9/16/22 – Just How Many Israelites Were There?

Good morning,

On Sunday I said that Moses begins the book of Exodus with a passage that bridges Genesis to Exodus.  It is a quick recap of the story of the family of Jacob and then a note about what has happened since then.   That generation of Israelites grew old and died, and the new generations were blessed mightily by God and had multiplied into a sizable people group.

So how many people are we talking about? Well, there is a lot of scholarly debate about this.  In fact, there is a lot of scholarly debate about many of the aspects and events of the Exodus story!  As I mentioned on Sunday, I want to talk about this debate in this space.

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be any debate.  Exodus 12:37 says this:

And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. (ESV)

600,000 men is also the size of the nation recorded in the book of Numbers (Numbers 1:46 and Numbers 2:32).  That figure doesn’t include women and children, so scholars have to estimate those figures.  The general consensus is that between 2 and 2.5 million people crossed the Red Sea and left Egypt!  That is a HUGE number.  So huge that it has invited criticism.

Why?  Well, we have to remember that the events of the Bible take place within the events of ancient world history.  And some scholars believe that this number is simply way too high to be possible.  They suggest that if the Israelite nation was truly that large, it would have been a superpower in the ancient world.  The population of Egypt at this time is estimated to be around 4 million people.  Large armies in the ancient world typically had around 150,000 to 200,000 men.  How, these scholars ask, could the Egyptians have enslaved such a large people?  And why, they point out, does Scripture repeatedly suggest that Israel was smaller than the city-state nations of Canaan (Numbers 13:28, and Deuteronomy 7:1, 7:7 & 9:1-2)?

These scholars suggest that the Hebrew word that gets translated as “thousand” in our English translations can also be translated as “groups” or “clans.”  So, in their view, the Israelites left Egypt in about 600 groups (or families).  Factoring in the passages in Numbers, they estimate that the Israelites only had about 6,000 men to fight with, and a total population of about 25,000 people.  A nation of that size would have been quite small, easy to enslave, and in need of divine intervention to conquer Canaan.

There are other theories as well, but they all require believing that the Bible isn’t the Word of God.

So…what do we do with this?  Well, I’m certainly not going to solve this debate in this space.  Entire books and dissertations have been written on the subject.  And we must remember that knowing the exact size of the Israelite nation is not critical to the story of the Exodus.  The fact that the Bible has so few verses and so little information about it tells us this.  No matter what the size of the nation is, God performs many miracles to deliver them and fulfill His promise to Abraham in Genesis 15!

BUT, 1 Peter 3:15 commands us to always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks.  So it is important that we can speak about this issue to those who may have questions.  All I can do is give you where I am at on the issue after studying it quite a bit, both in seminary and in preparing for this sermon series.

It must be said that either of these two interpretations can be compatible with our view that Scripture is the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God.  However, they cannot both be true.  I would lean towards the “large Israel” interpretation, and here’s why:

  1.  A people group growing from 70 to over 2 million in 430 years is quite possible.  It requires a growth rate of 2.6%.  That is very high, but the global growth rate in modern times was as high as 2.2% as recently as 1963.  It has fallen since then, mainly because people in general have stopped having large families.  Given that God is specifically blessing the Israelites so that they multiply, the large number is certainly feasible.
  2. The Israelites were growing so large as a nation that Pharaoh was scared of them.  If the nation was only 25,000 people, that doesn’t seem likely.
  3. To arrive at the smaller number requires believing that the number was incorrectly recorded in one passage and that Moses wrote with an unusual use of ancient Hebrew in others.
  4. If the Hebrew word in question truly means “groups” or “clans,” then other uses of it in the Old Testament no longer make much sense.  For example, 3,000 Israelites die in the golden calf story, and another 24,000 die from a plague in Numbers 25.  1 Corinthians 10 mentions another incident during the wandering of the wilderness where 23,000 died.  Those numbers don’t seem possible if only 25,000 people left Egypt to begin with.

To be sure, the “large Israel” interpretation has its weaknesses.  Perhaps our understanding of the size of ancient armies is wrong.  Perhaps, despite their numerical size, the fighting ability of the Israelite men was quite weak.  Perhaps they had no need for weapons before they were enslaved, and it was too late to acquire them afterwards.

As I mentioned, it ultimately does not matter.  The story of Exodus is the story of God fulfilling His promise, delivering His people, and reshaping world history as a part of His plan to redeem the world from sin and reconcile mankind to Himself.

Here’s what’s happening (I can tell fall has arrived, the church calendar is quite full):

  1. The Corn Roast has been rescheduled for THIS SUNDAY. Details: We will gather after the service at the home of Lloyd and Mary Kreider (15 Long Lane, Kirkwood).  We plan to eat at 12:15.  Corn and hot dogs (with all the fixings), drinks and paper supplies are provided. Please bring a large picnic food dish (finger food works nicely) and lawn chairs or blankets.  If you have a favorite outdoor game feel free to bring it as well!  Park in front of the barn or over at Kreider’s Market.
  2. The Junior High Youth Drive-In Movie Night is set for THIS SATURDAY NIGHT, 9/17.  Movie starts at 7:45. The movie is free, and the youth will be selling concessions to raise money for Operation Christmas Child.
  3. Men’s Breakfast at Hometown Kitchen on Saturday, September 24th at 8 am.
  4. The first Senior High Youth Group meeting with our new intern Devon Clemmer will be Sunday evening 9/25 at the church.  More details to come.
  5. Junior High Youth Group has its monthly meeting on 10/2 after church.
  6. On Saturday, October 8th the Junior High Youth are hosting a barn sale at the church.  A local barn needed to be cleaned out and it contained many tools and antiques.  Rather than have these items be destined for a dumpster, the youth will be selling them with the proceeds going to Operation Christmas Child.
  7. We are revamping the Sunday School program starting on Sunday October 2.  I’ll be sharing more information about that next week!  For this week the upstairs adult Sunday School class will be studying Proverbs 18 and looking at what the wisest man in the world had to say about friendships.

 

Our passage for the message this week is Exodus 2:1-10 as we look at the birth of Moses.  The story of the Exodus is filled with miracle after miracle, but what is interesting about this passage is just how ordinary everything is!  We’ll be discussing what that tells us about God and how He works in our lives.

See you on Sunday,

 

Scott

PS – Aren’t you glad I didn’t try to include all of that in Sunday’s sermon?

PPS – It’s Solanco Fair Week!  The social event of the season really snuck up on us this year.  Perhaps I’ll bump into you while at the parade or while strolling the fairgrounds.  If not, enjoy all that healthy fair food!