How Many Israelites Left Egypt?
THE question of how many Israelites left Egypt on the night of Nisan 14, 1513 B.C., is raised by Exodus 12:37, 38, where we read: “The sons of Israel proceeded to depart from Rameses for Succoth, to the number of six hundred thousand able-bodied men on foot, besides little ones. And a vast mixed company also went up with them, as well as flocks and herds, a very numerous stock of animals.” From this it would appear that some two to three million all told, men, women and children, Israelites and mixed company, began to leave Egypt that night.
But not so, says A Catholic Bible Commentary. “The 600,000 gebarim on foot are interpreted by some as the fighting men, which implies an absurd total of about three millions. . . . So large a number of persons with their cattle and belongings could scarcely cross the Reed Sea by a ford in a single night. . . . The number given therefore is doubtful and may be due to a textual corruption.”
The Protestant Interpreter’s Bible agrees with this Catholic position: “It is plausible that this impossible number rests on a numerical interpretation of the Hebrew letters in the phrase ‘sons of Israel.’ . . . That the figure has no basis in fact is clear from almost every point of view. Such a large number could not have lived in Egypt or survived in the desert. Nor could they have found room in Canaan.”—Vol. I, page 925.
Of the same opinion is Jewish archaeologist and scholar Nelson Glueck. According to him, “the usual translation in Exodus [12:37] of the number of Israelites who left Egypt as being ‘six hundred thousand’ simply does not make sense if taken literally.”—New York Times Magazine, September 25, 1960.
Agreeing with the foregoing religious authorities are such secular ones as The Encyclopedia Americana, which states, among other things: “The Book of Numbers, where the census of the tribes is recorded, may have exaggerated the number of people involved—the desert could not have supported such masses.”—Vol. 10, page 641.
What about all these objections? Has there been a mistranslation, or a corruption of the text or an exaggeration? Was it impossible for Egypt, for the desert, for the Promised Land to hold so many persons? The answer to all these questions must be an emphatic, No!
The candor of Moses’ writing at once dispenses with the argument of there having been an exaggeration. As for a mistranslation or a corruption of the text at Exodus 12:37: If it crept in there, then it must also have crept in at Exodus 38:26, where the more exact figure of 603,550 is given as the total of males of twenty years and older that were registered for service. Then it must also have crept in the first chapter of the book of Numbers where the numbers of the individual tribes are given, for a like grand total. And further, then, at Numbers 11:21, there was also a corruption or mistranslation of the text, for there Moses, in complaining to Jehovah about his people’s cry for meat, speaks of them as 600,000 men on foot.
That the numbers of the Israelites must have truly been considerable is indicated by their building the cities of Pithom and Raamses; by Pharaoh’s saying, “The people of the sons of Israel are more numerous and mightier than we are”; and by the fact that Pharaoh mustered all his military force to retrieve the Israelites.—Ex. 1:9-12; 14:6-9.
As to their numbers being able to cross the Red Sea in one night, there is nothing in the record to state how wide the passage was and so it is merely a matter of its being wide enough for all the Israelites to cross in one night. As for supporting this great number in the wilderness, do we not read that Jehovah provided manna six days a week to feed the Israelites and on two occasions large flocks of quails?—Ex. 16:4-18; Num. 11:31, 32.
As to whether Egypt would have been able to support and contain this number of Israelites William Jenks states in his Bible Commentary: “Many have supposed this increase incredible; but that the soil of Goshen even at the present day could support this number [has been] proved . . . What serious difficulty then is there, that 3,000,000 should be supported on 8,000 sq. miles?” Today the Republic of Israel has an area of some 8,000 square miles and a population of over two million. In years gone by Israel occupied an area of more than 10,000 square miles, as some of its territory lay east of the Jordan.
Also supporting the Scriptural position is the footnote in the Soncino Bible at Exodus 12:37: “There are no doubt difficulties in conceiving the departure at one time and in one place, of such a large body of men; but the event has its parallels in history. At the close of the 18th century, 400,000 Tartars started in a single night from the confines of Russia towards the Chinese borders.”
Yes, when taking into consideration all the facts the Scripture record stands vindicated.