This section is not intended to assess the Biblical account of events with information from extra-Biblical sources but rather to point out some obvious weaknesses and inconsistencies in the Biblical story itself that are relevant to the subject of the present book. We come first to the Biblical claim that "the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them ". This statement is made clearer later when the Bible claims that the number of the Israelite men only at the time of the exodus was about six hundred thousand (Ex. 12:37). This same figure is repeated in the book of Numbers when Moses is shown arguing with God: But Moses said, "Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot, and you say, I will give them meat to eat for a whole month! Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?" (Num. 11:21-22). The Bible mentions the presumably exact number when it refers to a census that was taken in the wilderness of Sinai: "All the Israelites twenty years old or more who were able to serve in Israels army were counted according to their families. The total number was 603,550 " (Num. 1:45-46), excluding Levites. This huge number of men only means that the total number of the Israelites, men, women and their children, who left Egypt with Moses was in the region of two to three million. Although this huge number of the Israelites failed to bother the writers of the Biblical text, it has remained a persistent problem for modern exegetes of the Bible (Houtman, 1993: 231-234).
Cornelis Houtman, Professor of Old Testament at the Theological University in Kampen in the Netherlands, has pointed out that the historical value of the several hundred thousand figure was rejected since 1862 by J. W. Colenso, one of the fathers of modern Biblical criticism (Houtman, 1993: 70). In fact, the German H. S. Reimarus had already ridiculed the 600,000 figure a century earlier (Hayes, 1977: 50). The problem with the 600,000 figure is that it is at the center of a number of contradictions in the Bible, including its conflict with the combination of the following other two Biblical statements: (i) the total number of Jacobs descendants, except his sons wives, who settled in Egypt was 70 in all (Ge. 46:26-27; Ex. 1:5); (ii) the Israelites lived in Egypt exactly 430 years to the day (Ex. 12:40-41). In other words, in only 430 years the population of the Israelites rocketed from less than one hundred to two to three million! Some Biblical scholars have attempted to account for the population increase by appealing to extraordinary claims of ancient authors who suggested that Egypts natural environment would make its inhabitants very fertile that a pregnancy could result in up to seven children! Rabbinical literature has attributed such fertility to the Israelite women in Egypt. However, Houtman notes that it is not obvious from the Bible whether its writers viewed Egypt as "a land that was particularly suitable to produce a great nation in a short time" and that all that the account in Genesis allows us to conclude is that "Egypt was the land that enabled the forefathers to survive the famine, so that Israel did not prematurely perish". Houtman also notes that the increase in the Israelite population was regarded by the writers of the Biblical text as "a fulfillment of the promise" of God to the Israelites (Houtman, 1993: 232). Such a religious justification, however, does not compensate for the Biblical figures lack of historical foundations. Unimpressed by the impossibility of the six hundred thousand number, some scholars have suggested that the figure was not intended as an accurate representation of the number of the Israelite men but rather a symbolic figure that is used in the Bible to refer to an unspecified large number (Houtman, 1993: 70-71).
However, this explanation brings in yet more problems without resolving the one at hand and there are a number of reasons as to why it should be discarded altogether. First of all, this explanation essentially confirms the unacceptable Biblical claim that the Israelites were a large nation, disputing only their exact number. Secondly, the Bible cites throughout all kinds of numbers which are much less than 600,000 and the Biblical writers could have used any of these figures if they did not mean the number 600,000 exactly. For instance, particularly in the book of Numbers, whose name itself arises from its content of the various censuses and numberings of the Israelites taken prior to breaking camp and leaving Sinai, one finds many numbers smaller than 600,000 ranging between 22,000 (Num. 3:39) and 186,400 (Num. 2:9). Thirdly, the book of Numbers contains the counted numbers of the descendants of each of the twelve Israelite tribes and the sum of these is 603,550 (Num. 1:1-46). So, the Biblical writers must have really meant the large number of 600,000 which is simply a rounding off of the presumably exact figure of 603,550. If this number is to be rejected as an exaggeration then all numbers that comprise it and which are listed in Numbers should similarly be discarded. In this case we also end up with a wholesale rejection of Biblical numbers, and it would not make any difference anyway as far the historical credibility of the Bible is concerned whether we discount the figures because they are symbolic or incredibly inflated. There are also a number of Biblical passages which explicitly state that the Israelites were in fact smaller in number than other nations, giving the totally different impression that either the Israelites were not 2-3 million as the 600,000 male figure suggests, or that a nation of this size was not large after all!
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