There were two or more distinct censuses during the first two years of the Israelites' sojourn through the wilderness.
- For the purpose of both the census in the first year of the wilderness and the one in the second year, people's ages were calculated not by their biological age, but rather by how old they were on the first day of the new year,8 which for this purpose (only) was counted from Tishrei.9 As such, no one turned twenty in the period between the census of Shemot 30 (which, according to Rashi, took place in Tishrei after Yom HaKippurim – see above) and that of Bemidbar 1-4 (which took place seven months later in Iyyar).
- The Levites were not included in either census – see above.
- There were no deaths during the period between the censuses.10
One Full and One Partial Census
The census in Shemot 30 was a general census which merely provided the total number of Israelites, while the census of Bemidbar 1 was a far more comprehensive one, which collected data about individuals, their families, and tribal affiliations.
- Intentional – The Netziv suggests that after the first census, the total of 603,550 was set as the necessary number for the army, and for God's presence to dwell amongst the nation. Thus, during the second census, the people were not counted to see how many they were, but to ensure that they met the proper quota.17
- Coincidence – The other commentators suggest that the identical numbers were a coincidence, but they differ in their understandings of the details of how this worked:
- Deaths match those coming of age – Ramban (first explanation) proposes that by happenstance the number of men who turned twenty equaled the number of men who had died.18
- Levites included or omitted – Ramban (second proposal) and Abarbanel explain that the coincidence was possible because the Levites were included in the first census, but not the second. This would allow for approximately 22,000 people to turn twenty in the intervening months.19
- Levites replace firstborns – According to Shadal, the Levites were included in the first census, but the firstborns were not.20 As these two groups were close in number, the omission of the Levites from the second count did not have any significant affect on the census21 and by complete chance it turned out that with the small discrepancy between Levites and firstborns, the number of deaths equaled the number of men turning twenty.
Only One Census
There was only a single census during the first two years in the wilderness. This approach subdivides as to when this census transpired:
In the Second Year
Shemot 30 did not constitute a command to immediately count the nation, and there was only a single census which took place in the second year as described in Bemidbar 1.
- Prevention of plague – Chizkuni asserts that the shekel donations were a necessary contribution to prevent plagues in future censuses, but their initial collection in Shemot 30 did not constitute a census in its own right.
- Contribution to Mishkan – According to R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and the GR"A, the command to give half-shekels was wholly unconnected to the census and solely for the building of and service of the Mishkan. R. Yosef Bekhor Shor suggests that the shekalim were not even counted; the number of half-shekels totaled in Shemot 38 is the Torah's omniscient parenthetical statement regarding the future total which had not yet occurred.
Spanning Both the First and Second Years
The censuses described in Shemot 30 and Bemidbar 1 were both part of a single extended process which began when the Tabernacle was being constructed and continued through the second month of the second year.