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How many Israelites left Egypt in the exodus?


Israelites exodus
Question: "How many Israelites left Egypt in the exodus?"

Answer:
It is notable that no doctrinal or theological points rely on the precise population of Israel at the time of the exodus. Whether God freed 3 million or 30 thousand from Egypt, Scripture is clear He did so miraculously (Exodus 6:6; Acts 7:35–36). Whether Israel’s fighting force was more than half a million or several thousand, their conquest of Canaan is credited entirely to God’s intervention (Deuteronomy 9:4–5). It would be just as hard to feed thirty thousand people in the barren Sinai territory as it would two million (Nehemiah 9:20–21).

Scholars debate the meaning of biblical references to Israel’s population, but the size of that population is ultimately irrelevant. As with secular history, there are areas of ambiguity and multiple ways to resolve difficulties. The purpose of delving into these details is to demonstrate that possible resolutions exist, not that believers are obligated to accept only one of them.

According to Genesis 46:27, Joseph and his family numbered 70 people when they moved into Egypt. The book of Exodus describes their descent into slavery and miraculous rescue after some 430 years. Scripture indicates Israel grew rapidly during their time in Egypt (Exodus 1:7). That growth was fast enough to make Egyptian leaders nervous (verses 8–10). By the time Moses returned to Pharaoh’s court, the Israelites’ value as slaves was such that Pharaoh refused to release them despite plagues sent by God (Exodus 6:6–7).

Exodus 12:37 and the census taken shortly after leaving Egypt (Numbers 1:17–46) depict similar figures for the Israeli population. As typically translated into English, and taken literally, the post-exodus Israelite army numbered well over 600 thousand men. This would imply a total Israeli population of about 2.4 million. This would have been a staggering figure for that era. Enormous enough, in fact, to engender debate.

Compared to comparable civilizations, such numbers would have made the Israel of Moses’ era a true military superpower. Ancient historians suggested Egypt’s population was between 3 and 4 million. Egyptian domination over Israel is hard to explain if the enslaved people nearly outnumbered their masters and could field an army rivaling that of any on earth. The infamous Persian army of Xerxes likely had around 200 thousand actual soldiers, while Israel’s hated enemy, the warlike Assyrians (Genesis 10:11; Jonah 1:1–3), likely had between 100 and 150 thousand troops.

A nation boasting more than a half-million fighting men would have been all but invincible. Even if only one tenth of those were war-ready, that would still represent an intimidating army. This numbering raises two problematic points:

Problem: Scripture and tradition suggest a “large” Israel

Exodus 12:37, Numbers 1:46, and Numbers 2:32 all describe Israel’s population of men, not including women and children. Numbers 1:21–43 gives an account from each tribe, using Hebrew words, not symbols, to represent quantities. Adding these up, one arrives at the figure given in verse 46. This phrasing is traditionally interpreted to mean just over 600 thousand adult men, implying a total population about four times that size, or 2.4 million.

Problem: Scripture and history suggest a “small” Israel

Other than common interpretations of Exodus 12:37 and Numbers chapter 1, the rest of the Bible is remarkably consistent in portraying Israel as relatively small, rather than as a force that others would assume to be dangerous.

Deuteronomy has multiple references to Israel’s being “smaller” than the societies of Canaan (Deuteronomy 9:1–2). Each of the seven individual Canaanite realms was “more numerous and mightier than” Israel (Deuteronomy 7:1). Only Moab expresses fear over Israel’s size (Numbers 22:3). Israel’s success is to be credited to God’s intervention, not their military might (Deuteronomy 7:7). In fact, God reassures Israel not to be afraid (Numbers 13:28) of these other, “greater” nations (Deuteronomy 7:17).

When Israel conducted their census (Numbers 3:39, 46), the number of firstborn males older than one month is recorded as just over twenty thousand. Using the traditional interpretation of 600 thousand adult males implies firstborns made up only one out of every thirty men. If so, the average Israeli family during the exodus would have to average around sixty children, boys and girls combined. Even factoring in the possible loss of many firstborn children due to disobedience at the first Passover (Exodus 12:29–32), this reckoning seems unreasonable.

God specifically noted that the conquest of Canaan would take time (Exodus 23:30). This was to avoid eliminating too many people, too quickly, resulting in the land becoming desolate and overrun by animals (Exodus 23:29; Deuteronomy 7:22). An army of 600 thousand could have easily conquered that territory in a year—but a nation of more than 2 million would easily fill the territory taken in conquest. The prospect of a smaller nation sweeping ahead faster than they could control territory makes more sense of God’s concern.

Trying to reconcile these points leads to several possibilities. Of these, only the first two seem consistent with a high view of Scripture:

Option One: Large Israel; Literalism

As traditionally interpreted, the population of Israel would have been strikingly large for that era. That does not mean it is impossible. God’s miraculous provision could feed millions just as well as thousands. Israel’s tentative approach in Canaan might have been pure cowardice (Numbers 13:30–32), and God’s reference to them as “least” might have implied they were inexperienced and naïve after centuries of slavery.

The idea of a people group growing from 70 to more than 2 million in 430 years is not implausible. It would require a population growth rate of 2.6 percent. This is extraordinarily high but not too far beyond the 2.2 percent growth rate seen worldwide in the middle of the twentieth century. Biblical references to Israel’s increase and Egypt’s corresponding fear may reflect that level of explosive growth.

Since this is the “traditional” view, it comes with the primary concerns noted above. It would suggest that secular historical understanding of other nations and their military sizes is drastically wrong. Or that Israel’s massive size somehow went unnoticed in the rest of the world specifically because they were weak and ineffective.

Option Two: Small Israel; Misinterpretation of the Hebrew

The Hebrew term ‘eleph is typically translated “thousand” (Exodus 18:21), such as in the first chapter of Numbers. The counts given in this chapter are composed of words, not numerals. Numbers 1:21, for instance, records the men of Reuben’s tribe as sis’sāh vav arbā’im ‘eleph vav hamēs mē’ot.” The traditional, literal translation would be “six and forty thousand and five hundred,” usually rendered as “46,500.”

However, two words in this phrase are subject to variations: ‘eleph and vav. The term ‘eleph is used elsewhere in Scripture as a reference to groups, not a literal number, including descriptions of Israel during and after the exodus. It is applies to tribes (Numbers 10:4), clans (Joshua 22:14; Judges 6:15; Micah 5:1), families (Joshua 22:21), and divisions (Numbers 1:16).

Further, the connecting symbol vav can mean “and,” but it can also mean “or,” depending on context. Exodus 21:15 and Exodus 21:17, for instance, use vav to imply that certain actions are a sin when done against one’s father “or” mother, not that they are sins when done against them both.

If ‘eleph is a reference to groups, and the second vav implies an “or,” Numbers 1:21 would be translated “six and forty clans, or five hundred.” The total for the final tally given in Numbers 1:46, likewise, might have been intended as “598 ‘eleph, or 5,500,” then accidentally misread as “598 ‘eleph and 5 ‘eleph and 500,” which was condensed to “603,500” as misinterpretation of the prior passage took hold.

This typographical error is entirely plausible. While the Hebrew language itself represents numbers using words, ancient people often used shorthand, employing lines or dots similar to modern-day “tally marks.” Those would have been relatively easy to misread, and most potential scribal errors in Old Testament manuscripts involve exactly that level of discrepancy (2 Samuel 10:18; 1 Chronicles 19:18; 1 Kings 4:26; 2 Chronicles 9:25; 2 Kings 24:8; 2 Chronicles 36:9).

This solution cleanly resolves the primary problems noted above:

• It more easily correlates Israel’s size with Scripture’s description of their relationship to other nations, with a total troop count of around 5,500.

• It more easily aligns with historical understanding of the size of contemporary cultures, bringing the total population to around thirty thousand.

• It results in a more reasonable ratio of firstborn to non-firstborn as recorded in the census, with an average family size of about 8 children.

However, this option also raises its own questions:

• It requires the copyist error referenced above in Numbers 1:46; otherwise, the total numbers do not correspond.

• Some scholars insist the Hebrew grammar of the passage implies ‘eleph means a literal “thousand.”

Option Three: Unknown Size; Alternate Numeric Base

Another possibility is that Moses was not using a “base ten” numeric system. Especially in the ancient world, cultures might count by other quantities, such as 60, rather than by 10. This changes the meaning of recorded numbers. As a modern parallel:

• Writing 100 in decimal, or base ten, means “one hundred,” as in the number of yards on an American football field.

• Writing 100 in base 2, or binary, means “four,” as in the number of Gospels.

• Writing 100 in hexadecimal, a base 16 system, means “two hundred fifty six,” as in the number of squares on four chess boards.

This solution creates more problems than it cures:

• It raises major questions about the meaning of other numeric figures in Moses’ writings.

• Depending on the “correct” base, the numbers might be even more extreme. The figure 603,550, written in the Babylonian base 60, would be translated to more than 4.6 billion in base ten numbers, several times the entire world’s population in that era.

• Another possibility is that extremely large numbers were assumed by readers to be divided by some standard ratio, such as 6 or 60. That would reduce the apparent size of Israel, but it would also make the addition of the numbers insensible.

Option Four: Unknown Size; Anachronism

A few scholars have suggested that the figures given in Numbers chapter 1 are, in fact, the population of those tribes around the time of Solomon. Hebrews 7:9–10 indicates that Levi was part of his ancestor Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17–20). Paul implies that all humanity was present when Adam sinned (Romans 5:12). It is suggested that, in a similar way, the figures given in Numbers reflect what those populations would become later on, when they settled in Canaan.

The primary drawback of this option is that it requires an author other than Moses, something not supported by the rest of Scripture.

Option Five: Unknown Size; Exaggeration

Another prospect raised is that records of Moses’ era often included deliberate exaggerations. This is known as hyperbole in modern writing. Egyptian record-keepers, for instance, sometimes indicated that a particular Pharaoh had ruled for thousands and thousands of years—knowing that such numbers were not to be taken literally by the readers.

Under this explanation, Moses’ record of Israel’s numbers is merely meant to reflect a significant, but unspecified population. While this would partly diffuse concerns, it also brings other numbers of the Old Testament into question. It especially begs the question of why exaggeration would be used in one passage but not in other places in the Old Testament.

Conclusion

Scripture does not place any theological significance on the exact number of people who participated in the exodus. The intent of the Old Testament is to record God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf and their response to those signs. The fact that the Bible gives little space, other than a few verses, referring to the numbers of people implies that those numbers are not crucial in and of themselves. That there is confusion about what those numbers are has more to do with our lack of understanding than some subtle point being made by God.

Both the “large Israel” and “small Israel” interpretations—solutions one and two, above—have supporters and detractors. Both have strengths and weaknesses. They cannot both be true, but either one would be compatible with a view of Scripture as inerrant and inspired.

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Related Topics:

Why did the Israelites need manna if they had flocks/herds of animals that they could eat?

What was the meaning and purpose of the ten plagues of Egypt?

What is the importance of the parting of the Red Sea?

What was the date of the exodus from Egypt?

What did the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night signify? (Exodus 13:21-22)

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