The size of the Exodus

The Bible does not directly say how big the Exodus population was but Numbers 1:46 tells us there were 600,000 fighting men from which the total population is estimated at ~2.5 million.

Watching Youtube the other night I found Michael Heiser - The Bible’s Literary Context (Naked Bible Podcast). At ~43:00 he makes this comment.

Taking his population and area figures for New York this would seem to limit the camp to about 1.3 million or about 1/2 the estimated size of the Exodus population.

p.s. While posting one of the options given for tags was “pear_reviewed”. I just had to choose that one. image


Pear-reviewed threads are my favorite.


Interested in how this goes. The logistics of food, water and sanitation of such a large group in such close company has always puzzled me. That’s a lot of manna and quail. Even communication and coordination would be challenging. 1.3 million is about the population of Dallas, 2.5 million the population of Chicago.

What are you thinking about this? Or more specifically how do you find this fits in to other discussions about the Exodus?

Many scholars have suggested that the word for “thousands” could also mean “chiefs” or “clans” or “families” in context, perhaps not unlike how the word “centurion”, while derived from the word for a hundred, had come to also simply mean a particular officer in context.

I find there is certainly some significant merit to this possibility from looking at the Hebrew words. There are places the same Hebrew word (with different vowels/pointing) does mean “clan,” and a slightly different form does mean “chief,” and I always keep in mind that when the vowels were added, even this is a later interpretation of the original words.


Michael Heiser discusses the "chiefs” or “clans” or “families” interpretation in the video and gives reasons why it would not be applicable in this context.

1.8 million people over 305 sq miles comes to 104 people/Hectare. That doesn’t seem a high density. I would assume this area includes a lot of open space and outer suburbs. It doesn’t look impossible that the Israelite camp could have had a greater population density than New York City; even without high rise apartments.

Would you be able to summarize? I don’t have time to sift through the ~2 hour video.

I’ll get back to you with a time in the video so you don’t have to.

Interesting topic to me, by the way, I’ve examined this before… there are points for and against, but as i reviewed, I came upon Judges 6:15…

And he said unto him, Oh my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my family [אַלְפּ / eleph] is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.

In that instance at least, the word seems unambiguously to refer to a clan or family, and not a “thousand.”

Even the King James, that I noticed tends to translate the word as “thousands” more regularly than many other modern translations, allows it to be rendered as “family” in this passage. Likewise, in Deuteronomy, the word is translated “herds” when applied to animals there.

This may or may not have bearing on the numerical question of the exodus, but I think it interesting that the word rendered “thousand” clearly had some fluidity in its use.

I’ve done more research about population density in a camp and found good data in Greece and Rome at War, by Peter Connolly, 1981, p129-137. (I see there’s a 2016 edition)

For an army of ~20,000 comprising 18,000 infantry and 2000 cavalry, a camp would be 800m square. Add 20 servants per 80 men to get 25,000 people. On the gross area of the camp you get 390 people/Hectare, however there is a 60m (200’) clear area inside the ramparts so the actual camp area of 680m square has a population density of 540 people/Ha. (All numbers approximate)

The Israelite camp probably didn’t have walls and the clearance but a civilian camp probably wasn’t as compact as a Roman army, so allow an average of 270 people/Ha. Based on this a camp for 2.5 million people could occupy 93km^2 or a 9.6km (6 miles) square.

So the size of the camp given in Numbers 33:49 seems to be quite realistic.

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Start at 44:00.

Sure, I find it interesting. I can see points on both sides of this one, and I don’t take issue with the large numbers per se as some do. but there is the biblical emphasis that Israel was one of the smallest of peoples. Also, odd to me, would be that If some of the numbers of plunder are to be understood where ereph means literally “thousand”, God would only have received a “tithe” of 0.1% of plunder. Possible, I suppose, but seems an anomaly that would not be there if ereph there meant “herd” vice “thousand.”

Ancient historians routinely inflated figures for emphasis. Take the analysis of W.H. Green in Primeval Chronology (1890):

A still more convincing proof is yielded by Num. iii.
19, 27, 28, from which it appears that the four sons of Ko-
hath severally gave rise to the families of the Amramites,
the Izharites, the Hebronites, and the Uzzielites; and
that the number of the male members of these families of a
month old and upward was 8,600 one year after the Ex-
odus. So that, if no abridgment has taken place in the
genealogy, the grandfather of Moses had, in the lifetime
of the latter, 8,600 descendants of the male sex alone,
2,750 of them being between the ages of thirty and fifty
(Num. iv. 36).

Correct, this and other reasons I think seem to me to support some other understanding of the numbers, whether poetic or other exaggeration as suggested here, or some other colloquial understanding of the term “eleph” that would have meant something very different than a literal “thousand.” Given the plenty of places “eleph” clearly does mean something different than thousand, I lean toward the latter… but don’t feel so strongly about any one particular conclusion.


Michael Heiser often overlooks the significance of sources. Numbers is woven of an assortment of sources and literary genres: historical material (cities of refuge), legal texts, ritual prescriptions, poetic folk narratives, geographical boundaries that are more wishful thinking than actual, and number symbolism.

I strongly suspect the original Hebrew has been misunderstood by modern translators. Pl see attached link:

I would welcome comments. Peter

See my response below.


Except those figures are likely wrong. See the link at my response below.