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Israel’s population at the exodus

January 10, 2012

Estimates of the number of Israelites who came out of Egypt during the exodus are based upon census records in the book of Numbers, in chapters 1 and 26. Many commentaries claim that the exodus involved an enormous number of people, perhaps two million. The traditional interpretation of these records has been challenged because the Hebrew word translated “thousand” is sometimes translated differently. [1] The same Hebrew word is also used to refer to a clan, family, troop, or divisions (אָ֫לֶפ eleph, Strong’s number 505 or 504).

The word is translated divisions in Numbers 1:16, in the NAS. It may be translated similarly in the rest of the chapter, which changes things such that two numbers are given for each tribe, first the number of families, and then the number of men 20 years old and over.

Numbers 1:16
BIB: אֲבוֹתָ֑ם רָאשֵׁ֛י אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל הֵֽם׃
NAS: they were the heads of divisions of Israel.
KJV: heads of thousands in

Below is a table showing the twelve tribes, the number of families in each, and the number of men of war 20 years old and over, for each tribe, in separate columns, from Numbers 1, based on this alternative approach.

Tribe Families # Men Reference
Ruben 46 500 Num 1:21
Simeon 59 300 Num 1:23
Gad 45 650 Num 1:25
Judah 74 600 Num 1:27
Issachar 54 400 Num 1:29
Zebulun 57 400 Num 1:31
Ephraim 40 500 Num 1:33
Manasseh 32 200 Num 1:35
Benjamin 35 400 Num 1:37
Dan 62 700 Num 1:39
Asher 41 500 Num 1:41
Naphtali 53 400 Num 1:43
Totals 598 [600] 5,550 [3,550] Num 1:46

The totals line shows both the sum of the numbers in the column above, and the numbers given in the Scripture.

The distribution of the numbers reported for the number of men, in the table above, is curious, and the numbers cluster around 500. It is clearly not a random distribution between 0 and 900, as would be expected in the conventional interpretation. The graphic below shows this. The y-axis is the frequency, and the x-axis is the number of men in each tribe. It looks a lot like a “bell” or “normal” distribution.

The census data of Numbers 26 shows a similar distribution pattern. Again, the number of men of war of each tribe clusters around 500. Since the numbers are not randomly distributed between 0 and 900, the conventional interpretation is probably spurious.

In the table above, the total number of families is 598, but the Scripture reports 600. The numbers of men of war in each tribe seem to be rounded to the nearest 50; all but one are hundreds. Apparently the number of families was rounded up to 600.

If the approach and data presented in the table is right, there was probably a redaction or editing of the text to derive the total number of men, which in the table is 5,550, whereas Scripture reports 3,550.

We can see that in the standard interpretation, the total adds up to 603,550; perhaps an unknown redactor has changed the “five” to “three” in Numbers 1:46, or the whole verse might be spurious.

If we compare the accounts of the census in Numbers 1 in the KJV and the LXX translated by C. L. Brenton, [2] there are some curious differences. One is that the order in which Gad is listed is different. In the KJV Gad is listed third, in the LXX Gad is listed in ninth place.

Also, the number of men in the tribe of Reuben differs; the KJV has 46,500; the LXX has 46,400. So there is a discrepancy of 100.

This ought to have affected the total number reported, but the total number is the same as in the KJV.

It seems then, that at least one version is changed from the original, and possibly both. The total given in the LXX might be simply copied from the Hebrew, by the addition of verse 46.

R. Laird Harris wrote in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament: [3]

It is occasionally alleged that since אָ֫לֶפ means a company of a thousand men it could mean any military unit, even of reduced strength. From there it came to mean a family unit or clan, even a small one. But this means that the 1,000 in Num 1 and 26 is reduced to a small figure in accord with the desire of the commentator. The wilderness wandering and its miraculous supply is also reduced to naturalistic proportions. But it should be remembered that the conquest of Transjordan and of Palestine was not accomplished by a handful of men. Also such juggling must alter the text of the Numbers passages which by the addition of their totals clearly speak of 1000’s of soldiers.

What merit is there in turning the events of the exodus into fables? A more natural and reasonable interpretation of the events is preferred, if the evidence supports it. The evidence in this post about the non-random distribution of the numbers supports the alternative translation of אָ֫לֶפ or eleph and implies a smaller number of Israelites in the exodus than usually supposed. If the conventional interpretation is right, the distribution of the numbers is anomalous and requires an explanation.

One of the problems with the traditional view of the huge population of Israelites that came out of Egypt concerns the account of the negotiations between the messengers of Moses and the king of Edom. Here, the Israelites said they wished to pass through the country of Edom, and that they would remain on the highway. [Numbers 20:14-21]

Evidently there was a road or a path they could follow. But it was not a modern superhighway. The problem is that if two million people were to walk along such a road, say two at a time, and with six feet between pairs, the line of people would be over a thousand miles long! And at stops along the way, for water or lunch, etc., it would be difficult for them to all remain on the road.

Other similar problems are mentioned by Ernest L. Martin. [4] In the solution proposed by Martin, the numbers in both the census records in Numbers 1 and 26 include all the dead ancestors of each of tribes! [5]

Martin concluded that no more than 120,000 Israelites were involved in the Exodus.

Another relevant bit of information to consider is the number of the firstborn males:

Numbers 3:43
And all the firstborn males by the number of names, from a month old and upward, of those that were numbered of them, were twenty and two thousand two hundred and threescore and thirteen.

This also implies there were a similar number of families with at least one male child, or about 66,800 people, at the time of the census. That is, 1 man + 1 woman + 1 child. Some families would include more children, but on the other hand some of the firstborn males would be unmarried or childless. It tends to discredit the idea that two million or more people were involved in the Exodus.

References

1. H. Daily. (ed.) Exodus Population

2. http://ecmarsh.com/lxx/Numbers/index.htm

3. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody Publ. Chicago. 1980. article: Thousand.

4. Ernest L. Martin. Appendix 6, 101 Bible Secrets.

5. Ernest L. Martin. Israel’s Population at the Exodus.

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