The Population of Israel in the Exodus


Personal Note [added in 2014]: This is one of the first essays I wrote for this web site, back in 2001. Looking back, I think it is fair to say the anomaly in the population figures I called attention to here was one of the catalysts that prompted the beginnings of my personal journey toward thinking more critically about my religious beliefs. At that time I was committed to the idea that the Bible was the literal word of God and so had to be absolutely free of error in its “original manuscripts,” as the essay makes clear. I no longer hold to this view of the Bible, so the issue I called attention to in this essay is no longer a problem for me—I simply think the Biblical writers had incorrect information at their disposal which they erroneously assumed to be factual and therefore reported as such.

I may eventually find the time to bring the essay up-to-date with my current beliefs, but until then I am keeping it on my web site as originally written. I think the issue it raises is still something that serious thinkers about Judaism or Christianity ought to be aware of, whether or not they believe in Biblical inerrancy as I did at the time.

(See My Theological Pigeonhole for further details on my current beliefs.)


Introduction

One of the most problematic issues that critics of the Bible raise is that of the population of Israel during the time of the exodus. The figures given in the Old Testament indicate that there were about 600,000 men, not including women and children. This would make the total population somewhere in the neighborhood of two million or more, which is claimed to be absurd. The entire population of Canaan at that time is not thought to be so great. Furthermore, such a high population is also claimed to be logistically untenable. How could so many people cross the Red Sea in one day, for example? And how could they survive in the desert for so long?

It may be tempting to dismiss such arguments as simple unbelief. After all, God is omnipotent and could easily have worked whatever miracles were necessary to accomplish the logistics. If the Bible says there were 600,000 grown men, should we not simply believe it without asking questions?

As pious as this approach sounds, it is not God-honoring to turn a blind eye to possibly valid arguments. Far better to study them with care and see how they can be reconciled with our understanding of Scripture, even if it turns out to be our understanding of Scripture that has to be modified. We who follow the One who is "the truth" should certainly never be afraid of the truth. In that spirit, the remainder of this essay attempts to investigate the population of Israel during the exodus in an open-minded manner.

Analysis of the Censuses

The population of Israel is reported in two different censuses during the time of the exodus. One was taken near the beginning of their journey, and the other was taken near the end of their 40 years of wandering. The correct view of the population hinges on a proper understanding of the numbers reported in these censuses. Therefore, it will be helpful to carefully analyze these numbers from a statistical point of view.

In both censuses the men from age twenty and upward were said to be counted "head by head." They were numbered by tribe, but the tribe of Levi was not included. Numbers 1 reports the results of the first census as follows:

Reuben 46,500
Simeon 59,300
Gad 45,650
Judah 74,600
Issachar 54,400
Zebulun 57,400
Ephraim 40,500
Manasseh 32,200
Benjamin 35,400
Dan 62,700
Asher 41,500
Naphtali 53,400
Total: 603,550

Numbers 26 reports the results of the second census as follows:

Reuben 43,730
Simeon 22,200
Gad 40,500
Judah 76,500
Issachar 64,300
Zebulun 60,500
Ephraim 32,500
Manasseh 52,700
Benjamin 45,600
Dan 64,400
Asher 53,400
Naphtali 45,400
Total: 601,730

Since the two censuses are so similar, we can study them together, giving us 24 different population figures to analyze, not including the totals. The following diagram is a histogram of the ten-thousands digit of the 24 different population figures:

This histogram shows that the 24 digits in question are fairly closely grouped around a central average. This is not at all surprising, since we would expect the 24 population figures to be somewhat similar in number. The ten-thousands digit is the most significant digit, and thus will reflect this tendency.

The thousands digit is a different story, however. Since the 24 population figures range over tens of thousands, we would not expect any special grouping of the thousands digit. Rather, we would expect this digit to be uniformly distributed among all the possible values from 0 through 9. This is shown in the following histogram:

A sample size of 24 is not large enough to clearly show that the probability distribution is uniform, but it at least shows that there is no apparent grouping around a central average, as was the case for the ten-thousands digit. Thus this histogram is as unsurprising as the first.

The surprising histogram is the one for the hundreds digit. We would expect this digit to be uniformly distributed, as was the case for the thousands digit. Instead, the histogram is as follows:

Notice the clear grouping of this digit around a central average. This histogram bears far more resemblance to that of the ten-thousands digit than to that of the thousands digit. This is a totally unexpected result for a variable that would be expected to follow a uniform probability distribution.

To get an idea of just how significant this is, consider that all 24 of population figures had their hundreds digit in the range 2 through 7. This represents just six out of the ten possible values. The chances that all 24 hundreds digits would be in such a limited range is extremely low, approximately 1 in 40,000.

What this result shows in all likelihood is that what appears to be the hundreds digit in each of these population figures must not really be the hundreds digit of a five-digit number. Rather, it appears to be the most-significant digit of some other number that stands apart from the thousands and ten-thousands given in each of the population figures.

Plausible Explanation

We cannot get around the fact that the population figures given in the two censuses are not as straightforward as they appear. This does not prove anything about the population totals in and of itself, but it does serve as a warning that the figures as currently stated may very well be erroneous. The Word of God is error-free as it was originally given, but there are indisputable cases of corruption that occurred in the transmission (i.e., copying) of the text. Thus we should be open to the likelihood that the population figures in question are examples of these kinds of errors.

The presence of transmission errors in the current manuscripts should not be viewed as an alarming or hopeless situation. Rather, it is quite reasonable to assume that these errors are innocent mistakes made by copyists who were conscientious and well-meaning, not malicious and intentionally deceptive. Therefore, we can assume that there is a plausible explanation for their mistakes.

For the censuses in question, the most frequently suggested and probably best explanation is that the Hebrew word for "thousand" in the population figures actually refers to an indeterminate-size clan or troop. The word itself is transliterated 'elep (Strong's number 505) and apparently does indeed carry the meaning of a family complex or clan in some cases (probably the most notable being "family" in Judges 6:15). Furthermore, since the original Hebrew manuscripts consisted of consonants only and no vowels, the same spelling could also indicate the word 'allup, meaning "leader" or "chief." Similarly, the word can also be used of a military unit or troop under a leader or captain.

Further information on the technical features of this explanation can be found in Colin Humphreys' article How Many People Were in the Exodus from Egypt? (Science and Christian Belief, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 17-34). The view is also discussed by Gleason Archer in his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan, 1982, p. 129), although he rejects it in favor of the belief that the population really was as reported in the current manuscripts. Other relevant sources cited by these two writers include G. J. Wenham (Numbers, Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), E. W. Davies (A mathematical conundrum: the problem of the large numbers in Numbers I and XXVI, VT 45, 1996, 449-69), G. Mendenhall (The Census of Numbers 1 and 26, JBL 77, 1958, 52-66), John Bright (History of Israel, Westminster, 1959, 144), R. E. D. Clark (Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 87, 1955, 82ff.)

If the proposed explanation is valid, then the population figures given for each tribe were actually intended to consist of two parts. For example, where the population of Reuben is given as 46 thousand and 500, the intended meaning was 46 clans or troops and 500 individual men (rounded, of course). This would presumably mean that the 46 clans or troops consisted of 500 men, although it could also mean that there were 46 clans or troops consisting of an uncounted number of men, plus 500 other men who were not part of any clan or troop. Either way, the hundreds digit of the population figures turns out to be the most significant digit of the number of individuals counted. This is totally consistent with the actual grouping of that digit.

It is not known how long the intended meaning of the population figures was correctly understood. At some point prior to any known manuscript, the copyists apparently interpreted the word to literally mean "thousand" instead of "clan," and adjusted their text accordingly. This adjustment evidently included manipulation or addition of the totals given in Num. 1:46, 2:32, and 26:51. The sums would not have worked out as they are currently stated in the original versions. For example, the total for the first census was probably originally stated as 598 clans and 5550 individuals, and a well-meaning copyist took this as 598 thousand and 5550, which he simplified to 603,550. The total is also given as "about 600,000 men" in both Ex. 12:37 and Num. 11:21. These figures may have been introduced by a copyist, or they may have been intended to mean "about 600 clans."

It must be emphasized that there is every reason to believe that these mistakes were made by copyists, not by the original human author (i.e., Moses). Certainly Moses would have known that the numbering was done by clans, and would not have added the results as if they were by thousands. Also note that the numbers show no sign of being intentionally fabricated. There would be no plausible explanation for the unexpected distribution of the hundreds digit if the numbers were randomly fabricated.

Population Implied by this View

If the individual census figure were intended to give the total number of men for each tribe along with the counts of the clans or troops for the tribes, then the first census adds up to 598 clans or troops consisting of a total of 5550 men. The second census would add up to 596 clans or troops consisting of 5730 men. This would probably put the total population including women and children at somewhere around 20,000.

The low population total resulting from this view can be argued against on the basis of the Scriptural reports of the number of people killed in various events during the time of the Israelites' journeys. For example, Num. 16:49 tells of a plague that killed 14,700, and Num. 25:9 tells of another plague killing 24,000. These figures could possibly also be copyist errors, but that is doubtful on the basis of the New Testament. 1 Cor. 10:8 tells of 23,000 being killed in one day, presumably in the incident of the golden calf. (The total number who died at this time is not recorded in the Old Testament.) If we assume this New Testament figure is inspired, then the other two figures of people killed by plagues in Numbers seem to be in a very believable range. Thus these three events account for more than 50,000 deaths, which seems unlikely if the total population was only about 20,000.

This does not mean that this view is impossible, however. In the first place, the 23,000 killed in the incident of the golden calf was before the first census was taken. It is possible that the original population was around 40,000 or more, and only around 20,000 were left for the first census. The population could have then swelled again during the first part of the 40 years of wandering, only to be reduced back to around 20,000 by the aforementioned plagues. Also note that the Israelites were accompanied in the exodus by a mixed multitude of unspecified size (Ex. 12:38). It is possible that the death tolls recorded included a significant portion from among this mixed multitude.

The other possible explanation is that the individuals counted in the censuses were men who were not part of any clan. Thus, the first census would add up to 598 clans of unspecified size and 5550 additional men. The actual number of men would be left unspecified. This may be a legitimate alternative, but it certainly seems like a strange way to conduct a census, especially in light of the Scriptural description of the process as "head by head" (Num. 1:2 and following).

There are a few hints from other Scriptures that may help us decide between these two alternatives. The conquest of Ai in Joshua 8 seems to be particularly helpful in this regard. Ai itself had a total population of 12,000, including women and children (v. 25). Joshua set up an ambush to take over the city. He is said to have put 30,000 soldiers at the rear (v. 3), which apparently meant on the west side, between Bethel and Ai (v. 9). He is also said to have put 5000 men in ambush in what appears to be the same place, namely on the west side, between Bethel and Ai (v. 12). Some commentators take this to mean that there were two different ambushes, but that does not seem to fit the narrative (vv. 14-22). Rather, it is probably better to assume that the reference to 30,000 refers to 30 captains over individual troops, and that the total number of men in ambush was actually 5000.

The remainder of the Israelite army lured the men of Ai out to attack them. Ai assumed they could defeat this group of soldiers as they had during the first attack, which had consisted of about 3000 Israelite soldiers, or perhaps less if this figure actually means 3 troops (Josh. 7:4). At any rate, it seems reasonable to assume there were about the same number of soldiers to lure them out in the second attack. If there were significantly less than 3000, then the men of Ai would probably not all leave the city, and if there were significantly more, then the men of Ai would probably not be so confident of victory. Thus the total size of the Israelite army would seem to have been somewhere around 8000 at this time.

If the Israelite army consisted of only about 8000 men, it is hard to see how the second census could have meant that there were 5730 men in addition to the 596 clans. It is far more likely that the 5730 figure was indeed the total. It may be that the 8000 figure is a bit on the high side, or it may be that the ranks could have swollen to around 8000 in the time between this census and the conquest of Ai. Also, the 8000 or so men who fought against Ai may have included some from the tribe of Levi, who were not included in the results of the census. In any case, it seems that the total population of Israel during the exodus was indeed around 20,000 or so, as first suggested.

Further Advantages of this View

The assumption that Israel's population during the exodus was only around 20,000 instead of two million or more greatly simplifies the explanation of a number of difficult Scriptures. Some of the more significant ones are listed below:

Difficulties and Possible Solutions

In spite of all the evidence in favor of this view, there are still admittedly a good number of difficulties with it, in addition to the problem of having to accept that the total population figures are copyist errors, as already discussed. Some of the most significant potential difficulties, along with suggested possible solutions to them, are listed below:

Conclusion

The idea that there were were literally 600,000 Israelite men in the exodus as suggested by the current Old Testament manuscripts is fraught with difficulty and probably ought to be abandoned. The alternative explanation explored in this essay and elsewhere is that the thousands digits of the 24 tribal population figures were originally intended to be taken as "clans" or "troops," with the result that the total population of Israel was probably around 20,000 instead of two million. This view is clearly suggested by the distribution of the hundreds digits of the same population figures, and it appears to be the most plausible explanation when all the facts are considered. It does not argue against the inerrancy of Scripture as it was originally written, but it does illustrate the fact that there are copyist errors in our current manuscripts.


This page copyright © 2001 Edward A. Morris.  Created July 15, 2001.  Last updated July 31, 2001.

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