The number of Israelites escaping from Egypt and venturing forth to the Promised Land has, for many, been a topic of contention. This has caused doubt for some as we’d expect 600 000 men (which would equate to over two million people in total if women and children were included) to leave some trace of their presence. However, as I’d like to argue, it wasn’t actually that many people in the first place. And if my argument follows then people have been looking for evidence that was never there in the first place.
1. Verses hinting at a smaller Exodus population.
Some verses seem to hint that the total number Israelites fleeing was not two million.
Deuteronomy 7:1 – “When Jehovah your God shall bring you into the land where you go to possess it, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you.”
Deuteronomy 11:23 – “then Jehovah will drive out all these nations from before you, and you shall possess greater and mightier nations than you.”
If the Israelites really had 600 000 men to build an army it would have been unlikely that these other nations would be “greater” and “mightier.” The actual territories occupied by these tribes were actually rather small. Each tribe seemed to own less than 1000 square miles of land. For them to have over two million population would require a density of over 2000 people per square mile and the present density of modern Israel is less than 1000 per square mile.
Deuteronomy 7:7 – “Jehovah did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people, for you were the fewest of all people.”
Over two million people is a large number and wouldn’t be analogous to the “the fewest of all people.” If, as Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones note, the world population was about 50 million at that time then the exodus would constitute almost 5% of the total world population. That wouldn’t be a small number.
Numbers 13 – “But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
The Israelite spies were afraid of these men “of great size,” but no matter how big anyone is an army of 600 000 would hardly panic. It was probably the case that the spies returned realizing that they’d need more manpower if they were to be successful against the enemy.
Exodus 18:13 – “The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening.”
If we took this verse at face value then Moses acted as the sole judge for a population that was the equivalent of a large city. This would surely not be possible.
2. Archaeological Non-Confirmation.
Just because archaeology does not support the claim of two million people leaving Egypt it doesn’t go as far as to “disprove it.” But the point is that it still doesn’t support it, which is odd given the huge number. However we never know what may be discovered by archaeologists over the next hill (or sand dune).
3. A Baby Problem.
The numbers in the book of Numbers appears to be internally inconsistent. Numbers 3:43 states that the number of firstborn males, a month or more old, was 22 273. However, if the number of males over twenty years old was 603 550, this implies a total number of males, a month or older, of about one million. If so the ratio of all males to firstborn males was about 50 to 1. The average mother must then have had about 100 children (50 sons and 50 daughters). This, one would do well to argue, is highly unlikely.
4. The Jericho conquest.
If the Israelite army of fighting men really did number 600 000, or close to that number, then we might run into difficulties with the conquest narrative. In Joshua 6:3 the instruction is that “you shall go around the city, all the men of war.”
This means that the city would have been surrounded by some 600 000 men, granted it wasn’t many kilometers in circumference (which would make it an enormous city for the times). And marching these 600 000 men around it 7 times in one day would seem an unlikely task. This chasm is further widened when one considers that archaeologists have discovered the area of Jericho to be about 8.5 acres (1).
5. An Entire Congregation.
In various places we read that the whole congregation of Israel listening to Moses or Aaron (Exodus 16:10, 35:1, Leviticus 19:2, Numbers 20:8, Joshua 8:35) or gazing at Moses (Exodus 33:8), or assembling at the doorway of the tent of meeting (Numbers 16:19). This is hard to fathom for a population of around two million, but probably plausible for a population numbering into the thousands.
6. Golden Calf Executions.
In the incident of the golden calf Moses instructed “every man” of the Levites to execute God’s vengeance with the sword (Exodus 32:27). This they did (Exodus 32:28-29), and they ended up killing a total of 3000 people. If the tribe of Levi consisted of tens of thousands of men of fighting age this would seem like a rather small total assuming “every man” of them really did as he was told. But if the tribe of Levi consisted of only a few hundred men of fighting age to begin with then it makes reasonable sense.
7. Requesting Passage.
In Numbers 20:17 we see the Israelites asking for permission to “pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory.”
Israel was requesting permission from the Edomites to travel through their land, promising to stay on a certain highway, and away from their resources. The same request is made to the Amorites in Numbers 21:22. The problem seems to be that if the population of Israel was around two million, then how could they possibly travel through on a single highway (them with all their possessions)? Granted that they ventured 10 abreast with only 10 feet between groups, the line would stretch out for nearly 400 miles! This would seem unlikely.
8. Not a Enough Israelites.
In Exodus 23:29-30 God says that he “will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.”
It is quite clear that there were too few Israelites to occupy the Promised Land. However, it would have been likely that two million Israelites would be enough to have filled the land.
9. Only Two Midwives.
In Exodus 15 we find just two Hebrew midwives catering for the entire fleeing Israelite population. If the population really was some two million then we’d expect there to be a few more midwives mentioned.
10. The Scary Egyptians.
In Exodus 13:18 we read that “The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.” 600 000 Israelite men would have been an exceptional and incredibly powerful army, and perhaps quite unparalleled. Such a force would have outnumbered the Egyptian army itself. Granted this then why would the fleeing Israelites be “terrified”? After all, their own army outnumbered the Egyptian forces. Exodus 14:10 concedes that “They were terrified and cried out to the Lord” as the Egyptian army approached. Clearly the Israelites, and their few thousand fighting men, were expecting to be clobbered.
11. An Intense Struggle.
In Exodus 17:8 a battle ensues between the Israelites and the Amalekites. However, a 600 000 strong Israelite army struggles to defeat them. In other words, an enormous army failed to overcome a group of tribesmen. According to the text “As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning.” The image one gets, and that the author probably intends to show, is that this was an even battle. It produces a good question as to why such a large army would struggle against a far smaller one.
12. Common Sense.
Keeping track of such an incredible number of people would be near impossible. Given a population of over two million it would have been like moving an entire city. In all likeliness large groups would have branched off from the main body and formed independent communities, something we have no evidence for.
Granted the reliability of the tradition concerning the Red Sea crossing (and its miracle, of course), how would some two million people, producing a line over 400 miles long, cross? Especially just in time for God to close it on the approaching Egyptian forces? It doesn’t seem likely.
13. The Matter of a “Thousand.”
The used Hebrew word “elep” can mean a ‘thousand’, ‘troop’, or ‘leader’, according to the context. Many Hebrew words seem to have multiple meanings, for example, “yom” could designate a long period of time, a shorter 24 hour period of time, or even be figurative (as in my “fathers or grandfathers day”). For “elep” Judges 6:15 uses it to denote “family.” It has also been noted that since the original Hebrew manuscripts consisted only of consonants, and no vowels, the same spelling could also be the word “allup” which could mean “leader” or “chief.” Similarly, the word can also be used of a military unit or troop under a leader or captain. The most frequently suggested explanation is that the Hebrew word for “thousand” in the population refers to an indeterminate clan size or troop.
14. Drawing Conclusions.
- The Hebrew word translated “thousand” (“elep”) has been mistranslated and should have been translated as ‘family’, ‘group’, or ‘troop’. This of course was not the fault of the initial author but of the translator. This seems to be the most probable explanation.
- Copy error crept in without notice by a scribe. Christians argue that the original autographs are error free although small errors crept in as they were passed down over time.
- The author simply made a mistake because of an unreliable tradition he inherited.
1. Unger, M. 1966. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. p. 672.