Were there really more than half-a-million men (and more than 2 million Israelites if women and children are included) who left Egypt in the Exodus, as the Bible seems to say? If so, why is there no mention of such a mass exit in the ancient Egyptian records or any archaeological evidence in the desert?
Egypt’s total population in 1442 BCE is estimated to have been no more than 4 million people, so an exodus of half the population seems worthy of mention in the Egyptian records, but there is none. And, why is there no physical trace of such a large multitude of people spending 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai to be found in the archeological record? The logical answer to both questions is that the actual number of people who left in the Exodus was much smaller than has been traditionally assumed.
But, does that mean the Bible is in error? Not at all. Your author believes the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt that is recorded in the Book of Exodus and Book of Numbers to be absolutely true and totally accurate. As is so often the case in Bible interpretation, though, he also believes that biblical scholars through the ages have misinterpreted what that account is saying as it pertains to the number of Israelites involved in the Exodus. Let me explain.
Numbers 1:19 says “As the LORD commanded Moses, so he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai” and Numbers 2:32 says “These are those which were numbered of the children of Israel by the house of their fathers: all those that were numbered of the camps throughout their hosts were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty.” Furthermore, Numbers 1:20-46 says that the number of men from each tribe who were 20 years old or older was as follows:
46,500 men from Reuben.
59,300 men from Simeon
45,650 men from Gad
74,600 men from Judah
54,400 men from Issachar
57,400 men from Zebulun
40,500 men from Ephraim
32,200 men from Manasseh
35,400 men from Benjamin
62,700 men from Dan
41,500 men from Asher
53,400 men from Naphtali
Note that Numbers 2:32 includes all of the Children of Israel (men, women, children), whereas Numbers 1:20-46 is stated only in terms of men over 20 years of age. Obviously, since the sums are identical, the figure 603,550 must be referring in both instances to the number of men over 20 years of age together with those in their household for which they were spiritually responsible, not just the men by themselves.
Now, note that the figure for each tribe as recorded in Numbers, chapter 1, ends in a zero, which is the first hint that the term “number” is not a simple census (head count), but something else, since it is unlikely that each of the twelve tribes would have a total number of people divisible by the number ten. So, the term “number” must have a broader meaning in addition to taking a head count, and it does. It is the redemption value of the Children of Israel, a value that was to be calculated (“numbered”) as revealed in Exodus 30:11-15 as follows …
“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs:) an half shekel shall be the offering of the LORD. Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the LORD. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the LORD, to make an atonement for your souls.“
The first sentence reveals how the process of numbering was applied. Numbering involved taking a head count and assigning a ransom value to each person. A head count was taken, the ransom value was applied, and that resulted in a “number” for the tribes of Israel. Since the redemption value for each individual was half a shekel, and a shekel was defined as 20 gerahs, then every person would have had a redemption value of 10 gerahs. The redemption value (or “number”) of the Children of Israel was 603,550 gerahs, which indicates that there were 60,355 Israelites who came out of Egypt in the Exodus (noting that under the Law the Levites were later exempt from being numbered).
Viewing the Exodus in modern terms, the movement of people leaving Egypt would have resembled the size of a crowd exiting from a moderate-sized college football stadium after a game. However, the important message of the Exodus is not dependent on the number of people who left Egypt. Instead, the Exodus is about God’s redemption of his people from bondage. All who followed his command to leave Egypt were saved, so to speak. To read more about God’s plan for the redemption of the Jewish people today, click here.
Questions from Readers
A reader wrote to ask this question: “Hello! I have read your article on the number of Israelites who left Egypt in the Exodus and found it very interesting. I am wondering, though, how Exodus 12:37 fits into this theory. Thank you!”
My answer: In Exodus 12:37, the Hebrew word בַּד carries the idea of a branch extending from the tree, and that image is to be preferred over the “in addition to” meaning indicated by the word “besides” used by the translators. Thus, the number of men in Exodus 12:37 included the redemption value of all people (men. women, children) in each man’s extended family (his branch, i.e., everyone under his authority as head of household) as a total for the Children of Israel. In view of the specific “number” given in other parts of the Torah (keeping in mind that “number” is redemption value times head count), the “about six-hundred thousand” is a rounded-off estimate of the redemption value of the Children of Israel (men, women, children), which would be appropriate at that point in the Exodus journey before the actual numbering (exact determination of redemption value) took place later to produce a specific number.
A reader wrote to ask this question: “I see that the 603,550 equals the number of bekah’s of silver in Exodus 38:26. This would lead me to believe that the population 20 years old and above as 603,550 (one bekah per head). What are your thoughts on this?”
My answer: In Exodus 38:26, in most English translations, the word “men” is included at the end of that verse. However, in the Masoretic Hebrew text, that word is not present there. In my opinion, a better translation would read as follows:
“A bekah [10 gerahs] for every man, that is, half a shekel [or 10 gerahs according to Exodus 30, where redemption value is defined], after the shekel of the sanctuary, for every one that went to be numbered [meaning the men twenty years old and over that were heads of households and any women and children under their authority], for [a total of] six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty [gerahs].”
The process of numbering was spelled out in Exodus 30, and that is the definitive statement about the act of numbering (stipulating a head count times the redemption value, with each individual redeemed with 10 gerahs), which gave a total number of 603,550 gerahs (60,355 people times 10 gerahs).