Is the Bible Inerrant? The Census of Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7
The portions of Scripture that are probably the most often attacked by atheists, Muslims and Bible bashers as "proving" that the Bible is not the inerrant words of God are the two contradictory lists of the numbers of those who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
In Ezra Chapter Two we find one list that is similar in many ways to that found in Nehemiah Chapter Seven, but there are also many obvious differences, and it is these different numbers that have given rise to attacks on the Bible itself as being the inerrant word of God, and have caused many Christians to doubt the truth of our Holy Bible.
In Ezra Chapter Two and in Nehemiah Chapter Seven there are about thirty-three family units that appear in both lists of Israelites returning from Babylon to Judea. Of these 33 family units listed in Ezra and Nehemiah, nineteen of the family units are identical, while fourteen show discrepancies in the number of members within the family units . Two of the discrepancies differ by 1, one differs by 4, two by 6, two differ by 9, another differs by 11, another two by 100, another by 201, another differs by 105, a further family differs by 300, and the largest difference is the figure for the sons of Azgad, a difference of 1,100 between the accounts of Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7.
Not only do many of the numbers not agree in each list, but there is a further problem. Both Ezra and Nehemiah give the same total of the whole congregation as being 42,360. But as one Bible scoffer named Dennis McKinsey writes: "We have a listing of the subclans that returned from the Captivity and the number of people in each. In the KJV, out of approximately thirty-five subclans listed over half of the numbers are in disagreement. Furthermore, someone doesn't know how to add very well because the totals are in error. Ezra 2:64 says `The whole congregation together was 42,360,' when one can see by easily adding the figures together that the total is 29,818. Nehemiah 7:66 also says, `The whole congregation together was 42,360' when one need only add those figures to see that it's actually 31,089. Ezra erred by 12,542, and Nehemiah erred by 11,271."
There have been many attempts to reconcile these different numbers, but most of them seem to me to fall short of giving an adequate explanation. Unfortunately, most "Christian" apologetic sites and books usually end up with the stated position that this is a case of "many scribal errors" in all Hebrew texts, and that "only the originals were inspired". The end result is that they cave in to the Bible mockers and side with their view that there is no inerrant Bible in any language on the earth today.
Among the suggested ways to reconcile the different numbers, some Christians have offered the explanation that the two censuses were taken at two different times, once at the beginning of the journey and the other at the end, or perhaps several years later. However a close reading of the texts shows that both lists are referring to the same event - "the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away into Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah."
They also tell us that some people may have enrolled their names on the list, then changed their minds and decided not to go after all, and that others later decided to go. They also suggest that some died on the way, and others were born, but that the total ended up being the same anyway - 42,360.
The problem I have with this view is that none of this is stated in Scripture itself and it stretches the imagination to the breaking point to think that all these differences would end up giving us the same final number of 42,360. None would die in most groups, but 1000 died in another. This is a little hard to believe. Neither does it explain the 12,000 to 13,000 people that are not numbered in either list.
One prominent, and sadly, typical Christian Apologetic site offers the usual lame explanation of "scribal errors". In answer to why both Ezra 2:64 and Nehemiah 7:66 agree that the total for the whole congregation was 42,360, yet when the totals are added, Ezra has 29,818 and Nehemiah 31,089, this Christian apologist says: "The original texts must have had the correct totals, but somewhere along the line of transmission, a scribe made an error in one of the lists, and changed the total in the other so that they would match, without first totaling up the numbers for the families in each list. There is the suggestion that a later scribe upon copying out these lists purposely put down the totals for the whole assembly who were in Jerusalem at his time, which because it was later would have been larger."
Well, this may be this typical Christian apologist's view of God's preservation of His inerrant words, but it certainly is not mine. I have also read other attempts to reconcile the differences between these two lists, and a few commentators like Jamieson, Faussett and Brown refer to the comments of a certain Mr. Alting who gives an interesting attempt to harmonize the two accounts. However, I cannot get his numbers to add up right; you still end up with two very different lists; and it doesn't explain the different numbers of singing men and women recorded in Ezra 2:65 and Nehemiah 7:67 - (200 versus 245).
Others like Daniel Wallace just admit they cannot explain it. He says: "The same total is given in Nehemiah 7:66, but it is difficult to understand how this number is reached, since the numbers of people listed in the constituent groups do not add up to 42,360. The list in vv. 3-60 apparently is not intended to be exhaustive, but the basis of the selectivity is unclear."
So how do we explain these very real differences without denying the inerrancy of Scripture? You may not agree with my point of view, but I believe it makes a lot more sense than the usual explanations about people changing their minds one way or the other, and the deaths and births along the way.
First of all, when we look at the names, we find that certain names are mentioned in alternate forms. Among the Jews of that time a person had a name, title, and surname. Thus, the children of Hariph (Nehemiah 7:24) are the children of Jorah (Ezra 2:18) both of whom number 112. The children of Sia (Nehemiah 7:47) are also the children of Siaha (Ezra 2:44).
Some names are but a minor variation of another - "the CHILDREN of Azmaveth, forty and two" in Ezra 2:24 are the same as "the MEN of BETH-azmaveth forty and two" in Nehemiah 7:28.
The most important thing in how I think this apparent contradiction can be explained is to notice who exactly is being counted in these two different lists. It is the MEN and not the women who are being counted, unless the women are specifically mentioned as they are in only one verse in both Ezra 2:65 and Nehemiah 7:67.
Only in this one verse in both accounts do we read: "The whole congregation together was 42,360, Beside their servants AND THEIR MAIDS, of whom there were 7,337..."
For God to give only the number of MEN in a group is very common both in the Old and New Testaments. "And the children of Israel journeyed from Ramases to Succoth, about 600,000 on foot that were MEN, BESIDE children." Exodus 12:37
"And they that had eaten were about 5,000 MEN, beside women and children." Matthew 14:21. Yet when we compare the same event recorded in both Mark and Luke we read: "And they that did eat of the loaves were about 5000 MEN." - Mark 6:44. "For they were about 5000 MEN" - Luke 9:14. The word in all three gospel accounts is the word for "men, or males" as opposed to general term that may include both male and female.
Notice very carefully what it says at the beginning of both lists found in Nehemiah 7:7 and in Ezra 2:2: "The number of the MEN (enosh -"men" and not "women") of the people of Israel: The children of Paroah, 2,172" etc.
By comparing one with the other, we see that only the MEN were counted in these two lists. Here are just a few examples: "the CHILDREN of Azmaveth" Ezra 2:24 are "the MEN of Beth-azmaveth" Nehemiah 7:28; "the CHILDREN OF GIBBAR, 95" of Ezra 2:20 are "the MEN of GIBEON, 95" found in Nehemiah 7:25, and "the CHILDREN of Bethlehem" in Ezra 2:21 are "the MEN of Bethlehem" in Nehemiah 7:26. There are two different Hebrew words used in the two lists. The one is ben #1121 and means "children, or sons" and the other is #582 enoshe which means "men" and not "women". The distinct word for "daughter" is #1323 beth, and the word for woman is #802 eesh-shah, and neither is used in either of the two lists.
The two principal differences to explain between these two lists are: #1 - the different numbers in several verses, and #2 - the differences between the total number in each list (Ezra differs by 12,542, and Nehemiah differs by 11,271) with the same total of 42,360 given in both.
Here is what I think happened. In Ezra 2:1 we have a statement that indicates that the numbers found in Ezra's list is the true number of those who made up the different groups who left Babylon and journeyed to Jerusalem. The Census in Ezra is the accurate number.
Here we read: "Now THESE ARE the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, of those which had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto HIS city."
However, what we have recorded in Nehemiah 7:5 is a list that was not the accurate and true number. There we read these important words of Nehemiah: "And I FOUND A REGISTER of the genealogy of them which came up at the first, AND FOUND WRITTEN THERIN..."
Nehemiah is merely reporting the numbers in the erroneously written register he found, but the true numbers are given by the inspiration of God in Ezra Chapter Two. There are several things written in Scripture that are not true. "There is no God" (Psalm 14:1). "Ye shall not surely die." (Genesis 3:4); "Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil?" (John 8:48). In Nehemiah 6:5-7 itself we read the following: "Then sent Sanballat his servant unto me with an open letter in his hand, wherein was written, It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel: for which cause thou buildest the wall, that thou mayest be their king...And thou hast also appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem, saying, There is a king in Judah."
What was written in the letter was not true, and neither was what was written in the register Nehemiah found.
The second point of contention is the differing numbers listed in each account where the total is given as 42,360. Some aplogists tell us that the additional 12,542 may refer to the number of women or wives in the group, but this leaves us with only about one of every three men being married. This is highly improbable. When others tell us it may refer to both the women and the children, their case gets even worse.
Rather than the explanations provided by most apologists, I think the difference in numbers can be accounted for by looking at the context. The difference in Ezra, the true account, is 12,542 persons. In both lists the MEN who constitute the different groups of singers, porters, Nethinims, priests and Levites totals about 30000. The total number of "the whole congregation" of 42,360 refers to the 29,818 found in Ezra, plus the additional number of 12,542 MALE CHILDREN who would eventually grow up to take their part in each of the groups of the ADULT MEN already listed.
For example, if a father and mother had three sons and three daughters, the mother and daughters would not have been counted in this census. A male was not considered to be a man until he had reached the age of twenty years. (Some perhaps would argue that a boy became a man at the age of thirteen, but the example still fits.) A child born a Levite could not perform as a Levitical priest till he turned twenty. Likewise the Israelite males did not go out to war till they turned twenty years old.
If two of his sons were over 20 and one of them was only 15 years old when the initial census was taken, then the three adults considered to be "men" would be counted among the roughly 30,000 men listed, and the younger son would form part of the 12,542 "extra number" who did not form part of the numbered groups.
This view explains why the two lists are significantly different from each other (one contains the true numbers while the other was erroneously recorded by a fallible man) and it explains the difference in the total number, while at the same time upholding the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture.
I firmly believe in the inerrancy of the King James Bible and the Hebrew texts that underlie this magnificent translation. All Hebrew texts read the same in both Ezra and Nehemiah, and I do not believe God makes mistakes nor allows "scribal errors" in His preserved words. There has to be a way of explaining these apparent contradictions, and I merely offer this explanation as being one of those ways.
After having written this article about the census numbers in Ezra and Nehemiah, I happened to come upon another small article in a short series of studies defending the inerrancy of the Bible by a man who lives in India. His name is Moses Lemuel Raj. He also has come to the same conclusion as I regarding these two sections of Scripture. You can see his article here. Part 5 deals with the census numbers.
Kept by the power of God, through faith,
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