Israel’s Population at the Exodus
The Book of Numbers in two places (once at the beginning of the Exodus and again at the end) shows a population of adult males to number just over 600,000. There can be no doubt that these figures in both accounts in Numbers are correct, but this would not square with some other historical data that are found in the account of the Exodus. [See Appendix Six for information on this matter.]
The key to understand the true approximation of the number of people is given in the Bible itself. It concerns one census of people upon which all the rest hinges. What is that census? It is that of the firstborn. We are told how many firstborn there were from a month old and upwards (including even the oldest of the men who were firstborn, and remember that some actual firstborn children could be substituted with others if the need arose—Genesis 48:14; I Chronicles 5:1,2—even daughters could take on the role in certain cases—Numbers 27:1–11). The census of firstborn showed there were 22,273 (Numbers 3:40-43). This means there were that many firstborn who made up the population of Israel. Yet a full third of that number would have been underage and had yet produced no families of their own, and another third would have been old and beyond the age of child bearing and they would have fewer family members. If we say that about a third of the firstborn would have had families (male and female) under their control, then each family would (we are guessing here) might have 8 to 10 members in it. Eight to ten times the one third having families would equal about 70,000 people (and with youngsters and oldsters added to them it would be no more than 120,000 (not two and a half million).
And in the episode with the Moabites just before the Israelites entered the land of promise (Numbers 25:9) they lost 24,000 men (Paul said 23,000 but that was from the initial plague ("in one day," I Corinthians 10:8) and not the 1000 or so that died afterwards. This reduced the population of Israel to about 95,000 people (both males and females) who crossed over the Jordan into the Land of Canaan. It is interesting that when the twelve tribes of Israel went to war with the Midianites near the end of the Exodus, Joshua asked for only 1000 men from each tribe (Numbers 31:1-5). This number fits in nicely with a total population of about 40,000 men who were capable of making war when Israel crossed the River Jordan. And what do we have Joshua telling us just after Israel crossed the Jordan and just before they attacked the city of Jericho? Notice it carefully. Joshua said: "About forty thousand prepared for war passed over before the Lord unto battle, to the plains of Jericho" (Joshua 4:13).
But what about the prodigious numbers of men mentioned in the two censuses (one at the beginning of the Exodus and the other at the end) which yielded just over 600,000 men, which would give a total population (with women and children) of about two and a half million? This can easily be understood if one will recognize a peculiar way the biblical people looked on their ancestors. Note this point carefully. When Abraham died, he was said to be "gathered to his people" (Genesis 25:8). This same expression is said of others when they died. Ishmael (Genesis 25:17), Isaac (Genesis 35:29), Jacob (Genesis 49:33). And though Moses and Aaron were brothers, each of them were gathered to their own people (that is, people who were ascribed to them). Note how God said to Moses: "die in the mount whither you go up, and be gathered unto your people; as Aaron your brother died in mount Hor, and was gathered unto his people" (Deuteronomy 32:50). In the case of Jacob being "gathered to his people," he specifically requested that he be buried in the cave of his fathers in the land of Canaan because he and his posterity had inherited that cave and that land from the time of Abraham (Genesis 49:29-33).
The Bible tells us that God has what he calls "The Book of Life" (better, it means "The Book of the Living" and it is so rendered in Psalm 69:28). This book in heaven contained the names of the righteous dead (as well as those then alive and in good standing in the community of Israel), but it was still called "The Book of the Living" even though the majority of people written in the book were in fact dead. Among those in the book were the people of Abraham (who were worthy), those of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron etc., etc. Now the genealogical tables maintained by the Israelites were similar. Note that when Moses asked for the number of the men at the census in Israel, he asked the leaders of the tribes to "declare their PEDIGREES after their families" (Numbers 1:18). In the census of just over 600,000 men, the total number also included all the names they had in the genealogical tables (who were also destined in the resurrection to inherit the Land of Canaan) who were their ancestors—the dead as well as the living.
The apostle Paul used this same principle in reverse when he stated that Levi was in the loins of Abraham his father (though he was a fourth generation descendant) when Abraham met Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:9,10). This aggregate number of people (both living and dead) recorded in the genealogical tables and counted in the censuses of Israel reached back to include Abraham and all his early family, because when Abraham died even he was "gathered to his people" (Genesis 25:8). Yes, even the earlier ancestors of Abraham were included, and the tables no doubt embraced various family names (this is, pedigrees) that could have reached back to Noah, and even to Adam himself.
When Jacob went to Egypt there were about 70 people who went with him (Exodus 1:5), but they multiplied exceedingly (Exodus 1:7). In five or six generations, until the time of Moses, there could have been almost 500,000 Israelite men who were living when Moses was born. At that time, Pharaoh began to kill the males of the Israelites when they were born (though the midwives at first did not obey Pharaoh— Exodus 1:17) and there was a great reduction in Israelite population just before the Exodus. However, if one would count all the Israelites from the time of Jacob unto Moses (counting the names in "the pedigrees" as Moses commanded) and add the number of Israelites at the Exodus about 120,000, then the figures given in the two censuses can be reasonably understood. In a word, the Israelites counted the names of their pedigrees (the Israelites and their ancestors who were dead but still to inherit the land).
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