(Ex. 12:37) Were there really two million Jews in the Exodus?

CLAIM: The Bible states that there were roughly 600,000 men in Israel’s assembly (Ex. 12:37; Num. 1:45-46; 11:21; 26:51). If this number only included the men, then it would place the entire assembly of Israel (men, women, and children) at around two million people.

RESPONSE: There are multiple views regarding the large numbers of Israel:

View #1: God supernaturally sustained this many people.

Advocates of this view claim that God supernaturally sustained two million people –just as the text claims. However, critics raise a number of objections:

First, an army of this size could never survive on the natural resources in the Sinai desert. However, the Bible makes it clear that they did not survive on natural resources –but supernatural resources. God provided for the Jews with water from the rock (Ex. 17:6; Num. 20:11) and manna from the sky (Ex. 16:35). Any additional resources could have been purchased with the money that was taken from Egypt (Ex. 12:35-36). Moreover, it would be just as impossible to provide for a population of 30,000, than it would a population of two million. Either figure would be incredibly difficult.

Second, the two midwives could never provide for a population of two million Jews (Ex. 1:15). Shiphrah and Puah were the only two midwives, who helped with the Hebrew births, and they would have been unable to provide for so many pregnancies. However, it is likely that these two Egyptian midwives superintended this entire process, rather than performed all of these births themselves. Moreover, again, it would be just as unfeasible for the midwives to provide healthcare for 30,000 people, as it would two million people.

Third, Numbers 3:42-43 places the number of firstborn males at 22,273. Some critics argue that this is a contradiction to the rest of the population figures in Numbers and Exodus. However, this surely refers to the number of males born after the Exodus –not before. 22,000 male births is a likely figure –given a 600,000 person army.

Fourth, how could Moses have spoken to the entire assembly of Israel, if there were two million people. On a number of occasions, Moses spoke to the entire Hebrew assembly. If there were two million people in Israel, this would be impossible without sound amplification. However, if the population was only 30,000 large, this would be possible.[1]

Fifth, the Jews were called the smallest of the nations (Deut. 7:7) –not the largest. The other nations were considered stronger than Israel (Deut. 4:38; 7:1). To put the number of two million Hebrews in perspective, Herodotus claims that Xerxes’ massive army was composed of 1.7 million soldiers (Historia 7), and Arrian estimated that Darius III had an army of about one million.[2] These were some of the biggest armies in all of ancient times. If the Hebrews had a population of two million, they would have been almost as big as Egypt. In this case, instead of escaping Egypt, the Jews would have turned around and conquered them. Would the ten spies have feared the people of Canaan, if they had two million people behind them (Num. 13:28)? Because of these difficulties, other views have been purported.

View #2: This is a case of scribal error

This view holds that a later scribe made an error in recording the original number, which was far smaller. By this, we do not mean that the original author (Moses) exaggerated the figures.[3] Instead, we are saying it’s possible for a later scribe to have confused the numbers, when copying the text. While there is no evidence of this in our documents,[4] this view is possible. Kaiser writes,

It may be said that if a cipher notation was used with something like vertical strokes for units, horizontal strokes for tens, and stylized mems (the initial letter in the Hebrew word me’ah—“hundred”) for hundreds, then the scribe miscopied a single stroke. Most of the differences, on this supposition, would involve a single stroke.[5]

The Hebrews used words for these figures –not numbers. So, it is anachronistic to say that they added or left off zeroes in their figures. However, as Kaiser points out, these numbers may have been constructed by using strokes in addition to the words. H. L. Allrick points out that ancient Aramaic documents used strokes –combined with words –to count their numbers. For instance, three thousand might be written as “III thousand.” Allrick writes, “As for the Hebrews themselves, there is no doubt they too employed the same principles of numerical notation.”[6]

Because of this, the Hebrew numbers were not always accurately transmitted. John Wenham notes a few instances where numbers in the OT have been poorly transmitted.[7]

First, extra zeroes are added. Compare 700 chariots with 7,000 chariots (2 Sam. 10:18; 1 Chron. 19:18), and 40,000 stalls with 4,000 stalls (1 Kings 4:26; 2 Chron. 9:25).

Second, extra zeroes are removed. Jehoiachin was either 8 or 18 years old (2 Kings 24:8; 2 Chron. 36:9).

Third, a number can drop out. 1 Samuel 13:1 states, “Saul was year old when he began to reign.” Most translations add “thirty years old,” because the LXX renders it this way. However, the original Hebrew text doesn’t have this in the text.

Fourth, the variant numbers sometimes have no correlation. For instance, 2 Samuel 23:8 states that Josheb-basshebeth slew 800 men, but 1 Chronicles 11:11 states that he slew 300 men.

Fifth, the number is constant, but the noun is different. For instance, 2 Samuel 10:18 states that there were 40,000 horsemen, but 1 Chronicles 19:18 states that there were 40,000 footmen.

Sixth, the number is confused, because the letters were similar. 1 Samuel 6:19 states, “He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men…” Josephus edits 50,000 out of this number, leaving only 70 slaughtered. Wenham comments, “It has been suggested that the error arose at a time when Hebrew letters were being used for numerals and that áayin (i = 70) was mistaken for nu‚n (n = 50,000).”[8]

Seventh, the digit can be raised or lowered by one. In other words, the digit 2 will usually become 1 or 3. For instance, 1 Kings 7:26 explains that there were 2,000 baths and 2 Chronicles 4:5 states that there were 3,000.

Because of these difficulties in transmission, advocates of this view argue that these large figures in the Exodus are the result of scribal errors.

View #3: The Hebrew word for “thousand” actually means “clan.”

According to this view, we are misreading the text, when it speaks of thousands of people. Instead of thousands of people, the author is really speaking of “clans” or “tribes.” The Hebrew word elep is sometimes translated as “thousand” (Ex. 18:21; Num 10:36; 31:4-5; Josh. 7:3; 1 Sam. 23:23). However, this word has a broad semantic range. For instance, the NIV translates elep as “clans” in Joshua 22:14, 1 Samuel 10:19, Isaiah 60:22, Micah 5:2, and Judges 6:15. Translators also render this word as “family” (Josh. 22:21; 22:30), “divisions” (Num. 1:16), and “tribe” (Num. 10:4). If Moses was describing “clans,” then this would drop the number to about 30,000 people.[9]

However, others argue that whenever ‘alapim is used (a related word), it is followed by the next numeral me’ot or “hundreds.” It would be odd if the author was describing 46 clans plus 500 men. It would be more natural to read 46 thousand and 5 hundred men (as is the case in Num. 1:21). Moreover, the ransom money for each of these men was a half shekel. When you add all of their ransom money together in Exodus 38:25, we find that it totals 603,550 half-shekels (3,000 shekels = 1 talent). This would square with Exodus 12:37, which states that there were roughly 600,000 men on foot.

[1] Moses words could have been relayed, as speakers have done in more modern times before sound amplification. Stuart points out, “George Whitefield, the famous eighteenth century preacher in America, drew crowds of many thousands to hear his open-air preaching. Crowds in the tens of thousands heard presidential inaugurals and other public speeches long before the advent of electronic sound amplification.” Stuart, Douglas K. The New American Bible Commentary: Exodus. Vol. 2. Nashville, TN: B & H Group, 2006. 303.

[2] Archer, Gleason L., and Kenneth S. Kantzer. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982. See comments on Numbers 1 “How Trustworthy are Statistical Numbers given in the Book of Numbers?”

[3] This is the view of Ronald Allen in his commentary on Numbers. He holds that Moses exaggerated the figures, so that God could be worshipped more. I find this view to be quite untenable. Allen, R. B. Numbers. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 688-691.

[4] Allen writes, “If this is an error in calculation by a later scribe who was unaware of Moses’ sophisticated employment of the word ʾelep̱ in the census in the desert, we have no record of this.” Allen, R. B. Numbers. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 684.

[5] Kaiser, Walter C. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988. See “5. Aren’t Many Old Testament Numbers Wrong?”

[6] Allrick, H.L. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 136 (1954) 24. Cited in Wenham, John. “Large Numbers in the Old Testmament.” Tyndale Bulletin (18) 1967. 6.

[7] See Wenham, John. “Large Numbers in the Old Testmament.” Tyndale Bulletin (18) 1967. 4.

[8] Wenham, John. “Large Numbers in the Old Testmament.” Tyndale Bulletin (18) 1967. 5.

[9] Wenham gives a number of 72,000 for the Hebrew population. Wenham, John. “Large Numbers in the Old Testmament.” Tyndale Bulletin (18) 1967. 14.