Reconciling Biblical Numbers: Three Million at Sinai is making a Mountain out of a Molehill

Jan 3 20:03 2006 Martin Winer Print This Article

Imagine a historian 500 years from now constructs the following proof.  “The culture of 1960’s widely accepted homosexual activities.  Evidence can be found in the theme song of a popular cartoon of the era, ‘The Flintstones’.  This is a cartoon involving the implied homosexual activities between the two male lead characters Barney and Fred with no visible objections of their wives which they mutually took for procreation.  The theme song ends: ‘we’ll have a yabadoo time… we’ll have a gay old time.’[1]  Clearly, this open admission was made in front of millions of watching viewers and there is no archeological record of a single objection to their categorization as being gay.”  Do you accept this method of proof to be valid?

The answer to the quandary is obvious to most in our generation:  the dictionary changed.  Beware of the word ‘obvious’ because it paints with a very broad stroke.  Try asking some children what the word ‘gay’ means.  However,Guest Posting provided a dictionary from the 60’s and a later (revised) dictionary survives to reach the time of future historian, someone will be able to correct his/her faulty logic.  Think though, what if the dictionary did not survive? 

Take for example, this ‘simple’ statement from the Torah:  “And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children.” (Exodus 12:37)[2]  This is an account of how many Israelites left Egypt and then went on to witness the revelation of God at Sinai.  The Torah appears to go out of its way to repeat this figure again in Numbers 1:46 just for emphasis: “even all those that were numbered were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.”[3]  So now we see two places where the Torah states that there were 600 thousand men of military age leaving Egypt.   

If you can now quickly accept the fact that the Torah says that there were 600 thousand military age men that left Egypt, I accuse you of swallowing your theology without chewing first.  600 thousand military aged men generally implies a total population of three million. 

  • For comparison: “In the 1967 war in which Israel defeated the combined forces of its Arab invaders, Israel's population of 2 million provided only 264,000 soldiers.” [4] So a modern day army capable of defeating 3 nations simultaneously is of size 264,000.
  • “Alexander, who controlled Greece, Macedonia, Thrace (Southern Yugoslavia), and a little bit of Western Anatolia, was able to raise between 90,000 and 100,000 troops total, with about half remaining in Macedonia when he invaded the Persian Empire.” [5]
  • Hannibal of Carthage took 20,000 soldiers and besieged Rome for several years causing 50,000 Roman casualties before his defeat in 203 B.C. [6]
  • “It is estimated that the whole population of Egypt at the time of the exodus was between 2 and 5 million. According to the above estimates of the population of Israel, the people of Israel would be the population of Egypt.” [7]
  • “Archaeologists have shown that the land of Canaan was never invaded by 3 million Israelites after the exodus from Egypt. At this time in history, the land only had a population of between 50,000 to 100,000 (at most), and there never was a massive population increase in this time period.” [8]
  • “There are thought to have been 20,000 in the entire Egyptian army at the height of Egypt's empire.” [9]
  • The ability to supply an army with food and provisions was a limiting factor to the size of ancient armies.  “The figure of 80,000 seems to be a sort of natural limit to the size of these ancient armies.” [10]  The credulous may be able to slip out of supply problems for the ancient Israelites by invoking ‘manna from heaven’. However, it’s for certain that God did not provide for their enemies.  Thus, the limiting size of an opponent would appear to be around 80,000.  The Torah claims that the Israelites had 600,000 military aged men.  Thus, they could easily defeat any army they came across without the fear described in the Torah.  Deuteronomy 7:17,18 “If thou shalt say in thy heart: 'These nations are more than I; how can I dispossess them?' Thou shalt not be afraid of them; thou shalt well remember what the LORD thy God did unto Pharaoh, and unto all Egypt.” [11]  There were no larger nations than 600,000 military men, and thus why would the Israelites be afraid of any of them?
  • “The population of ancient Israel was probably about 300,000 at its maximum in the time of David.” [12]
  • The ancient Israelites sojourned at Kadesh-Barnea for approximately 38 years. 3 million would have left some manner of record there. However, “Not even a shard from the Bronze Age has been found (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 63), despite thorough excavation of the site and surveys of the surrounding area.” [13]  Some have argued that it wasn’t the business of the ancient Israelites to leave relics for archaeologists to discover.  Archaeolgists retort that modern archaeology is "quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world" (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 63). [14]
  • These points are a good starting point for problems with the 600 thousand figure. Consult the footnotes for more.

So we see that the number 600 thousand is a historically impossible number.  With this many military age men, there is no need for any miracles in warfare:  Israel would conquer the entire Middle East and likely the rest of the world shortly thereafter. 

How then do we reconcile the Torah’s twice repeated 600 thousand figure with the contradictions with history this causes?  Recall our flawed Flintstone proof.  The problem was with the dictionary we were consulting.  In this case, the problem occurs with the translation of the Hebrew ‘eleph’.  “The issue of Exodus 12:37 is an interpretive one. The Hebrew word ‘eleph’ can be translated ‘thousand,’ but it is also rendered in the Bible as ‘clans’ and ‘military units.’” [15] Consider the following Torah quotes.  Where the Hebrew word ‘ELEPH’ is used, I will CAPITALIZE the translation.

  • “And he said unto him: 'Oh, my lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my FAMILY is the poorest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.'” Judges 6:15  [16]
  • “and he shall be as a CHIEF in Judah, and Ekron as a Jebusite.”  Zechariah 9:7 [17]
  • “And the CHIEFS of Judah shall…”  “In that day will I make the CHIEFS of Judah like a pan of fire among the wood…”  Zecharaiah 12:5,6 [18]
  • “Similarly, in the assault [by Joshua] on Ai (Joshua 7-8) the true proportions of the narrative become clear when we realize that the disastrous loss of 36 men is matched by the setting of an ambush, not of 30,000 [ELEPH] men of valour, but of 30.” [19]
  • Other quotes where you get different meanings depending on which translation you use are:
  • 1 Samuel 10:19, 23:23
  • Micah 5:1

(It should be noted that even fluent Hebrew speakers can be victims of the translations they use:  They can be using a modern interpretation of ‘eleph’ [thousand] erroneously.)   

Further, there is a possible confusion between the word ‘alluph’ (chief) and ‘eleph’ which look identical in Hebrew without vowels. [20]  This is a little tricky to follow without an example.  Take the words ‘ant’ and ‘not’.  If you remove the vowels from both you get ‘nt’ and ‘nt’.  In ancient Hebrew notation (as in other semitic languages) the vowels were omitted.  I cn qckly prv tht th hmn mnd s cpbl f rdng ths. [21] Thus, “'Alluph' is used for the 'chieftains' of Edom (Genesis 36:15-43); probably for a commander of a military 'thousand'; and almost certainly for the professional, fully-armed soldier.” [22]  What should become apparent is that there are other interpretations and meanings for the Hebrew word ‘eleph’.  See footnote [23] for a description of the etymology of ‘eleph’.  So far we’ve seen ‘eleph’ mean ‘family’, ‘clan’, ‘chief’ and ‘armed man’.  

An academic caveat, we must beware of denying biblical numbers outright.  While we are forced to question them in the case of the 600 thousand figure due to archaeological evidence, there is likewise archaeological evidence that certain numbers from the Bible do match with current records.  “For bible numbers:  The size of the Assyrian army approximates the number of troops stated in 2.Kings.” [24]  It is important that we do not apply our logic in an all or nothing manner, denying the veracity of all bible numbers.   

How then do we reconcile the fact that the Torah twice repeats this 600 thousand figure? Recall that in Numbers 1:46 [25] we have a repetition of the 600 thousand figure, with a further refinement to 603,550 suggesting the Torah means thousands here, not anything else.  John Wenham offers the following explanation of the census figures using the tribe of Simeon as an example: 

“Simeon: 57 armed men [chiefs, eleph]; 23 'hundreds' (military units).
This came to be written: 57 'lp; 2'lp 3 'hundreds'.

Not realising that 'lp in one case meant 'armed man' and in the other 'thousand', this was tidied up to read 59,300. When these figures are carefully decoded, a remarkably clear picture of the whole military organization emerges. The total fighting force [of the Exodus Israelites] is some 18,000 which would probably mean a figure of about 72,000 for the whole migration”. [26] 

So what are the consequences of adopting a translation of ‘eleph’ that would lead the Exodus numbers to be in the 10’s of thousands?  First we harmonize the Torah account with the account of archaeology.  In so doing, we have a much more tenable historical account which reconciles with the world of science.  

However, in so doing, we may unseat a famous theological proof known as the Kuzari proof which holds that 3 million witnesses witnessed the Sinai revelation and hence this public revelation could not have been faked.  I imagine that Kuzari adherents will be equally impressed with 10’s of thousands of witnesses as they were with millions, so secular Jews needn’t be interested in this obstacle.  The Kuzari proof was broken long before archaeology was invented and for many other reasons beyond the numbers.  A further discussion of the flaws of the Kuzari proof can be found here: http://www.goarticles.com/cgi-bin/showa.cgi?C=98052 

In summation we must reconcile the Torah history with archaeology.  “Later rabbis such as Maimonides taught that when scientific evidence contradicts a current understanding of the Bible, that means that we are obligated to reinterpret that verse in accord with science. For many traditional rabbis, such a position was not heresy.” [27]  In a more global sense, we are obligated to teach our children theologies which reconcile with observable phenomenon.

“Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to.... But a greater and wider evil arises when the credulous character is maintained and supported, when a habit of believing for unworthy reasons is fostered and made permanent.”

                                                            -- W. K. Clifford [28]



[1] http://www.cfhf.net/lyrics/flintstones.htm

[2] http://mechon-mamre.org/e/et/et0212.htm

[3] http://mechon-mamre.org/e/et/et0401.htm

[4] http://www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/1995/1/1num95.html

[5] ibid

[6] http://www.harcourtschool.com/activity/biographies/hannibal/

[7] http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/17_theexodus.html

[8] http://www.encyclopedian.com/ex/Exodus.html

[9] ibid

[10] http://www.pothos.org/alexander.asp?paraID=78&keyword_id=8&title=Army

[11] http://www.mechon-mamre.org/e/et/et0507.htm

[12] http://philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia/judaism/ancisr.html

[13] http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/otarch2.html#sinai

[14] http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/otarch2.html#sinai

[15] Hebrew University professor Abraham Malamat as quoted in http://www.encyclopedian.com/ex/Exodus.html

[16] http://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0706.htm

[17] http://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt2309.htm

[18] http://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt2312.htm

[19] John Wenham quoted in http://www.specialtyinterests.net/hebrew_numbers.html

[20] http://www.specialtyinterests.net/hebrew_numbers.html

[21] http://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/~mattd/Cmabrigde/

[22] ibid

[23] http://www.specialtyinterests.net/im/hebrew_lexicon.html#aleph

[24] http://www.specialtyinterests.net/hebrew_numbers.html

[25] http://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0401.htm

[26] John Wenham quoted in http://www.specialtyinterests.net/hebrew_numbers.html

[27] http://www.encyclopedian.com/ex/Exodus.html

[28] http://www.religioustolerance.org/kaiser_01.htm

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Martin Winer
Martin Winer

Martin Winer

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