The number of Israelites who came up from Egypt and eventually entered the Promised Land is a matter of some debate. Since the Bible records two censuses of the people (one in Numbers 1 and the other in Numbers 26), it would seem that the matter would be settled, but there are several reasons why questions persist.
The two most common views on the population of the children of Israel are that they numbered over 2 million people or only about 30,000. That’s quite a difference. Notably, no doctrinal or theological points rely on the precise population of Israel at the time of the exodus. Whether God freed 2 million or 30,000 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 30,000 people in the barren Sinai territory as it would 2 million (Nehemiah 9:20–21).
According to Genesis 46:27, Joseph and his family numbered 70 people when they moved to 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 (Exodus 1:8–10). 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).
Shortly after leaving Egypt (Numbers 1:17–46), while Israel was at Sinai, God commanded a census. As typically translated into English, the post-exodus Israelite army numbered well over 600,000 men. This figure implies a total Israelite population of about 2.4 million, a staggering figure for that era. Enormous enough, in fact, to engender debate.
Compared to other civilizations at the time, such numbers would have made Israel a true 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 200,000 actual soldiers, while Israel’s hated enemy, the warlike Assyrians (Genesis 10:11; Jonah 1:1–3), likely had between 100,000 and 150,000 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. The traditional 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 Numbers 1:46. This phrasing is traditionally interpreted to mean just over 600,000 adult men, implying a total population about four times that size, or 2.4 million.
Problem: Scripture and history suggest a “small” Israel
Apart from the common interpretations of Exodus 12:37 and Numbers 1, the Bible is remarkably consistent in portraying Israel as relatively small, rather than as a large force that others would fear.
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 of the Levites and the firstborn from the rest of the tribes (Numbers 3:39, 46), the number of firstborn males is recorded as just over twenty thousand. Using the traditional interpretation of 600,000 adult males implies that firstborns made up only 1 out of every 30 men. If that were the case, the average Israelite family would have about 60 children, boys and girls combined. 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 600,000 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 the 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 meant 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.
This “traditional” view comes with the primary concerns noted above. It would suggest that secular historical understanding of the sizes of other nations and their military forces 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 common Hebrew term ‘elep 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 ‘elep vav hamēs mē’owt. The traditional, literal translation is “six and forty thousand and five hundred,” usually rendered as “46,500.”
However, two words in this phrase are subject to variations: ‘elep and vav. The term ‘elep (or ‘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 applied 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 word 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 say that certain sins are committed against one’s father “or” mother.
If ‘elep is a reference to groups of some sort (not numerical thousands), and the second vav in the phrase is understood to mean “or,” then Numbers 1:21 would be translated “six and forty clans, or five hundred.” The tribe of Reuben, then, would have had 500 fighting men from 46 family groups.
Numbers 1:46 gives the final tally: “The total number was 603,550.” If we assume a scribal error in the copying of this verse, however, the total would be “598 families with 5,550 men.” This number would be in keeping with the lower census numbers: the total population of Israelites would be about 22,200, and the average family would have had 8 or 9 children (rather than 60).
Such a scribal or typographical error is entirely plausible. While the Hebrew language itself represents numbers using words, ancient people often used a type of 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; 36:9; 2 Kings 24:8).
This second solution cleanly resolves some primary problems:
• 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 the historical understanding of the size of contemporary cultures, bringing the total population to around 30,000.
• 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 is not without its own difficulties:
• It requires a copyist’s error in Numbers 1:46; otherwise, the total numbers do not correspond.
• Some scholars insist the Hebrew grammar of the passage requires ‘elep to mean a literal “thousand.”
• The smaller census numbers are difficult to reconcile with the number of those killed in three plagues: at various times, 14,700 (Numbers 16:49), 24,000 (Numbers 25:9) and 23,000 (1 Corinthians 10:8) perished. If the total in the census is taken to imply a nation of 30,000, then how do we account for over 50,000 deaths? [In answer, it’s fair to assume that the 3,000 killed in the incident of the golden calf died before the first census was taken. Then, during the time of wilderness wandering, the population increased, only to be reduced again by the other plagues—the second census of Numbers 26, in fact, takes place after the plague that killed 24,000. Also, when they left Egypt, the Israelites were accompanied by a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38, ESV). These foreigners were not included in any census, but the death tolls for the plagues could well have included those who died from among that group.]
Option Three: Unknown Size; Alternate Numeric Base
Another possibility is that Moses was not using a base 10 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 10, 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 total 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 in the Babylonian base 60 would be more than 4.6 billion in base 10 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 meaningless.
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 took part in Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17–20), since Levi was “in the body” of his ancestor. Paul implies that all humanity was present when Adam sinned (Romans 5:12). So some suggest that, in a similar way, the census figures 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 of Numbers other than Moses, something not supported by the rest of Scripture.
Option Five: Unknown Size; Exaggeration
Another explanation 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 into question. Why would exaggeration be used in one passage but not in other places in the Old Testament?
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 the history of God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf and their response, good and bad. The fact that the Bible gives little space, other than a few verses, 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—options 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.