Recently our son came home from school with a story of his religious teacher who had argued that the Bible does not reflect reality, because it specifies an impossible figure for the number of Israelites that were involved in the Exodus from Egypt. The Bible speaks of six hundred thousand men at the Exodus (Ex.12:37; Num.1:46; 11:21). When we also count the women and children, then we arrive at a population of roughly 2 to 3 million people. Now suppose that at the Exodus, per linear kilometer, five thousand persons walked in a row (which is very many), then it would concern a procession of at least six- to eight hundred kilometers! An unlikely undertaking, if only considering crossing the Red Sea in one night. Besides, how could such a population of millions come into existence in but a couple of centuries it had lived in Egypt? Even though the population growth was exceptional (Ex.1:7), then it still is unlikely that a family of seventy people upon arrival in Egypt (Ex.1:1-7), in 215 years would increase (cp Gen.15:13; Gal.3:17) to millions of people. And these people would even be considered to be the smallest of the seven nations that lived in Canaan (Deut.7:1,7)?! Everyone feels that this is an illogical idea.
About the assertion of the respective teacher, during religious lessons at a Christian school, I will not specifically comment, at this time. In this weblog I will focus on the issue, itself, because what are we to understand with respect to the thousands mentioned?
The word for thousand, in Hebrew, is eleph. That word is directly related to the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph. As the first letter, aleph also stands for one or unit. In Hebrew, eleph is the highest cardinal numeral or (and now it comes) it refers to a unit at the highest level. So Gideon complains in the book of Judges:
And he said to him, Ah Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my thousand (eleph) is the poorest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.
Judges 6:15 (Darby Version)
The context makes it clear that Gideon is actually referring to his family-clan. Something similar occurs in the famous prophecy of Micah 5:2.
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands (>eleph) of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me [that is] to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old…
The rendering thousand(s) is concordant and completely correct with the understanding that it is not necessarily a fixed number. Also in many other languages, thousand, idiomatically represents a large number. In English we have millepedes (one thousand feet). For understanding the many thousands, for example, in the book of Numbers, but also in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, this is a very important fact. I admit: sometimes it also is quite complex, because where is eleph to be taken as a 1000 and where as a unit, clan or family? With the available Hebrew text we now (!) have, it is oftentimes not possible to trace or figure out. I leave that here for what it is, but do point out, however, that when we consider six hundred clans (family groups) that left Egypt, the number of people becomes much more logical. In chapter one of Numbers, verse 16, we find an extensive list of thousands:
These are the called of the congregation, princes of the stocks of their fathers; they are heads of thousands (> eleph) of Israel.
In the remainder of Numbers 1, the tribes individually are listed, beginning with Reuben.
… for the stock of Reuben were forty-six thousand five hundred.
Numbers 1:21 (CLV)
Is this about 46,500 men or about forty-six thousands, i.e., forty-six families with a total of five hundred men, rounded off, (from twenty years and older; 1:20)? I believe the latter. When we add up the numbers of the tribes, that gives a total of 598 thousands (clan’s) with a sum of 5500 men of 20 years and older. Now, however, we encounter a problem, because in Hebrew it would be viewed as: 598 eleph with a total of 5 eleph 500. The first eleph indicates the number of families (genera) while the second eleph is a specific number. To the writers (copyists) this distinction was not clear. They have added the second eleph to the first group. And so they wrote as a total ( see 1:46): six hundred three eleph five hundred, that is, five eleph added to the first group and five eleph at the second group omitted.
However that may be, if we start with 598 eleph (families), with a total of 5500 men over twenty years, then the total population at the exodus was, roughly speaking, 20,000 and at most 30,000 people. A major undertaking, but one that fits well within the proportions of the Biblical description.
For a population figure of about 20,000 people, it is reasonable to have two midwives (Ex.1:15), but for a population of two to three million, such would be meaningless. A route via the “king’s road” (Num.20:17) with 20,000 people, sensibly presents a procession of 20 kilometers, but with two or three million people, it means a procession of two or three thousand kilometers – that is the distance between Amsterdam – Athens! Having twenty thousand people circling the city of Jericho is impressive, but with two or three million, it is downright beyond all proportions.
In closing: when we want to know what a word in the Bible means, we should not consult the dictionary, but the concordance. How is the word used in Scripture and how narrow or wide is the meaning? The conclusion here must be: the Hebrew word eleph can, besides 1000, also mean clan or family. This concept is of great importance, because it is arming us against unfounded attacks on Scripture.
Translation: Peter Feddema