This is going to sound crazy. But I started looking at Ezra 2 a few mornings ago, and didn't really get very at all because there was so much to think about. It got me, I have to say, quite a while to just get beyond Carson's helpful summary in his devotional book "For the love of God (volume 2)":
In this case, there are several reasons for the precision of the report. For a start, such precision gives the account authority: this is not some distant hearsay, but the close reportage of someone who had intimate knowledge of the details. Further, naming these individuals and their families bestows on them an implicit approval. Countless tens of thousands of Israelites never returned to the Promised Land; they were too settled where they were, and the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple was of too little importance to them to warrant such dislocation. Their names have been lost; they are of little consequence in the sweep of redemptive history. But these names are remembered and written down in sacred Scripture. Read them slowly; they call forth our respect and gratitude.
Really helpful stuff. And in fact, I looked at my watch and I had been at it for two hours and hadn't got very far into the text. The time had just flown by. That does happen! It's difficult to exegete the passage without realising it's repeated in Nehemiah 7 and without having to work through in one's head what to do with the differences which some love to make much of. I think it's an error to do so, but nonetheless, we must tackle the issue because it could easily strike at our fundamental understanding of the inspiration of Scripture.
So should these differences worry us?
First, we need to understand that inspiration does not mean that every word we have written down in front of us is without error. Inspiration generally means we believe the Scriptures to be inspired as 'originally given' as the UCCF basis of faith has it.
There will be occasional copying errors. We are talking about manuscripts dutifully copied thousands of years ago. Doesn't this totally undermine the authenticity of the Scriptures? No. There's a practical and a theological reason.
The practical reason is that the scribes knew they were copying out the Word of God and so they would have taken extreme care in transcription. The very fact that hard things remain and are not copied away gives us confidence that they copied faithfully and accurately. These differences, for example, are nearly all in proper names and digits (Hebrew numbers being all long hand and so relatively difficult to copy).
The theological argument is that God's character is such that in his sovereign goodness he would not allow the Scriptures' meaning to be distorted and any discrepancies, such as they are, must therefore not be of significance to the overall message of the passage or the Bible. This is not an argument that will wash with unbelievers of course, but it is actually the strongest of the many that could be offered.
As Scottish Cornhill hero Bob Fyall puts it in his excellent commentary,
"Attempts to explain these discrepancies tend to say that the missing numbers represent women, children and perhaps northern tribes. Probably lists, like genealogies, are selective rather than exhaustive, and plainly in material such as this ancient copyists would easily make mistakes in large lists of numbers."