The term "census" derives from the ancient Roman institution of registering adult males and their property for purposes of taxation, military levy, and the determination of political status. However, similar practices are recorded much earlier among the peoples of the ancient Near East. Thus, biennial cadastral surveys took place in the Old Kingdom in Egypt, and other polls in second millennium Mari, Ugarit, and Alalakh. Everywhere they served the same basic purposes: taxation and conscription. Ancient Israel was no exception. The Bible reports that the first census took place at Mount Sinai prior to the end of the first year following the exodus from Egypt (Ex. 40:17). The count was made in connection with the remittance of a half shekel by each male Israelite 20 years of age and older "that there might be no plague among them" (Ex. 30:12). The resulting total was 603,550 (38:26), the figure recorded following the survey ordered "on the first day of the second month of the second year" (Num. 1:1, 45ff.). The levites who were not included totaled 22,000 males one month of age or older (ibid. 3:15, 39), almost as many as the 22,273 firstborn of all the other tribes, whose cultic responsibilities the levites were to take over (3:40–43). Another census took place at Shittim in Moab, just before the Israelites were ready to enter the Promised Land. At that time, the corresponding figures were 601,730 for adult males (Num. 26:2, 51) and 23,000 for all male levites (26:62). One more census of able-bodied men is reported in the Bible at the close of David's reign (II Sam. 24). The totals recorded in II Samuel 24:9 are 800,000 for Israel and 500,000 for Judah, respectively, while the corresponding figures in I Chronicles 21:5 are 1,100,000 and 470,000. Both accounts indicate that David incurred divine wrath for this census, though the former states that it was God Himself who moved David to number the people (II Sam. 24:1), while the latter attributes this act to Satan (I Chron. 21:1). -Critical View Modern scholars have tended to reject all of these figures, particularly those found in the Pentateuch. Thus, G.B. Gray summed up the arguments concerning the latter: "These numbers must on every ground be regarded as entirely unhistorical and unreal; for (1) they are impossible; (2) treated as real, and compared with one another, they yield absurd results; and (3) they are inconsistent with numbers given in earlier Hebrew literature." Recent authorities on demography are skeptical of all population estimates for pre-modern times, and do not put much stock in the accuracy of early censuses. As a possible check on them, they suggest careful comparison of their figures with earlier and later enumerations, as well as a close study of the internal consistency of the totals noted. Judged by both of these standards, Gray's objections are unanswerable. Thus, the Song of deborah , which was probably written within a century of the time of Joshua, refers to the existence of only 40,000 fighting men (Judg. 5:8) in the six tribes which, according to the census in Shittim (Num. 26), numbered 301,000. Similarly, 600 warriors reportedly constituted a sizable portion of the tribe of Dan (Judg. 18:11) during the period preceding the establishment of the monarchy, while the figure at Shittim was 64,400 (Num. 26:42–43). As for internal consistency, the 603,550 total hardly is in keeping with   the 22,273 figure for all firstborn males, because even if we assume a slightly larger number of female firstborn children, this would still imply that only one out of 12 or 13 women above the age of 20 were mothers\! The figures for the Davidic census occasion similar criticisms, and it has even been argued, as in the case of the sojourn in the desert, that the land could not sustain such a large population. Moreover, the Annals of Sennacherib (701 B.C.E.) indicate that Judah had approximately 200,150 males, while the details of the tax levied by Menahem (in 738) on the prosperous heads of households in order to raise the tribute he paid to King Pul, i.e., Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria (II Kings 15:19–20) have led at least one careful scholar to conjecture that the total population of the northern kingdom was approximately 800,000 at that time. In an imaginative attempt to resolve these problems, W.F. Albright suggested that the figure listed in Numbers 1 and 26 actually comprised the results of the Davidic census, while those offered in II Samuel 24 were schematic approximations of them. Though this would entail an overall population of 750,000 for the Davidic empire, a figure which is entirely plausible, no convincing reasons are offered to explain the retrojection of these figures to the Mosaic period. Besides, it is likely that enumerations of the Israelite tribes were required before the establishment of the monarchy for military reasons. G.E. Mendenhall's general thesis, then, has much to commend it. It is based on a modification of Sir Flinders Petrie's suggestion that the term elef did not initially mean "thousand," but "tent group" or, as Mendenhall amends it, an undefined "subsection" of a tribe – and on the assumption that the census lists were prepared for military levies during the age of the Judges. Based on tribal counts, these lists were exhaustive as far as the alafim were concerned, but contained only the numbers of men each elef was required to contribute to the combined armies. U. Cassuto rejected this notion, suggesting that the census figures were typological, based on units of 60, to indicate the extraordinarily large number of the people involved, viz. 10,000 units of 60. Accepting this approach, first A. Malamat and then S.E. Loewenstamm suggested that the figures probably should be seen as pointing to an old tradition about "a thousand" (in reality merely a great number of) military detachments of 600 men each (Judg. 18:11), poised for the conquest of the Holy Land. As for the divine wrath incurred by David's census, it is generally explained in terms of the warning that no direct count of the individuals be made "that there might be no plague among them" (Ex. 30:12). It has also been suggested that this census was due to David's desire to replace the ancient tribal levy with his own centralized administration, and hence, the census was viewed as a direct challenge to the ancient charismatic institution and to the God of Israel who had ordained it. In any event, primitive taboos seem to have lingered in the ancient world against attempts to record (פקד) either cattle or crops, people or their possessions. Possibly this was originally due, as Speiser has suggested, to the fear of having one's name recorded in lists that might be put to ominous use by unknown powers, and hence, the need to propitiate them with some kind of a monetary kofer, "ransom." At a later date, however, the reason generally offered for this taboo was that the divine blessing should not be investigated in detail, but received gratefully and reverently. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: G.B. Gray, Numbers (ICC, 1903), 99ff.; W.F. Albright, in: JPOS, 5 (1925), 20–25; J.R. Kupper, in: A Parrot (ed.), Studia Mariana (1950), 99–110; J.A. Wilson, The Culture of Ancient Egypt (1951), 82; U. Cassuto, The Book of Exodus (1967), 328ff.; E.A. Speiser, in: JAOS, 74 (1954), 18–25; idem, in: BASOR, 149 (1958), 17–25; G.E. Mendenhall, in: JBL, 77 (1958), 52–66; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 65–67; H.W. Hertzberg, I and II Samuel (1964), 408–15; A. Alt, Essays on Old Testament History and Religion (1966), 219–25; S.E. Loewenstamm, in: EM, 5 (1968), 218–21; T.H. Gaster, Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament (1969), 483–8. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: R. Hess, in: ABD, 1, 882–83. (David L. Lieber)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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