The Numbers in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7:

A Solution in Favour of the Inerrancy of the Verbally and Plenarily Preserved Text

Nelson Were

In Nehemiah 7 we are given a list of returnees that Nehemiah found. It is almost identical to the list in Ezra 2. The repetition of this list confirms God’s faithfulness in preserving His chosen people and His loyal love in bringing them back into the land that He had promised their ancestors. Nehemiah (445/4 BC) is the second witness to God’s covenant faithfulness and love to Israel, Ezra (537/6 BC) being the first.

The total number who returned was 42,360 (Neh 7:66, Ezr 2:64). However the sum total of the individuals mentioned in Nehemiah 7 is 31,089 whereas in Ezra 2, it is 29,818. This has led some to question the inerrancy of the Bible. Opponents of the Bible have found in these two chapters “a sceptical goldmine” and many “Christian apologists” in addressing this chapter have opted to attribute these distinctions to “scribal errors.” Those who have used these lists to attack the Verbal Plenary Inspiration (VPI) and Verbal Plenary Preservation (VPP) of the Holy Scriptures have pointed to the (1) disagreement in the numbers of people given in the lists of Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7, and (2) disagreement in the total number from the lists with the total number as given in Ezra 2:64 and Nehemiah 7:66.

It is obvious from the table (below) that there are many statistical differences between Ezra and Nehemiah. These are not contradictions. Before we address and explain the differences, we must first remember that every word of God is important. Hence, these long lists of names are as equally the inspired Word of God as the other more familiar Scriptures, such as John 3:16 and as such they contain no errors whatsoever, and are to be accepted as inerrant just as John 3:16 is inerrant.

List of the 17 Verses that Do Not Match Between Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7
Ezra 2 Nehemiah 7 Diff
5 the children of Arah, 775 10 the children of Arah, 652 123
6 the children of Pahath-moab … 2,812 11 the children of Pahath-moab … 2,818 6
8 the children of Zattu, 945 13 the children of Zattu, 845 100
10 the children of Bani, 642 15 the children of Binnui, 648 6
11 the children of Bebai, 623 16 the children of Bebai, 628 5
12 the children of Azgad, 1,222 17 the children of Azgad, 2,322 1,100
13 the children of Adonikam, 666 18 the children of Adonikam, 667 1
14 the children of Bigvai, 2,056 19 the children of Bigvai, 2,067 11
15 the children of Adin, 454 20 the children of Adin, 655 201
17 the children of Bezai, 323 23 the children of Bezai, 324 1
28 the men of Bethel and Ai, 223 32 the men of Bethel and Ai, 123 100
33 the children of Lod, Hadid, and Ono, 725 37 the children of Lod, Hadid, and Ono, 721 4
35 the children of Senaah, 3,630 38 the children of Senaah, 3,930 300
41 The singers: the children of Asaph, 128 44 The singers: the children of Asaph, 148 20
42 The sons of the gatekeepers: … 139 45 The gatekeepers: … 138 1
59 and 60 list several names with one total of 652 61 and 62 names with one total of 642 10
65 200 singing men and women 67 245 male and female singers 45

When reading through Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7, sceptics point out first, the discrepancies in the number of people in the various clans listed both in Ezra and Nehemiah; second, the discrepancy between the numbers that would be arrived at by adding up the individual numbers and the total given at the end of the list. But strangely they do not point out or comment on the words used.

In addressing this, firstly we need to take into consideration that both Ezra and Nehemiah are referring to the same event here, namely, the return of the Jews to Palestine after the Babylonian Captivity (Neh 7:6–7 cf Ezr 2:1–2). In addition to this, it ought to be noted that there is a difference in time between Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7. Therefore, the dates of writing are different and the statistical differences can be accounted for by the death of people and the growth of families during the intervening years. Thus, it is possible that the lists in Ezra and Nehemiah reflect the different counts at different times of the Jewish return to Palestine. Higher totals might reflect clans who added people along their journey, and lower totals might reflect deaths or certain types of attrition on the journey and thus reasonably explain the differences.

Many Christian scholars attribute the differences in numbers to “scribal errors.” In explaining why both Ezra 2:64 and Nehemiah 7:66 agree that the total for the whole congregation was 42,360, and yet disagree after the totals are added up, Ezra having 29,818 and Nehemiah 31,089, one 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.

This is not an acceptable explanation in light of God’s verbal and plenary preservation of His inspired words (Matt 5:18). The Bible also teaches that God does not lie or bear false witness (Num 23:19). So how do we explain these very real differences without denying the inspiration, preservation, and inerrancy of Scripture? Study the text itself!

First of all, the introduction to the two lists specifies the contents. The lists specifically mention that they contain the “number of the men of the people of Israel” (Ezr 2:2 cf Neh 7:7). When recording the total, both texts also state that the total number given in the texts is the number of the “whole congregation together” (Ezr 2:64 cf Neh 7:66). It is clear from the text that first of all, those who were recorded in both lists were only the men – the Hebrew word used here in both lists is “ish” which means “a man,” “a male,” or “a husband” (Exod 35:29, Gen 3:6). The word connotes maleness, as opposed to femaleness.1

The word for congregation is also the same in both lists and is taken from the Hebrew word “qahal” which means “a convocation, a congregation, an assembly, a crowd, a multitude, an army (Ezek 17:17; 23:46, 47), the Hebrew community, an assembly of nations.”2 From this, the question of the numbers not adding up to the total given at the end of each list may be reconciled by taking the number to be that of the men, without including the women and children, though the total was given to mean the whole congregation.

The question that needs to be asked in our attempt to settle this issue of the sum total is this: Are there other biblical accounts which employ this method of numbering? And the answer is yes. See for instance Exodus 12:37 where only the men were counted who journeyed from Rameses to Succoth (Exod 12:37), and Matthew 14:21; Mark 6:44; Luke 9:14 where only the men were numbered who ate the bread and fish miraculously multiplied by Jesus. In all three Synoptic Gospels, the word for “men” is “aner” which distinguishes man from woman like the Hebrew “ish” which may also be rendered as husband.

Secondly, having reconciled the apparent discrepancies with regard to the total amount, there still seems to be other “discrepancies” for as one reads through the lists, the breakdown of numbers in the lists also do not tally. How can this be reconciled? Is it possible that these lists though referring to the same event were compiled at different times? Returning to the texts, as one carefully studies them, one would notice that it is not only the numbers that are not the same, but certain names are also different—having alternate forms. There are instances where the numbers agree but the names are different; for example Ezra 2:18 and Nehemiah 7:24 which have 112 for the number of the children of Jorah/Hariph; Ezra 2:44 and Nehemiah 7:47 which have among the Nethinims the children of Siaha/Sia.

Another observable distinction concerns the same information but given in different forms. For example, Ezra 2:24 and Nehemiah 7:28 where the same group of people are referred to as children (“ben” ie son, boy, young one) and men (“ish”) (compare also Ezr 2:20–21 with Neh 7:25–26). Thus, considering the differences, we can say that there were two lists, and taking into account the time that had elapsed since the period of Ezra 2 and the time when Nehemiah found the register in Nehemiah 7, and the additional fact that the “children” were referred to as “men,” it seems that there could be another census taken after the people arrived so as to update the register. This could very well be the case for in Nehemiah 7:5, Nehemiah testified how God had put a burden on him to conduct a census and the first step he took was to look for the former register which he found and he noted the details of it in the remaining part of that chapter. This would mean that both the lists in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 were accurate records with no errors whatsoever; the list found in Nehemiah being a list that was written after the one in Ezra 2, taking into account the changes that would have taken place within the time that had elapsed between the two writings.


1 The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament, sv “ish,” 2300.

2 Ibid., sv, “qahal,” 2360.

Nelson Were (ThM) is a lecturer at Bomet Bible Institute, Kenya.

Published in The Burning Bush, Volume 13 Number 2, July 2007.