In a previous article (Lampstand Vol 20 p352-3), we wrote upon this subject and concluded that, though there might be some difficulties in accepting the apparently very large numbers (perhaps around two million) who left Egypt, yet on the balance of the scriptural evidence, those numbers should be accepted on face value.
A reader has referred us to the book, The Miracles of the Exodus by Colin J Humphreys, where, in the eighth chapter headed, “How many people were in the Exodus?” Humphreys concludes the number was about 20,000 in total and sets out his arguments in support of that conclusion. Our reader comments: “His argument for around 20,000 is indeed scholarly and cannot be dismissed lightly.” So let us consider Humphreys’ argument.

Humphreys lists “some of the problems involved”. His first point is that there were “over 600,000 Israelites armed for battle … an incredibly formidable army”. “Why then should such a mighty Israelite army have been ‘terrified’ by the Egyptian army that pursued them when they left Egypt as described in Exodus 14:10?” he asks. Herodotus suggests the Egyptian army at this time numbered over 400,000 men. Josephus puts the pursuers at some 250,000 men. Even if the number of the Egyptian army that followed Israel was considerably less, we do well to remember that the Israelites had just fled from slavery. They had few if any trained soldiers, and likely had at that time very few weapons, if they had any at all. They were in no position to go up against the formidable trained and armed soldiers of Egypt. They needed divine help in that battle, and received it.

Humphreys continues in this dismissive vein by wondering why “such a huge Israelite army (should) have struggled to defeat some tribesman called the Amalekites, as described in Exodus 17:8.” This battle with the Amalekites took place only a short time after Israel fled from Egypt. Israel may well have been able to salvage some weapons from the destroyed Egyptian army. They may have been busily engaged in forging new weapons, but it is likely still a small lightly armed force that Joshua led against the Amalekites. Exodus 17:13 tells us that “Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword”, so clearly they had garnered at least some weapons. But the record with its vivid word picture of Aaron and Hur holding up the arms of Moses, makes it clear that once again, the victory belonged to Yahweh (Exod 17:11-12).

There is no comfort for Humphreys arguments in these “battles”.

Humphreys second point references the two named Israelite midwives, Shiphrah and Puah (Exod 1:15). Humphreys infers there were only two midwives “hopelessly inadequate for a population of over two million.” Well, that is his assertion. Rawlinson in the Pulpit Commentary gives his view that “The midwives mentioned must therefore be regarded as “superintendents”, chiefs of the guild or faculty, who were expected to give their orders to the rest” (so Kalisch, Knobel, Aben Ezra, etc). Further, The Net Bible comments: “That only two midwives are named must be taken to mean that they were the heads of guilds, for two could not service a popula­tion – even of the smaller estimate given above.” So this point too seems to carry little weight.

Point three for Humphreys lies in his opinion that “In various places in the Exodus account the impression is given that the number of Israelites was not large”. His first example is from Deuteronomy 7:7: “The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people.” But Moses harks back to the beginnings of the nation of Israel when they truly were few in number. Indeed in the book of Deuteronomy itself, Moses makes this point: “Thy fathers went down into Egypt with threescore and ten persons; and now the LORD thy God hath made thee as the stars of the heaven for multitude” (Deut 10:22).

So Humphreys: “not large”; Moses: “as the stars of the heaven for multitude”. Humphreys sees a problem with Exodus 23:30: “By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land.” This, to Humphreys, indicates that “initially the Israelites were too few to occupy the promised land”. The verse, however, simply sets out one of a series of promises that Yahweh makes to the people as He outlines His plan for a divinely directed, staged takeover of the promised territory by His people. Moreover, Exodus 23:31 outlines the territory intended to be occupied by Israel, an area con­siderably larger than Canaan west of the Jordan, and an area now occupied by some 20 million or more people.

Humphreys then proceeds on the basis of a range of assumptions to mathematically analyse the numbers in Numbers. He assumes that the term eleph, translated “thousand”, should be taken to mean “troop” and he assumes a military “troop” in those times to be about ten men. Humphreys summarises his results in his book, The Miracles of Exodus, but sets out his detailed analysis in an article in the Journal, Vetus Testamentum (1998) 48, 196­ 213, and in an article: ‘How many people were in the Exodus from Egypt?’, in the Journal Science and Christian Belief (2000) 12(1), 17-34. He concludes that the total number of Israelites who left Egypt was around 20,000.

His methodology and results have been chal­lenged. John Byl, then Professor of Mathematics at Trinity Western University, Langley, Canada, reviews Humphreys’ analysis and finds it flawed. His paper in rebuttal to Humphreys is: ‘On Numbers in Numbers’ in Science and Christian Belief (2001) Vol 13, No 1, 59-67. Readers who wish to follow the arguments can readily locate the relevant papers on the internet. Byl contends: “… his approach is plagued with some serious deficiencies. We shall argue that the numbers taken at face value, with elef (eleph) consistently translated as “thousand”, indicate a much smaller proportion of Israelites under the age of 20 than is generally assumed. This may have implications for explaining the low number of first-born males. Also it suggests that the traditional reading of Numbers implies a total number of Israelites of about 1.6 million, rather than the 2-2.5 million commonly cited.”

Byl gave Humphreys the right of reply. It strikes me as telling that in taking up that right of reply, which is included after Byl’s article in S&CB, Humphreys makes no attempt to answer Byl’s critique of his mathematical analysis. He seems to accept that the foundations of his analysis have been undone – certainly he offers no defence. Rather he responds with two points. Firstly, that the Egyptians slaughtered huge numbers of male babies around the time Moses was born, thus having a catastrophic effect on the subsequent population of the children of Israel. This argument lacks any support in the Exodus account. The testimony is to the contrary. The ploy to slay the male babies failed and the population grew apace: “the people multiplied and waxed very mighty” (Exod 1:20). His second response draws on century old argu­ments. He says, in effect, allow a population of 1.75 million. Then in crossing the Red Sea in a night and assuming a column of Israelites 10 individuals wide with a metre spacing between, then we have a column 175 kilometres long – impossible! But why make assumptions that don’t work when we can with equal validity make assumptions which do. If the column is 200 individuals wide (maybe a total width of 150 metres) then at Humphreys assumed spacing of one metre, we have a column about 9 kilometres long. At a slow two kilometres per hour, or less to allow for helping the very young and very old, these fit former slaves could comfort­ably traverse that distance in a night.

So we end up where we were in our last article. Convinced, on the balance of scriptural evidence, that the Israelite population who left Egypt was substantial. Perhaps as high as 2 million, perhaps around 1.6 million as Byl argues. The count in Numbers 1 is a head count, the count done carefully and the numbers meticulously recorded. We can and should accept the record as the Word of God.