The Number Involved in the Exodus. At Exodus 12:37, the round number of 600,000 “able-bodied men on foot” besides “little ones” is given. In the actual census taken about a year after the Exodus, as recorded at Numbers 1:2, 3, 45, 46, they numbered 603,550 males from 20 years old upward besides the Levites (Nu 2:32, 33), of whom there were 22,000 males from a month old upward. (Nu 3:39) The Hebrew term geva·rimʹ (able-bodied men) does not include women. (Compare Jer 30:6.) “Little ones” is from the Hebrew taph and refers to one walking with tripping steps. (Compare Isa 3:16.) Most of these “little ones” would have had to be carried or at least could not have marched the full length of the journey.
“In the fourth generation.” We must remember that Jehovah told Abraham that in the fourth generation his descendants would return to Canaan. (Ge 15:16) In the entire 430 years from the time when the Abrahamic covenant took effect to the Exodus there were more than four generations, even considering the long life spans that they enjoyed during that time, according to the record. But it was only 215 years that the Israelites were actually in Egypt. The ‘four generations’ following their entering Egypt can be calculated in this way, using as an example just one tribe of Israel, the tribe of Levi: (1) Levi, (2) Kohath, (3) Amram, and (4) Moses.—Ex 6:16, 18, 20.
The number coming up out of Egypt, namely, 600,000 able-bodied men besides women and children, would mean that there could have been more than three million persons. This, though disputed by some, is not at all unreasonable. For, while there were only four generations from Levi to Moses, when viewed from the standpoint of the life span of these long-lived men, each of these men could have seen several generations or several sets of children born during his lifetime. Even at the present time a man 60 or 70 years old often has grandchildren and may even have great-grandchildren (thus four generations living contemporaneously).
Extraordinary increase. The account reports: “And the sons of Israel became fruitful and began to swarm; and they kept on multiplying and growing mightier at a very extraordinary rate, so that the land got to be filled with them.” (Ex 1:7) In fact, they became so many that the king of Egypt said: “Look! The people of the sons of Israel are more numerous and mightier than we are.” “But the more they would oppress them, the more they would multiply and the more they kept spreading abroad, so that they felt a sickening dread as a result of the sons of Israel.” (Ex 1:9, 12) Also, when we realize that polygamy, with concubinage, was practiced and that some Israelites married Egyptian women, it becomes evident how the increase to the point of having an adult male population of 600,000 could have occurred.
Seventy souls of Jacob’s immediate household went down into Egypt or were born there shortly thereafter. (Ge 46) If we exclude Jacob himself, his 12 sons, his daughter Dinah, his granddaughter Serah, the three sons of Levi, and possibly others from the number of family heads who began to multiply in Egypt, we might be left with only 50 of the 70. (Levi’s sons are excluded inasmuch as the Levites were not numbered among the later 603,550 figure.) Starting, then, with the very conservative figure of 50 family heads and taking into consideration the Bible’s statement that “the sons of Israel became fruitful and began to swarm; and they kept on multiplying and growing mightier at a very extraordinary rate, so that the land got to be filled with them” (Ex 1:7), we can easily demonstrate how 600,000 men of military age, between 20 and 50 years old, could be living at the time of the Exodus. Consider the following:
In view of the large families then and the desire of the Israelites to have children to fulfill God’s promise, it is not unreasonable in our calculation to count each male family head as bringing forth ten children (about half being boys), on the average, during the period of life between 20 and 40 years of age. For conservativeness, we might view each of the original 50 who became family heads as not beginning to father children until 25 years after their entry into Egypt. And, since death or other circumstances could prevent some male children from ever becoming productive children, or could interrupt their child-producing before their reaching the limit of 40 years we have set, we might also reduce by 20 percent the number of males born who became fathers. Put simply, this means that in a 20-year period only 200 sons, instead of 250, born to the 50 original family heads we have designated would produce families of their own.
Pharaoh’s decree. Still another factor might be considered: Pharaoh’s decree to destroy all the male children at birth. This decree seems to have been rather ineffective and of short duration. Aaron was born some three years before Moses (or in 1597 B.C.E.), and apparently no such decree was then in force. The Bible definitely states that Pharaoh’s decree was not very successful. The Hebrew women Shiphrah and Puah, who likely were the heads of the midwife profession, over the other midwives, did not carry out the king’s order. They apparently did not instruct the midwives under them as ordered. The result was: “The people kept growing more numerous and becoming very mighty.” Pharaoh then commanded all his people to throw every newborn Israelite son into the river Nile. (Ex 1:15-22) But it does not seem that the Egyptian populace hated the Hebrews to this extent. Even Pharaoh’s own daughter rescued Moses. Again, Pharaoh may have soon come to the conclusion that he would lose valuable slaves if his decree continued in effect. We know that, later on, the Pharaoh of the Exodus refused to let the Hebrews go for the very reason that he valued them as slave laborers.
However, to make our figure yet more conservative we may reduce by nearly one third the number of boys surviving during a five-year period to represent the possible effects of Pharaoh’s unsuccessful edict.
A calculation. Even making all these allowances, the population would still increase in an accelerated manner, and that with God’s blessing. The number of children born during each five-year period from and after 1563 B.C.E. (that is, 50 years before the Exodus) up to 1533 (or 20 years before the Exodus) would be as follows:
INCREASE OF MALE POPULATION
from 1563 to 1558
from 1558 to 1553
from 1553 to 1548
from 1548 to 1543
from 1543 to 1538
from 1538 to 1533
* Theoretical male population from the age of 20 to 50 years at time of Exodus (1513 B.C.E.)
It may be noted that even a slight adjustment in the method of computation, for example, increasing by one the number of sons born on the average to each male parent, would send this figure up to over a million.
How significant was the number of people that left Egypt under Moses?
Besides the 600,000 able-bodied men mentioned in the Bible, there were a great number of older men, an even greater number of women and children, and “a vast mixed company” of non-Israelites. (Ex 12:38) So the total population was possibly over three million persons going up out of Egypt. It is not surprising that the Egyptian royalty hated to let such a large slave body go. They thereby lost a valuable economic asset.
That there was a fearful number of fighting men the Bible record attests: “Moab became very frightened at the people, because they were many; and Moab began to feel a sickening dread of the sons of Israel.” (Nu 22:3) The fear on the part of the Moabites was, of course, based partly on the fact that Jehovah had worked such wonders for Israel but was also because of their great number, which could not be said of a mere few thousand people. The population figures of the Israelites actually changed very little during the wilderness journey because so many died in the wilderness as a result of unfaithfulness.—Nu 26:2-4, 51.
In the census shortly after the Exodus the Levites were counted separately, and those from a month old upward numbered 22,000. (Nu 3:39) The question may arise as to why among all the other 12 tribes there were only 22,273 firstborn males from a month old upward. (Nu 3:43) This can easily be understood when the fact is appreciated that family heads were not counted, that because of polygamy a man might have many sons but only one firstborn, and that it was the firstborn son of the man and not of the woman that was counted.
Route of the Exodus. The Israelites must have been in various locations when they started the march out of Egypt, not all initially in one compact body. Some may have merged with the main body of marchers as they went along. Rameses, either the city or a district of that name, was the starting point, the first lap of the journey being to Succoth. (Ex 12:37) Some scholars suggest that, while Moses began the march from Rameses, the Israelites came from all over the land of Goshen and met at Succoth as a rendezvous.—MAP, Vol. 1, p. 536.
The Israelites had left Egypt in haste, urged on by the Egyptians; nevertheless, they were by no means unorganized: “But it was in battle formation that the sons of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt,” that is, possibly like an army in five parts, with vanguard, rear guard, main body, and two wings. Besides the able leadership of Moses, Jehovah made manifest his own leadership, at least as early as the encampment at Etham, by providing a pillar of cloud to lead them in the daytime, which became a pillar of fire to give them light at night.—Ex 13:18-22.
By the shortest route it would have been a land journey of about 400 km (250 mi) from the vicinity N of Memphis on up to, say, Lachish in the Promised Land. But that route would have taken the Israelites along the Mediterranean seacoast and along by the land of the Philistines. In former times their forefathers Abraham and Isaac had had difficulties with the Philistines. God, knowing that they might be disheartened by a Philistine attack, inasmuch as they were unacquainted with warfare and also because they had their families and flocks with them, commanded that Israel turn about and encamp before Pihahiroth between Migdol and the sea in view of Baal-zephon. Here they encamped by the sea.—Ex 14:1, 2.
The exact route followed by the Israelites from Rameses to the Red Sea cannot be traced with certainty today, since the sites mentioned in the account cannot be definitely located. Most reference works prefer to show them as crossing through what is known as the Wadi Tumilat in the Delta region of Egypt. This route, however, is predicated principally on the identification of Rameses with a site in the NE corner of the Delta region. But as Professor of Egyptology John A. Wilson states: “Unfortunately, scholars do not agree upon the precise location of Rameses. The Pharaohs named Ramses, particularly Ramses II, were generous in naming towns after themselves. Further, references to this city have been excavated in Delta towns which can make no serious claim to being the location.”—The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by G. Buttrick, 1962, Vol. 4, p. 9.
Various places have been suggested, have held popularity for a time, and then have been rejected in favor of another possibility. The site of Tanis (modern San el-Hagar) 56 km (35 mi) SW of the Mediterranean coastal city of Port Said is popular, but so also is Qantir, about 20 km (12 mi) farther S. As to the first site, Tanis, it may be noted that one Egyptian text lists Tanis and (Per-)Rameses as separate places, not the same, and that at least part of the material unearthed at Tanis gives evidence of having come from other places. Thus, John A. Wilson further states that “there is no guarantee that inscriptions bearing the name Rameses were originally at home there.” Regarding both Tanis and Qantir, it may be said that the inscriptions relating to Ramses II found in these places would only show an association with that Pharaoh, but do not prove that either site is the Biblical Raamses built by the Israelites as a storage place prior even to Moses’ birth. (Ex 1:11) As is shown in the article RAAMSES, RAMESES, the view that Ramses II is the Pharaoh of the Exodus has little evidence in its favor.
The route through the Wadi Tumilat has also been favored because of the popular modern theory that the crossing of the Red Sea did not actually take place at the Red Sea but at a site to the N thereof. Some scholars even advocated a crossing at or near Lake Serbonis along the Mediterranean shore, so that after exiting from the Wadi Tumilat the Israelites turned N in the direction of the coast. This view directly contradicts the specific statement in the Bible that God himself led the Israelites away from the route that would go to the land of the Philistines. (Ex 13:17, 18) Others also favor a route through the Wadi Tumilat but argue for a “sea” crossing in the Bitter Lakes region N of Suez.
Red Sea, not ‘sea of reeds.’ This latter view is based on the argument that the Hebrew yam-suphʹ (translated “Red Sea”) literally means “sea of rushes, or, reeds, bulrushes,” and that therefore the Israelites crossed, not the arm of the Red Sea known as the Gulf of Suez, but a sea of reeds, a swampy place such as the Bitter Lakes region. In so holding, however, they do not agree with the translators of the ancient Greek Septuagint, who translated yam-suphʹ with the Greek name e·ry·thraʹ thaʹlas·sa, meaning, literally, “Red Sea.” But, far more important, both Luke, who was the writer of Acts (quoting Stephen), and the apostle Paul used this same Greek name when relating the events of the Exodus.—Ac 7:36; Heb 11:29; see RED SEA.
Furthermore, there would have been no great miracle if a mere marsh had been crossed, and the Egyptians could not have been “swallowed up” in the Red Sea as “the surging waters proceeded to cover them” so that they went down “into the depths like a stone.” (Heb 11:29; Ex 15:5) Not only was this stupendous miracle referred to later on by Moses and Joshua but the apostle Paul said that the Israelites got baptized into Moses by means of the cloud and the sea. That indicated that they were completely surrounded by water, the sea being on both sides and the cloud above and behind them. (1Co 10:1, 2) This would indicate, too, that the body of water was much deeper than anything that could be waded in.
The route of the Exodus depends largely on two factors: where the Egyptian capital was at the time, and the identification of the body of water where the crossing occurred. Since the inspired Christian Greek Scriptures use the expression “Red Sea,” there is every reason to believe that it was that body of water that Israel crossed. As for the Egyptian capital, the most likely site is Memphis, the principal seat of government during most of Egypt’s history. (See MEMPHIS.) If this was the case, then the starting point of the Exodus march must have been sufficiently near Memphis for Moses to have been called before Pharaoh after midnight on Passover night and then to have reached Rameses in time to begin the march toward Succoth before the 14th day of Nisan ended. (Ex 12:29-31, 37, 41, 42) The oldest Jewish tradition, recorded by Josephus, is to the effect that the march began a short distance N of Memphis.—Jewish Antiquities, II, 315 (xv, 1).
A route through the Wadi Tumilat would be so far to the N of Memphis as to make the above circumstances impracticable. For this reason, many earlier commentators have suggested one of the well-known “pilgrim” routes through Egypt, such as the el Haj route leading from Cairo across to Suez (ancient Clysma, later Kolsum) at the head of the Gulf of Suez.