Ezra: Why Don't the Numbers Add Up?

Is there a standard explanation for why the numbers don’t add to 5,400?

Was this prompted by the recent Tom the Dancing Bug comic about it?

In that link is a reference to the hypothesis that only some of the vessels are annotated in the list, and the total includes others not mentioned. There are some other theories in the comments.

So what you’re saying is, when it comes to arithmetic, you’re better than Ezra?

Oh man, I crack me up.

Yes to the first. I looked for an answer and got interested when I didn’t see one.

I did take a look at comments on that page but I didn’t read them all the way through because they didn’t seem to be more than WAGs.

The notion that it’s only a partial list or a mistranslation is the obvious first guess, but with everything in the Bible being parsed word by word for centuries I hoped that a standard commentary had been agreed upon.

Typical explanations are that Ezra omits smaller items, or that the text was corrupted. However another version of Ezra gives a different list:

[Esdras Chapter 2, verses 13-14]
“Here is the inventory of the utensils:[ul][li] gold bowls for offerings 1,000[/li][li] silver bowls for offerings 1,000[/li][li] silver fire pans 29[/li][li] small gold bowls 30[/li][li] small silver bowls 2,410[/li][li] other utensils 1,000.[/li][/ul]
In all there were 5,469 gold and silver bowls and other utensils.”

Was the Esdras translation produced before the Masoretic Text was corrupted? Or did some copy-editor doctor the numbers to fix up the arithmetic? :smack:

Genesis 46 also contains an arithmetic error. That error can be treated as a logic puzzle: the carefully worded counts in Genesis 46 are consistent if the independent rabbinic tradition that Joseph’s wife was his niece is correct!

I doubt it, but I wonder if the faulty count in Ezra might also be a cryptic disguise. Perhaps there is some “vessel[s]” the author doesn’t want to mention explicitly.

Where it says “000” or even “00”, you can assume that is an approximation.

The summation is approximate, and not necessarily to the same accuracy as other approximations.
The meaning is that there was many gold and silver, and many in total.

That was my first guess too, but then I actually took the effort to do the math: 30 + 1000 + 29 + 30 + 410 + 1000 = 2499. Why you round “2499”, you don’t get anything close to 5400.

Yes, that is indeed the standard commentary, at least among Jewish commentators. Rashi’s comment on that verse is (in my own translation): “Here the calculation includes the ones itemized and the ones not itemized, all of them in the total. But the important ones were itemized.” Metzudas David (Rabbi Yechiel Altschuller, d. 1753) says similarly: “This is the number of all the items, large and small, but above it counts only the large and important ones.”

This distinction between “large” and “important” might be significant. After all, the difference between the total of the itemized items (2499) and the stated grand total (5400) is more than half of the grand total! That’s an awful lot to omit, especially when the itemized list already includes 1000 listed as “miscellaneous”! But if those thousand are “small but important”, and the missing 2901 are “both small and unimportant”, then perhaps it is more plausible.

I sympathize with some who may dismiss this as apologetic hand-waving. I only ask that before you get too critical, talk to someone who has done an inventory for a big warehouse, or a budget for a large corporation, and ask them to describe the differences between the full version and the summary.

I’ve noticed a lot of ancient texts have seemingly elementary math mistakes. I think the simplest explanation is simply arithmetic is hard if you aren’t raised learning math, and unlike today, the classes of people who were most likely to be writing were not the same ones that spent a lot of time tallying.

I noted one person who speculated that one of the 30s was supposed to be 3000, which makes the numbers (almost) add up, but doesn’t seem to make sense in context (that’s a lot of gold, especially compared to the silver).

Could “1000” be a more generic approximation, similar to saying “thousands” in English?

Well, when the Lord tells you to make a circular basin of water, pi is 3. So what’s a little tallying error? :wink:

In Numbers 1, there is a census of men capable of going to war. For example, from Reuben there are 46,500. Most tribes counts were rounded to hundreds, but not all. The total was 603,550. So rounded to 10s.

Rounding did occur in the Bible. What are the chances that these were all exact numbers?

OTOH, the chances that there were more than 600k warriors alone (leaving out Levites, kids, women, too old or sick, etc.) hanging out in the Sinai wilderness is far from likely.

A lot of counts in the Old Testament are just absurd.

The Bible claims that God created the world in six days. If he’s omnipotent, why did it take him that long?

So that, when humans learned about the development of stars and planets, and evolution, we could still take the biblical creation story as metaphor for the scientific process.

Or, more likely, 70 was used as a round number and a symbolic one (7 and 10 are both numbers of completion, so 7 X 10 is a nice symbolic number, more so than 68 or 69 (depending on whether Jacob himself is included in the count.)

No. Note that the count (33) of Leah’s “sons and daughters” given in verse 15 fails to match the sum of 31 living sons (and grandsons and gt-grandsons) mentioned in verses 8-14 plus 1 daughter (Dinah).
(That “daughters” is plural in verse 15 hints at the solution to the logic puzzle.)

To the OP:

In addition to the commentaries cited by Keeve, Malbim (a 19th century rabbi) suggests that the specifics listed from verses 7 through 10 are only those vessels that were removed from the temples of Nebucadnezzar’s gods, and the total in verse 11 includes all vessels brought by Sheshbazzar, which includes vessels obtained from other sources as well.


I’d always learned that the unnamed 70th person was Yocheved, daughter of Levi, which the Midrash says is indicated by Numbers 26:59.


Not really, not in that census - it was rounded to 100s, but the tribe of Gad had exactly 50 left over in their hundred, so the exact halfway point sort of defies proper rounding. (The modern rule to round those upward was not in use in Biblical times.)

The later census in Numbers 25 is a bit stranger, as the tribe of Reuben is counted to 30 past the nearest hundred, but all the others are in even hundreds. Either they’re rounding to 10s and all other tribes coincidentally round to 00, or Reuben was treated differently to emphasize that they lost 250 citizens in the Korah rebellion, something mentioned in Reuben’s section of the census.

I suppose there’s also the extremely unlikely possibility that there is no rounding, and all tribes had populations that could be divided by 10, and in most cases, by 100, but I wouldn’t assume so.

That Jacob isn’t included in the count of 70 is clear: the subtotals of his living descendant counts are 33+16+14+7 = 70. That four of these were already in Egypt is clear from verses 26-27: “All those who went to Egypt with Jacob—those who were his direct descendants, not counting his sons’ wives—numbered sixty-six persons.” (The “not counting son’s wives” seems unnecessary – but Asenath is Joseph’s wife!)

Interesting. She was born in Egypt, so if alive for Jacob’s arrival was presumably conceived of an Egyptian woman during the grain-buying trip of Genesis 42. (Or Levi brought his wife, and she stayed behind to deliver in Egypt? :confused: )

The Asenath solution makes more sense to me. Note that she is named in Genesis 46. (No other daughters-in-law of Jacob are named.)


According to the Midrash in question, she was conceived and carried in Canaan, and born right at the gates of the Egyptian border. So she was both “born in Egypt” and counted (though unnamed in Genesis) amongst the “souls that came to Egypt, seventy.”

The problem with it being Asenath is that Genesis 46:26 specifically excludes Jacob’s sons’ wives from being in the count.

They’re excluded from the subtotal (66) of “those who went to Egypt with Jacob” but Asenath was already in Egypt.

Was the Yocheved solution designed to solve the Genesis 46 problem? How about the “rabbinic view that Asenath was the daughter of Dinah”? Did that arise to cope with Genesis 46 arithmetic, or is there some other evidence?