The Case for a Smaller Exodus

The Case for a Smaller Exodus

In this article from the Atlanta Jewish Times, Michael Jacobs argues that the Exodus happened, but probably not with 2 million ex-slaves wandering around the Sinai for 40 years.

This view is not new. The heritage for a small group of Hebrews became the heritage for all Hebrews.

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There is general agreement among archaeologists (even secular or skeptical archaeologists), that Canaan experienced a massive influx of people during the Late Bronze Age, and that these people were the Hebrews. However, the Exodus could not possibly have involved at least 600,000 men, for reasons we find in the Bible itself.

  1. God told Israel that they would be entering a land with seven nations more numerous than they. If Israel numbered around two million people, the population of Canaan would have been over 20 million people. This is impossibly large; the archaeology of the land shows us the population wasn’t even one million people.

  2. God repeatedly told Israel not to fear the people of the land. If Israel numbered around two million people they would have had no fear of the people of the land, because they would have outnumbered them more than 100 to 1.

  3. Scripture records the location of several places in which Israel camped on their way to Canaan. These areas were physically far too small to accommodate two million people.

  4. Egypt’s fear was that Israel might join with their enemy if Egypt was attacked by another nation, and help tip the balance of war in favour of the enemy. If Israel numbered two million people, Egypt would have been afraid of Israel alone, not of Israel joining an external foe.


Exodus doesn’t appear to be a story about how the Hebrew were “forged” in the incubator of Egypt and Egyptian culture. Even the Golden Calf… is that really Egyptian?

If anything, Exodus appears to teach that the Yahweh followers were incubated in the midst of the Priests of Midian. Moses marries a Priestess of Midian … finds God amongst these people.

But is it convincing that the Hebrew religion looks anything like what we would expect from a nomadic tribe of Shasu? What does Leviticus have in common with the Shasu?

Or is there a more logical source for the kosher rule system of Leviticus?


Of course not. Have you read any scholarly literature on this topic at all? You are assuming that the Hebrew text actually intends to communicate a figure of at least 600,000 men. However, in the literature it is recognized that this is not necessarily the case. At least half a dozen different readings have been proposed in the literature which arrive at a a much lower figure, and a total figure for the Hebrews of less than 100,000 (nowhere near two million). Two of these readings in particular are taken seriously in the current scholarly discussion. One is the mathematical view proposed by Barnouin (1977), followed by scholars such as Wenham (1981), and Milgrom (1990). Another is the lexical view proposed by Humphreys (1998, 2000), followed by scholars such as Rendsburg (2001), and Hoffmeier (2005).

No he didn’t. Again, if you were familiar with the relevant scholarly literature, you wouldn’t be asking these questions

He didn’t misrepresent the number. Again, your question just demonstrates you are totally unfamiliar with the scholarly discussion of this issue.

You don’t have to, you can read them yourself. I’ve cited the relevant names. I don’t read Hebrew at all, and I have no relevant expertise, so my opinion is irrelevant. You need to read the scholarly literature. Would you like me to make up a reading list like I did for you on the topic of satan and demons?

How about, the author said 600,000, meant to communicate 600,000 (but may have not cared much about the mathematical accuracy of the number and may have used it for other literary or artistic or political or symbolic reasons) and the correspondence of that number to the actual historical reality is irrelevant and not part of what the Bible “teaches.” Your options strike me as reminiscent of the “either every biblical proposition is a verifiable fact or the Bible lies” false choice you see all the time from Fundamentalists.

Right. But he could say 600,000 and mean to say 600,000 but not honestly think of that as “reporting how many people he honestly believes were involved.” How is this example different than the “Jesus said the mustard seed was the smallest seed there was” example? I guess rereading your second option I see how you think it fits, but I guess I was thrown off by the “doesn’t intend it to be taken as anywhere near accurate.” It was presumably accurate and appropriate enough for whatever the original communicative intent was, which could have actually been “there were 600,000 men there,” even though if you had been there and counted, you would have found that wasn’t the case. Maybe the assertion triggered a different inference than the one that seems most natural to us.

Right. It becomes a silly inerrancy game at some point.

Agreed. But is does seem like you are giving Jonathan quite the hostile inquisition treatment on this thread because you didn’t agree with him on another thread and are trying to expose something negative and unacceptable in his approach to the Bible overall.

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Another possibility is that the modern translation is inaccurately reflecting the numbers recorded in the original language. Carol Hill wrote an article in 2003 for Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 55(4):239 in which she argued that the original language in which Genesis was communicated used a hexadecimal numerical system that later Hebrew and Christian translators failed to understand and thus inaccurately translated. Hope this adds insight to a murky question.


And all this time I thought it was octal.

Seems my memory is a bit faulty, though the concept is the same. I (mis)remembered a hexadecimal system thinking 6, 60, 600 but when I reread Carol’s paper today is was a sexagesimal (base 60) system.

Hexadecimal is base 16. But base 666 would be interesting…

@beaglelady I really enjoyed this article and have thought about it all week. I’ve got 2 main thoughts.

a) My initial thought is that this fits fairly well with Genesis. I’ve long noticed that the inhabitants of Canaan always seem to know the Israeli god. They keep their own city god, but seem aware of Yahweh and don’t need an explanation. Futhermore, there does not appear to be a language barrier as Israel moves into the region.

b) IF one accepts John Walton’s federal headship model for the fall as a parallel to Jesus’ federal headship for salvation, then this fits nice and snugly between those events. A pattern of representative action.

There are a lot of ‘ifs’ in there and not enough evidence to exclude either a large or small exodus, but a fun thought experiment nonetheless.


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Glad you enjoyed it.

Dear Forum members, try to read it with a bit of selfcritical humour before flagging it.

Whilst casting doubts on numbers reported about jews can easily lead to one being branded as racist or antisemitic moron one should really believe the numbers as they were officially part of a census and should have been 603,550 and a number that precise must be right. Why would a God inspired book use estimates such as 600,000 instead of precise numbers if it were to tell us about truth.

That the truth is not in the numbers is a concept difficult to accept in a materialistic age. Perhaps the number should really read 603,141 and should be read 600 plus pie as the comma might not indicate thousands but is the decimal divider.(Content deleted by moderator) After all as it is the book of numbers it must be about teaching us math and clearly aims at teaching us mental arithmetics :slight_smile:

The article of Carol Hill is well worthwhile reading so thanks for bringing that up. When being confronted with the “silly things in the bible” regarding the age of Noah by atheist biblical fundamentalists I always point them to the fact that he waited for 500 years to father a child, and suggest the should try abstinence. Clearly murdering all those sperms shortens the life span and if they would carry on not using their brain it might outlive them all together :slight_smile:

Considering the world population estimates for the time, 2 million Jews roaming the area would have caused quite some footprint and when walking around Jericho they would have trampled each other to death with so many people. 600000 men walking 10 abreast with 1m between them would stretch 60km in length thus running around Jericho 7 times in a day must have looked hilarious, even when assuming a very very generous 6km of wall. Whilst we might be all wrong about our population dynamics and timelines we have to ask ourselves what truth we expect to find in the bible. It is clear that materialists get hung up on numbers as they believe in numbers to be the conveyors of truth. They make things countable and therefore testable by materialistic standards. Perhaps we should start a new bible translation for materialists :slight_smile:

In the age of the calculator we have lost the ability to do plausibility checks for our numbers and acquired the skill to look at numbers out of context. We are more likely than ever to believe numbers, particularly if they have been published. And here begins the real problem that we believe in what is published to be true. Clearly with the bible some people excuse their poor understanding of the bible by blaming it on the primitive goat herders or God’s inability to tell the truth, dismissing the fact that even if there was a book written by God full of truth, only God would be able to read it correctly as he knows all the context. We struggle even if the context presented in a nearby paragraph, let alone on a different page of chapter, but then it is always the fault of the author not to write in a way that we understand straight away. After all, he should not write in a way that strains our brain cells but should write as we wish the truth to look like.

just found a more extensive article than the on in the jewish times one in
reform from a seperate youtube discussion. It is without date but is a more comprehensive interview with Richard Elliott Friedman
“Someone calculated long ago that if that number of people were marching, say, eight across, then when the first ones arrived at Sinai, half of the people would still be in Egypt!”

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