In Exodus 12:37 (NASB)

Now the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children.

then in Numbers 1:46 (NASB)

So all the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their fathers’ households, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go to war in Israel, 46 all the numbered men were 603,550.

points to a much larger group of people (considering the population also had men younger than 20 and women).

What's the correct number and why?

  • 2
    #1 You don't ask how Israelites defined "men" (compared to "boys"). #2 603,550 is about "six hundred thousand". – RonJohn Jan 23 at 16:48
  • @RonJohn just saw the comment. Please refer to Numbers 1:3 and 2 Chronicles 25:5. – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Feb 11 at 22:27

The two numbers are the same number. Both indicate that the "men" are those that were older than 20 years who could handle a sword.

Indeed, this was the standard way of counting in Israel - men older than 20 who could handle a sword, that is, were ready to be soldiers in the army. 1 Chron 21:5, 2 Sam 29:4.

Num 1:3 - You and Aaron are to number those who are twenty years of age or older by their divisions—everyone who can serve in Israel’s army.

Thus, 603,550 is "about" 600,000 men on foot besides women and children. This is again confirmed in Num 11:21 -

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!'

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary observes -

six hundred thousand … men—It appears from Nu 1:3 that the enumeration is of men above twenty years of age. Assuming, what is now ascertained by statistical tables, that the number of males above that age is as nearly as possible the half of the total number of males, the whole male population of Israel, on this computation, would amount to 1,200,000; and adding an equal number for women and children, the aggregate number of Israelites who left Egypt would be 2,400,000.

  • Ok so your explanation is that both are the same number, that Exodus is only counting with men over 20 years. Finding this number over 2 million persons very high (not considering God's capability ofc) – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Jan 23 at 11:28
  • This number is consistently quoted several times in the Torah both at the beginning and end of Numbers. – Dottard Jan 23 at 19:28
  • Jacob Milgrom in The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers shows that the encampment would've been 49 square miles based on the info from Numbers 33:49 which makes it very unlikely that in that space that amount of people lived. – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Jan 23 at 20:28
  • 1
    @TiagoMartinsPeres李大仁 - if you wish to question and re-write the record we have, that is another matter from simply understanding the text as we have it. If the number appeared just once, then it might be a slip of the copyist pen but it occurs consistently in numerous places. This site is devoted to understanding the text as we have it. – Dottard Jan 23 at 20:31
  • 1
    what I am hinting at is that there's another take on it having to do with the word "thousand" (eleph) – Tiago Martins Peres 李大仁 Jan 23 at 20:48

After Joseph’s family settled in the land of Goshen, they increased greatly in number:

But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them (Exodus 1:7).

And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children (Exodus 12:37).

I found a useful article that helps to answer your question. It gives an explanation of how the Hebrew words for different numbers could have been misinterpreted. It also agrees that the post-exodus Israelite army numbered well over 600 thousand men. This would imply a total Israeli population of about 2.4 million. This information is in addition to, and in support of, Dottard’s answer:

The Hebrew term ‘eleph is typically translated “thousand” (Exodus 18:21), such as in the first chapter of Numbers. The counts given in this chapter are composed of words, not numerals. Numbers 1:21, for instance, records the men of Reuben’s tribe as sis’sāh vav arbā’im ‘eleph vav hamēs mē’ot.” The traditional, literal translation would be “six and forty thousand and five hundred,” usually rendered as “46,500.”

However, two words in this phrase are subject to variations: ‘eleph and vav. The term ‘eleph is used elsewhere in Scripture as a reference to groups, not a literal number, including descriptions of Israel during and after the exodus. It is applies to tribes (Numbers 10:4), clans (Joshua 22:14; Judges 6:15; Micah 5:1), families (Joshua 22:21), and divisions (Numbers 1:16).

Further, the connecting symbol vav can mean “and,” but it can also mean “or,” depending on context. Exodus 21:15 and Exodus 21:17, for instance, use vav to imply that certain actions are a sin when done against one’s father “or” mother, not that they are sins when done against them both.

The total for the final tally given in Numbers 1:46, likewise, might have been intended as “598 ‘eleph, or 5,500,” then accidentally misread as “598 ‘eleph and 5 ‘eleph and 500,” which was condensed to “603,500” as misinterpretation of the prior passage took hold.

Exodus 12:37, Numbers 1:46, and Numbers 2:32 all describe Israel’s population of men, not including women and children. Numbers 1:21–43 gives an account from each tribe, using Hebrew words, not symbols, to represent quantities. Adding these up, one arrives at the figure given in verse 46. This phrasing is traditionally interpreted to mean just over 600 thousand adult men, implying a total population about four times that size, or 2.4 million. Source: https://www.gotquestions.org/Israelites-exodus.html

There are counter-arguments to a large contingent of Israeli’s leaving Egypt (as explained in the article above) that are worth reading, but the article comes to this conclusion:

Scripture does not place any theological significance on the exact number of people who participated in the exodus. The intent of the Old Testament is to record God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf and their response to those signs. The fact that the Bible gives little space, other than a few verses, referring to the numbers of people implies that those numbers are not crucial in and of themselves. That there is confusion about what those numbers are has more to do with our lack of understanding than some subtle point being made by God. Both the “large Israel” and “small Israel” interpretations—solutions one and two, above—have supporters and detractors. Both have strengths and weaknesses. They cannot both be true, but either one would be compatible with a view of Scripture as inerrant and inspired.

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