The Logistics of the Exodus
[Population and Birth Rates] [Matters Before Leaving for the Exodus] [Logistics During the Exodus] [Comparison: The Scythians] [Addendum: The 'Elep Solution]

Is it possible that the Israelites grew from a clan of 70 to a nation of 2-3 million that left Egypt in the Exodus 430 years later? Is the Bible's depiction of scenarios associated with this event reasonable?

The answer is yes -- the Exodus, although an event blessed often by divine intervention, does not in and of itself beyond that offer any scenarios that are unreasonable or impossible. It is our purpose in this essay to examine some common objections to the practical historicity of this event; that is, not issues having to do with archaelogy, for example, but whether such a mass movement of people is people is possible at all within the context of what is claimed in the Bible.

We may begin by answering the most fundamental objection of all -- whether indeed that initial clan of 70 could have grown to 2-3 million within the required timeframe.

First of all, look at the family listings in Genesis 46, and the sons born to Jacob’s sons. There are a total of 51 sons that could have lived to produce offspring. If we assume that there was one female born for every male, we would have 102 children. That comes to a total of 8.5 children per family.

Let's illustrate the population possibilities with a true-life modern-day Jacob, a fellow named Samuel Must. You can find this fellow listed in any recent Guinness Book of World Records; he died in 1992 at the age of 96, with the honor of being the world’s record-holder for having the most living descendants. He had 11 children, 97 grandchildren, 634 great-grandkids, and 82 great-great grandkids. (That would get expensive at Christmas time.) What would happen if Mr. Must took his clan to live in a foreign country and his descendants continued to live and multiply for 430 years at the same rate?

We will take Mr. Must, his wife, his 11 children, and assuming that they all found mates, his family’s total population would have been 24 once they had finished their child-bearing years. Working out the numbers, let's assume that his family continued to procreate at a rate of 4.5 births per person (which works out to about 10 children per family). If each generation lasts 29 years, then the descendants that give birth in generation X (no pun intended) would pass away in Generation X+2, when their grandchildren were being born.

So, the first generation produces the following results:

Generation// Starting population + Births + Marriages = Population

After the first generation, let’s assume that his children start intermarrying, so no one is added to the clan via that route.

Generation// Starting population + Births - Deaths = Population

Now, if this rate continued, the population at the end of 430 years would be over 50 billion (if you don’t believe me, do the math). But, to save that Christmas money, let’s assume that the Mustrealites start getting conservative in the 4th generation, and only have 4 kids per family, or 1.15 per person. (The numbers are rounded, so they may not add up exactly.)

Generation Starting population + Births - Deaths = Population

At the end of 15 generations, which would not even take the full 430 years needed, the total population is well over the 3 million most commentators suggest as the total population, and without any strain to credulity, or even any miraculous intervention. Skeptical objections to the growth of the Israelite population are simply unreasonable.

Objection: By this logic, if Joseph's clan can grow from 70 to 2.5 million in 430 years then surely there is nothing to stop every other man's clan from doing the same.

Other than the fact that it happens very rarely? So is someone winning the lottery not feasible because so many millions don't? Or, if one person wins the lottery then there's nothing to stop every one else who buys a ticket from winning as well?

You 'assume that there was one female born for every male, we would have 102 children. That comes to a total of 8.5 children per family.' Why assume this? Is it reasonable to assume that families come in packs of one male and one female, especially in this time period?

Well, that's about what it comes out to. We can fiddle with the ratio, maybe bump it up to 52 males for every 48 females, or vice versa, but it's still going to come out approximately the same. Then what?

If anything, what we have in this period is polygamous relationships with multiple wives -- which means we'd have even more potential births.

8.5 children per family? Surely you mean an 'average' of 8.5 children per family. That's poor presentation skills.

Well, if one "surely" gets the point, the presentation isn't so bad, is it? I can also ask why the .5 doesn't make it clear that WHOLE children (as opposed to an average) are not in view.

You example of Must isn't needed. We have the stats for Joseph's family.

The example was listed because critics don't believe the Bible. A real-life example defeats any claim that the Biblical account is physically impossible.

Your calculations contain unrealistic scenarios. You wipe out an entire generation as soon as their grandchildren are born. However, the person used as an example of a modern day Jacob was alive long enough to see 82 great great grandchildren born. If the author is using a person as an example then he has to be consistent and thus has to have everyone living until at least their great great grandchildren are born.

On average, a person would die sometime in the generation that his grandchildren was born. Some would die later, some sooner.

But, let's just assume great longevity for everyone. We can cut down the number of children needed per family, and it becomes all the more credible. We'd also better take that medical advances stuff into account.

The Guinness Book of World Records records unique events, and in this case is not relating something that is typical and extends through generations. Even what occurred to Mr. Must is unique even in his own family, otherwise he’d hold the tying record or would have been outdone by one of his progeny.

The argument is not that Jacob's family was typical and "un-unique", just possible. This is stated very clearly in the very first paragraph Sarna [96ff] readily admits that such growth is "technically feasible" and gives the more modern example of French Canadians, who expanded from a community of around 3000 in the year 1660 to "several million within three centuries" -- less time, and more people. He also noted the example of 19th century Russian Jews who between 1825 and 1900 expanded from 1.6 million to 5.175 million. Sarna does not accept that such growth actually happened with Israel (based for example on an erroneous understanding of ancient geneaological practice, but it is clear that there is no practical objection to such growth happening, and that to make anything of "uniqueness" is to miss the point.

Sarna's objection that the "land of Goshen" could not support such a population applies just as well to the area that the Scythians inhabited; but it is not as if Israel were limited to Goshen in terms of where they grew their crops or found food, as Sarna implies.

Your calculations continue to have Mr. Must and his wife bearing children through a total of three generations.

They do not. The 4.5 children born per population number doesn't mean that every family was giving birth. Then, there would have been 9 children per family, not 10. It is common to state national annual birth rates at X per 1,000 population. The CIA Factbook does this.

I merely followed this convention, ableit on a generational, not an annual basis. Notice that in generations 4-15, lists, the children born in one generation is about double the children born in the previous one. Ergo, one per population member, about 2 per person, and 4 per family.

High mortality rates probably kept most families from achieving the biblical ideal. But, by the same token, there were plenty of people who died long before they had a chance to turn 40. Also, many men may have died before siring children; some women may have been infertile, .

Undoubtedly, while many bibilical characters at the time lived extraordinarly long lives and had multiple wives. One can list positive and negative factors and in the end, it would all have the ability to balance out, leaving us with bare practicality.

Indeed, the scriptures affirm that it was God who made the Israelites a great nation. The argument that this growth doesn't require divine intervention or stretch credulity is simply in reference to the sheer number of births (which was made perfectly clear in the first paragraph). The argument is not that God didn't provide Israel with low infant mortality figures or extraordinarily good health in general.

For simplicity's sake we did not factor in things like infertility, or the hostile environment; but we might note that such things have not stopped rampant population growth in poverty-stricken Third World nations. Also, things like a completely equal male/female birth rate would have been an oddity, but a significant inequality would also have been an oddity. Yes, some couples would have been infertile, but this would have been compensated by for by families that had more than the average number of children.

We also did not account for miscarriages, but this is irrelevant. The argument is not based on the number of pregancies, but of possible live births, which is not shown to be unreasonable.

Also, a society could have a sustained fertility rate of 4 children per woman, even after taking miscarriages, infertility and failure to find a mate into account. As a map at Link 1 below readily shows, a few dozen countries have fertility rates above this amount for every woman in that society, even accounting for these things. And in the past, the number of countries with a such rate was even larger. Even in the United States, as late as the 1950s, the fertility rate was 3.7 children per woman.

What is possible in one generation, or even two to three, is one matter. But this "possibility" needs to extend for 430 years.

As I may not have made clear, there would have been two different rates of growth - the first massive rate, and then the slower, more normal rate. However, it is made abundantly clear in the remainder of the article the possibility of double-digit births per family doesn’t need to extend for 430 years.

You're allowing for no deaths in the second generational snippet (that is, in 58 years [29 + 29], not a single individual has died either in infancy, to childhood diseases, in childbirth, to accident or by any other means) and that the original two parents, who already birthed 11 children in the first generation, birth an additional 9 in the second. Even Mr. Must did not have 20 children so you deviated from your "true-life, modern-day Jacob" already.

If Mr. and Mrs. Must do not bear any further children, you have 22 instead of 24; then figure out how many children per family is implied. 22 x 4.5 = 99, not 108.

I clearly showed, with a link to the CIA World Fact Book, that it is perfectly legitimate to state population growth in terms of births per population member. Why do they state that Niger has 51.33 births per 1,000 of the population? By this logic, that can’t possibly be, since some of those 1000 are male, and some are too young and too old to have children.

Suppose that there are 3 adults in a population - 2 are married and one is elderly. The married couple has 9 children. What is the birth rate of the population? It is 3 births per population member, or 3 times 3, even if one of the adults doesn’t do any of the producing.

If there were 10 children per family, minus the original Mr. and Mrs. Mast, that means there would have been 22 people in the starting population for generation 2, equating to 11 families. If each family had 10 children, that would mean the population grew in the second generation by 110 children (11 families, each having 10 children would mean 110 children + the original 11 couples [22 males and females] + the original Mr. and Mrs. Mast who did not bear any further children = 134).

Notice how closely this comes to my 132 based on 4.5 children per population member. I confess - I did round up. If you have 108 children born to 10 families, it actually comes out to 9.82 children per family. Or, for those demanding of precision, I should say that it comes to 9.81818181818181818181818181818181 children per family.

Ancient conditions were very unsanitary. Such growth would be unrealistic.

J.P. clearly noted in response that the French Canadiens grew from 3000 to several million within 3 centuries, and that Russian Jews grew from 1.6 to 5.175 million from 1825 to 1900 - and for the most part, these growths happened in relatively primitive, unsanitary environments without the benefits of modern medicine. Note I am NOT claiming that this proves that the Israelites actually grew this fast, it just means that it isn’t unreasonable and there is no prima facie reason to doubt it.

The Practical Side

Such is the issue of numbers in terms of population. For this next section, we will concentrate on objections to logistics of the Israelite population during the time preceding and up until the Exodus.

Despite Skeptical doubts concerning ancient people and their capabilities, a close investigation of the text reveals that this was not quite the one-two affair he perceives. Let's note some important verses:

Exodus 12:3, 6 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household...Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.

Note that verse 3 above speaks of "this month" -- the revelation to Moses could have been made anywhere between the first and ninth day of the month. The people knew well in advance what would happen, and would have all the time between when they were told and the end of the fourteenth day to make preparations to leave.

And really, since they didn't have wardrobes full of clothes to pack, and since they had been surrounded by signs that God was about to get the Egyptians to let them go, exactly how long would it take to "get up and go" anyway?

Now the real question, though, is, how long would it really take to spread the message given in Ex. 12?

Read the message of Ex. 12:21b-27 (the only message that was passed on to the people through the elders -- v. 21) aloud, and time yourself. Allowing for attention-getting and introductory/closing statements, and answering any questions of procedure, this message would take a minimum of 5 minutes to transmit. (The message of 11:2-3 may or may not have been given at this time; for the sake of argument, we'll assume that it was.) But let's be outrageous and say that it took 15 minutes to get the message out of someone's mouth.

Now if this were a case of spreading the news single mouth to single ear, then perhaps the critics might have a point. But Moses and Aaron gave the message to the elders of Israel, not just one person apiece. How large this group was is uncertain, but let's choose the minimum again and say there were twelve -- one for each tribe.

Now beneath the elders, there would be a highly-organized clan and family structure typical of Ancient Near Eastern nomadic and semi-nomadic societies -- for more on this, pick up any basic book on the subject, like Social World of Ancient Israel.

Let's say the elders send runners around to gather these sub-leaders, on down the lines through whatever the established hierarchy was (and by this time, such a hierarchy would indeed be in place, as would a reasonably effective means of transmitting community data) down to the 600,000 men as heads of families. Assuming that it takes as much as an hour to either gather the necessary group (or visit each one in turn) we have transmission "episodes" of 1 hour and 15 minutes.

We don't know how many steps this involved, but let's be stingy again and say that each person only told 12 people apiece per transmission episode. Here's how many layers of transmission we would have (and let's remember that those once told can continue passing the message) before all of 3 million people would "get the message":

  1. Moses/Aaron -----> 12 elders (12 people informed)
  2. 12 elders -------> 12 apiece (12 x 12 = 144, + 12 = 156)
  3. 156 people ------> 12 apiece (12 x 156 = 1872, + 156 = 2028)
  4. 2028 people -----> 12 apiece (12 x 2028 = 24336, + 2028 = 26364)
  5. 26364 people ----> 12 apiece (12 x 26364 = 316,368 + 26364 = 342,732)
  6. 342,732 ---------> 12 apiece (12 x 342732 = 4,112,784)

So we have 6 transmission episodes at a minimum, and using the average, that's 6 times an hour and 15 minutes -- for a total of 7 hours and 30 minutes. Thus Moses could have gotten the ball rolling as late as the eighth day of the month, and the message would have been "there".

Our second objection is a little easier to deal with. It has to do with verses 12:35-36 --

The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The LORD had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.

Assuming it took one hour to mobilize and eight hours to collect the things mentioned, the Israelites would have had fifteen hours to leave Egypt. That would have required them to move at more than sixty miles per hour, according to one source.

Who is this "source", and how did he/she arrive at these conclusions? We are not told. The one hour to mobilize is probably correct, given that the amount of personal property held by a given individual in this time could have fit into (at most) a large backpack. But eight hours to collect the spoils?

To use a rather humorous parallel that is not as anachronistic as it sounds, I know children who can "trick or treat" an entire neighborhood of up to 75 houses in only a quarter of that time. Since this is not a case where there would be any duplication (we are logically assuming here that coverage "assignments" were given at a certain level in the transmission proceedings), and since we have a suitable "army" of people to make the rounds, I see this "spoils run" as taking no more than two hours -- with no need at all for superhuman speed.

Related objections ask how a population this large was served by two midwives (an objection even Sarna rejects, on the proper grounds that these two would be "superintendents or guild heads of a much larger corps" [Sarn.EE, 95]).

Another, which even Sarna proposes, asks how Moses could have served as sole judge over such a large population, though he answers his own objection by noting that Jethro suggested a full judiciary (Exodus 18). All this shows is that Moses was being unrealistic in thinking he could handle the whole caseload -- which makes him little different than many other progressive reactionaries.

On the Move

We now proceed to some of the issues actually involved in keeping the Exodus going. In this regard, one might wonder if there are any historical parallels that might be invoked.

Truthfully, there are none that match that I have found as yet, though we can draw lessons from two examples: the Long March of Chairman Mao, and the nomadic Scythians (see below).

The Long March was performed by the followers of Chairman Mao in 1935 as they attempted to retreat from enemy forces. [see Wil.LM, 66-7] The Long March was an Exodus in miniature: Between 100,000 and 150,000 men, women, and children banded together for a 1-year, 6,000 mile trek across mountains, swamps, forests, bandits, and hostile tribesmen; each man carried five pounds of rice and a shoulder pack filled with equipment.

Are there parallels to be drawn here, despite the differences? Perhaps so. One might object to the practicality of so many people moving in tandem; we have noted in answer to this Glenn Miller's work at Link 2 below in which he focusses particularly on movement crossing the "Red Sea". However, by extension his analysis can apply to other instances as well, including the final evacuation from Egypt.

On the other hand, it should also be noted that nothing indicates that the Israelites spent all or any good part of 40 years "on the move" (the word used to describe what they did simply means living a nomadic lifestyle) or that they spent all that time packed into the efficient formation described in the Bible at one point, with the camps of tribes settled around the tabernacle in an orderly fashion. Thus it is misguided to object about them being packed in like sardines, or the size of their encampment being unwieldly for mass movements.

In terms of sustenance, the believer may obviously appeal to the miraculous provision of foodstuffs such as manna; but the Israelites also had their flocks and herds with them, and if needed, the ability to trade -- the Long Marchers had to depend upon limited provisions and the gifts of villagers.

In terms of providing water, we see of course the miraculous provision of springs at least twice in the accounts; one may justly argue, given that the Pentateuchal narratives have been clearly designed for the purpose of oral communication, that these incidents are representative of what happened during the whole trip. Certainly it is misguided for critics to argue using estimates of how many gallons of water, or how many trainloads of food or firewood, would be needed to support the Israelites and then remark that such provision would have been impossible in a desert setting (especially if, as some theorists suppose, the Exodus took place in a fertile part of Arabia, not the Sinai peninsula).

Even without miraculous provision, we may add, how do they think other ancient nations survived? Were they all primitives that could not work out systems to provide for their needs? (The Scythians survived just fine without firewood; they used their own herd animals for such purposes -- the bones made for firewood, and the carcasses made do as a stirring pot.)

Similarly, one might object to the practical, everyday operation of such a community and problems such as communication and sanitation, but this is an argument that can be defeated analogically: The Long Marchers resorted to clever practicality to solve such problems. For example, items like needles and chopsticks were carried stuck under the peaks of hats or inside puttees; children as young as 11 or 12 were used as orderlies, buglers, mess-workers, water carriers, nurses, or messengers. A community that bands togeter against hardship is likely to do what it needs to survive. (We'll press with some practical examples from the Scythians in the next section.)

But the objections raised against the Exodus in this regard are often more mundane -- and reply upon misunderstandings of key texts.

  • Critics refer to verses like Lev. 8:3-4 and Deut. 1:1 which refer to the nation of Israel being gathered to the door of the tabernacle, or Moses speaking to "all Israel" and ask how such a massive group could be gathered to such a small place, or how Moses could speak to so many people at once and be heard.

    An objection like this simply failing to understand the legal view of what constituted "all" of a nation. In our article on baptism (Link 3 below) we introduced the reader to the notion of the Semitic Totality Concept, whereby men were viewed as a totality of spirit and material; we alluded also to the fact that this concept included the idea that one part of a person who is a member of a group "sums up, comprehends and represents" all that a group is.

    Therefore, in verses like the ones referred to above, all that needs be implied is that representatives (such as tribal chieftains, or representatives from each family group) be present. Those present may have actually numbered from 12 to 12,000, neither of which extremes poses a problem.

    Our closest modern analogue to this kind of thought is when an official like the President gets on television and "speaks to the nation" -- it doesn't matter in such cases that some people are instead watching Hee Haw; the President is "speaking" to them whether they are listening or not.

  • A very popular, and seemingly more problematic objection, however, centers upon Numbers 11:31-32:

    And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day's journey on this side, and as it were a day's journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth. And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.

    Even granting miraculous provision, one would have to read this as excessive, according to the critics:

    1. A homer is 10 bushels; thus the least gathered by anyone was 100 bushels. Estimating 120 quail to the bushel gives 12,000 quail to each person.
    2. Given the distance around the camp covered (27.8 miles all around), and supposing a height of two cubits (three feet), and each quail occupying 27 square inches, one critic calculates that there would be "29 trillion quail or 12,000,000 quail per Jew."

    This would indeed be quite the supermarket, but a few things are being read wrong.

    First of all, a homer is not 10 bushels, but just over 5 bushels.

    Second, while this passage can be read as referring to the quail being three feet deep on the ground, the grammar can also be read as indicating that this was the height at which the birds were flying when they were caught or knocked down.

    Finally, the group that gathered, "the people," does not refer to the entire nation of Israel; it may refer to a group of any size. In this case, the size of the group that gathered quail is indicated implicitly by verses 23-24, which refers to the plague that followed and that "they buried the people that lusted" -- who were these people?

    According to 11:4, it was the "mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting" and incited "the children of Israel" to complain about the lack of meat. So then, how many quail were there? It can't be said without knowing the exact number of the mixed multitude, but there is certainly no reason to go use numbers like 29 trillion.

    The resultant totals would be far from unreasonable. Quail were known to produce huge flocks, though: Pliny tells of a boat that sank because of the number of quail that alighted on it.

    As an aside, it may be asked why meat was asked for when there were so many flocks and herds. The answer: in the ANE flock animals were far more valuable for their products like wool and milk than for meat.

  • Finally, we will consider the objection against Joshua 6:3-4, 15, which tells of the circuits around Jericho: "And ye shall compass the city, all ye men of war, and go round about the city once. Thus shalt thou do six days. And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams' horns: and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets...And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they rose early about the dawning of the day, and compassed the city after the same manner seven times: only on that day they compassed the city seven times." Critics ask how [600,000] men could have gone around a city seven times in one day in that era.

    The prime error is the idea that "men of war" equals all 600,000 men in the Exodus. There is no verse I can find that equates the two; Josh. 5:4 ("And this is the cause why Joshua did circumcise: All the people that came out of Egypt, that were males, even all the men of war, died in the wilderness by the way, after they came out of Egypt.") comes closest, but does not clearly offer an equation and indeed may indicate a sub-class within a larger class, nor, even if an equation is made, any indication that Joshua 6 is addressed to the total group of 600K rather than merely to the group of men of war designated for attack of Jericho (i.e., "all" as in "all the group" not "all the men of war of Israel".) I therefore consider this objection to be groundless.

Life in Scythia

The Scythians, a nomadic people who inhabited the arid steppes of what is now Russia and environs from about 1000 BC into medieval times, provide us with certain practical parallels to the Exodus. We cannot parallel the population figures, since we have none, but here are a few points to consider the next time someone asks "How did the Jews do X during the Exodus?" Our source is Tippett's book, The First Horsemen [Tip.FH, 14-15, 99]

  • "How did the Israelites get basic necessities that their herds could not produce?"

    The Scythians had no problem with this. The Scythians became "fabulously wealthy" because they "taxed all trade that passed through their domain on its way to the Greek trading colonies on the Black Sea." They also provided the Greeks with wheat and other perishable commodities, receiving metals, art objects, oils and wines in return.

    In the same way, Israel would have been a force to be reckoned with by the traders in the area, and they had ample resources (flocks, herds, and plunder from Egypt) with which to conduct trade and get things like grain.

  • "What did the Israelites live in and how did they clothe themselves?"

    Even if we ignore the provision that God miraculously preserved the Israelites' personal effects from wear (Deut. 8:4), this isn't too hard to fathom naturalistically. The Scythians used their herds as resources to make their clothes and dwellings. The felt of their tents was made by "wetting and pounding together wool and animal hair until the fibers interlocked, and then weatherproofed the material with grease."

    Beyond that the Scythians were in constant motion looking for new grass for their herds -- even if we ignore the miraculous provision of manna, such provision should have been no more of a problem for Israel. Think the climate of Sinai was too harsh? So was the land of the Scythians: "Scythia was, as the Ukraine is now, the prey of challenging weathers -- extreme, volatile, whimsical. Winter entombs the steppe; spring rejuvenates it." Then the summer scorches it all away with 104 degree heat.

    The Israelites had it better, not having winter to deal with (even if we assume they were in Sinai and not Arabia).

  • "What did the Israelites do all day?"

    This is the question of the TV generation who can't imagine life without Nick at Nite. What did any ancients do? The Scythians danced, sang, played instruments...and also engaged in the use of alcohol and hemp for recreation, we should point out. Practically they hunted and foraged for food. The word "bored" was not known to ancient peoples.

  • "How did they take a bath?"

    Good question, but is it a problem? Water was also scarce on the steppe. Tippett writes: "How the men cleaned themselves no one knows." (Maybe they didn't! But we can see that Tippett no more thinks this make Scythian life improbable than we think it makes the Exodus improbable.) "The woman at least did have a cleansing agent, a paste of pounded cypress, cedar and frankincense" which they applied to their bodies. This was made into a plaster which they peeled off the next day, leaving their skin "clean and glossy."

  • "What about all the bodies of the people who died during the Exodus?"

    The Scythians only buried their most important people (quite obviously, in huge mounds) and there must have been tons of them who weren't buried over the course of thousands of years, yet does anyone object that we don't find their bodies today?

    It is interesting to note Tippett's comment that if it were not for these royal graves and the writings of Herodotus, the existence of the Scythians at their earliest stage "might never have been known at all." What then of the mere 40-year trail of the Exodus?

  • "How did the priests manage all those sin offerings?"

    Skeptics who perform calculations to figure out that a mere handful of preists would have to do 58 jillion sacrifices a year or "43 sacrifices an hour, around the clock" and so on are simply failing to read ancient law codes within their didactic context. Just as Hillers says of Deuteronomy and other law codes:

    ...there is no evidence that any collection of Near Eastern laws functioned as a written code that was applied by a strict method of exegesis to individual cases. As far as we can tell, these bodies of laws served educational purposes and gave expression to what was regarded as just in typical cases, but they left considerable latitude to local courts for determining the right in individual suits. They aided local courts without controlling them. is equally doubtful that the Israelites applied (or had to apply) Leviticus in any such pedantic manner as described, but that "considerable latitude" was given in extraordinary situations. Priests can sanctify helpers; the poverty-stricken can forego the full ritual sacrifice (or other observations) until such time as it can be affored.

    Living in the wilderness no doubt meant "considerable latitude" was given as well. Perhaps whole families or clans could bring a single sin offering for a year, for example. The mistake made is turning Yahweh into the fundamentalist that certain critics are.

We therefore conclude our first edition of this essay with a general response to critics: If you ask us, "How did Israel do X?" -- I will ask you, "How did the Scythians do X?" Answer that, and you shall have my answer as well.

  • Objection: How could the Scythians, a nomadic people living thousands of years and thousands of miles from the enslaved Hebrews of Goshen, have something in common with the Israelite population? Were the Scythians held in bondage? Were they exiles in the Nile delta, captives of a foreign government that, from all accounts, detested them and sought to subjugate them?

    Being in bondage or living in the Nile does not in the least affect the critical and relevant issue of comparison for our subject matter, which is living nomadically and the effort of practical living while doing so. In other words, this stage of the argument is past the issue of whether or not the Israelite population reached into the 2-3 million range, so appeal to the above issues is irrelevant in context. The objection has confused Israel's earlier situation (being in bondage in Egypt) with their later one (living pastorally in the Sinai wilderness). Their lives in Goshen is NOT the subject here.

  • Your arguments are a non sequitur because it does not follow that if the Scythians were successful at something that the Hebrew slaves would have been successful at something similar too.

    It is in fact not a "non sequitur" but a devastating rejoinder to those who claim that the Hebrews doing X activity was somehow impossible. In short, it puts the burden on the critic to explain why the Hebrews could not manage while the Scythians did. Remember, the critics claim that such activities are not possible. When shown that they are possible, it is a shifting of goalposts to then say, "How do you know it was possible in the case of Israel?"

  • How do we know anything about the nomadic Scythians who inhabited the Russian steppes of c. 1000 BCE? Through archaeology, of course. Look at the royal tombs of their kings we found.

    This is an irrelevant example, because the Hebrews had no such royalty. The issue here has been the life of the everyday Hebrew, and how allegedly impossible it was for them to live, and why we are not knee-deep in artifacts from the Exodus -- a common demand of critics.

    By this argument, we ought to be chest-deep in artifacts from everyday Scythians; but specially-preserved items in tombs from persons who had no social parallel among the Hebrews is not an answer to this. Nor is it an answer to point to other differences in their cultures (e.g., they had horses, the Hebrews didn't).

    The one and only issue here, in this section of the paper, is the one critics have appealed to: That 2-3 million everyday people left behind no remains to show that they had been there. Indeed, other differences -- the fact that the Scythians had horses, and royal tombs, for example, only makes it more difficult to explain (by the logic of the critics) why the everyday Scythian people left no evidence behind, and therefore, makes it all the less strong to object that the Hebrews left no such evidence behind.

  • The Scythians are attested to in the literature of other peoples. The Hebrews aren't.

    This is an irrelevancy in context, since the issue is the remains left behind by everyday persons. However, it may be noted that with the exception of Egypt, we have no reason to suppose that there is any document left to us from other civilizations in contact with the Exodus Hebrews would have left any record (e.g., Moabites, Midianites). In the case of Egypt, it is standard to point out that mention of the Hebrews would be refused because of the implied embarrassment to Egypt.

  • Your challenge is useless since the population parallel between the Scythians and the Hebrews simply doesn’t exist.

    In one sense that is right -- since it is likely that there were far MORE Scythians in their area over hundreds of years than there were Hebrews during the Exodus' 40-year period. The logic of the critics would demand that we be chest-deep in artifacts and bones from everyday Scythians (not just their specially-preserved rulers). This is something the critics cannot answer.

    The 'Elep Solution

    One proposed solution to the Exodus numbers matter which simply reduces the totals and resolves all of the objections with one fell swoop. The answer in sum: The word translated "thousand" ('elep) ought rather be read as, "family units". Thus for example, as Sarna relates [Sarn.EE, 99], Reuben's "46,500 grown males" would be read as "forty six units".

    Sarna suggests an insuperable difficulty in that the solution cannot explain the 22,273 firsborn sons of Numbers 3:34, or the 22,000 Levites of 3:39.

    -Brent Hardaway/J. P. Holding


    1. Sarn.EE -- Sarna, Nahum. Exploring Exodus. Schocken Books, 1986.
    2. Tip.FH -- Tippett, Frank. The First Horsemen. Time-Life Books, 1974.
    3. Wil.LM -- Wilson, Dick. The Long March 1935: The Epic of Chinese Communism's Survival. New York: Viking Press, 1971.


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