Question: "Why are the numbers in Ezra so different from those in Nehemiah?"
Answer: Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 offer nearly identical lists of the people who returned to Jerusalem from Persia with Zerubbabel to rebuild the temple. Adding up the numbers listed in Ezra gives a sum of 29,818 men (Ezra 2:1–58). Nehemiah’s sum is 31,089 men (Nehemiah 7:5–61). The discrepancy between the two lists is 1,271 people.
First, we should acknowledge that both books agree on the total number of Israel’s congregation: 42,360, plus singers and servants, which would bring the total to about 50,000 people (Ezra 2:64; Nehemiah 7:66). It is in the details of the two lists of exiles that the differences begin to show up. Second, we should remember that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book and were most likely written by one author, Ezra, who used Nehemiah’s records to compile the account now known as the book of Nehemiah. It is impossible that Ezra, a scribe by trade, didn’t know some of the numbers were different. Third, we should remember that the events of Nehemiah and Ezra occurred up to ninety-three years apart.
Thirty-three family units are mentioned in both Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7, with the number of persons from each family specified. Both Ezra and Nehemiah include people not mentioned in the other account: Ezra lists 494 people not listed in Nehemiah, and Nehemiah has 1,765 that Ezra does not account for. Adding Nehemiah’s “extras” to Ezra’s list, we arrive at 31,583, the same total obtained by adding Ezra’s “extras” to Nehemiah’s list. Still, 31,583 is almost 11,000 short of the grand total that both Ezra and Nehemiah give (42,360).
Two potential explanations exist that could help account for the differences in these lists. First, the lists may have originally been the same, but textual variations could have arisen in the copying of these lists. The change in a single pen stroke in Hebrew can change a number from tens to hundreds. Though this explanation is possible, it is unlikely to have resulted in this many variations.
A second, more likely explanation considers the circumstances in which the lists were created. Ezra’s list was compiled by Zerubbabel while the exiles were still in Babylon and before they made their trip to Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s list was compiled almost a century later, in Jerusalem, after the walls had been rebuilt. The differences in time and location could have resulted in the different numbers for each family.
The larger list, found in Nehemiah, may be due in part to the increase in the size of families who moved into Jerusalem to rebuild the wall—people had children since Zerubbabel’s departure from Babylon. In addition, Nehemiah may have included people who settled in nearby regions and not just Jerusalem proper. The people whom Ezra lists and Nehemiah omits may have died between the recordings of the two lists.
An additional consideration is related to the age of the men counted. It could be that Nehemiah’s record counted all males, and Ezra only listed men 20 years old and older (as was common).
We still have the difference between the grand total (42,360 men) listed in Ezra 2:64 and Nehemiah 7:66 with the adjusted sum of both lists when reconciled (31,583 men). How do we account for the missing 10,777? The most likely explanation is that Ezra and Nehemiah gave family-by-family details for Judah and Benjamin only. The whole congregation numbered 42,360, but, of that total, 10,777 were from other tribes or clans. We know that servants and singers were counted separately, so it would make sense that the smaller tribes were counted separately, too.
In summary, here is what we surmise: Ezra recorded the families of Judah and Benjamin who had left Babylon in 538 BC under Zerubbabel’s leadership. That total was 29,818 men. Later, in 445 BC, Nehemiah brought another group of exiles back to Jerusalem. By that time (93 years after Zerubbabel), the numbers in Jerusalem had grown to 31,089 men. The difference in the two lists can be attributed to the death and birth of members in each family. When all the tribes of Israel were included in the count, the congregation numbered 42,360, plus servants and singers.