Exodus 12:37, How many Israelites wandered in the desert?

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.

//Today’s verse is about the children of Israel after they escaped from Egypt and fled into the desert. I’ve mentioned this topic so many times when talking about exaggerations in the Bible that I’ve noticed a mocking tone creep into my voice. The Bible says there were 600,000 men making this journey. As if one source isn’t enough, Numbers 1:45-46 counts “603,550 able-bodied, battle-ready men above twenty years of age.” Counting women and children, that’s probably about two million Israelites.

Guys, if there were ever two million people traipsing around in the desert for forty years, we’d know about it. We’d be able to uncover some record of it. Our archaeologists are not that bad. Instead, we have nothing. No record at all of an exodus ever happening. I’m not saying the escape didn’t happen, but two million people?

I’ve heard it calculated that if there were two million people crossing the Red Sea, in a column four people wide, the length of the line would stretch from northern Egypt down to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, around Mount Sinai, and back up again. I mean, really! (There’s that mocking tone again, sorry!)

Archaeologists estimate that the population of Palestine around the year 1000 BC (the time of David) was about fifty thousand. Even if we consider all of these inhabitants to be Israelites, what happened to the two million? Did God kill 39 out of every 40 Israelites in the desert?

So, some scholars suggest the Hebrew word elef, translated as “thousand” in both Exodus and Numbers, should perhaps instead be translated as “military unit.” Each such unit could be as small as ten people. That means 20,000  escapees from Egypt, counting women and children. Still more than I would guess is reasonable, but at least it’s now within the realm of possibility!

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3 Comments

  1. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first PM, proposed that ‘aluf’ meant a single warrior, so that there were just 600 fighting men. Interestingly, the rank of ‘aluf’ features in the highest echelons of the IDF (Israel Defence Force): ‘lieutenant colonel’ is sagan aluf, ‘colonel’ is aluf mishneh, ‘brigadier’ is tat aluf, ‘brigadier general’ is aluf, and ‘general’ is rav aluf. The ‘hundreds’ following the ‘alufim’ (thousands, but perhaps only single warriors) could be the number of all the males of the tribe. Alternatively, the high numbers of males could just have been corrupted in transcription as many OT numbers are.

  2. Lee Harmon

    That’s very interesting! Thank you for sharing, Deb!

  3. And this just popped up on http://www.whyisrael.org/2013/01/04/israeli-leaders-get-biblical-in-setting-peace-policies/

    “Netanyahu was hosting the revived prime minister’s Bible Circle, first started by David Ben-Gurion, when he referred to the weekly Torah reading from the first chapter of Exodus as evidence that things in this region never change.”

    DBG was quite the bible buff! :-)

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