The Population at the Exodus
In Question Ninety-Five I answer the so-called problem of the population of Israel at the Exodus that has given people so much trouble over the centuries. To keep my answer short for the question itself, I did not present some of the problems that scholars have had to face if one takes the men of the two censuses to be living men who accompanied Moses with the rest of the Israelites out of Egypt. We get into imponderable difficulties if we do so. The answer I give in Question Ninety-Five presents the most reasonable explanation of this matter. But let us look at some of the problems that Question Ninety-Five attempts to answer.
In the first place, when Israel left Egypt they had 603,550 armed men for war if all of those men were living at the time (Numbers 1:46). This number included all able bodied men from the age of twenty (Numbers 1:45) to the age of retirement at year fifty (Numbers 4:3;John 8:57) or sometimes sixty (Leviticus 27:7). But if all the women, children and older people over fifty (or sixty) are included, the number of Israelites who left Egypt must have numbered about two and a half million. This is a vast amount of people going into a desolate desert area east of Egypt. Let us assume for a moment that all the men of the census were indeed living at the time and were not a part of the pedigree records that were mentioned by Moses which also included (the dead and the living). Let us look at the difficulties if we reckon all the men as then living.
Moses took the Israelites along the regular roads of communication. They went by “the way [highway] of the wilderness of the Red Sea” (Exodus 13:18); “the way [highway] of Mount Seir unto Kadesh-barnea” (Deuteronomy 1:2); “and the king’s highway” (Numbers 21:22). These roads in the latter part of their journey connected various settlements with water wells, springs and mountain passes. They were usually constructed by governments for military and commercial purposes. The ancient roads were similar to ones today in their routings but they had no asphalt coverings for high speed transport. They were normally graded roadbeds which wagons or caravans could use. Israel used the well-traveled roads in their journeys from Egypt to Palestine. And herein comes the first difficulty.
When our American west was being settled, wagon trains followed the various trails. A typical wagon train could have had some 250 people in it and was a quarter of a mile or so in length. Thus, if a wagon train were extended to a mile in length, there could theoretically be nearly 1000 people in it (though in practical terms there would no doubt be less). But Israel supposedly numbered two and a half million people if all the people of the censuses were then living. But Moses promised the king of Edom that “we will not pass through the fields, or vineyard. . .we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left” (Numbers 20:17). In other words, Moses said that Israel would stay directly on the narrow road through the country of Edom. If one mile of road could hold about 1000 Israelites with wagons, etc. (which is very reasonable), then the length of the Israelite march would be at least 2,500 miles long. Such a length of people would stretch from Egypt to the border of China. This, of course, is hardly possible. Even if the wagons went ten abreast, the train would still be 250 miles long. If they journeyed a hundred wagon abreast, such a massive wagon train of Israelites would still be 25 miles long. As anyone can see, Israel would never have been able to stay on the roads with such a mass of people. Yet Moses told the king of Edom that Israel would never step off a single road through his territory.
After traveling some six weeks into a desolate wilderness, the Israelites came in contact with the Amalekite army (Exodus 17:8). Israel had in their army no less than 600,000 men (that is, if the men were all living men)—more than all the combined armed forces of Great Britain today. And yet, the armies of Amalek were able to defeat Israel while the hands of Moses remained unlifted (Exodus 17:11). Israel finally prevailed and conquered the Amalekites. But herein lies a problem. For any army to defeat another in normal combat, the winning army usually has a superior force. Were there also some 600,000 Amalekite soldiers out in the middle of the Sinai desert as well? While Israel had miraculous water and food to sustain them alive in such a desolate environment, did the heathen Amalekites also have the miraculous food and water supplies? How could such a vast heathen army provide for itself in such hostile conditions?
Of course, with the explanation that I have given in Question Ninety-Five, this is not a problem of importance.
If all those 600,000 men were living men, then we have other difficulties. Soon after the defeat of the Amalekite army, Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, met him not far from Mt. Sinai (Exodus 18). Jethro was amazed that Moses had yet to establish a chain of command in judging Israel. He hastened him to initiate a rulership of men over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens (Exodus 18:21) so that Moses would not be worn out by trying to settle all the judicial affairs of 2 1/2 million people. But this information represents a major problem. Israel had already been on their journey some six weeks and they numbered about the size of the city of Los Angeles on the move (that is, as I have been pointing out, if the men were all living men). Would it not be impossible to muster such a prodigious quantity of people into some kind of orderly march without various chains of command already established? This is a major difficulty as anyone would admit who looks closely at the matter.
After wondering forty years in the wilderness, Israel invaded the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. Though all the first men of war died in the wilderness, a new generation of Israelite men numbering 601,730 were armed for war (Numbers 26). This means there were still about two and a half million people who crossed the River Jordan and were responsible for capturing the city of Jericho (again, if all the men were living men). But this does not square with the facts. Look at this.
The ruins of Jericho (the city that Joshua conquered) are still to be seen today. There can be no doubt of the identification of the site. When I have taken people to Israel and show the ruins of ancient Jericho, they express amazement at its smallness. It’s an area of about ten acres. Professor Kenyon, who excavated the site from 1952 to 1956, says that the greatest population that Jericho could possibly have had was 3,000 souls. The area of Jericho was a little under two square city blocks. If we allow that Jericho had a population of 3,000 people, then the Israelites would have outnumbered those Canaanite residents over 800 to one if all the men were living. Some have wondered why God had to cause the walls to tumble down when Israel had such an extraordinary advantage.
Let’s put it another way. On New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California there is the annual Rose Bowl football game. About 106,000 people can sit in the stadium bleachers. Suppose the ancient city of Jericho were placed in the center of the Rose Bowl stadium, one would have to have 24 times the New Year’s spectators to equal the amount of Israelites who conquered little Jericho. No miracle would have been necessary to subdue Jericho.
The former Prime Minister of modern Israel, David Ben-Gurion, saw the problem of having so many men as recorded in the censuses. He thought his ancient forefathers of the Exodus did not number 600,000 armed men for the war, but only 600. If that were so, the logistical problems associated with the above examples could be better dealt with. However, with only 600 Israelite soldiers leaving Egypt (or some 2,500 people when the women, children, and older people are included), the Egyptian Pharaoh could hardly have said “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we” (Exodus 1:9). BenGurion’s suggestion would also be counter to Bible information which says Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, told Moses to divide up judicial responsibility among the Israelites into thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens (Exodus 18:21). The thousands that Jethro had reference to certainly represent more than 600.
And there are further problems. Some scholars have shown that since Jethro did not suggest that Moses place rulers over “a hundred thousand,” over “fifty thousand,” or even over “ten thousand,” Jethro may have been aware that Moses’ army of men were less than ten thousand in number. This is because Jethro’s suggestion started out only with thousands (and then downward). However, we are told that 40,000 (not 600,000) did in fact cross the Jordan River (Joshua 4:13).
These are some examples of some of the problems with Israel’s population at the Exodus if one does not read what Moses said carefully. Indeed, Moses was including in each of the censuses the pedigrees of the Israelites (and these genealogical tables listed people with the living Israelites who could have numbered the actual amount of men Moses mentioned). In truth, Moses included the dead (the pedigrees) as well as those living in his census accounts. This means that even though the dead were dead, they still were reckoned by Moses (and by God) as having their inheritance along with the living Israelites to the Land of Canaan. This was simply a way in which all were guaranteed their right of inheritance, and in the resurrection from the dead which will occur under the leadership of the new Joshua (Jesus, that is Christ Jesus), all Israel and all Christians will indeed inherit the promises. Read Question Ninety-Five again for the biblical answer to these so-called problems.
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