The Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah (Pentateuch, Five Books of Moses), deals with numbers, all sorts of numbers, including how many Israelites departed Egypt with Moses for the Promised Land.
Numbers 1:45-6 notes that Moses had 603,550 men from twenty years of age and upward “able to go forth to war.” When we add women, children, and non-Israelites, the number of people trekking their way to Mount Sinai with Moshe Rabinu (Moses the Teacher) sometime during the 13th century BCE comes to over 2 million.
The modern academic study of the Bible, noted for challenging traditional belief, considers the notion of 2-million people wandering the Sinai desert quite implausible. As N.H. Snaith wrote in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, “When on the march, they would constitute a column twenty-two miles long, marching fifty abreast with one yard between each rank.” It does strain credulity.
Marching, let’s assume, ten abreast, and not including their donkeys, herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats, they would have formed a column 150 miles long, according to archeologist Eric H. Cline (From Eden to Exodus). Even more preposterous.
When you think about it, if Moses had over six hundred thousand fighting men, the Israelites would have been able to fend off Pharaoh’s pursuing army at the Red Sea and would not have required the most celebrated miracle in the Hebrew Bible to save them. Something certainly doesn’t add up.
Consider also, as the Israelites neared Mount Sinai, they were attacked by a nomadic tribe, the Amalekites. Exodus 17:8-13 describes the ensuing day-long battle, which went back and forth until the Israelites finally won out.
The Amalekites had attacked with an army of perhaps several thousand and were met presumably by an equal numerical force of Israelites. If Moses’ troops had indeed numbered some 600,000, it would have been a slaughter.
Another point, Deuteronomy 7:7 stresses that the LORD chose Israel even though “ye were the fewest of all people.” According to the Encyclopedia of the Archeology of Ancient Egypt, Egypt’s population at the time was 3 million. With an Exodus population of 2 million, 2/3 of mighty Egypt’s, the Israelites would hardly qualify as “the fewest of all people.”
In a 1998 issue of Vetus Testamentum, the scholars’ journal on the Old Testament, British scientist Colin Humphreys, author of The Miracles of Exodus, came up with a reasonable re-interpretation of the above quoted passage.
For Humphreys, it all boiled down to a key word, ‘eleph, translated as “a thousand” in the Numbers passage. But ‘eleph also carries the meaning of a “group,” such as a family, clan, or troop.
Numbers 1:21 states that the number of fighting men in the tribe of Reuben was 46,500. In the Hebrew text, this is represented as 46 ‘eleph and 500 men, traditionally rendered as 46 thousand and 500 men. Humphreys suggests it should be read as: 46 troops and 500 men. That is, the tribe of Reuben contributed 500 men (46 troops), not 46,500.
A troop would have between 10 and 20 men, which was standard for armies at the time (supported by data contained in the 14th-century BCE Amarna tablets of Egypt).
All in all, Humphreys, employing a sophisticated mathematical analysis, calculated a total of 5,550 men making up Moses’ fighting force. And a more realistic estimate of the number of Israelites participating in the Exodus would be about 20 thousand, not the multitude recorded in Scripture, but enough to have guaranteed the birth of a nation.
(For the reader interested in the complete Humphreys reference mentioned above, see the NOTE appendaged to the blog.)
The idea of 2-million Israelites wandering around in the desert for forty years is unrealistic. The number is unwieldy, as already indicated, and there wouldn’t have been enough water available for their needs. But 20-thousand Israelites could have survived in the Sinai Peninsula. Modern biblical critics dismiss the saga of the Exodus as nothing more than theology told in the form of history, but we now have some credible support from the scientific community for the story’s authenticity.
NOTE: Colin J. Humphreys, “The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding Mathematically the Very Large Number in Numbers I and XXVI.” Vetus Testamentum 48 (1998), pp. 196-213.