Finding Early Israel, Part 1

Dan.ht12A nomadic people settle in a great empire and become a slave class for centuries until a deliverer leads them out through a wilderness and a generation later into a land they can conquer and call their own.

This is the Biblical story. Not much of it is evident from archaeology. How do you trace the movement of a small people and find their leavings in history?

You might object to my saying Israel was a small people. After all, the famous numbers in Exodus suggest a people two million strong (six hundred thousand men of fighting age). Yet many other texts suggest they were a small people, afraid of Egyptians and Canaanite towns.

I don

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7 Responses to Finding Early Israel, Part 1

  1. I commend you for having the courage to mention a subject that few Messianic teachers (regardless of which slice of our broad faith community you cut it) are willing to discuss. I have for the longest time felt it quite difficult to affirm that 2-3 million were in the Exodus. I do not think it likely at all that the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex (the largest place I have lived) transversed the wilderness.

    I have cringed a great deal when the 603,550 amount from Numbers 2:32 comes up by “Torah teachers,” because few are aware of the difficulties associated with the Semitic term elef. But then, if it does mean “company” or “troop,” how large is this to be? You have tallied the total numbers of the Exodus at somewhere around 10,000. Yet, as Kitchen notes in his On the Reliability of the Old Testament (p 265), others have estimated anywhere between 20,000-140,000.

    I am probably a little more cautious when I have said in the past that an ambiguous “several hundred thousand” were in the Exodus. Mind you, I think that this number is on the lower end of 200K, and is more like a giant stadium full of people, with tailgaiters everywhere, transversing the desert. (Not to mention the continuous stadium line at the restroom facilities!)

    You are bringing to the attention of Messianic people some issues that have remained closed for far too long, even though they have been present in evangelical Bible scholarship for many decades. We cannot avoid them any longer. Hopefully, more will share their thoughts!

  2. davidbenavraham says:

    Derek,
    If you interpret the Hebrew word, elef, in Exodus 12:37, Numbers 1:46, Numbers 2:32, and Numbers 26:51 as troop or company, then how do you interpret the more specific countings by tribe in Numbers 1 and Numbers 26? These countings go into great detail, tribe by tribe, and add up to the grand total of 603,550 (Nu 1:46) and 601,730 (Nu 26:51). Do you interpret the tribal countings the same way? How about the 3,000 who died at the hands of the Levites after committing the sin with the golden calf (Exodus 32:28) or the 14,700 who died after the Korach incident (Numbers 17:14) or the 24,000 who perished in the plague resulting from the sin with Midian (Numbers 25:9)? Were all of these troops as well? This seems more of a stretch to me than having faith that 600,000 men on foot left Egypt.

    • tnnonline says:

      Each one of these numbers has to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but the premise is that the Semitic term elef does not always mean thousand. I would agree that a total number of Israelites at around 10,000 seems a bit too small, but with a number in the range of 100,000-250,000 we still have a whole lot of people with enough to account for the potential loss of several thousand here and several thousand there.

      The above referenced quote is from K.A. Kitchen, who is a very well respected and conservative voice in OT scholarship, frequently referred to by those who want to refute the JEDP hypothesis. Perhaps his words from OROT will better summarize for you what the debate is:

  3. davidbenavraham:

    I know, it is hard to swallow the idea at first. But remember I said there was likely a scribal error. The very specific seeming numbers in various texts, such as the ones you mention from Numbers, are exactly what I mean. It seems that the original text was describing the number of fighting men and describing troop sizes (eleph = troop) and the scribe mistook descriptions of troops for tens and hundreds and so on. Many articles document this.

    Consider: if Israel had 600,000 fighting men, why would they need God’s power to conquer Jericho. I’ve been there. The town is maybe 10 acres. 600,000 men attacking a ten-acre town?

    It is not easy to say: a scribe may have made a mistake in transmitting the text of the Bible. But we know from thousands of examples that such things happened. This thing with the number of Israelites just happens to be a big one.

    Derek

  4. tnnonline (J.K. McKee):

    200,000 is still too big. Why would 60,000 fighting men need help against little Canaanite towns?

    The largest battles we know of from the Iron Age had 20,000 troops.

    Derek

  5. tnnonline says:

    Perhaps I should clarify, I think that the total numbers of Israel–everybody–is somewhere in the 100,000-200,000 range. Everyone includes women, children, Levites, laborers, etc. This sits within the spectrum of conservative proposals offered by Kitchen, Harrison, and others.

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