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.

G.F. Mendenhall also understood  אֶלֶף to connote the sense of “family complex” or “clan” but reformatted Petrie’s original concept, and argued that the large numbers in the Numbers census lists are reflective of the military structure of the post-exodus Israel,  inflated to mirror the numbers of the monarchical period during the reign of Saul or possibly the early reign of David.[3]

All and all, Mendenhall thinks that the total of the census numbers in the Numbers census yields a number of 5,500 to about 6,000 soldiers. In terms of the overall census, this concept would imply that there was a much smaller overall population, large enough to realistically survive in the wilderness.

While many biblical scholars tend to view symbolic interpretations of the biblical census numbers as dubious, British scholar Gordon Wenham argues that we should not dismiss such a theory out of hand. He writes in his commentary to Numbers:

“Another approach is to regard the numbers as intentionally symbolic. Gematria, a Jewish method of interpretation using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as numbers, gives numerical values to Hebrew letters (a = 1, b = 2 and so on). Thus, every Hebrew word may represent a number. ‘Children of Israel’ thus equals 603, and ‘all the congregation of the people of Israel’ has been computed at 603,551, not very different from 1.46! However, this only explains one figure; what about the totals of the individual tribes?

Barnouin has shown that some of the numbers can be generated using figures known to Babylonian astronomers about the periods of the planetary movements. The idea symbolized might be that as the stars represent God’s heavenly armies, so Israel’s tribes are God’s army on earth. Certainly Gen. 37:9 compares Jacob and his sons, the ancestors of the twelve tribes, to the stars, and Deborah pictures the stars of heaven fighting on behalf of the tribes of Israel (Judg. 5:20). So the symbolism is not impossible. Unfortunately once again this system explains only some of the figures not all of them. Recently D.W. Young has attempted to explain the ages of the antediluvians in Genesis using mathematical formulae familiar to the Babylonians. Babylonians worked on the base 60, so it is intriguing that the total of Israel is so close to 60 × 100 × 100 (cf. the 144,000 of Rev. 7:4 = 12 × 12 × 1000). But ultimately one must concur with Ashley (1993:66) that ‘the answer is elusive’.” [4]

Wenham seems  correct.

Historically, both the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations utilized a  sexigesimal, or base 60 system of numbers, in contrast to the base 10 system in our modern world. Hence the Babylonian year consisted of 360 days (6 x 60), which also correspond to the number of degrees in the Babylonian circle. When seen from this perspective, the numbers of the census fit well within a sexigesimal number system representing degrees of perfection. In the cultural and religious life of a civilization, psychic and cultural symbolism play an important role in the life of the ancients. There should not be any one particular dominant hegemony that controls the debate on such an interesting topic–regardless how idiosyncratic a given theory might seem to be to those who insist upon only the brute facts of the text.



[1] W. F. Albright, The Administrative Divisions of Israel and Judah, JPOS 5 (1925) 20.

[2] Egypt and Israel (London: SPCK, 1911), pp. 42-46.

[3] He writes, “These passages in Numbers were taken from ancient fragmentary records of an old census (possibly from David’s time or even earlier), misunderstood and reworked by later traditionists, or by the priestly editors themselves. These latter contributors, then, would be responsible for the lower figures (hundreds, tens, and digits) tacked on after the original numerations of ‘families’ “cited from G. L. Archer, (1998, c1994). A Survey of Old Testament Introduction ([3rd. ed.].). Chicago: Moody Press.

[4] G.J. Wenham, Numbers (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 33

3 thoughts on “How Many Israelites Actually Left Egypt (Part 2)

  1. Yona says:

    The Akeidat Yitzhak also suggests that the numbers represent the stars. Also it is interesting that bnei yisrael were meant to be uncountable like the stars.

    Also Milgrim in his commentary on Numbers writes that Binyanim’s count is at 35, 400 which is a decimel multiple of the days in a lunar year.

    See for a discussion of R. Sassoon’s work on the symbolism of these numbers.

    I didn’t understand what you meant by this: “and ‘all the congregation of the people of Israel’ has been computed at 603,551, not very different from 1.46!”

  2. Yona says:

    Furthermore, you really need to flesh out what these numbers would mean in base-60, and if base-60 or base-10 is used in other parts of the Torah. Clearly the numbers are using a decimal system (thousands, hundreds [assuming the traditional interpretation of the text]) – how would that work with a base-60 system?

    Also, how do you interpret Exodus 38:25-26 which adds up the half-shekels?

  3. Hebrew Scholar says:

    I always get suspicious when people go to extravagant lengths to try to “prove” that the Hebrew Scriptures are wrong, when the explanation turns out to be more strange than the Hebrew text. It is not at all difficult to see where those big numbers come from in the Hebrew Bible. Seventy people came down to Goshen, and after four generations, with 14 children each (as opposed to Jacob’s 12), and some intermarrying maybe, that gives 70 x 14 x 14 x 14 x 14 = 2.6 million. The Hebrew says they increased abundantly. The Hebrew Bible here is totally believable.

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