How Many Israelites Actually Left Egypt (Part 2)

As we mentioned earlier, exegetic scholars–both Jewish and Christian–have long recognized the problems with the numbers mentioned in the Bible. Judging by the numbers listed in the beginning of Numbers, the Israelite nation must have consisted of about two and a half million people. This must have been a rigorous job for the two midwives in charge of their birth (Exod 1:15 )! There were precisely 22,273 firstborn males (Num. 3:43); given 600,000+ males, this would mean an average of at least 27.1 sons per mother.  Not even today’s Haredi or Hassidic communities (who do not practice birth-control) have numbers like that! One is almost reminded of the famous Groucho Marx cigar joke, which we will not mention at this time (Generation X-ers, Google the joke).

Some scholars, like the 19th century commentator G. B. Gray, and others to conclude that either the numbers are a fiction, or are outright exaggeration. Not all modern biblical scholars take such a dim view. For example, W. F. Albright has argued instead that the large numbers in the census lists of Numbers actually were derived from the population figures as they existed during the monarchy of King David.[1]

With unusual insight, one early 20th century scholar, Flinders Petrie was the first to point out that the term אֶלֶף  (‘e’lep) can have multiple meanings, such as “cattle,” “family,” “tribe,” “chieftain,” and “friend,”  in addition to the connotation of “thousand.”

The problem, Petrie argued, was due to the early translators of the Torah, who chose to use the word “thousand” instead of using a more practical nuance which would have made more contextual sense out of the passages. Over time, this mistaken translation, was replicated by other translators,  thus creating the problem in the text.[2] With this theory, he reduced the size of the Exodus to about 20,000 people including women and children. Continue reading “How Many Israelites Actually Left Egypt (Part 2)”

How Many Israelites Actually Left Egypt? (Part 1)

According to Numbers 1:46, the Israelite army stood at “six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty.”

On the basis of the census taken, one must assume there was an excess of 2,000,000 Israelites in the wilderness, of which  603,550 were soldiers.  The sheer numbers raises many questions: How could the wilderness provide for such a large number of people over a forty year period? By the same token, how could the livestock and other flock animals subsist on a relatively sparse and uncultivated terrain? When one considers the amount of time the Israelites stayed in Kadesh-Barnea, there would have been ample archeological evidence indicating the presence of a large population having once lived there, yet no such evidence has yet been unearthed.

Moreover, if the Israelite nation numbers were indeed in excess of 2,500,000, as one scholar noted “The reader can figure that two and a half million people marching in an old-fashioned column of fours would extend some 350 miles!” Along these lines, if the Israelites were 2,500,000 in size, they would never have been able to logistically cross the Sea of Reeds in one night. In fact, it probably would have taken several weeks to cross that body of water.

No ancient people in antiquity ever amassed an army of that size, with the possible exception of China. One of the most successful conquerors Sargon of Akkad (ca. 2350 B.C.E.), was proud of the fact he had a standing army garrisoned in his palace nearby for his immediate use.  In the famous battle of Qadesh between Egypt and the Hittites, the Hittites had an army of some 40,000, the largest army ever assembled in the ancient world, with an army of 20,000 men, the Egyptian army was barely able to win a stalemate. Shamshi-Adad (1800 B.C.E, Assyria) claimed to have amassed an army of 60,000 for the siege of Nurrugum. If Israel really had a fighting force of 603,550,  they would have never have feared a handful of Egyptian, Amalekites, whose military outcome remained uncertain as long as Moses kept his arms raised. Nor would the Israelites have had much to fear the Canaanites whose entire population did not exceed at the very most 1,000,000 people during the Late Bronze Age.

Another one of the great battles of antiquity, which took place at Qarqar (Phoenicia) between a coalition of twelve kings from Palestine-Syria (including King Ahab) against the Assyrians, had 72,000 men in that coalition, according to the Annals of Shalmaneser III (ANET, 278). Ahab contributed 2,000 chariots and 10,000 soldiers. Here too, ancient warfare did not involve larger numbers than that, hence the 603,550 does not seem like a realistic or likely number for an army. Continue reading “How Many Israelites Actually Left Egypt? (Part 1)”

The Best Question of the Passover Seder

Children have an unusual ability when it comes to confronting our spiritual hypocrisy as parents and as adults; very often they get to the essence of the problem as they perceive things. Frequently, as parents we often fail to hear the questions our young people ask of us; often we overreact whenever we feel that our beliefs and values are being questioned or attacked.

Rather than listening with an inner ear, as parents, we often react with harshness and anger. Sometimes we wish our children were more respectful and compliant, or at least, “mind their place” at the Seder table and not misbehave or draw undue attention to themselves. As any Woody Allen fan certainly knows, passionate family discussions have always been a part of Jewish life since ancient times. Unanimity has never been the goal of any kind of discussion wherever you have two or more Jews together engaged in dialogue. Passover is no exception to this rule.

During Passover, this thought finds expression in the question of the “Rasha ” (better known to most of us as the “Wicked Child”). Without his presence and participation, the entire Seder would be a dull experience. Here is a literal translation of the controversial passage we read in the Passover Hagadah:

The wicked child, what does that he say? “What is this service to you?” Note what the Torah says, “To you,” but not to him. Because he has excluded himself from the community, he has denied a basic teaching of the faith. Therefore you shall smack his teeth and tell him, It is because of this that God wrought for me in my going out of Egypt (Exod. 13:8) “For me,” but not him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

The above translation poses two obvious problems:

(1) As a parent, I have often wondered how anyone could call their child “Wicked”? The glaring meaning of “Rasha” is arguably offensive. Obviously, some modern translations prefer to sugarcoat their translation by giving the “Rasha” a less offensive epithet, e.g., “deviant,” or “troublesome.” I am unsure whether the “Deviant Son” is much of an improvement over the “Wicked Son” for both translations are clearly judgmental and pejorative. If we are to choose a less offensive title, let us describe him or her as a “Wayward Child,” or perhaps more accurately a “Rebellious Child.” At any rate, our Rasha is a person who is a young person who stands perilously close to the edge of his/her Judaism; without a proper pedagogical response, the “Rasha” may grow up to disaffiliate as a Jew.

(2) Now, to add injury to the insult of being labeled a “Rasha,” the rabbinic framers of the Hagadah recommend that the father ought to give his child a “patch in panim” a smack in the mouth for asking such impudent questions. Unfortunately, not all the rabbis of the Talmudic era were skilled educators. Continue reading “The Best Question of the Passover Seder”

Disputed Origins of Religion: Modern Views (Part 2)

In the last two centuries, we have witnessed the rise of many new theories concerning the origins of religion which continue the debate started by the ancients.  There seems to be little agreement among scholars as to how or why religions first originated.

Herbert Spencer identified the origin of religion  in what he perceives to be the universal practice among primitive peoples of worshiping the ghosts of their ancestors. He then goes on to trace the further evolution of religious consciousness through polytheism and ultimately, monotheism. Other thinkers like anthropologist E. B. Tylor, conceived  religion as evolving out of animism which saw the world as inhabited by souls which are present in all things, from the souls of animals, to the souls of human beings, the  souls of trees and plants follow in some vague partial way; and the souls of inanimate objects expand the general category to its most extreme boundary.

Freud considered religion to be rooted in humanity’s  experience of childhood helplessness. The belief in gods in particular and religion in general, was to Freud nothing more than the attempt to gain control over the sensory world, in which we are situated, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. The gods were a necessary antidote for man to survive in what appeared as a nonsensical and hostile world. Since religion was nothing more than wishful thinking,  it cannot achieve its end. The sundry doctrines of faith carry with them the stamp of the times in which they originated, the ignorant childhood days of the human race. Freud felt that human experience has long taught us that man needs to grow up and leave the nursery world of religious beliefs behind. Continue reading “Disputed Origins of Religion: Modern Views (Part 2)”

Disputed Origins of Idolatry: Pre-modern Views (Part 1)

The origin of idolatry is a fascinating study in and of itself. Maimonides traced the origin of idolatry to  the pre-Diluvial era of Enosh. Maimonides writes:

During the days of Enosh, humankind made a serious mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave foolish advise. Enosh himself was one of those who erred. Here is what developed: They said for as much that God created the stars and the celestial planets with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Therefore, it is only fitting to praise and glorify them and to accord them with honor. The ancients perceived this to be the will of the Blessed Holy One, that they aggrandize  and give homage to those whom He magnified and honored. Just as a king desires to be honored by the servants  who stand before him. Indeed by doing so, they thought they were in fact honoring the King.  After considering this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offered sacrifices to them. The ancients would praise and glorify the heavenly hosts with words while prostrating themselves before them, because by doing so, they thought they would be fulfilling God’s will. This was the essence of idolatry, and the  justification given by  those who worshiped them.  Originally, the ancients did not say there is any other god except for this star. . . .[1]

Maimonides contends that  the ancients eventually forgot about the one true God. It was far easier for them to believe in what was visible rather someone or something that was invisible.  They assumed that all the celestial powers were vested in whatever representation they chose to worship.

Some theories dating back to the ancient Greeks proposed an equally intriguing theory about the origin of religion. The founder of atomism,  Democritus (ca. 460?-370? BCE), was among the first thinkers to suggest that the gods were nothing more than physical phenomena that appear to mankind, and only  “appeared” to speak. This belief arouse from early man’s terror of the solar eclipse, thunder, and so on.  The belief in these “deities” made it necessary for the ignorant, ethically stunted to refrain from wrongdoing only through the fear of punishment, and not because they regarded morality as essential for their happiness.

In some of Plato’s writings, the famed philosopher felt that the belief in gods were necessary, in order to curb human wickedness and corruption. The belief in gods presupposed there is an order to the universe, and if there were indeed no gods, then the order of the heavens must be an accident. [2]  Several other Greek and Roman thinkers saw a kinship between superstition and religion. In its earliest Latin literary usage by Plautus and Ennius, superstitio was already a negative term describing divination, magic, and “bad religion” in general. Cicero gives a concrete example, explaining that “those who spent whole days in prayer and offered sacrifices, that their children might outlive them, are called superstitious” [3].

For classical Roman observers like Seneca, Lucretius, and Cicero, and Livy superstition meant erroneous, false, or excessive religious behaviors stemming from ignorance of philosophical and scientific truths about the laws of nature.  Such ignorance was associated with the common people (vulgus) and with the countryside (pagus), so that superstitious behavior as practiced by simple old men and women.

In Cicero’s On Divination, the philosopher concludes that religion was useful because it helped to control human behavior and could be used as a tool for public policy; and in this context divination could be useful too (as when an unwise political decision was prevented by the announcement that the omens were unfavorable). To many of these thinkers, the ancients “invented” the belief in gods as “a noble lie,” a necessary crutch (or as an “illusion” as formulated by Freud) or simple and ignorant people to believe that these deities have the means for securing blessing and avoiding disaster. Continue reading “Disputed Origins of Idolatry: Pre-modern Views (Part 1)”