Exodus. The wilderness. Israelite encampments. I’m sure you can picture it vividly (and if you can’t, consider watching upcoming film Exodus: Gods and Kings). But could the Israelites’ years in the wilderness really have taken place as the Bible describes? Exodus 12:37-38 suggests that two million or more made the journey, but could so many people really have lived there for 40 years?
Even if God’s provision of manna solved all their food problems, there’s still the question of water, grazing for their animals, wood for fires and the huge area of land they covered. Think about the logistics of housing a third of London’s population in tents! And it wasn’t only the Israelites who lived there. They met and fought with other nations.
The Amalekites attacked the Israelites straight after their hurried journey down to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula (Exodus 17:8), meaning they also inhabited the wildness. This must have been a separate group from the Amalekites who lived in Canaan because they wouldn’t have had time to get down to Sinai and wouldn’t have had any reason to defend a land so far away. The Midianites also lived there, including Moses’ father-in-law (Exodus 3:1). How did so many people inhabit this ‘wilderness’?
When we see huge numbers quoted in the Bible, it is tempting to simply dismiss them as unrealistic. We read of enormous weights, such as the 1,700 shekels of gold from the 300 gold earrings donated in Judges 8:26, for example. This meant the unfortunate women who wore them had 65g of gold (the weight of three ice cubes) hanging from each ear!
Huge distances are also described, such as the 2,000 cubits between the Israelites and the Ark of the Covenant, which led their way (Joshua 3:3-4). This is about half a mile, so they would frequently have lost sight of it.
Even the 40,000 chariot horses Solomon had seems a ridiculous number as he only had 1,400 chariots (1 Kings 4:26; 10:26, ESV). The 40,000 figure was definitely a mistake, as 2 Chronicles 9:25 preserves the correct number: 4,000 horses.
The Exodus population is also too big. There were seven larger nations in Palestine at the time (Deuteronomy 7:1,7), which means 24 million people, equating to half the population of the Roman Empire, were squeezed into this tiny space.
Why are so many biblical numbers apparently exaggerated? The huge armies and tribes are perhaps explained by the Hebrew word for ‘thousand’ (eleph). It can also mean ‘an army unit’ or ‘a clan’ (see Numbers 10:4), which may have contained far fewer than 1,000 people. But this explanation rarely helps. For example, the tribe of Judah comprised ‘74,600 men’ at this time (Numbers 1:27, NCV). If this was a round number of 74,000 men, we might conclude that it meant 74 clans. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Nevertheless, the large numbers are suspiciously round, in general, as they all have one or two zeros at the end.
One intriguing study carried out by Kevin Edgecomb took Solomon’s horses as a clue to solving the problem.
He suggested someone deliberately multiplied all the numbers by 10 or 100 but forgot to do so in this case.
This apparently silly solution has some surprisingly sensible results. For example, the ladies would have worn only 6.5g of gold in their ears (generous, but realistic) and the Israelites would have followed the ark at a respectful 100 metres. The number of Israelites at the Exodus then becomes about 20,000: the size of the average small nation of the time. (Find more details from the study here.)
But who changed these numbers? Edgecomb believes him to be one of the final editors of the official Hebrew Bible in around 300 BC and refers to him as ‘Multiplier’. This is attributed to the fact that it is what other contemporary historical accounts did.
We should be wary about this theory as it hasn’t yet been subjected to proper scholarly scrutiny. We should also be cautious because it suggests there were a large number of changes to the text, though most scholars agree that some scribal mistakes did occur.
A NOT-SO-DEADLY DESERT
Palaeobotanists can tell us when the wilderness (the modern Negev) was fertile. We know that it periodically sustained substantial populations because ancient pictures of crocodiles, giraffes and other animals are carved into the rocks, and occasional buildings have survived.
THE AREA THEY LIVED IN FOR 40 YEARS WASN’T A DEADLY DESERT, THOUGH IT WASN’T A GARDEN EITHER
Professor Hendrik Bruins of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev recently collected carbon-14 dates from archaeological layers of fertiliser consisting of animal faeces and burned food scraps. He identified three fertile periods in recent history, and the middle one (1600-950 BC) spans the Israelites’ time in the wilderness.
So the area they lived in for 40 years wasn’t a deadly desert, though it wasn’t a garden either. They probably wouldn’t have survived without special help (such as manna and quails), but there was grass for their sheep. The area didn’t become similarly fertile again until the Islamic period 1,700 years later, so for most of Israel’s history it was considered a wilderness.
STILL A MIRACULOUS SURVIVAL
None of this denies the miracles surrounding Israel’s survival in this hostile environment. In fact, these realistic numbers highlight the remarkable way in which this small nation was able to defeat foreign armies and establish itself in a new land without being wiped out.
The Multiplier clearly wanted to enhance Israel’s glory. However, his exaggerated numbers gave Israel an army as big as the Egyptians’ – the superpower of their age – so they would hardly have needed God on their side! If the original figures revealed by this study are correct, they magnify God rather than Israel.
Academic disciplines such as textual criticism and archaeological dating can sometimes feel antagonistic to faith, and we have to remember that the latest studies are not always the last word. But when facts from completely disparate studies agree with each other and answer an important question, they can enlighten and build up our faith. And we can thank God for them.
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