I wanted to briefly address one aspect of the 600,000 myth, and that is the lack of any physical evidence of such a large number of Israelites. Here are a few of some of the arguments from OrthoFundies that were mentioned in the comments of the June 2005 Hirhurim post on this subject. (Note that Rabbi Student himself wrote that "no historian accepts that figure", but that he believes "(with perfect faith) that 600,000 men and their families left Egypt."!) [Note: unattributed initials below refer to the original (anonymous?) commentators.]
1)"What evidence would you expect?" Mordechai Housman's comment typifies this oft-stated answer: "How much evidendce [sic] would be there if people ate nothing from the land (they ate manna) around them, and left no garbage? They lived in ananai hakavod (clouds of glory). And people who ate manna did not have to go to the bathroom. Their clothes and shoes did not deteriorate, so they did not leave any materials behind. So what exactly are archeologists expecting to find there? Empty beer cans?" This sentiment is likewise echoed by Toby Katz, Dude, Prof Lawrence Schiffman (according to Observant), and others in the comments there.
(By the way, incredibly, Housman also believes that "the manna came inside edibles bowls...so they ate those too." Sheesh, people actually believe such pablum?)
2) It was a miracle! RBR takes as literal fact the midrash that states that 80% of the people died during the plague of darkness, meaning that he believes that there were 12.5 million Israelites living in Egypt. (By the way, that's almost as much as the most populous urban area in the world, Shanghai, China, and 1/4 the estimated world population of 1000 BCE!) Anyway, he states that the lack of evidence of either the massive 10 million person holocaust or the 2.5 million survivors travelling in the desert is simply "part of the nes".
3) You wouldn't expect to find artifacts. In addition to the miraculous existence in the desert, MNR states that (according to his archaeology professor) "the desert is actually a bad place for sustaining archaological [sic] remains... so no wonder we can't find any existence of the jews [sic] in the desert - we wouldn't expect to."
4) The emunah peshutah argument. Homestar mentions a circular Kuzari-like argument (it must have been true that there were 1/2 million people because you can't make up such a claim). But ultimately he does the "proof would take away emunah" song & dance.
5) The show stopper: Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.
Now lets look at why these are lame arguments.
To suggest that the Israelites' clothes didn't wear out so no remnants would be found today is just a straw man argument. No archaeologist is looking for clothes or shoes (or "empty beer cans")! That's silly. Cloth is not going to survive after 3000 years in the desert (although, contrary to the original assertion, dry desert climes are more suitable for the preservation of organic material than less arid regions once said materials are buried and thus removed from exposure to the sun. Microbial decay is accelerated in moister environs.) They are looking for any evidence whatsoever of habitation including pottery shards, glass containers, metal tools, and so forth, which do survive.
Always keep in mind that we are talking about a population the size of the city of Chicago! Now I do not side with the minimalists and claim that there was no desert experience at all, only that such a humongous population would leave behind significant evidence of a 40-year sojourn in the desert. But let's look at the words of noted minimalists, Finkelstein and Silberman as stated in The Bible Unearthed:
"According to the biblical account, the children of Israel wandered in the desert and mountains of the Sinai peninsula, moving around and camping in different places, for a full 40 years. Even if a number of fleeing Israelites (given in the text as 600,000) is wildly exaggerated, or can be interpreted as representing smaller numbers of people, the text describes the survival of a great number of people under the most challenging conditions. Some archaeological traces of their generation-long wandering in the Sinai should be apparent. However, except for the Egyptian forts along the northern coast, not a single campsite or sign of occupation from the time of Ramesses II and his immediate predecessors and successors has ever been found in Sinai.
It has not been for lack of trying. Repeated archaeological surveys in all regions of the peninsula, including the mountainous area around the traditional site of Mount Sinai, near Saint Catherine's Monastery, has yielded only negative evidence: not a single sherd, no structure, not a single house, no trace of an ancient encampment.
One may argue that a relatively small band of wandering Israelites cannot be expected to leave material remains behind. But modern archeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world. Indeed, the archaeological record from the Sinai peninsula discloses evidence for pastoral activity in such eras as the third millennium B.C.E. and the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. There is simply no such evidence at the supposed time of the Exodus in the 13th century B.C.E.
The conclusion - that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible - seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods during their wandering in the desert (Numbers 33) and where some archaeological indication - if present - would almost certainly be found.
According to the biblical narrative, the children of Israel camped at Kadesh-barnea for 38 of the 40 years of the wanderings. The general location of this place is clear from the description of the southern border of the land of Israel in Numbers 34. It has been identified by archaeologists with the large and well-watered oasis of Ein el-Quedeirat in eastern Sinai, on the border of modern Israel and Egypt. The name Kadesh was probably preserved over the centuries in the name of a nearby smaller spring called Ein Qadis. A small mound with the remains of a Late Iron Age fort stands at the center of this oasis. Yet repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided the slightest evidence for activity in the Late Bronze Age, not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees."
But, Mr Finkelstein, they lived on manna and didn't go to the bathroom and wore the same underwear for 40 years - what would you expect to find??
- The Israelites had lots of jewelry of silver and gold that were given to them by the Egyptians - so much, in fact, that Egypt was "despoiled" (Exodus 12:35).
- Musical instruments! Even Miriam thought to bring entertainment with her when leaving Egypt (Exodus 15:20).
- Plenty of armament, presumably retrieved from the drowned Egyptians, with which they defeated Amalek, killed worshipers of the Golden Calf, defeated the Amorites, killed all the men of Midian, etc. You'd think that a few swords would be left out of all of the tens of thousand killed. Plus don't forget all of that booty in Numbers 31 - they must have missed a shekel or two, no?
- Isaac (in the Hirhurim comments) puts to rest the notion of "edible bowls", quoting Bamidbar 11:8: "The people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars, and seethed it in pots, and made cakes of it." So the Torah explicitly states that they had grinding mills, pots, and mortars. (And let us not forget that famous "why do have milchigs on Shavuos?" question: because after the Jews received the Torah they had to eat uncooked dairy foods until they could kasher their dishes and utensils.)
- How did the people carry water to their tent? Perhaps with clay water jugs? Or did all 2.5 million just trek on over to the Well of Miriam whenever they were thirsty and use their (edible) ladle?
- What about the complex nature of the mishkan? It required among other things looms for weaving the wool, vats for preparing dye and dyeing wool, smelters for fashioning implements of gold, silver, and brass (and for making the Golden Calf!), tools for cutting the boards, presses for making olive oil, knives for slaughtering animals... Read Exodus 25-29 and tell me that this did not require a large number of workers and sophisticated crafting techniques. Surely something would have been left behind at Kadesh-barnea!
- Any clay utensil that becomes tamei (spiritually contaminated) cannot be later rendered tahor (spiritually pure); it must be broken into pieces. Certainly during a 40 year sojourn in the desert numerous ovens would have become tamei for various reasons (oven touched by someone who had contact with a dead body (50,000 or so people must have died every year), lizard dies inside the oven, etc.) and would have been intentionally broken. Where are all of the oven pieces? [Thanks to Wolf for this suggestion.] (Perhaps, however, Moses ruled like Rabbi Eliezer (!) in the "Tanur Shel Achnai" debate (Bava Metzia 59b) and required that all ovens in the desert be built out of clay pieces which would remain tahor...)
The OrthoFundie is really left with one of two arguments:
1) "Nothing was left behind due to a miracle". This argument is irrefutable because it is outside the realm of debate. It is an admission of "I can't discuss this rationally".
2) "Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack". I often see this stated by Biblical literalists when it comes to the Mabul, and get annoyed because in that case there is abundance evidence of lack. Nevertheless, such an argument can indeed be made about the missing 2.5 million (at least insofar as the sojourn in the desert). It may very well be that tomorrow or next year or next century that archaeologists will make a spectacular discovery that will silence the critics once and for all.
But don't hold your breath...