives us round numbers for all its counts except for the firstborns, 22,273, and the leftovers that must be redeemed for 5 shekels a head, 273—yielding 1365 shekels. There quite possible is an inherent meaning in these numbers even though they elude us today. In conclusion, we might note that being a priest in the Aaronid system was certainly a lucrative business!

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