Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Myth of the 600,000

Since we will be reading Numbers for a couple of months, I thought it appropriate to summarize the numerous objections to taking a literal approach to 600,000 adult Jewish males leaving Egypt.

Colin Humphreys' The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories is a must-read for anyone interested in rationalistic explanations of many of the miracles of the Torah. It's a fascinating read, written by well-respected Cambridge University scientist, plus you can get a used copy for really cheap through Amazon and elsewhere (my hardcover in like-new condition was only a couple of dollars).

The following are Humphreys' objections as described in Chapter 8 - "How Many People Were In The Exodus":
  1. "The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle" (Exodus 13:18). Over 600,000 Israelites armed for battle would have been an incredibly formidable army. For example, it would have been nine times as great as the whole of the Duke of Wellington's army (69,000 men) at the famous battle of Waterloo in 1815. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, 600,000 Israelites would have outnumbered the total number of soldiers in the Egyptian army. Why then should such a mighty Israelite army be "terrified" by the Egyptian army that pursued them when they left Egypt, as described in Exodus 14:10? Why should such a huge Israelite army have struggled to defeat some tribesmen called the Amalekites, as described in Exodus 17:8?

  2. The clue of the midwives. Exodus 1:15 states, "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah..." I think this phrase clearly implies that there were only two Israelite midwives, particularly since they are named. But only two midwives would be hopelessly inadequate for a population of over two million people.

  3. In various places in the Exodus account the impression is given that the number of Israelites was not large. For example, when Moses was speaking to them at Mount Sinai he said, "The Lord did not set his beckon on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:7). In addition, the Bible states that initially the Israelites were too few to occupy the promised land (Exodus 23:30). Yet two million Israelites would easily have filled the promised land, and until the relatively recent Jewish immigration into Israel the total population of Israel was only about one million.

  4. Now for a point involving the size of families. The book of Numbers states, "The total number of first-born males a month or more old was 22,273" (Numbers 3:43). However, if the number of Israelite men aged twenty and over was 603,550, then very roughly the total number of Israelite men of all ages would have been about one million, because in ancient civilizations roughly half the population was under twenty. So what was the average family size? This was the total number of men divided by the total number of firstborn men, that is one million divided by 22,273, which is about fifty. So the average mother must have had fifty sons. But we've forgotten about the women. The average mother must have had about fifty daughters as well! In fact, if we interpret the numbers in the book of Numbers as being literally true, then the average mother must have had about a hundred children. This is unlikely!
Here are some rebuttals to Humphreys' list and my own verdict as to the quality of the rebuttal:
  1. A strong, well-armed army could certainly subjugate equally large numbers of people, especially when such people were not trained in warfare and were also deprived of adequate nutrition. A chariot was a fearsome offensive weapon, both because of the archer (sometimes two) with well-stocked quiver as well as the powerful horse that drove the vehicle. The chariot was the M-1 Abrams tank of its day. Nahum Sarna gives such figures as "in 1860, slaves comprised 33 percent of the population of the southern states." As for the Amalekites, they attacked the weak and old at the rear of the Israelite formation during their travels.

    Verdict: an adequate rebuttal for the claim that a massive Israelite population would not have been terrified of the Egyptian army. However, the rebuttal is pretty weak when considering the Amalekite threat. The Amalekites are described as nomads without a homeland and their numbers would have been tiny compared to 600,000 adult men. It would have been futile - nay suicidal! - for such a group to go on the offensive against so many. And it would have been beneath contempt for the Israelites to leave the sick and weak far behind to be slaughtered.

  2. Nahum Sarna was bothered by the assumption that there were only two midwives for such a large population. He suggests that perhaps Shiphrah and Puah were either midwifery overseers or the two names were that of guilds named after their original founders.

    Verdict: Sarna's suggestion is one born of necessity although I would like to reserve judgment until seeing his original source for this idea (Rand, H., Vases in Ancient Egypt and Hebrew Midwives, Israel Exploration Journal 20:209-212. Anyone have access to a copy?) Some leeway can perhaps be given to the idea of midwifery overseers, but the suggestion of guilds fits neither the reading nor the copious midrashic material that discuss - for example - the houses that God made for Miriam and Jochebed.

  3. "The least of all the peoples" can be interpreted figuratively. Rashi, for example, says that "least" in this context means that Israel belittles themselves. I know of no rebuttal to the statement that the Israelites first needed to "become fruitful" before the inhabitants of the land could be driven away.

    Verdict: Rashi explains the Deuteronomy pasuk nicely. But p'shat in the Exodus pasuk is clearly problematic for a literalist.

  4. I haven't seen any rebuttal for the discrepancy between the total number of first-born males one month or older (22,273) and the the number of Israelite men aged twenty and over (603,550). Humphreys says "This is unlikely!" but I would say "This simply makes no sense." An average of 100 children per mother is patently absurd. And did they suddenly stop giving birth in such huge numbers once they left Egypt? If not, then one would expect about 60 million children to accompany the adults in the desert!
    [Addendum 6/8/08]: I apparently neglected to research this point adequately: this problem apparently did bother a number of commentators. Kaplan's The Living Torah mentions three solutions: huge families of about 45; many first-born didn't observe the first Passover and died in Egypt; most first-born were girls. The first "solution", of course, is discussed in the post and rejected although - as commenter "z" pointed out - by neglecting first-born girls Humphreys effectively doubled the family size from 50 to 100. The second "solution" would address the first-born problem but at the same time make the total number of Israelites a much bigger problem (and also wreak havoc with the 600,000 concept!) The third "solution" would be in keeping with the Torah's silence with regards to the female population, but would similarly inflate the total number of Israelites enormously. A solution mentioned in the Hertz Chumash: "What is meant is the number of first-born males under twenty years of age at the time of the census. The law did not have retrospective force, so as to include all first-born sons throughout the nation who themselves were fathers or grandfathers at the time". A couple of problems with this solution include the Torah stating כָּל-בְּכוֹר, "all the first-born" five separate times 3:40-45 and that the whole point of the count was to redeem the first-born against the total number of the Levites. Did the older first-born thus not have to be redeemed?]
Let's add a few more objections to the list of difficulties. Some of them are raised by Nahum Sarna in "Exploring Exodus". (By way of apophasis, I won't mention such outlandishly bizarre midrashim which state that, based on "chamushim" in Ex. 13:18, only 1 out of 5 - or even 1 out of 50 or 1 out of 500 - Jews survived the plague of darkness!)
  • Population density. My previous post on A Very Crowded Campsite focussed on the encampment, but one can easily brush this one aside by saying that the interpretation of the small size of the camp is simply incorrect. R. Kaplan apparently based his diagram on Rashi and this would imply that Rashi is just plain wrong; such a suggestion may be a problem in itself to the most extreme Da'as Torah-niks, but such folks have lost all semblance of rationality anyway.

  • Population estimates in the ancient world. The U.S. Census Bureau has an historical estimate of 27 million people in 2000 BCE and 50 million in 1000 BCE. Using the latter date, 2.5 million Israelites would represent 5% of the total world population. Such estimates are, of course, difficult to calculate but the bottom line is that 600,000 doesn't jive with the best-guess estimate.

  • Goshen could not have supported such a large group of people. The land was not well-suited to large scale agricultural production. (Remember, Joseph want this area for his family because it was good pasture land.) Sarna raises this point. However, while it is true that the Nile inundation didn't reach much of Goshen, we must allow for the possibility that the Israelites were not necessarily limited to this section of Egypt.

  • Complete lack of any archaeological evidence of millions of Israelites living in Goshen, and later living in - and traveling through - the desert for 40 years (as well as dying there in massive numbers.) This has always been a problem for traditionalists who can only respond "lack of evidence is not evidence of lack". Of course, one day someone might indeed make an archaeological discovery that supports the Biblical account, but for now this lack is a strong argument against it.

  • Exodus 18:13 - And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening. So Moshe acted as the sole judge for a population that was the equivalent of modern-day Chicago, until Yitro suggested that Moshe consider creating a system of appellate courts? Give me a break!

  • Jacob went down to Egypt with 70 souls and the population increased to almost 3 million in only 400 years. This argument is commonly made by skeptics, but frankly I think that it's one of the weaker ones. A number of Bible apologists have shown mathematically how such a population increase could occur without resorting to miraculous fertility (which Jewish sources do claim!)

  • My favorite: try and imagine the logistics of providing for each person's daily water needs. The average individual requires about 3 quarts of water per day for maintenance. Let's say that the Israelites needed - very conservatively - a gallon per day per person, given the more arid desert climate. This does not include water for other needs, such as washing (presumably even if one insists on a miracle of eternally clean clothes the Israelites engaged in some ritual washing. And even if the manna did not produce any waste products, they did need to defecate when they ate meat and quail, as well as urinate.) That means 2.5 million gallons/day in total. A standard (non-low flow) faucet can perhaps provide 5 gallons/minute or 7200 gallons per 24-hour day. We'd need - at a minimum - 350 of such faucets pumping out water non-stop for 40 years! Can you imagine the water lines at the miraculous Well of Miriam or later at the Moses Miracle Rock after Miriam died? Assuming that one member of a family of four gathered the water, each water-gatherer would have less than a minute to get in place, fill up their 4 gallons, and then make way for the next person in line. (Heaven help the person who spilled any of the the 32-lbs of water while toting it home...) And remember, these back-of-the-napkin calculations are just for minimal drinking water!

  • One can make similar calculations that relate to the logistics of moving 2.5 million people out of Egypt (mostly on foot), including the aged and infirm, children, livestock and supplies, with equally preposterous results.

  • Finally, note that I have restricted these points to the pre-Conquest period. Similar difficulties have led most archaeologists to reject the literality of the Biblical account of Joshua's conquest of Canaan but such a discussion is for another time.
Let me know if you come across any additional challenges to the notion of taking 600,000/2.5 million literally, or rebuttals to any such challenges presented here.


z said...

Aren't you overlooking the fact that roughly 50% of women would've given birth to a girl first so there would be no bechor in that family?

Frum Heretic said...

Thanks for the correction - it does looks like Humphreys forgot about this and I neglected to pick up on it.

So assume that we have the same ratio for the females (22,273 first born females out of a million females in total). Or 40,000 first born (m or f) out of 2,000,000 (a low estimate of the total).

We're still talking about families that average 50 members, so the point stands.

z said...

b'derech b'duchasa we can say that one question answers the other.

Since there were only 2 midwives for the entire population many children died in childbirth. The firstborn were more likely to die because the parents were inexperienced. By the time the other children came around they took care of things on their own as the midwives later told Pharaoh.

So there's your answer as to why there were less firstborns then you would expect for a population of that size :)

btw, I read Humphrey's book and found it quite interesting, especially the part where he shows that the description of matan torah fits very well with that of a volcanic eruption even down to the shofar blast. Kind of puts a dent in the Kuzari argument, doesnt it?

Jewish Sceptic said...

Interesting arguments. I've never really thought about the 600k figure, but this line of thought certainly makes sense, given the population of the ancient world.

Frum Heretic said...

z - I added an addendum to point #4 regarding the first-born problem (and even gave you credit for catching Humphreys' error).

Anonymous said...

One would also have to assume that most women were barren. Here is a good article form an orthodox, open-minded perspective:

Frum Heretic said...

Thanks for the link to Rabbi Shamah's article - very interesting stuff! His detailed analysis of the numbers leads him to the conclusion that the Torah is using symbolism and allegory because this is intrinsically much more nuanced and sophisticated than any literal rendition.

Anonymous said...

I am not exactly sure of the rules of determining "bekhira", but from what I understand, it is the first born child of a father.

If this is correct, then you are talking about 50 children per father - not mother. This is segnificantly less unlikely, especially if the father has several wives.

Pierre Sogol said...

r. Solomon David Sassoon understood the numbers to be symbolic - not necessarily first a misreading elef, nor literal, nor an literary extravagance - symbolic.

If understood in this manner, it is indeed *first* freed from literal interpretation (without rendering millenia of parshanut 'useless'), but room is also made for comprehending also WITH 'elef', historical setting of other nations extravagant claims, etc; it does happen to be that "misreading 'elef'" DOES NOT fit with all posukim involved - but it DOES fit with the long-standing concensus of a spike in population east of the Jordan that was roughly 20,000 people. Is this textual 'coincidence' ignored by critics? I don't know.

Pierre Sogol said...

by "freed from literal interpretation", I mean to say that grasping the exacting number of men is not necessarily where the 'ikkar-anchor' is. Also, R. Sassoon doesn't talk on 'elef' and all the other things, nor in the pieces from does he posit a particular 'actual' number - but his 'symbolic' resolution would loosen the hold on '600,000'. Also this general piece on his theories of number symbolism;