I have a bit of a complicated question about the population of the Israelites at the time of the Exodus and then at the time of the first census. J.W. Wenham (see here https://legacy.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/Library/TynBull_1967_18_02_Wenham_LargeNumbersOT.pdf) understood "eleph" to be referring to military captains, which solves many problems associated with large numbers in the Old Testament.

In his paper, he estimates the Exodus population at around 70,000. Though, I'm having a hard time understanding what he believes the Israelite population to be at the time of the first census in Numbers in his paper.

My question is, based off 1 Corinthians 10:8, when Paul says 23,000 died at the golden calf incident (3,000 killed by Levites and 20,000 by the plague in Exodus 32), does understanding "eleph" to be a military term line up with the estimated population at the Exodus (Exodus 12:37) going down by 20,000 to what the estimated population would be in the first census in Numbers (Numbers 1)?

In other words, given the understanding of "eleph" as a military term, what is the total estimated population of Israel from the information in Exodus 12:37, and what is the total estimated population of Israel from the information in Numbers 1, and do we see a 20,000 person drop as Paul says?


The numbers recorded in the census of Num 1 mean that that there were over 600,000 men of military age (greater than 20 yrs). This implies a total population of several million people.

Some have thought that this number of people is impossibly large and biologically impossible to have occurred naturally from a start of just 75 as recorded in Ex 1. They are correct, BUT only if we confine the increase to biological descendants and four generations. It is obvious that this population of Israelites consisted of much more than biological descendants for the following reasons:

  1. The 12 patriarchs had married foreigners
  2. The children of the patriarchs would have married non-biological descendants as well.
  3. Many Egyptians attached themselves to Israel (Ex 12:38) with varying intentions - some obviously married into Israel and considered themselves part of Israel and even worshiped the true God of heaven. Others did not.
  4. The appendix below shows that many "foreigners" attached themselves to Israel and we counted among them

Thus, it is clear that with Egyptian (and other?) additions, the population increase is entirely credible.

Lastly, the Hebrew word for 1000 is אֶלֶף (eleph) and occurs over 500 times in the OT and uniformly means 1000 without exception. The referenced paper in the OP offers no credible argument or instance where this word means anything other than 1000 except by unsupported assertion.

APPENDIX - Israel and "foreigners"

  • Abraham’s own household must have consisted of perhaps 2000 people just to be able to raise an army of 318 men to liberate Lot, Gen 14:14. Indeed, Abraham’s chief servant (from Damascus) was clearly a believer and very devout as shown in Gen 24.
  • When Jacob entered Egypt, his family numbered 75 people (Acts 7:14, Ex 1:5). Some of these were not direct descendants of Abraham such as the wives of the 12 patriarchs, notably Joseph’s own wife. 215 years and four generations later at the exodus, Israel’s army had over 600,000 men, excluding women and children, (Ex 12:37, Num 1:46, etc) suggesting a total population of several million people, requiring many additions. This included a significant mixed multitude (Ex 12:38) showing that Israel obviously consisted of many non-biological Jews had joined. (Note that it is biologically impossible for Israelite numbers to have grown from 75 to several million without many outside additions.)
  • Moses married a Midianite (Ex 2:16-21) also known as a Cushite. Miriam and Aaron were severely reprimanded and punished for displaying racism (Num 12:1, 2)
  • Caleb, who represented and led the tribe of Judah was a Kennizite (Num 32:12).
  • Rahab was a Canaanite (Josh 2:1, 2, Matt 1:5)
  • Ruth was Moabite (Ruth 1:4 16, 17, Matt 1:5) – these last two make King David descended from foreigners (Ruth 4:13-16).
  • Uriah was a Hittite (2 Sam 11:3)
  • King David’s elite personal regiment was Gittite, Philistines (2 Sam 15:18-22, 1 Chron 18:17)
  • The Rechabites were Kenites (Jer 35:1-19)
  • Many other foreigners lived in Israel (1 Chron 22:2, 17, 2 Chron 30:25)
  • In Esther’s time “many of the people of the land became Jews” (Esther 8:17, 9:27)
  • Even in NT times, many Jewish synagogues were attended by godly gentiles converted to Judaism (Acts 13:16, 26, 16:14, 17:17)
  • Many Jewish proselytes came to worship in Jerusalem (John 20:20, Acts 2:9-11)
  • Jesus quotes Isa 56:7, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations”, Mark 11:17.
  • Further, biological Israelites could opt out of the covenant and be cut-off (Ex 30:33, 38, 31:14, Lev 7:20, 21, 25, 27).

Thus, it is abundantly clear that membership of Israel was always open to all and voluntary.

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