How Many Israelites Actually Left Egypt?

This week we start reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, more commonly known as “Numbers” since it begins with a detailed census of the Israelites. The Torah concludes that there was a total of 603,550 men at this point in the Wilderness, implying a general population of about 3 million people. Or does it? While these are the numbers one generally hears when it comes to the question of how many Jews were present at the Exodus (about 600,000 men, and something like 3 million people when accounting for their families), there is an alternate way to read the Torah which might actually make far more sense.

(Please read the following with an open mind, and do not jump to any conclusions until you’ve read through to the end!)

The 600,000 Problem

If we take the classic figures of 600,000 men/3 million people at the Exodus, we are presented with a problem of immeasurable proportions. How could there have been so many people? (We will set aside for a moment the teaching that only a fifth of the Jews came out of Egypt, implying a population of 15 million slaves!) If we stop to think about it more carefully, what does it mean that 3 million people marched out of Egypt? How big was their camp? How did they interact with each other? How did Moses and Aaron address so many people?

Imagine for a moment the Splitting of the Sea: how many Jews walked in a row, side-by-side? Let’s say it was 100 Jews per row, with just 4 square metres of space for each person (ie. a square 2 metres by 2 metres, which is a conservative estimate since we know they came out with lots of possessions, animals, weapons, carriages, wood, and rechush gadol, “great wealth”). If the Jews walked a hundred to a row, that means their column was at least 200 metres wide, and the Sea must have split even wider—that’s reasonable, so far. Now, if we have 3 million Jews altogether, at a hundred per row, that means we would have a column of Jews stretching back at least 60,000 metres, or sixty kilometres! It would be impossible to even see the end (or even the middle) of that trail of people! How could Moses and Aaron possibly lead a column 60 kilometres behind them? How could they address so many people? How long would it take for 60 kilometres worth of people—including little children and frail elders—to cross the sea? Even if you assume they walked a thousand to a row, with the sea splitting over two kilometres wide, that still makes a column at least six kilometres long; not much better.

Furthermore, the Torah tells us that the Israelites were being pursued by 600 Egyptian chariots (Exodus 14:7). Somehow, this tiny military unit frightened all the Israelites to the point where some wanted to commit suicide or give up and go back to Egypt! Really? 600,000 fighting-age Israelite men were afraid of 600 chariots? They outnumbered them 1000 to 1! Don’t forget that the Torah says the Israelites were armed when they left Egypt—they had weapons! (Exodus 13:18)

‘The order of the Israelite camp in the Wilderness’ by Jan Luyken c. 1700. This is how we often visualize and depict the Israelite camp, yet such an image doesn’t really have room for 3 million people!

The nail in the coffin is the firstborn census. The traditional reading of the Torah is that there were about 22,000 firstborn among the 600,000 men (Numbers 3:42-43). That’s a ratio of around 1 to 27. It implies that for every one firstborn male, there were 27 other men who were not firstborn. When factoring in women, it suggests each family had something like 60 children! While there are Midrashim which make a case for that, the Torah clearly tells us how big families really were at the time, and they were pretty standard-sized: Moses came from a family of three children, and had two kids of his own; Aaron had four children, Tzelofchad had five daughters. No one comes close to having 60 kids!

In short, reading the Torah in a way that gives 600,000 men and 3 million people doesn’t work very well. Luckily, there is a better way to read the Torah’s census.

Chiefs and Clans

A century ago, the famous archaeologist and historian Flinders Petrie (who discovered the Merneptah Stele, the earliest archaeological document to mention “Israel”) suggested that the word אלף should not be read as elef, “thousand”, but as aluf, “chief”, or alef, “clan”. Such terms appear in Genesis 36, which recounts the Alufei Edom, “Chiefs of Edom”, and in multiple other places that discuss the tribal clans within Israel, for example “Bethlehem of Ephrath, the least among the clans [alfei] of Judah…” (Micah 5:1)

Dr. Ben Zion Katz takes this suggestion further and shows how we can use it to read the Torah verses differently. Take, for instance, Numbers 1:21: “Those counted from the tribe of Reuben, shishah v’arba’aim elef v’chamesh me’ot.” The classic way of reading it is “forty-six thousand, five hundred.” However, if we read elef as alef, then we instead get something like “forty-six clans, totalling five hundred.” In this way, instead of having 600,000 men, we have 600 clans, each led by an aluf, the chief of the clan. While this suggestion might be difficult to accept at first (especially since we’ve been raised with the notion of 600,000 and this is so deeply engrained in our psyche!) it beautifully makes sense of everything.

Now we can understand, for example, why the Israelites were so frightened of just 600 Egyptian chariots. Maybe it’s because they only had 600 chiefs to counter them—a fair fight! It explains how 600 Egyptian chariots can capture the Israelites back into bondage, for they would only need to subdue 600 clans (ie. extended families), not a massive nation of 3 million. It would make much more sense in terms of the size of the Israelite camp, with Moses being able to address everyone directly. We can easily envision 600 extended families encamped together, k’ish echad b’lev echad, united “like one man, with one heart”, under Mount Sinai.

Conversely, it is very difficult to imagine how 3 million Jews could do so—a population equal to a major modern metropolis. And how would you fit a metropolis-sized group of people under a small mountain? And how would 3 million congregate to sin around a Golden Calf? Since we know 3000 sinned with the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:28), why punish 99.9% of the population—most of whom were too far away to even see the Golden Calf, since the camp would have stretched for miles—for a sin committed by 0.1%? And why would Korach’s Rebellion even be a threat if he only garnered 250 notable followers (Numbers 16:2)? (It would be a huge threat if he had 250 chiefs out of a total 600, though!)

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense of every narrative and statement in the Torah. God told us that he chose us “not because you were more numerous than any other people, but because you were the least of all people” (Deuteronomy 7:7) This verse would not make any sense if there were 3 million Israelites, for that would make them among the largest nations in the world at the time. (Scholars estimate a global human population of only about 14 million three thousand years ago!) The verse does make sense if the number of Israelites was in the thousands or ten-thousands, which would certainly make us the “least” of all peoples, a tiny newborn nation. Of course, this reading also explains the dearth of archaeological evidence in the Sinai: 3 million people would have left a treasure trove of clues to confirm their presence; several thousand wouldn’t.

Having said all that, we cannot simply sweep away the 600,000 number, for it is fundamental to Judaism. So much is built upon this concept, including matters of halakhah. So, how do we reconcile the apparent contradiction?

Souls and Bodies

One of the foundational teachings of Judaism is that all Jewish souls that ever lived (or will live) stood at Sinai during the Torah’s revelation. Mystical texts state that there are 600,000 Jewish soul roots (see, for example, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 17), and every Jewish soul somehow emanates from one of these roots. It is these 600,000 soul roots that were present at Sinai, encapsulating all future Jewish souls. This is a fact that cannot be contested or modified in any way.

Having said that, we can distinguish between souls and bodies. While there were certainly 600,000 Jewish souls at Sinai, there didn’t necessarily have to be 600,000 physical bodies (or 3 million for that matter). Upon further thought, it fits more neatly anyway: If we know that there were 600,000 souls at Sinai, how would we reconcile that with 3 million individuals at Sinai? Did those who were not men over the age of 20 not count as souls? Surely not. In some ways, the fact that there were 600,000 souls at Sinai actually supports the notion of less than that many people physically present there!

All of this is analogous to the parallel teaching that the Torah is made up of 600,000 letters. We know that the Torah actually has 304,805 letters, so why would our Sages say it has 600,000? [And even prove it by saying “Israel” (ישראל) stands for yesh shishim ribua otiot l’Torah (יש שישים ריבוא אותיות לתורה), “There are 600,000 letters in the Torah.”] The answer, as is well-known, is that the Heavenly Torah has 600,000 “spiritual” letters, written as “black fire on white fire”. The 600,000 spiritual letters parallel the 600,000 spiritual roots of the Jewish people. The Arizal adds that there are 600,000 different explanations for everything in the Torah—one for each type of Jew (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 17). So, just as we physically don’t see 600,000 letters to the Torah, we can draw the same conclusion about the 600,000 at Sinai who were certainly there spiritually, but not necessarily physically.

A reconstruction of ancient Alexandria, showing the locations of the famous Great Lighthouse and Serapeum, as well as the Jewish Quarter.

Lastly, I believe that at least some of our ancient Sages also held that there were not 3 million people at Sinai. For instance, we read in the Talmud (Sukkah 51b) how Rabbi Yehuda describes the Great Synagogue of Alexandria, which could hold “twice as many people as went forth from Egypt”. Could one ancient building fit 6 million people, or even 1.2 million people? This is absolutely impossible, even by today’s standards, so either Rabbi Yehuda was exaggerating to the extreme, or perhaps he understood that the number of Israelites that came out of Egypt was a far more conservative number. (It is worth noting that the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in ancient Alexandria around 60 BCE, wrote that its population was 300,000, Jews included.)

To conclude, while there were certainly 600,000 souls at Sinai, perhaps there were not that many Israelites there physically. Reading the censuses of the Torah in the alternate way presented above allows for a more logical understanding that is also truer to history, archaeology, demography, and the Torah’s own narratives. It is certainly far from perfect and comes with its own set of question marks, but overall it solves a lot more issues than it generates, so it might be worth some further consideration.

Happy Yom Yerushalayim and Shabbat Shalom!


From the archives: The Stones, Symbols, and Flags of the Twelve Tribes of Israel