In a people numbering 600,000 – and that may be without women and children, who would have brought the total up to two million or more – how could there be so few Levites?
We can ignore for the moment the fact that elsewhere in the chapter the Levites add up to a further three hundred; in our verse the Torah may simply be giving us a round figure.
Nachmanides links this verse with the opening chapter of Sh’mot which says that the more the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, the more the Israelites increased. The Levites, however, were not enslaved, and their numbers increased much more slowly.
This is of course a chapter in the long history of Jewish demography which inevitably has to take account of the influence of outside factors on the growth and decline of Jewish population figures.
Looked at from the point of view of today’s Jewish world the effect of internal factors must also be considered.
There is the major – external – problem of the losses caused by the Holocaust.
There is the – external – problem of the effect of urban living, which tends to reduce the number of children born to a family.
There are the internal influences of assimilation and outmarriage, and the positive response of orthodox Jewish couples who believe so passionately in Judaism that they are determined to build up the Jewish population.