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Exodus Population

Deu 7:1 When Jehovah your God shall bring you into the land where you go to possess it, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you,

Deu 7:7 Jehovah did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people, for you were the fewest of all people.

Deu 11:23 then Jehovah will drive out all these nations from before you, and you shall possess greater and mightier nations than you.

It is easy to understand that they were fewer than the Hitites, for they occupied considerable territory or even the Amorites, but how about even the Perizzites and the Jebusites, for their territories were very small ! Each less than 1000 square miles. For them to have over 2 million population would require a density of over 2000 people per square mile and the present density of modern Israel is less than 1000 per square mile !!

Those that study ancient populations estimate that the world population was about 40 million at the time of the Exodus and with 3 million Egyptians give or take a million.



They also estimate that the population of ancient Israel was probably about 300,000 at its maximum in the time of David. This is based on estimates of about 10,000 for capital cities like Jerusalem and Samaria, 2000-3000 for regional centers like Dan, Megiddo and Beersheba, and 500-1000 for small country towns or villages.

Many have estimated that the population of the Exodus was between 2 to 3 million, which could be as many as one half of the population of Egypt at the time ! Does this seem realistic considering the preceding information ?? No !! For they seem to be forgetting that the Scriptures repeatedly emphasizes that Israel was smaller than the nations of the territory they were to occupy. As shown Deut. 7:1 lists the seven nations that were greater than they were, and v. 7 says they were the fewest of all the peoples (see also Deut. 9:1, 11:23, and 20:1). This is consistent with the fearful report of the spies in Num. 13. But, these nations were almost certainly not greater in population than two million each. Example, two to three million times 7 for the nations listed as being more numerous and this would be more than 14 to 21 million people or up to half of the estimated world population of 40 million at that time. In an area which even today has only about 15 million population with Israel and Jordan combined!!

Here are the figures from the most popular translations of the applicable Scriptures. The population of Israel is reported in two different censuses during the time of the exodus in Numbers 1 and Numbers 26. In both censuses the men from age twenty and upward were said to be counted by tribe, but the tribe of Levi was not included.

Reuben 46,500 Reuben 43,730 Simeon 59,300 Simeon 22,200 Gad 45,650 Gad 40,500 Judah 74,600 Judah 76,500 Issachar 54,400 Issachar 64,300 Zebulun 57,400 Zebulun 60,500 Ephraim 40,500 Ephraim 32,500 Manasseh 32,200 Manasseh 52,700 Benjamin 35,400 Benjamin 45,600 Dan 62,700 Dan 64,400 Asher 41,500 Asher 53,400 Naphtali 53,400 Naphtali 45,400 ------- -------
            Total:   603,550               Total:    601,730  
     or 598 families with 5550 men    596 families with 5730 men  

Below the totals above is illustrated another way of translating the results of the censuses. The most frequently suggested alternate is that the Hebrew word translated as "thousand" in these population figures actually refers to an indeterminate-size clan, troop or family. The Hebrew word itself is transliterated 'elep (Strong's number 505 or 504) and also carries the meaning of a family complex or clan in some cases, such as family (KJV)(ASV)(RV)(NAB)(LITV) and clan (AAT)(GNB)(CEV) in Judges 6:15. Also translates in Numbers 1:16 as family (BER), clans (AAT) (ESV) and troops (NAB). And also in I Samuel 10:19 translated as families (LITV)(CEV)(GW), clans (JERUS) and in I Samuel 23:23 clans (CEV)(JERUS), families (GW), divisions (MOF), and multitudes (KNOX).

Decoding the Census Numbers:

Numbers 1:2-3 (ESV) gives the instructions:
"Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel,
(a) by clans (tribe),
(b) by fathers' houses (household, families),
(c) according to the number of names, every male, head by head.
From twenty years old and upward,
all in Israel who are able to go to war,
you and Aaron shall list them, company by company."

Numbers 1:18 (ESV) again tells us when and how the census was conducted:
"and on the first day of the second month,
they assembled the whole congregation together,
who registered themselves (they declared their pedigrees according to their families)
(a) by clans (tribe),
(b) by fathers' houses (household, families),
(c) according to the number of names from twenty years old and upward, head by head, "

Therefore, we should expect the census data to contain the following information;
(a) tribe,
(b) family,
(c) number

for every male older than twenty who is able to fight !!

Using Reuben, the first born as the example ;
Num 1:20 (LITV) And the sons of
(a) Reuben, Israel's first-born,
(b) their generations by their families, by their fathers' house,
(c) in the number of names, by their heads, every male from a son of twenty years and upward, everyone able to go out to war:

Num 1:21 those numbered of them for the
(a) tribe of Reuben were
(b) forty six families and
(c) five hundred (men).

So What is the Total Population Implied by the Alternate Translations ?

The results for the first census adds up to 598 families or troops consisting of a total of 5550 men and the results for the second census is nearly the same at 596 families or troops consisting of 5730 men. This could possibly put the total population including women and children at somewhere between 20,000 to 40,000 and also much more in alignment with they being the less numerous of all the nations in the area !!

The population total resulting could seem to be low on the basis of the Scriptural reports of the number of people killed in various events during the time of the journey. For example, Num. 16:49 tells of a plague that killed 14,700, and Num. 25:9 tells of another plague killing 24,000. In the New Testament, 1 Cor. 10:8 tells of 23,000 being killed in one day, presumably in the incident of the golden calf. (The total number who died at this time is not recorded in the Old Testament.) Thus these three events account for more than 50,000 deaths, which seems quite large if the total population was only about 20,000 to 40,000. However, this does not mean that this view is impossible. In the first place, the 23,000 killed in the incident of the golden calf was before the first census was taken. It is possible that the original population was around 40,000 or more, and only around 20,000 to 30,000 were left for the first census. The population could have increased during the first part of the 40 years of wandering, only to be reduced again by the aforementioned plagues. Also note that they were accompanied in the exodus by a mixed multitude of unspecified size (Ex. 12:38). It is possible that the death tolls recorded included a significant portion from among this mixed multitude who were not included in the census.

The other possible explanation is that the individuals counted in the censuses were men who were not part of any clan. Thus, the first census would add up to 598 clans of unspecified size and 5550 additional men. Then the actual number of men would be left unspecified. This may be a legitimate alternative, but it certainly seems like a strange way to conduct a census, especially in light of the Scriptural description of the process as "Lift the heads of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their heads;" (Num. 1:2 LITV). So this method is not considered!

Further Advantages of this View !

The assumption that Israel's population during the exodus was only around 20,000 to 40,000 instead of two million or more greatly simplifies the explanation of a number of difficult Scriptures. Some of them are discussed below:

The account of the conquest of Jericho would be hard to explain from a logistical point of view if the army of Israel numbered 600,000. Jos 6:3 "And you shall go around the city, all the men of war." The city would have been totally surrounded by the 600,000 men, unless it were many miles in circumference. But if it was that big, then how could the men march around it 7 times in one day? This problem is even more significant if we accept the archaeological findings that the walls of Jericho encompassed an area of only about 8 acres, per research cited in The New Unger's Bible Dictionary (Moody, 1966, p. 672). Or less than a one mile walk depending upon how far they stayed away from the walls of the city. This is a much more reasonable fit for around 6000 to 10,000 men than 600,000.

In numerous places, Scripture speaks of the whole congregation of Israel listening to Moses or Aaron (e.g., Ex. 16:10, 35:1, Lev. 19:2, Num. 20:8, cf. Josh. 8:35), or gazing at Moses (Ex. 33:8), or assembling at the doorway of the tent of meeting (Num. 16:19). This is hard to fathom for a population of around two million, but probably plausible for a population of around 20,000 to 40,000.

In the incident of the golden calf, Moses instructed every man of the Levites to execute God's vengeance with the sword (Ex. 32:27). This they faithfully did (Ex. 32:28-29), and they ended up killing a total of 3000 people. If the tribe of Levi consisted of tens of thousands of men of fighting age, this seems like a rather small total assuming "every man" of them really did as he was told. But if the tribe of Levi consisted of only a few hundred men of fighting age to begin with, then it makes reasonable sense.

    Number of Levites at the first Census (Numbers 3:21-39) 
(The numbers below refer to the number of Levite males over 1 month old) 

              Numbers if | Numbers if 'elep = families |   males
Tribe       'elep = 1000 | # of families  | # of males | per family
Gershon         7,500           7             500           71 
Kohath          8,600           8             600           75 
Merari          6,200           6             200           33 
Total          22,300          21            1300           48 
Note; In verse 3:39 the Levites in most translations are listed as 22,000 and 300 seem to be missing. Since the total of families is 21, this 22,000 represents 21 families and 1000 males. In the Talmud and also The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 1985, Victor Books, p. 220, it is pointed out that the 300 were the firstborn Levites and who could not serve to redeem the firstborn males of Israel. This number of 300 firstborn of the tribe of Levi also indicates that there could not be a total of 22,300 since this would mean that only about one in 74 would be firstborn ! But, 300 firstborn for a total of 1300 would be about one in 4.3, a very reasonable number !

In Num. 20:17, Israel requested permission of the Edomites to travel through their land, promising to stay on a certain highway. The same request is made to the Amorites in Num. 21:22. If the population of Israel was around two million, how could they possibly travel through on a single highway, along with all their possessions? Even if they could go 10 abreast with only 10 feet between groups, the line would stretch out for nearly 400 miles! This would be a difficult enough task even for a population of only around 20,000 to 40,000. It seems utterly inconceivable for a population of around two million.


We have presented the best estimates of those that study ancient populations, and shown an alternate interpretation of the populations of the exodus, and illustrated how these much smaller estimates of around 20,000 to 40,000 are more in line with they being "the fewest of all people" and with a number of other verses that give clues for a much smaller population than the estimate of 2 million or more made by many well meaning scholars.

from Strong's Hebrew Dictionary
504 'eleph eh'-lef
 from ''alph' (502); a family; also (from the sense of yoking or taming) an ox or cow:
 --family, kine, oxen.
505 'eleph eh'-lef
 prop, the same as ''eleph' (504); hence (the ox's head being the first letter of 
 the alphabet, and this eventually used as a numeral) a thousand:--thousand.


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