How many Israelites left Egypt in the exodus? The text of Exodus 12:37 tells us that “about six hundred thousand men on foot” left. Taken at face value, this would mean somewhere between 2 and 3 million Israelites altogether left, counting women and children.
In the sermon today I mentioned that this enormous number has been a problem for a long time, for multiple reasons. There are several archaeological and historical issues with this large a population.
James Hoffmeier, an evangelical archaeologist who has written two excellent volumes that both survey the events of the exodus (Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai), discusses at length some of the evidence that seems to argue against a nation this large (the following is taken from the latter volume, pgs. 153-159. First, the entire population of Egypt during the Ramesside period is estimated to be only about 3.5 million. In Exodus 14:7, Pharaoh dispatches 600 of his chosen chariots (the best he had), along with all the other chariots and their captains to round up the fleeing Israelites. Hoffmeier points out that this number seems small if the intent was to round up 2-3 million people. In the Battle of Kadesh, Ramesses II reported the Hittites to have a chariot force of 2500. If Hittites could round up that amount, then surely Pharaoh could’ve dispatched more. Along with this, the army during the height of the Egyptian empire was 20,000 strong, or no larger than 25,000. Comparisons with other Canaanite and Ancient Near Eastern demonstrate that this is an accurate estimate.
In addition to these archaeological observations, Hoffmeier points to Exodus 23:30 to demonstrate that Israel was considerably smaller than indigenous Canaanite populations. That text reads: Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land (ESV). This is not the only text of Scripture that seems to point to a smaller Israel. Cornelius Houtman points to several passages in Deuteronomy 7 that lead us to similar conclusions (Deut 7:1, 7, 17, 22. 7:7 reads, It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples… See Houtman, V1, pg. 70).
However, several scholars point out that there are a number of passages that incline us in the opposite direction. For instance, Numbers 22:3 reads, And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel (e.g. Cole, Exodus, 112; Cole also points to Deut 1:46 and the difficulty of fitting such a large number of people around the small oasis in Kadesh-barnea).
Are scholars just ignoring the plain meaning of Scripture in light of what they think the archaeological and historical data reveals? Not necessarily. The word for “thousand” in Hebrew is elef, a word that can mean a number of things. Douglas Stuart, author of the NAC commentary on Exodus, has a lengthy discussion about this word and the possible translation of “men on foot” (297-302). Elef is translated in a variety of ways in the OT: “thousand” (Ex 18:21, Num 10:36, 31:4, 31:5, Josh 7:3, 1 Sam 23:23), “cattle” (Dt 7:13, 28:4, 18, 51), “clans” (Josh 22:14, Jdgs 6:15, 1 Sam 10:19, Is 60:22, Mic 5:2), “divisions” (Num 1:16), “families” (Josh 22:21, 30), “oxen” (Is 30:24, Ps 8:7), and “tribes” (Num 10:4). Stuart guesses that elef in Exodus 12 is a clan or military unit (so “600 clans/tribes/units”), each consisting of an average of about 12 men, giving us 7200 fighting men, and bringing the total number of Israelites leaving Egypt to between 28,800-36,000 in his estimation (pg. 302). He translates the “men on foot” as “soldiers/foot soldiers” (297-8).
There are several other possible explanations for the large number. Some scholars see the figure as an intentional hyperbole or exaggeration to make a theological point (i.e. that the Israelites truly fulfilled the Abrahamic promise that they would be made into a great nation). Terence Fretheim, in his commentary on Exodus, argues that the 600,000 number represents the population at the time of David and Solomon, the height of the Israelite monarchy (pgs. 144-145). To support this view, he notes that there are several passages in 1 Kings (as well as Exodus 15:17) that seem to point to the building of the temple as the end of the era that began with the exodus (1 Kgs 6:1, 8:9, 16, 21, 51, 53, 56). There is a certain fluidity of the language used in these passages that identify the Israelites in Solomon’s time with the Israelites in Moses’s time, linking the two generations together. So perhaps 600,000 in Exodus 12 is an (anachronistic) way of the author saying that the ideal Israelite nation was freed from Egypt. This is creative, and there is no doubt a link between Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple and the exodus from Egypt, but in my opinion Fretheim pushes this link too far. To hold his view would also require us to understand an author of Exodus other than Moses.
There are other even more creative views. Umberto Cassuto, a very dead Italian scholar who wrote a very fine Exodus commentary, sees a link between the numbers in the Old Testament and the way the Sumerians used their numbers. In particular, Sumerians operate on a sextagesimal system where their large numbers were understood to be divisible by factors of six. Cassuto believed that the large number in Exodus should be understood in similar fashion, thus reducing the total population overall.
So for many scholars who reject the large number of Israelites, it is not necessarily a liberal, anti-historical response or rejection of biblical authority (Douglas Stuart, for example, is an excellent conservative evangelical scholar). But the issue is one that is informed primarily by the lexical issue of the meaning of elef and secondarily by the archaeological/historical issue of what we think we know about the indigenous contemporary populations in Egypt during the time of the exodus.
The issue I have with views that don’t take 600,000 literally is the issue of Numbers 1 and Exodus 38:26. There, we find out that 600,000 is a rounded number, and the exact number of Israelite men leaving Egypt was 603,550 (which itself is likely slightly rounded as well – all the numbers in Numbers 1 are rounded to the nearest hundred). Numbers 1 gives us a census breakdown tribe by tribe, all the numbers of which total 603,550.
If we translate elef as “tribe” or “military unit,” we face serious problems with this text. Let’s take a look at the numbers in Numbers:
1:21 – Reuben: 46,500 (46 elef and 500)
1:23 – Simeon: 59,300 (59 elef and 300)
1:25 – Gad: 45,650 (45 elef and 650)
1:27 – Judah: 74,600 (74 elef and 600)
1:29 – Issachar: 54,400 (54 elef and 400)
1:31 – Zebulun: 57,400 (57 elef and 400)
1:33 – Ephraim: 40,500 (40 elef and 500)
1:35 – Manasseh: 32,200 (32 elef and 200)
1:37 – Benjamin: 35,400 (35 elef and 400)
1:39 – Dan: 62,700 (62 elef and 700)
1:41 – Asher: 41,500 (41 elef and 500)
1:43 – Naphtali: 53,400 (53 elef and 400)
TOTAL: 603,550 (600 elef and 3 elef and 550)
The issue here, if we take elef to be something other than “thousand,” is that a totaling of the elef in Numbers 1:21-41 brings us to 598 elef. A total of the additional numbers (the hundreds column) gives us 5550. But the total given to us in Number 1:43 is 603 elef (or rather, 600 elef and 3 elef, another way of saying 603).
What I’m saying is, if you total the literal numbers in Number 1, it comes out to exactly what we’d expect and exactly what Numbers 1:43 tells us: 603,550. But if we think of elef as “clan” or “military unit,” then we should expect Numbers 1:43 to total 598 units, with an additional 5550 (whatever that number represents, which is another question that must be answered).
In other words, Numbers 1 intends to be understood literally, that we are looking at numbers in the thousands, totaling 603,550 Israelite men that left Egypt. Numbers was written by the same hand as Exodus (Moses); therefore, it is safe to say that Exodus 12 is to be understood literally as well (with 600,000 being a round number).
How are we to understand this in relation to the archaeological data? I would simply point out two observations: 1) there is an extraordinary amount of guesswork and uncertainty with archaeology. Even just taking the fact that we don’t know for certain where Ramesses and Succoth are, whether we are talking about the Red or Reed Sea, and where the stops are on the way to Mt. Sinai, tells us that there is a good amount that we are not aware of at this time period. We should be careful interpreting clear biblical statements through hazy archaeological conjectures.
And 2): Much of Hoffmeier’s proof against a large population can easily be interpreted from the opposite viewpoint. Pharaoh might’ve only sent 600 choice chariots because he thought the Israelite (unarmed) slaves could be easily corralled. The estimate of 3.5 million total population of Egypt would actually fit perfectly into the Exodus narrative. If the Israelites took up over half of this population, it makes sense why the Pharaoh of the oppression in Exodus 1 would be worried.
So in this case, I find it best to read the Bible literally, and take elef in its traditional sense of “thousand.” We may not have all the archaeological/historical answers, but we have the clear authority of Scripture. I’m sure that one day we’ll understand where the rest of the pieces of the puzzle fit.