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Home Forums Evidence for Biblical miracles The population of the Israelites during Exodus Reply To: The population of the Israelites during Exodus

  • Thomas Donlon

    January 25, 2021 at 5:00 pm

    Deborah, you’ve been studying such matters for a long time. And regarding these matters, I can relate to what one of Job’s friends said. “we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow.” (Job 8:9 NIV) (That was my self-reflection, not an observation directed toward you. And “I know nothing!” was a line made famous on an American TV show long ago, another self-reflection regarding my knowledge.)

    I also had already given some thought to same question that I. F. raised about the number of Israelites that had attacked Jericho. The text describes people walking before the ark of the covenant and after it. The number marching around Jericho wasn’t 600,000. For one thing as I pointed out earlier the half tribe of Manassah, the tribe of Reuben, and the tribe of Gad. Stayed behind on the other side of the Jordon. Their total people listed in the census who could handle a sword was over a hundred thousand. Scripture indicated “about 40,000 crossed over” the Jordon ahead of the other Israelites.

    God instructed Joshua “March around the city once with all the armed men…” (Jos. 6:3 NIV)

    Now, Deborah please understand I’m not saying you are wrong, but what I’m trying to do is eliminate the more mundane possibilities before taking the more drastic approach of accepting vast errors in the scripture, or more precisely in the transmission of scriptures.

    In a battle perhaps just a year or so earlier God had instructed the Israelites to take a thousand men from each tribe and attack the Midianites. That army was 12,000 men according the translations we have.

    (Now I might be wrong, in which case all my thinking may seem maddeningly annoying to you, that I’m not grasping something obvious…) But let me continue to “split hairs.”

    The census conducted that counted all the men who “could handle a sword” has certain assumptions to it. Did they all have a sword? And if they could handle a sword how well? The thing about the 12,000 men was they were likely the best. Now those that marched around Jericho were “all the armed men.”

    At one time (later) the Philistines had the Israelites nearly totally disarmed.

     19 Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, "Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears!"
    20 So all Israel went down to the Philistines to have their plow points, mattocks, axes and sickles sharpened.
    21 The price was two-thirds of a shekel for sharpening plow points and mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening forks and axes and for repointing goads.
    22 So on the day of the battle not a soldier with Saul and Jonathan had a sword or spear in his hand; only Saul and his son Jonathan had them. (1 Sam. 13:19-22 NIV)

    But in this case it appears plausible that from the 2.5 tribes 40,000 were armed and ready for Battle but, still this is less than half the amount indicated in the census. Joshua when preparing to cross the Jordon gave three days notice to the camp. And the scripture indicates they left Shittim and camped by the Jordon. If we have the location of Shittim correct and the massive amount of Israelites in our English translations is correct, we are dealing with just a slight shift in the camping location, because as noted, they were largely taking up the entire area already if we’ve properly understood all the assumptions.

    So much of what we are discussing relies on assumptions. You mentioned scriptures require people leave the camp often. One area of scripture gives a layout for how the camp was to be assembled. Yet the three camps on each of the four cardinal directions from the ark or tabernacle were each also considered a camp. But each tribe had a “camp” as well. So could people leave one of the smaller camps (and have less distance to walk?) So which “camp” definition was the true one? Or for even less distance were there camps within the tribal camps? And spaces between the tribal areas?

    I realize this discussion might seem maddingly irritating. “I know nothing.” It is easy to have questions it is harder to have answers and even harder to have “proof.” In the Patterns of Evidence: Moses film, Tim Mahoney said “‘Proven’ is a hard task. I’m just wondering if there is reasonable evidence to believe it.”

    Newer ideas are frequently challenged. Unless the evidence is overwhelming there is usually pushback. In this case so many possibilities have to be considered. There is a lot we don’t know. There are things we don’t know that we don’t know.

    The Bible says really positive things about its word. The Bible seems silent on some matters. What about the mixed multitude that left Egypt with the Israelites? Did they eventually leave the group? Were they discriminated against? Maybe they thought, “What!!?? Moses said we are all going to die in the wilderness!!!? I didn’t sign up for this. I’m not an Israelite. I’ll instead…” If David Rohl’s chronology is precisely correct did the Hyskos start taking over Egypt after the collapse of the army? Maybe the non-Israelities that left in the Exodus then left to join the Hyskos—if this chronological view is correct. Wasn’t that what the earlier Pharaoh’s feared anyways? The mixed multitude either disappeared or got assimilated into the tribes. Did others beside the Gadites, Reubenites and half tribe of Manasseh stay on the other side of the Jordon too? The older folks and maybe some families? Were special smaller deals cut with Moses that weren’t significant enough to put in the Bible? Maybe others who also had large flocks sent their flocks to the region of the 2.5 tribes for safe keeping till they would have received their inheritance. Or I could be wrong and there were no “older folks.” According to the census no male over 60 (who therefore would have been over 40 in the 1st census) was alive in the second census. (Joshua and Caleb were listed exceptions.) Or maybe they were old but couldn’t fight (or handle a sword) and therefore their names weren’t written down in the second census. And maybe they too stayed across the Jordan, but just dying later. A lot of my ideas here have to be wrong.

    Regarding Israelites being “armed”:

    • Some may have had weapons while slaves in Egypt
    • Some may have “asked for” weapons from the Egyptians during the plundering phase.
    • Some weapons could have been gained from armies they defeated.
    • Some could have been bought or traded for.
    • The Israelites could have had a few metalworkers who made some.

    <div>The number of armed Israelites is hard to know.

    I can see certain scriptures that match a small population better. I can see some that make more sense to me with a large population. I don’t have an innate sense of the time. I don’t have an innate sense of the miracles that were being performed. I don’t have an innate sense of the organizational capacity of the people at that time.


    There are cities in Egypt that haven’t been excavated in the delta region, and I’m assuming they are a source for the large Exodus population that tend to believe. But they haven’t been excavated and so I’m perhaps I’m seeing a reserve of Hebrews in Egypt that weren’t there.

    Then on the other hand, we could put forth a case that a really massive crowd of people shouting at Jericho would really cause significant air vibrations and could be a quasi-natural explanation for the mudbrick walls of Jericho to start vibrating like when you hold up a book in front of you while singing, you can feel the vibrations.

    39 Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the sacred tent and anointed Solomon. Then they sounded the trumpet and all the people shouted, "Long live King Solomon!"
    40 And all the people went up after him, playing pipes and rejoicing greatly, so that the ground shook with the sound.
    (1 Ki. 1:39-40 NIV)
    5 When the ark of the LORD's covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. (1 Sam. 4:5 NIV)

    The scenarios you put forth sound plausible Deborah. I don’t know much more time I can spend trying to figure out the mystery of the population of the Exodus or reconciling the size of camps and descriptions of battles. It would take me a long time just to understand and confirm the points you are making about early manuscripts having abbreviations and decimals that might get added or lost. And then reconstructing the scenario by which losing decimal places would result in some scribal over-compensation … it gets bewildering. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to witness or take part in a conclusive conclusion to this whole matter.