I was reading Exodus for my anual reading plan and this question popped up. So, according to Exodus 12:37, arund 600,000 men left Egypt, without counting women and children. But in Exodus chapter 6, Moses is the great grandson of Levi. The genealogy goes: Levi, Kohat, Amram, Moses. Only four generations after Jacob. Also, many people of the generation of Moses’ grandparents also entered Egypt with Jacob, according to Genesis 46. Three to four generations is not much time for a few hundred people to multiply into more than two million. However, the Bible does say that they multiplied very much. Does anyone have any thougths on this? I have heard that the translation of the hebrew word for “thousand” can also be translated as clan or chief. Any insight would be great!
@sanechev It appears that the exact solution to the large number of Israelites is uncertain. When I see numbers or years questioned by secular historians, I always remember what N. T. Wright says - that all of the first hand original sources for the time period he studies fit on two book shelves. Our data on these ancient periods has gaps in it, so we must remember that whatever version of ancient history we patch together from archaeological and manuscript evidence could be incorrect. That is not to say we do not learn a lot from studying what documents / evidence we do have, but that I think we have to be careful when listening to any reconstruction of ancient history that claims to be bullet proof - it’s probably not…
Possible suggestions on interpreting the population include:
the Hebrew word for ‘thousand’ (elep), which can also mean clan or tribe (Num 10:4, Josh 22:30), could mean that there are six hundred military divisions (rather than 600K people)
epic narratives use hyperbole - that was just the way ancient cultures wrote them - so the fact that the numbers are a bit on the large side is normal from a cultural perspective
the numbers are accurate and it is our understanding of the ancient world that is inaccurate
Here are some thoughts from the NET Bible authors:
Possible suggestions on interpreting the 430 years include:
the 430 years began with the call of Abraham rather than when Joseph entered Egypt (the LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch include the words ‘in the land of Canaan’ in addition to ‘in Egypt’ in this passage)
Israel actually was in the land for 430 years - Egyptian monument from Rameses II speaks of the four hundredth years of the rule of Seth. And the Hyksos were Semitic foreigners in Egypt who took over the land of Lower Egypt for about one hudnred years - it is possible the Hyksos king gave favor to Joseph and from the middle of the Hyksos rule to the middle of the reign of Rameses II is about 400 years.
Something to consider is that the growth rate required is not unreasonable. For example, if the Israelites were in Egypt 400 years and began with a population of 70, a growth rate of 2.5% would be sufficient to reach 2.4 million by the time of the Exodus. Even if we reduce their time in Egypt to only 200 years, the growth rate required would be 5.2%. The world growth rate has been as high as 2.1% even in the 1960s, so these rates are not unreasonable. If God is involved, I do not find these growth rates unbelievable. In addition, it is clear the Pharaoh was threated by the rate at which their population was growing, so we can assume it was expanding abnormally quickly. These calculations assume a fixed growth rate - but the text does suggest God is intervening to sustain their population, so I think this assumption is justifiable as a minimum baseline.
Recently a documentary has come out that attempts to resolve the issue of the timing of the Exodus. While I do not think its conclusions were definitive, I do think it was interesting to hear some of the view expressed and is well worth watching.
One other factor worth considering is that the genealogy from Levi to Moses is almost certainly condensed, since only four generations over 430 years would be very unusual. The most likely reason why the Biblical authors did this was to align the number of generations with the number given in God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15), where the end of “four hundred years” is described as “in the fourth generation”; this wording makes sense in the case of Abraham, since he was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born, but even the biblical text acknowledges the miraculous nature of this late birth, so it is unlikely to have been the norm for the Israelites in Egypt.
@sanechev Glad it was helpful! Yes, when I actually looked up the numbers I found it interesting as well. It would require a high growth rate, but not an impossible one. Not even improbable in the case of 400 years.
Yes, I meant that there are unnamed generations between Levi and Moses, and that the four given are an abbreviated list. I expect that a full list would have somewhere between ten and twenty generations. If we pick fifteen for convenience, that would make the length of a generation about 28.67 years (which seems reasonable), and if we assume a doubling of population for each generation (which, given the large size of biblical families, also seems reasonable), that gives us the formula 72*(2^15) = 2,359,296, which is right where we would expect it to be. Add to that the fact that the group leaving Egypt would have been a multi-generational community, and it’s quite clear that going from a family of 72 people to over 2 million in 430 years is no impossible feat.
@MicahB Could you provide a commentary or source explaining why we would expect there to be additional generations between Levi and Moses? I know that the Bible commonly compresses genealogies, but I would be interested to see an explanation of why it would be expected in this specific case. Thanks!
I don’t have a scholarly source or commentary to support my assumption, I just find it unlikely that four sequential generations would span four hundred years in this case. Abraham’s ability to father Issac at the age of 100 was already regarded as miraculous (the writer of Hebrews even describes Abraham as being “as good as dead” in Hebrews 11:12), and if we take the ages given in Genesis literally, the general trend was that people were aging faster and dying sooner (and therefore having most of their children sooner). Since the length of time the Hebrews spent in Egypt is defined by the text anyway, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable assumption, although it’s by no means a hill I’m prepared to die on.
@MicahB It is an interesting thought. There certainly is some shifting that needs to be done to understand the text - either the 430 years actually started earlier than Joseph, there were more than four generations, the heads of the family lived a long time, or another as of yet unconsidered alternative.
One other alternative is suggested by the Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint, which (according to a footnote in my NIV Study Bible) describe 430 years as “the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt and Canaan” (Exodus 12:40); however, this addition is absent from the Masoretic Text.