Sefer BeMidbar as a Study of Population Growth

And it was after the plague; and Hashem said to Moshe and to Elazar the son of Aharon the Kohen saying: Take the census of the entire congregation of Bnai Yisrael – of those twenty years of age and above – (as counted) by their paternal households, all those among the legions of Yisrael (Sefer BeMidbar 26:1-2)

1. Sefer BeMidbar is structured around two censuses
Sefer BeMidbar was referred to the Sages also as Sefer Pekudim – the Book of Censuses. This is because this book of the Torah contains accounts of two censuses conducted during Bnai Yisrael’s travels in the wilderness. The sefer begins with an account of the census conducted during the second year of the nation’s sojourn. Parshat Pinchas describes a second census conducted thirty-eight years later, as the end of the sojourn approached.

Sefer BeMidbar discusses the events that intervened between these two censuses. The first was conducted when the fabrication of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle – had been completed. The population of each shevet – tribe – was determined and each was assigned a specific encampment surrounding the Mishcan. The nation had received the Torah at Sinai and was now poised to proceed to the Land of Canaan and repossess the land of their ancestors. They sent spies to gather intelligence regarding the land and these spies successfully conspired to undermine the nation’s already fragile confidence. Bnai Yisrael refused to follow Moshe into the Land. The generation was condemned to die in the wilderness. Over a period of thirty-eight years, the generation that was redeemed from Egypt passed-on. A new generation was poised to conquer and possess the Land of Canaan. The census in Parshat Pinchas was a census of this new generation. It was conducted by Moshe and Elazar in preparation of the dividing the land among the shevatim – the tribes – and their individual members. The Torah provides a detailed report of the census. Some of the results deserve attention.

This is the census of Bnai Yisrael: six hundred and one thousand seven hundred and thirty. (Sefer BeMidbar 26:51)

And the entire census of Bnai Yisrael – (as counted) by their paternal households – of those twenty years of age and above, all those among the legions of Yisrael; and their entire census was six hundred thousand five hundred and fifty. (Sefer BeMidbar 1:45-46)

2. The stability of the overall population
One of the most interesting aspects of the second census is that the total population remained virtually unchanged since the first census. Specifically, the population contracted by 0.03% over this 40 year period. This is remarkable when compared to the explosive population expansion during the 210 years of the nation’s exile in Egypt. During that period, the population increased by more than seven-fold every forty years. It seems strange that during this period the nation’s population growth completely halted!

Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur suggests that the stability of the population was an expression of Hashem’s providence. Without this providence, the population would have naturally expanded. Perhaps the rate of growth would have been lower than the unusual rate experienced in Egypt but some growth would have occurred over a 40 year period. Why did Hashem arrest the population’s growth? Bechor Shur responds that Hashem did not want Bnai Yisrael to conclude that their conquest of the Land was now assured by the massive legions that they would bring to the conquest.[1] In other words, Bechor Shur suggests that this new generation was required to experience the same test that their fathers had failed. Their fathers did not have the confidence to challenge the nations of Canaan. Hashem’s promise that He would lead them into the Land “flowing with milk and honey” did not overcome their timidity. This new generation was required to demonstrate its confidence in Hashem’s promise.

These are the children of Efraim according to their census – 32,500. These are the children of Yosef according to their families. (BeMidbar 26:37)

3. The fulfillment of Yaakov’s promise to Yosef
Another interesting aspect of the census is variance in population change experienced by various shevatim. In order to appreciate the significance of this issue, a brief introduction is necessary. Before his death, Yaakov blessed Yosef. He told Yosef that his two sons – Efraim and Menashe – would be as Reuven and Shimon. This blessing had many implications. One of these implications is that the population of the shevatim of Efraim and Menashe would equal or exceed that of Reuven and Shimon. When the first census was conducted at the beginning of Bnai Yisrael’s sojourn in the wilderness, this blessing had not yet been fulfilled.

Table 1

Shevet Population
Reuven 46,500
Shimon 59,300
Total 105,800

Shevet Population
Efraim 40,500
Menashe 32,200
Total 72,700

Table 1 compares the total population of Reuven and Shimon to that of Efraim and Menashe at the time of the first census. As this table reveals, the population of the shevatim of Reuven and Shimon was substantially greater than that of Efraim and Menashe.

Table 2 shows the population statistics for these shevatim at the time of the second census.

Table 1

Shevet Population
Reuven 43,700
Shimon 22,200
Total 65,900
Percent change -38%

Shevet Population
Efraim 32,500
Menashe 52,700
Total 85,200
Percent change 17%

Table 2 reveals that at the time of the census in our parasha, Yaakov’s promise was fulfilled. The combined population of Efraim and Menashe exceeded that of Reuven and Menashe.

This table reveals another important statistic. In the period between the first and second census, the shevatim of Efraim and Menashe experienced remarkable population growth. During this period, the overall population of the nation was virtually unchanged. These two shevatim grew at by 17%. This indicates that the population growth of these two shevatim exceeded the general rate. In other words, Hashem exercised His providence to assure the fulfillment of Yaakov’s promise.[2]

To these you should apportion the land, as a portion according to the number of names. (BeMidbar 26:53)

4. Shimon’s unusual portion in the Land of Israel
The second census was used to divide the Land of Israel among the shevatim. Each shevet received a portion consistent with the size of its population. In general, each tribe’s portion was a continuous territory. Shevet Shimon was an exception. The portion of Shimon was distributed in a number of smaller parcels, within the territory of Shevet Yehudah.

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno offers an interesting explanation for Shimon’s special treatment. He explains that the Land of Israel was divided into portions of differing size. However, the value of each portion received by each shevet was equal. Tribes with larger populations received larger portions. The land in these larger portions was of lesser value than the land apportioned to the smaller tribes.

Shevet Shimon was very small. This dictated that the shevet should receive a proportionately small territory. Nonetheless, this small portion must be as valuable as the larger portions received by more populous tribes. Land of such unusually high quality could not be found in a continuous portion. In order to solve this problem, Shevet Shimon received a number of small parcels of very valuable land.[3]

This is the census conducted by Moshe and Elazar the Kohen that they took of Bnai Yisrael on the plains of Moav of the bank of the Jordan River opposite Yericho. (BeMidbar 26:63)

5. The message communicated by the population of Shevet Leyve
There is another important aspect of the population growth among the shevatim. In the first census, the Shevet of Leyve included 22,300 males above the age of one month.[4] In the census in Parshat Pinchas, the shevet includes 23,000 males above the age of one month. This means the shevet increased by only 700 members or by 3%.

Let us compare this increase with the change in population of the rest of the shevatim. In each census, the Torah reports the total number of males above the age of twenty. In each case, this statistic does not include Shevet Leyve. As explained above in the first census, the total number of males was 603,550. In the second census, the same demographic group numbered 601,730. The group had decreased by 1,820 members or by a negligible 0.3%. When they are compared, the population change of Shevet Leyve and the overall population change seem consistent. Shevet Leyve’s population increased slightly and the overall population decreased slightly.

At first glance, these statistics seem inexplicable. In Parshat Shlach, the Torah recounts the incident of the spies and its consequences. The nation sent spies to scout the Land of Israel. The people were discouraged by the report of the spies and refused to enter the Land. As a consequence, Hashem punished Bnai Yisrael. The generation that had refused to enter the Land would die in the wilderness. They would not enter the Land of Israel. Shevet Leyve was excluded from this decree. The members of this shevet would survive the sojourn in the wilderness and enter the Land.

What effect would we expect this decree to have on the demographics of Bnai Yisrael? We would expect the decree to create an imbalance in population growth. Shevet Leyve should grow at a faster rate than the other shevatim. This is because the members of Shevet Leyve should have relatively greater longevity. This would allow for its members to produce more children and raise larger families. The shevatim included in the decree should have less longevity. Their members should produce less offspring. The families in these shevatim should be smaller. This is not the outcome represented by our study of the population statistics. The population of Shevet Leyve and the other shevatim was very stable during the sojourn in the wilderness. Neither group experienced a significant change in population.

Gershonides explains that this analysis reveals an important characteristic of Hashem’s decree. In response to the sin of the spies, Hashem did not reduce the longevity of Bnai Yisrael. Longevity was unaffected by the decree. Instead, Hashem decreed that the sojourn in the wilderness would be extended to encompass the lifetime of the sinners. In other words, the people did not die young. They were condemned to spend their normal lifetime wandering in the wilderness. They were not permitted to enter the Land they had rejected.

This insight explains the above population statistics. The population growth of Bnai Yisrael was not adversely effected by the decree. The members of the nation lived their natural life-spans. The people had adequate time to produce children and raise families. This is proven through comparing the population of the other shevatim with the population of Shevet Leyve. Shevet Leyve was not affected by the decree. Therefore, this shevet serves as a standard for growth of a population unaffected by the decree. The growth of this shevet’s population was not significantly greater than that of the rest of the nation. This indicates that the members of the other tribes were not deprived of their longevity. [5]

[1] Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 26:59.
[2] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1998), pp. 143-144.
[3] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 27:54.
[4] Sefer BeMidbar 3:39. See Rashi.
[5] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1998), p 146.