This entry is part 10 of 101 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
According to Exodus 12:37 (NIV) the number of people leaving Egypt at the time of the exodus was ‘about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.’
Now, I have no interest in domesticating the Biblical text in order to make it easier to believe. However, this number (which would suggest a total of around 2 million people seems improbably high, and is worth investigating in order to see if that is what the text actually means.
Many scholars recognise that this is an unrealistic number, inconsistent with the size of Egyptian cities at that time (about 5,000 inhabitants). The IVP Bible Background Commentary comments on the implausibility of such a situation: if those leaving Egypt totalled around 2 million, then
as it traveled, the line of people would stretch for over two hundred miles. Even without animals, children and the elderly, travelers would not expect to make twenty miles a day (though caravans could make twenty to twenty-three). When families and animals move camp, the average would be only six miles per day. Whatever the case, the back of the line would be at least a couple of weeks behind the front of the line. This would create some difficulties in the crossing of the sea which seems to have been accomplished overnight, though certainly some have calculated how it could be done. (My emphasis)
Wenham (TOTC on Numbers) identifies the following reasons for regarding the large numbers given in Numbers as problemmatic:
- ‘It is very difficult to imagine so many people surviving in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years.’
- ‘They appear internally inconsistent.’ (Most obviously, the ratio of adult males to first-born males is about 27:1; in other words the average family had about 27 sons!).
- There are other texts ‘which apparently acknowledge that initially there were too few Israelites to occupy the promised land all at once (Exod. 23:29f.; Deut. 7:6f., 21f.).’
- Then there is the ‘mathematical oddity’ that ‘not only are most of the figures rounded off to the nearest hundred, the hundreds tend to be bunched: 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700 occur but never 000, 100, 800 or 900. This concentration of hundreds between 200 and 700 suggests the totals are not random as might have been expected in a census.’
According to Enns (The Evolution of Adam),
there is no positive, direct evidence for Israelite presence in Egypt or a massive departure of 600,000 men (see Exod. 12:37–38 and Num. 1:46). If one includes women and children, plus others (see Exod. 12:38), I estimate that number to be around 2,000,000. It stretches the imagination to think that a group that large, which then spent forty years wandering around the wilderness, would leave Egypt without a trace in either Egyptian literature or the archaeological record.
In his earlier commentary on Exodus, Enns expresses agnosticism on the issue.
Various explanations have been suggested:-
A literal number? Older commentators tend to be content with the number as it stands. This was the view of Keil. Barnes, who agrees that the total number of persons leaving Egypt would be over 2 million, thinks that ‘this is not an excessive population for Goshen, nor does it exceed a reasonable estimate of the increase of the Israelites, including their numerous dependants.’ More recently, the Apologetics Study Bible defends a literal reading of the text, noting that Ex 1:7 states that the Israelites reproduced rapidly. The same source suggests that if (as seems likely) the Israelites spent 215 years in Egypt, then this was sufficient time for Jacob’s 12 sons to produced the necessary number of offspring.
Geisler (When Critics Ask) defends a literal interpretation by saying that it is not necessary to conclude from the biblical data that the crossing took place in the space of 24 hours, and by suggesting that God prepared a pathway ‘several miles wide’ for the Israelites to use.
A number imported into the text from a later period? Enns cites the work of Sarna, who thinks that the number is accurate, but that it represents the population of Israel at the time of the united monarchy. According to Durham, Hyatt proposed a similar theory. This was also the view of Dillmann and Albright.
A symbolic number? According to this view, the number of 600,000 has been chosen for some (unspecified) symbolic meaning. Or, perhaps it was used simply as a concrete way of saying ‘many’. Both of these suggestions are unlikely, however, because the number is given more precisely as 603,550 in Ex 38:26 (cf. Num 1:46).
According to Durham, ‘Beer…proposed that the number “about six hundred thousand” was arrived at by Gematria, the equivalence of the letters of the phrase בני ישׂראל “sons of Israel” with their numerical equivalents. Such an equation yields the number 603,551, remarkably close to the 603,550 of Num 1:46, and even the 601,730 of Num 26:51 and the “about” 600,000 here.’ This suggestion, while ingenious, lacks hard evidence.
With particular reference to the census results given in Numbers, Wenham (TOTC, p73) discusses the proposal of M. Barnouin, according to which the symbolism of the numbers is related to their astronomical significance. The length of the lunar and solar year were well known, as were the synodic periods of the planets. So, for example, the number of Benjaminites in Num 1:37 is 100 × 354 days (a short lunar year).
In support of this theory, other texts in the OT use numbers in apparently symbolic ways. Wenham notes:
- The ages of the antediluvian patriarchs in Genesis may also be related to astronomical periods. Thus Enoch lived 365 years (Gen. 5:23) and Kenan’s age 910 = 10 quarter years (Gen. 5:14).
- Furthermore, one of the promises to Abraham was that his descendants should be as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:5).
- Indeed, Scripture frequently refers to the celestial bodies as God’s heavenly host (e.g. Deut. 4:19), while the armies of Israel are his earthly hosts (e.g. Josh. 5:14 and throughout Num. 1).
- The earthly tabernacle was a replica of God’s heavenly dwelling (Exod. 25:9, 40). Both were attended by the armies of the LORD.
- Finally, Genesis 37:9 compares Jacob and his sons (the ancestors of the twelve tribes) to the sun, moon and stars.
These census numbers then affirm the sacred character of Israel. They remind us that God’s promises to Abraham have been fulfilled, and that the holy people of God is called to struggle for him on earth as the stars fight for him in the heavenly places…
Much of the astronomical information was already known in the early second millennium BC, and the song of Deborah, universally recognized to be one of the earliest poems in the Bible, pictures the stars of heaven fighting alongside the armed tribes of Israel (Judg. 5:20). Thus the idea that the army of Israel corresponded to the heavenly host was an old one.(Bulleting added)
A number arrived at by mistranslation? Petrie, Mendenhall, Ellison, Humphreys, Stuart and others suggest that the underlying word (‘eleph‘) has undergone development over the centuries, from ‘tent group’ through ‘tribal division’ to ‘thousand’. At the battle of Ai, recorded in Joshua 7, the killing of 36 soldiers is regarded as a severe military setback. But it would hardly be a severe setback if the army were actually 600,000 strong. In Num. 1:16 and Judg. 6:15 the same word refers to a ‘group’ or ‘clan’.
Bruckner, responding to this theory, points out that Ex 38:26 makes it clear that individual men were counted, but this objection is not conclusive.
Stuart offers a full discussion of the issue, arriving (by a slightly different route) to the same conclusion as that just noted. This scholar notes the wide variety of meanings of eleph within the pages of Scripture. If we are to take the NRSV as a guide, then the word can mean:
‘Thousand’ – Exod 18:21; Num 10:36; 31:4; 31:5; Josh 7:3; 1 Sam 23:23.
‘Cattle’ – Deut 7:13; 28:4,18, 51.
‘Clan(s)’ – Josh 22:14; Judg 6:15; 1 Sam 10:19; Isa 60:22; Mic 5:2.
‘Division(s)’ – Num 1:16.
‘Family(ies)’ – Josh 22:21,30.
‘Ox(en)’ – Isa 30:24; Psa 8:7.
‘Tribe(s)’ – Num 10:4.
But the word eleph also occurs in accounts of the way in which the Israelite army was organised in units of size, using words that had often been borrowed from other meanings. So Deut 1:15 – ‘So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, and appointed them to have authority over you—as commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens and as tribal officials.’
Stuart thinks that the reference is to foot soldiers, who were organised in family groups, or platoons (elephs) of around 12 each, totalling about 7,000 fighting men, and a population (of men, women and children) of about 30,000.
‘Twenty or thirty thousand people is a number that easily can fit into many modern sorts of venues, from small sports stadiums to beaches to public gatherings and rallies, a fact that may help modern readers of the book visualize the entire Israelite contingent, who were often in one place at one time. It is a number that fits the facts of the book of Exodus well. Such a number of Israelites is large enough to require the miraculous provisions of food and water that the book describes; it is small enough for the whole nation to gather encamped around the tabernacle at the various places listed on the Israelite wilderness itinerary. For most occasions of listening to speeches, the men only would have gathered, several thousand or so in number, not too many to hear a speech shouted at them, especially if its words were relayed. Yet several thousand troops were formidable as a fighting force when directed at one place at a time.’