Gleanings from Exodus

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“Exodus,” the name of the second book of the Pentateuch or the Torah, is derived from Greek and refers to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. The account in this book starts with the period of oppression in Egypt before the birth of Moses and then continues with the birth of Moses, his role in Israelite history from then onward, the ten devastating plagues that led to the Israelites being liberated from enslavement and able to leave Egypt, the destruction of Pharaoh and his forces in the Red Sea, experiences of the Israelites as they traveled in the Sinai Peninsula, their receiving the law at Mount Sinai, the establishment of the Aaronic priesthood, and the institution of an arrangement for worship centered at a tabernacle. One of the serious ways in which the Israelites failed to remain loyal to their God YHWH was involvement in the worship of the representation of a calf.

The name of the Pharaoh who was responsible for the oppression of the Israelites is not provided nor is any information recorded about who the Pharaoh was when the Israelites left Egypt. Based on what is contained in the account in Exodus, one cannot establish a specific link to what is known about ancient Egyptian history. The first extant reference to Israel is commonly considered to be on a victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah, who is thought to have reigned from 1213 to 1203 BCE. More than a century ago, the boastful words of this ruler were translated, “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” In more recent years, however, whether Israel is actually mentioned has been questioned and another rendering of the words that omits any mention of Israel has been proposed. This serves to illustrate the difficulty in matching Egyptian inscriptions with biblical accounts. One event from a much later time does coincide with the biblical record. This is the invasion of Pharaoh Shishak (Sheshonk I) in the fifth year of the reign of the Judean king Rehoboam. (1 Kings 14:25, 26) A relief on a temple wall at Karnak lists numerous cities of Judah and Israel that Pharaoh Sheshonk I captured.

A question that is often raised about the book of Exodus relates to the number of able-bodied men who left Egypt. Exodus 12:37 says that it was about 600,000. According to the census taken in the second year after the Exodus, the number was 603,550. (Numbers 1:1, 2, 45) This would mean that the total number of Israelites who left Egypt numbered between two and three million persons. Many have found it difficult to believe that there could have been so many people who wandered thereafter in the Sinai Peninsula. Additionally, the people brought with them much livestock — cattle, sheep, and goats.

In the book of Deuteronomy (8:15), the arid region through which the Israelites traveled is described as “the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) A cow may drink up to thirty gallons (c. 114 liters) of water each day. This amount of water would be significantly less when there is a high moisture content in the grass on which the cow feeds. A sheep may drink up to five gallons (c. 19 liters) of available water daily, and a goat up to two or three gallons (c. 7.5 to 11 liters). Goats need three to four percent of their body weight in the form of vegetation each day. Daily, a cow will eat the equivalent of two percent of its body weight. Sheep require enough pasture to consume between two and half and three percent of their body weight each day. Anciently, far more vegetation may have flourished in the Sinai Peninsula than presently, and much more water may have been accessible. The description in the book of Deuteronomy and biblical references to oases in the arid region, however, do suggest that the wilderness had limited lush pasture and not abundant water for many thousands of domestic animals. This is additionally confirmed by the necessity of miraculous provisions of drinking water for the people.

Regarding Canaan itself, the nations residing there are said to have been “greater and mightier” or more populous and in possession of greater military strength than the Israelites. (Deuteronomy 4:38) Today in that region west of the Jordan River more than 13.5 million make their home, and that includes cities with far larger populations than existed in ancient times. It is inconceivable that there were nations with populations in the millions that resided in ancient Canaan.

After their entrance into Canaan on the west side of the Jordan River, the Israelites ceased to benefit from miraculous provisions of food. They were to live on the produce of the land in the area surrounding their encampment near Jericho. (Joshua 5:11, 12) In this encampment, there were fewer Israelites than there had been when the people first arrived on the east side of the Jordan, for the households of the men from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh remained settled on the east side. Nevertheless, with over 600,000 able-bodied men in addition to the women and children of the men from the other tribes, the camp would have been larger than the largest refugee camp of modern times. That there would have been enough grain to be harvested in a relatively small area near Jericho to supply more than 600,000 able-bodied men besides women and children does appear questionable. Moreover, the people needed to relieve themselves outside the camp, and one must consider the distance they would have to walk to get outside a camp that accommodated so many men, women, and children. Thousands of tents would have been required to shelter the people.

In view of the aforementioned factors and others that could be mentioned, one may conclude that the numbers in the Pentateuch could have a different significance, but the question is open as to how best to explain the numbers. One conjecture is that the Hebrew word rendered “thousand” (’eleph) refers to a unit or the chieftain of a unit or clan, greatly reducing the number of people who actually left Egypt. None of the various conjectures, however, provides anything close to a definitive resolution about how the numbers in the Pentateuch are to be understood, especially since the Septuagint and Josephus agree in saying that the men who were able to serve as warriors numbered about 600,000. (Antiquities, II, ix, 3; xv, 1)