More and more objections to the Old Testament are surfacing these days, and several of them are routinely used to argue for the need to come up with a new way to interpret the Scriptures. Some times these are well-meaning and driven by a desire for textual accuracy and fidelity. Other times they are driven by a desire to rather radically revision our understanding of the Bible and Christianity. One such objection that I often see has to do with the large number of Israelites said to have come out of Egypt during the Exodus. Both Exodus 14:7 and Numbers. 1:46 claim that there were 603,550 fighting men, which could mean a total population of over 2 million, a number deemed too large to be believable.
In what follows I will give Biblical and historical evidence for the “traditional” understanding, or for the view that we should accept the number as given without claiming that there was textual corruption or a misunderstood figurative sense to the language. Some of the points I make could be expanded at much more length, but I wanted to lay them out in a succinct way so that we can keep the focus on the larger question. I do not think that those who disagree with me are in any way unfaithful people, but I do think that they have failed to pay close attention to the Biblical text as a whole and that they have at times treated this question unimaginatively and within too-narrow a scope.
The literal reading can be supported textually, even in light of the various internal criticisms.
There are a number of internal critiques made about the large numbers. Other information found in the torah and historical books would seem to contradict or pose problems for the 2 million number given earlier. I will list these problems and then give a brief answer to each.
1) The biggest apparent problem is the number of “firstborn sons.” Numbers 3:40-43 appears to give us a number for all firstborn sons over one month old. The number is 22,273, which makes for an impossible ratio of children per family (since this would imply that the 2 million people all come from 22,273 families). This would be an apparent contradiction which would show us that something funny is going on.
Some commentators have tried to solve this dilemma by suggesting that the Israelites practiced some form of mass adoption, but this is an argument without textual basis. Upon closer inspection, however, the problem is actually resolvable without such appeals, and the key is found in the specifics of the redemption price given in Num. 3 and Leviticus 27. Num. 3:47 says that the redemption price for each of these firstborn sons was 5 shekels. Lev. 27:6 (which appears in my Bible’s interlinear notes at Num. 3:47) explains that the 5 shekel price was specific to sons between the ages of 1 month and 5 years. Therefore, the 22,273 figure from Num. 3:43 is not every firstborn son, but rather all firstborns between the ages of 1 month and 5 years. With this added perspective we are no longer limited to the 22,273 number as the total number of family units available, and thus our apparent contradiction ceases to be.
2) There are various references to smaller military units in the book of Joshua (e.g. Josh. 4:12-13). However, these can be explained as subsets of the larger group. If the units are divisions, then there is no real problem with mentioning a big group in one place and then a smaller group in another place.
3) Judges 8 presents a 135,000 man army for a comparative Midianite force. This would appear to be much smaller than Israel’s 600,000+, indicating that Israel’s number was extraordinarily higher than typical armies in the area and thus their population was much higher than surrounding tribes and nations. This would also seem to contradict the various claims throughout the torah and histories which say that Israel was smaller and weaker (at least in worldly terms) than its enemies.
But this problem actually is not a problem all when we think broadly. To begin, consider that every man in Israel had to enlist in the army at this time. Not so with Midian. They could have had many men in their tribe who did not fight. Further, the Midianites are actually only one tribe among many in the land of Canaan. If we assume four children, then we would have 540,000 Midianites without adding any other non-soldiers into the equation. If Midian is just one tribe among several in the area, then we would also have a very large number of Canaanites, something comparable to the traditional large numbers claimed for Israel.
This also answers the question of how Israel could said to be smaller than the other peoples. We should not treat each Canaanite tribe as an isolated or individual unit, but rather consider that they were smaller tribes within the larger “Canaanite” collective. As tribes combined with or conquered each other, then they would create very large nations.
The literal reading of the very large numbers is consistent throughout the torah, the following OT histories, and the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 10
1) Ex. 12:27 and Num. 11:21 both state that there were 600,000 fighting men in Israel. This is not a specific figure, but is rather rounded down to make it general. We are given the specific number in Ex. 38:26 and Num. 1:46, 2:32. This number is 603,550, and it is obtained at the first census of the people. Then Num. 26:51 gives us the second census, taken at the end of the Wilderness wandering, and that number is 601,730. The change from the first census to the second census only makes sense if the numbering is meant to be taken literally. The appearance of both generic (600,000) and specific (603,550 /601,730) numbers also fits with a literal reading. It does not make sense to be both specific and general if the numbers are only meant to be figurative.
2) In Num. 11:21-22 Moses himself draws attention to the logistical problem of such a large group of people. The number has to be huge for his problem to stand. God promises to solve this problem through His own miraculous provision and deliverance.
3) The redemption price for the people in Ex. 30:12 and 38:25 matches the sum total of the literal numbering. When you add all the figures together, you get a match. This shows that the author was consciously promoting a literal sort of “head for head” numbering of the people.
4) Joshua is able to make smaller military groups of 40,000 (Joshua 4:13), 30,000 (Joshua 8:3), and 5,000 (Joshua 8:12). This is after the wilderness generation all died out and another replaced them, and these armies are smaller subsets of the whole. In order to do this, Joshua would need a very large total army.
5) King Balak says that Israel covers the whole earth (Num. 22:3-6). He mentions that they are so large that they will consume all of his land. To his mind, Israel is outrageously large, much more so than a typical traveling band.
6) Finally, the Apostle Paul says that 23,000 men died in a single day during the Exodus (1 Corinthians 10:8). In order for this to be possible, the general number of Israel would need to be very large. While it is theoretically possible that a textual corruption had set in after the original autographs of the Old Testament were written but before the New Testament, such that the Paul was himself dealing with a flawed manuscript, this does not fit comfortably with the doctrine of inspiration. Would God inspire Paul to make a historically inaccurate claim? It is much simpler to accept the traditional literal interpretation of the large numbers along with the Apostle.
Alternative non-literal interpretations are unable to account for all the evidence
1) The most common alternative to a literal reading of the large numbers is the approach taken by Kenneth Kitchen and J. W. Wenham (among others) where the Hebrew word for “thousand” is interpreted to instead mean something like “military unit.” See this essay for an example of this approach. This approach is appealing but it raises some serious problems as well. The biggest problem is that it would require the LXX and the Masoretic texts to have erred in translation, as well as the New Testament’s reception of the Old Testament text. This reading also cannot be used consistently within the torah itself, since the same word “thousand”/”military unit” is used in reference to the priests. There are also places in the torah where Israel is clearly portrayed as very large (Num. 11:21, 22:3-6). So reducing the “thousands” down to military units would also make Israel’s total population too small. Additionally, the Midianite virgins are said to number 32,000 (Num. 31:35), and the same term for “thousand” is used there. How virgins can be classified by military units is not at all clear.
If we take the big numbers literally, then a fairly strong consistency appears throughout both the Old and New Testaments. If we employ the “mistranslation” thesis, then we find inconsistency on several points. Most commentators side with the mistranslation option because it most easily fends off critique (though it does so by retreating to a position of unfalsifiability). However, it is by no means obviously superior within the text of the Scriptures. Instead, it is actually rather complicated and inconsistent.
2) Another interpretive approach is to say that the numbers are being used figuratively, as gematria, astronomical symbols, or perhaps an unknown or forgotten purpose. The problem here is that no one has been able to actually explain the significance of the figures. Gematria is always tricky, and it doesn’t seem to really bring anything substantial to the text to say that the population numbers simply “translate” to something like “All the sons of Israel” or “All the people.” That seems unsatisfying. Also, why renumber the people at the end of the book of Numbers with a slightly different numbering if one is only trying to give a generic reference? The astronomical symbolism has not been demonstrated consistently. It only works with certain tribes and certain calendars, and often proponents are still forced to combine tribes and plead textual corruption at points in order to find a match. This is too complicated and strained.
3) Textual corruption is the last ditch approach. Some commentators argue that a later scribe made a copy error or that some mistake was made in transmission. There is no actual evidence for this argument, and so it becomes one from silence. It also suffers from the fact that the literal reading remains consistent throughout the transmission, as it is hard to beat something with nothing. To top things off, the New Testament appears to have received this “scribal error,” a problem we mentioned earlier.
How do the big numbers compare with other people groups from history?
After doing the textual work, we are left with what was always the main question– Are the big numbers in the Old Testament reconcilable with reality? Is it possible that there was such a huge population in the ancient world, not only in Israel, but also in the surrounding nations? The answer here, based on other historical and literary knowledge, is actually affirmative.
1) Ancient literature regularly referenced huge populations. The Bible is not unique in this respect. Herodotus, for example, estimated the Persian army (not the entire Persian population) as being made up of 2.6 million men. By comparison, the Chinese armies during the “Warring States Period” (400s BC) claimed to number over a million men, and this claim was made for several of the warring armies.
2) Josephus states that 2.7 million Jews came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover during Nero’s reign. This wouldn’t even be all Jews. We know that there were Jewish sects that did not privilege Jerusalem in the 1st cent and would therefore not have attended the Passover. Among those who did attend, not all men would have brought their whole families. Their may also have been many who were simply disinterested in participating, and so the number of attendees cannot be assumed to include even all observant Jews. This means that there could have easily been more than 3 million Jews living in the 1st century. There is no reason to believe that conditions had dramatically improved to support this large number when they were insufficient in earlier times.
3) Reports from ancient Egypt make claims of up to 5 million people living in the Nile Valley alone. This area is not significantly larger than Palestine, and so it is a good point of comparison for “what’s possible.” Skeptics might still reply that Egypt is a very fertile and flat area with better resources, whereas Palestine is hilly and more sparse. To this we can reply that more and more archaeological evidence is coming to show that ancient cities were quite sophisticated and capable of being very large. Further, according to the Bible, ancient Palestine was itself supposedly a land of unique fertility and resources, “flowing with milk and honey.”
For some readers, this may have been a solution to a problem that they have never been seriously bothered by. But for others, I hope, it has been helpful in strengthening their confidence in the reliability of the biblical text and the integrity of traditional views. Most of all, I hope that it shows that we ought not to be took quick to retreat in the face of biblical criticism but subject the text to scrutiny in order to grow in our own understanding. The Bible is a very rich book, and I consistently find that a careful attention to its own details creates a fuller and more interesting picture than those intellectual and rhetorical moves which move our attention away from specifics towards a presumed “safe” ground of basic ideas and generalities.