written by Steven M. Collins
In the book of Numbers, we find that the Israelites under Moses undertook a first and second census of the tribes of Israel while they were in the Wilderness. The results of those enumerations of the tribes of Israel reveal some surprising results. This column will attempt to at least partially explain what seems to be some incomprehensible results.
The first census is listed in Numbers Chapter One. In Numbers 1:1-3 and verse 18, we see that the census tallied the number of males “twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel.” Therefore, we should keep in mind that the l entire population of Israel’s tribes in the Wilderness consisted of far more than the tally in Numbers 1. As a guideline, one would ordinarily double the numbers to allow for one wife per man of military age. Given the polygamous culture at that time, some of the men may have had a number of wives. It is difficult to make an estimate of the number of children, but we should keep in mind that large families were very common at that time. Numbers 1:46 records that 603, 550 adult males were numbered in the census. Based on some of the above rough methods of estimating the number of the entire nation of Israel at that time, we can see that the Israelites can be conservatively estimated to be body of approximately 3,000,000 people. For American readers, that number would equal the approximate population of Oregon. The actual number of Israelites was likely higher as the tribe of Levi wasn’t included in this census, nor were the people of the “mixed multitude” which accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38).
Listed below are the populations of adult males per tribe, given in the order listed in Numbers 1.
Modern readers will notice that the tribe of Judah was, at that time, the largest tribe. The three smallest tribal figures are the three tribes which descended from Jacob and Rachel: Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin. However, when the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh are totaled together, they numbered 72,700, showing the actual total of Israelites descended from Joseph constituted the second largest grouping in Israel. Notice that the tribe of Simeon was the third largest tribe in this census, taken approximately 1450 B.C.
Now, let’s examine the census taken approximately 40 years later in 1410 B.C. (if the dates on the chapter headings in my book are accurate). For purposes of comparison, listed below are the totals from each census and the change in the total of adult males in each tribe. The second census is listed in Numbers 26. Numbers 26:2 confirms that it is the sum of males “twenty years old an upward…all that are able to go to war in Israel,” so each census was conducted with the same criteria.
The national totals indicate the number of Israelites enumerated under Moses had dropped very slightly, but the tribal totals reveal something very different had transpired. The most evident change is that over half the tribe of Simeon inexplicably “disappeared” from the census totals. What happened? Simeon, the third largest tribe in Israel in the first census, had plummeted to be the smallest tribe of all in the second census! Another anomaly leaps out at the reader.
The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh shared the birthright blessing of the Abrahamic covenant, which included being blessed with large population growth. Manasseh had, indeed, risen dramatically in population, going from 32,200 to 52,700, a gain of 20,500 people, by far the largest increase in any tribe. However, its brother tribe which shared this birthright blessing, Ephraim, dropped 8,000 people to join Simeon at the bottom of the population totals of the tribes in Israel. Even the tribe of Benjamin outnumbered the Ephraimites at that time. Judah was still the largest tribe, but Manasseh’s explosive growth resulted in the tribe of Joseph being the largest tribe if Manasseh and Ephraim were added together. As many readers might observe, something “doesn’t add up” in these figures. As commentator Paul Harvey says here in America, let’s examine what happened to determine “the rest of the story.”
I believe the key to what happened in Numbers 26 is found in the previous chapter. In Numbers 25, we learn that Phineas, a Levite, executed “a prince of a chief house among the Simeonites” (verses 7-14). Phineas leaped to execute this Simeonite prince for his audacity in rebelling against God by taking a Midianite woman into his tent at a time when god was punishing Israel for such deeds. Indeed, God sent a plague among the Israelites which killed 24,000 people, and that plague was stayed by the action of Phineas.
The Bible does not record which tribes suffered the most from that plague. Even if one assumes the Simeonites bore the brunt of this plague, it does not begin to account for the drop in population of approximately 56,000 males of 20 years and older among the tribes which lost population between the two censuses. Also, Numbers 25:9 records that 24,000 people died in the plague, it does not state that all those slain were “males 20 years of age and older.” This indicates that 24,000 men, women and children of all ages died in the plague, and that perhaps 6,000 of that total were males 20 years and older. Where did the rest go?
It is my belief that after the execution by a Simeonite prince by a Levitical priest, there was a great dissension in the camp of Israel. We know from the accounts in the Torah of their wanderings in the Wilderness that the Israelites were very prone to revolting against Moses over various provocations. We know from Genesis 34:25 that Simeon and Levi were the two most impulsive sons of Jacob, the two most likely to settle a matter “by the sword.” To put it in modern American terms, they were the kind who “shot first and asked questions later.” Genesis 49:5-7 prophesies that impulsive wrathfulness leading to violence would characterize both Simeonites and Levites through all the millennia up to and including the “latter days.”
In the episode of Phineas the Levite unilaterally executing a Simeonite priest, the two most violent tribes were likely at loggerhead, and a civil war among the tribes was not improbable. God usefully directed the Levites’ propensity to violence into becoming a tribe of butchers, killing, cutting up and sacrificing innumerable animals under the system of animal sacrifices established in ancient Israel. Simeon had no such outlet.
I believe a logical explanation for the sudden drop in several tribes’ population is that most of the tribe of Simeon and varying contingents of the other tribes literally “walked out” of the camp and left the main body of Israelites to strike out on their own. The huge drop in the number of Simeonites indicates that the Simeonites led this partial “exodus” from the Israelite camp. The Simeonites were impulsive and the execution of one of their chieftans (however just) could easily have provoked such an action.
The census figures indicate that the tribes of Ephraim and Napthali contributed most of the remaining Israelites who accompanied most of the tribe of Simeon as it left the Israelite encampment. The census data indicates that the entire tribes of Manasseh, Asher, Issachar and Benjamin stayed with Moses as their second census totals reflect normal demographic growth.
Would God or Moses have allowed so large a mass of Israelite to leave the camp? I think the answer is yes. Indeed, they may have encouraged it as a way to end the dissension in the camp. There was no commandment of God that forbid any Israelites to leave the camp in the Wilderness, so the only penalty that exiting Israelites would bear would be that their children would not enter the Promised land with the children of those who stayed. Remember that every adult (except Caleb and Joshua) were under a death sentence in the Wilderness. For their rebellion, they would wander till the entire generation who refused to go into the Promised Land at first was dead! Under such circumstances, many could have thought: “If my choice is stay and die in this desert or leave and trust to my wits and sword to make a living, I’ll choose the second option.”
The tribe of Simeon, naturally impulsive, would likely have led such a mini-exodus. The fact that Manasseh grew greatly between the censuses and that Ephraim dropped dramatically argues that this can only be explained if a large number of Ephraimites left the camp. Both tribes were the birthright tribes, and they shared the same promises. If no one had left the camp, the population figures of Ephraim and Mansseh should have reflected the same growth.
If we limit our number of exiting Israelites to only those tribes who had net reductions in their tribal totals, we have about 50,000 males above age twenty and all their wives and children (perhaps 200,000 people). The tribes whose populations stayed static indicates that some of the natural growth of those tribes was deleted from the census because contingents of their tribes also joined the exodus. The total of those leaving the camp may have been larger than 200,000. If such an event occurred, there would have been a powerful stimulus to conduct the second census to “see who we have left.” Indeed, Numbers 26:1-2 shows that right after the events described above, God told Moses to take a census of all the tribes.
Where did the departing Israelite go? There are three groups of people exhibiting Israelite characteristics which surfaced in the world outside of the Promised Land. One group was the Sea Peoples who raided and settled throughout the Mediterranean World while most of Israel lived in Israel during the time of the book of Judges. Both Yair Davidy and I have commented in our books about the Israelite nature of some of the identifiable tribes in the Sea Peoples. However, it could be also noted that some of the Sea Peoples were Israelites who sailed from the the promised Land to seek new homelands as colonists or to escape the various invasions of oppressors which are enumerated in the book of Judges.
There is a second group, famous in the ancient world, which exhibited the traits of the tribe of Simeon and which acknowledged a tribal tie to the Israelites. That group was the Spartans of ancient Greece. The Spartans were known to be descended from a people non-native to Greece who arrived there in ancient times. The Spartans were famous as being the most martial of the Greek city-states. It was the Spartan King Leonidas with 300 elite bodyguards who held back the army of the Persian Empire at the battle of Thermopalyae. They had a rigorous, martial community which was very different from the rest of the Greek city-states. The tribe of Simeon would be expected to “live by the sword” and be a martial community wherever they settled. However, there is more evidence than that.
The Book, Sparta, by A.H.M. Jones, a Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University, noted several things about Sparta. He states the Spartans worshipped a “great law-giver” who had given them their laws in the “dim past” (page 5 of his book). This law-giver may have been Moses.
Professor Jones also noted the Spartans celebrated “the new moons” and the “seventh day” of the month” (page 13). Observing new moons was an Israelite calendar custom, and their observance of “a seventh day” could originate with the Sabbath celebration. Prof. Jones also notes, as do other authorities, that the Spartans were known for being “ruthless” in war and times of crisis. This sounds exactly like the Simeonite nature, which was given to impulsive cruelty, as the Bible confirms.
Interestingly, Prof. Jones writes that the Spartans were themselves divided into several “tribes” which constituted distinct military formations within the Spartan army (pages 31-32). If the Spartans were descended from Simeonites and several other Israelite tribes who left the rest of their tribesmen just prior to the census of Numbers 26, it would make sense that they would be allied together as distinct tribes even in a new homeland like Sparta. The Spartans also founded a colony in Italy called “Tara” (pages 11 and 33). The name “Terah” is a Semitic/Israelite name as Terah was the father of Abraham (Genesis 11).
Also, I make the case in my book, The “Lost” Ten Tribes of Israel…Found!, that Carthage was founded by Semites from Israel, Tyre and Sidon who continued the Semitic/Hebrew language of the Israelites as well as the Baal worship that Israel, Tyre and Sidon shared. Carthage and the Greeks were historically enemies, but Sparta exhibited a community of interest with Carthage. When Carthage’s army was not fighting well against the Roman legions, it was a Spartan named Xanthippus who traveled to Carthage to reorganize and drill the Carthaginian army to fight Rome. Who better than a Spartan to teach military tactics? This event is recorded on page 14 of a book, Hannibal’s War With Rome, by Terrence Wise and Mark Healy.
I have saved the greatest proof to the last, however. The Spartans themselves declared that they were a fellow tribe of the Jews and corresponded with an ancient Jewish High Priest about their relationship. The book of I Maccabees14:16-23 records this correspondence, which includes this statement:
“And this is the copy of the letter which the Spartans sent: The Chief magistrates and the city of the Spartans send greeting to Simon, the chief priest, and to the elders and the priests and the rest of the Jewish people, our kinsmen.” (Emphasis added.)
Notice the Spartans called the Jews “our kinsmen.” The Spartans did not proclaim themselves to be Jews, but rather that they were “kinsmen” to the Jews (i.e. members of one of the other tribes of Israel). That the Spartans acknowledged a common ancestry with the Jews of the tribe of Judah gives powerful weight to the assertion that they were Israelites who migrated to Greece instead of the Promised Land. The Spartan culture is most like that of the tribe of Simeon, most of which apparently left the Israelite encampment in the Wilderness after a Simeon prince was executed by a Levite.