(This is the second part of the essay I am writing, “Concerning Moses.” The first part was posted on June 21, 2010.)
High Numbers In the Old Testament
One reason why many people do not believe the Exodus account is because in many parts of the Old Testament, the numbers given are absurdly high. A good example is 1 Samuel 6:19, which says that God struck 50,070 people dead, because they looked into the Ark of the Covenant. Would you believe a modern news story with numbers like that, say, a report of a train wreck that killed 50,070 people? That doesn’t happen even in Third World countries with lax safety standards. But throughout history, Jewish scribes have copied their scriptures with painstaking care, not allowing a single Hebrew letter to be changed if they can help it. Because numbers are spelled out in Hebrew, and not written with numerical symbols, it makes more sense to believe that the numbers got confused at some point, than to assume that somebody made them up.
That seems to have happened in the case of 1 Samuel 6:19. All Israelite “cities” at this point were really only small towns; the largest communities in the Holy Land (e.g., Gaza, Megiddo) belonged to the Canaanites or the Philistines. Therefore the town where this incident took place, Beth-Shemesh, probably did not have anywhere near 50,070 people. However, there are some Hebrew texts that say only 70 people were killed, leaving out the fifty thousand; Josephus also puts the casualty count at 70. Apparently a textual error is to blame for 70 becoming 50,070.
In cases where two scriptures describe the same event, like the parallel books of Kings and Chronicles, it becomes apparent that the copyists had trouble keeping track of numbers, though they usually got all the words right. For example, 2 Samuel 10:18 says “700 chariots,” while 1 Chronicles 19:18 says “7,000″; somebody got careless with zeroes there. Or a digit can be left out: 2 Kings 24:8 says that Jehoiachin became king at the age of 18, but 2 Chronicles 36:9 gives his age as 8.
When the text is counting men, it can go haywire, due to two words that look the same when written in Hebrew. The first word, eleph, means “thousand,” but it can also mean “family,” “clan,” or “military unit.” The other word, alluph, can mean “chieftain,” “commander”–or a professional soldier. When you write the words without vowels, as is normally the case with Hebrew, both look like lp.
The distinction of professional soldiers is important because it appears that sometimes, when counting soldiers, the scribes kept track of how many were full-time and how many were recruited just for that campaign. To an ancient general, scribe or accountant, that mattered; most ancient societies could not afford to keep a permanent standing army. Their armies were what we would call militias; every able-bodied man was expected to take up arms when his ruler called on him to do so, but when the crisis passed, he would return to whatever job he had in peacetime. The only men armed all the time were the police and guards, so the typical kingdom would be virtually defenseless if an enemy surprised it before it had time to mobilize. In a nutshell, full-time soldiers were better fighters, but they were also very expensive, and could be dangerous if they turned against their ruler, so most rulers tried to cut corners by relying on part-time soldiers as much as possible.
The Spartans were some of the most famous professional soldiers who ever lived. Sparta could afford them because it had a class of serfs, called Helots, doing most of the work. The Greeks knew that professional soldiers made a difference, and claimed that one Spartan warrior was the equal of twelve warriors from anywhere else. We see the distinction in a dialogue from the movie “The 300,” where King Leonidas, while marching to battle, meets an ally named Daxos, and Daxos has a larger group of men:
Daxos: I see I was wrong to expect Sparta’s commitment to at least match our own.
Leonidas: Doesn’t it? [points to one of the soldiers of Daxos] You there, what is your profession?
First Soldier: I am a potter… sir.
Leonidas: [points to another soldier] And you, Arcadian, what is your profession?
Second Soldier: Sculptor, sir.
Leonidas: Sculptor. [turns to a third soldier] You?
Third Soldier: Blacksmith.
Leonidas: [turns back and shouts] SPARTANS! What is your profession?
Spartans: HA-OOH! HA-OOH! HA-OOH! [the cheers of professional soldiers]
Leonidas: [turning to Daxos] You see, old friend? I brought more soldiers than you did.
So how does all this apply to the story of Moses? Well, the Book of Numbers, true to its name, is full of numbers, and a lot of them are larger than you’d expect. Take the two censuses listed in the book. The first census, conducted early in the journey, gave a result of 603,550 men fit for military service, while the second, done thirty-eight years later, reported 601,730. Add to that women, children and the elderly, and the estimated size of the Israelite nation is 2 to 3 million. This is a stupendous population, equal to what Egypt had at the time, and the Nile Valley was a much more pleasant place to live than the desert. Put that many people in Israel, and the population would be equal to modern Israel’s population in the 1960s. How would you feed that many people, with the primitive farming techniques available back then? And remember that only seventy souls were listed in Jacob’s clan when he moved into Egypt. Whether you believe the Israelites were in Egypt for 215 years (the short chronology) or 430 years (the long chronology), they would have to grow from 70 to 600,000+ in a few generations. That would require that everyone be incredibly prolific; each couple would need to have at least as many kids as Jacob did.
On the other hand, a scribal error may have confused the words eleph and alluph, as mentioned above, producing census totals that are at least an order of magnitude off. For example, if the tribe of Simeon was originally counted as having “2300 men, of which 57 are professional soldiers,” the census taker would have been thinking “2.3 eleph and 57 alluph,” but he would have written it down as “2.3 lp and 57 lp.” Later on somebody else would have tried to clean up the figures by adding all the lps, turning the result into 59.3 lp, and causing scholars later on to think that lp simply meant “one thousand,” so that the count for Simeon became 59,300 men. As for the Levites, who weren’t organized for military service, somebody may have thought their numbers were too small in comparison with the other tribes, so they assumed a census taker wrote down the wrong number for them, and added some zeroes to “correct” the problem.
Break down all the census figures this way in the original Hebrew text, and it looks like there were really 18,000 men on the march, a much more manageable figure than 600,000+. Then if the families of the ex-slaves were about the same size as our families, we get a total of approximately 72,000 people for the whole Israelite nation.
Finally, if you thought 2-3 million people would have a big impact on Egypt or Israel, imagine how it would strain the resources of the wilderness in-between. Yes I know, the Bible tells us that God provided water for them, and food in the form of manna and quails, but still there’s the issue that no ancient Israelite campsites or graves have been found. There are some skeptics who don’t believe the Exodus account for that reason. To that argument I would make the following responses:
1. We don’t know where most of the campsites were (see the next section).
2. They would have needed to camp in one spot for more than a few days, to leave anything that would get an archaeologist’s attention. Compare the Exodus with the Woodstock concert; where an estimated 450,000 converged on a farm in upstate New York for three days. Though everybody who was a young adult in 1969 now claims to have been there, if you go to the site of Woodstock today, you won’t find as much evidence of the event as you might think. The concert stage has been preserved, and you will see a museum and a monument that is jokingly called the “Tomb of the Unknown Hippie,” but those only exist because people want to remember the event.
3. Although everyone of the Exodus generation died in the wilderness, except for Joshua and Caleb, any graves the Israelites dug for them would have been simple affairs–if the dead were buried at all. They certainly wouldn’t have spent seventy days preparing a lavish burial and funeral, the way the Egyptians did. Even the graves of the three most important figures–Moses, Aaron and Miriam–have never been found.
4. The size of the campsites would have been a lot smaller, and there would have been far fewer graves, if the smaller numbers talked about in this section are correct.