In his book Why I Believed, Kenneth Daniels makes this case against the passage in Numbers citing several discrepancies ennumerated below. He rightly recognises that the first issue may not be a problem.
- The difference between the number of Levites per clan and the the total number of Levites.
- The rounding of the number of Levites compared with the precise number of firstborns; something he thinks is mathematically unwarranted.
- The self-serving behaviour of the priests in redeeming the excess 273 persons for 5 shekels each.
- The discordance between the number of firstborns and the number of mothers.
In Numbers 1 God tells Moses to number the Israelites from age 20 upwards (excluding Levi). The total number for each tribe is clearly to the nearest 100. Gad is rounded to the nearest 50. The reason for numbering men aged over 20 may partly be military as these are the men who go to war. Round numbers are adequate for this reason—though exact numbers are permissible. It may be that Gad included a small clan that did not reach 100 men so they would have included a number rounded to the nearest 10. If the number had been, say 47, then this would mean rounding to 0 for that tribe, and adding zero for that clan towards the total number of Israelites; but then that clan would be effectively excluded. A community approach to census allows for a round number, but no clan should be excluded. Thus round numbers are consistent with (but not necessary for) a communal focus.
The Levites are excluded from this count because they are set apart for God. But they are counted, though the focus is on all the Levites so the count is from age 1 month. The count is Gershon: 7500; Kohath: 8600; Merari: 6200; for a total of 22,300. Though the Bible gives the sum as 22,000. This is probably a copyist error as the summation for the other Israelites earlier is correct. Again, the number of Levites is given in round numbers which is acceptable as it was the community of Levites.
The number of firstborn males for all the Israelites was 22,273. These were the males to be redeemed. Redemption of people has an individual component. This is not to discount the importance of community, but biblically there is a sense of individuality associated with redemption.
So the rounded numbers are given in Numbers when communal qualities are in view: warfare and temple (tabernacle) service, but exact numbers are given for individual qualities: redemption.
The redemption of the firstborn meant that God exchanged the firstborn of Israel for all the Levites. It is appropriate to subtract the 2 numbers as the 2 groups are being exchanged. Now if the Levites had been counted to the man then subtracting the 2 numbers would have given a slightly different number, but that is not particularly relevant. What is important is that the rounded number of the Levites was the figure that they had. But as the exchange concerned redemption, one could not say the numbers are approximately the same as that discounts the importance of redeeming every individual. Saying 22,000 is about 22,273 says the numbers are close enough. Saying the excess 273 must pay 5 shekels is saying that every single firstborn male must be redeemed. The amount of money did not matter—it was not that much—but the knowledge that every individual was redeemed to a man was vital.
The amount was 1365 shekels of silver. This is not a large amount. Compare the amount of gold and silver used in building the tabernacle. If the priests were being self-serving why not just ask for a shekel per person on top of the Levite exchange.
Now God did not need to redeem all the firstborn of Israel as that is what the Passover accomplished. However the census occurred in the second month of the second year. In that time there would have been many births. The exact number is uncertain but some rough estimates can be considered. The total number of Israelites males over 20 was about 600,000. Probably a similar number of females of that age and more if we add those who may have gotten married from about 15. Of course older females would have finished having children and many other women already had had a firstborn male. But using the number 600,000 we get a ratio of 1:27 of women giving birth to a firstborn male in the previous 13 months. Or consider the total population. If we have 1.2 million men and women over the age of 20 the total population could exceed 2 million. A high birth-rate of say 50 births per 1000 persons per year would give over 100,000 births per year, over 8000 per month. The number of firstborn males redeemed were those born since the Passover.