According to Numbers 1:20-46 (NJPS):

They totaled as follows: The descendants of Reuben, Israel’s first-born, the registration of the clans of their ancestral house, as listed by name, head by head, all males aged twenty years and over, all who were able to bear arms—those enrolled from the tribe of Reuben: 46,500.


Those are the enrollments recorded by Moses and Aaron and by the chieftains of Israel, who were twelve in number, one man to each ancestral house. All the Israelites, aged twenty years and over, enrolled by ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms—all who were enrolled came to 603,550.

That is a remarkably large number for an ancient society and, since it only claims to count the men of fighting age, isn't a complete count of the entire community of Israel. This has led some scholars to translate the Hebrew word eleph as some smaller number than "a thousand" and others to interpret the entire Exodus story as non-historical.

How should we understand these, apparently, huge numbers of people?


6 Answers 6


The argument I have read is that the word often translated thousands means "fighting units" and the number after is the number of soldiers in those units. Thus, it would be "64 units, 400 soldiers from the tribe of Dan." While the Lexicons and word books such as Gesenius and Strong point out that eleph can mean "a company of troops fighting under one leader," just because a word can mean something does not mean that it does mean so in the context in question.

Brown, Driver, and Briggs Lexicon list one definition as: "2. a thousand, a company of 1000 men, as united under one superior, or leader..." Even then, they are taking it as meaning one thousand people. There are a handful of verses where it can be understood as "clan" or "division," such as 1 Samuel 10:19 where it is contrasted with tribes ("by your tribes and by your clans").

R. Laird Harris, the general editor of The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament adds under the entry for eleph:

It is occasionally alleged that since eleph means a company of a thousand men it could mean any military unit, even of reduced strength. From there it came to mean a family unit or clan, even a small one. But this means that the 1000's of the mustering of the soldiers in Num 1 and Num 26 is reduced to a small figure in accord with the desire of the commentator. The wilderness wandering and its miraculous supply is also reduced to naturalistic proportions. But it should be remembered that the conquest of Transjordan and of Palestine was not accomplished by a handful of men. Also such juggling must alter the text of the Numbers passages which by the addition of their totals clearly speak of 1000's of soldiers. R.L.H.

The interpretation of division almost works for the census.

  • 43 units of 730 soldiers from the tribe of Reuben
  • 22 units of 200 soldiers from the tribe of Simeon
  • 40 units of 500 soldiers from the tribe of Gad
  • 76 units of 500 soldiers from the tribe of Judah
  • 64 units of 300 soldiers from the tribe of Issachar
  • 60 units of 500 soldiers from the tribe of Zebulun
  • 52 units of 700 soldiers from the tribe of Manasseh
  • 32 units of 500 soldiers from the tribe of Ephraim
  • 45 units of 600 soldiers from the tribe of Benjamin
  • 64 units of 400 soldiers from the tribe of Dan
  • 53 units of 400 soldiers from the tribe of Asher
  • 45 units of 400 soldiers from the tribe of Naphtali

At this point, the numbers work out. However, it does not work for the total given. Under this system, what is recorded in the text should be read as 601 units of 730 men. Yet the math simply does not work. To be consistent, the author should have listed the total as 596 units of 5,730 men. The only two counters that can logically be given to keep the understanding of "units" in the verse recording the total are:

  1. It was inserted later by someone who misread eleph as "thousand" instead of "fighting unit."
  2. It was originally written as 596 elephim, 5 eleph, 730 men. The first eleph would mean "unit" and the second, "thousand." A later scribe did not catch the shift of meaning within the verse and added the numbers together.

Another item of note in the discussion is that when the word eleph appears in the two census lists (Numbers 1 and Numbers 26), the word is singular when referring to the numbers in each tribe. That is, Numbers 26:7 states "These were the families of the Reubenites; and those numbered of them were 43,730." The Hebrew reads with the singular form of eleph. If the word was supposed to be interpreted as "units/divisions," then it should have been in the plural as no rule of Hebrew grammar would allow for the mismatch at this point. Eleph in the singular for these counts is consistent throughout the chapters with the exception of the introductory verse (Numbers 1:16), "They were the heads of the thousands [elephi the masculine plural construct of eleph] of Israel" and the totalling verse (Numbers 1:46) "And all those numbered totaled 603,550." In the latter, the number is written out as "six hundred eleph (masculine singular), and three elephim (masculine plural), and five hundred and fifty. In Numbers 26, the word appears 14 times. Eleph for the numbers for each tribe are singular and the number for the total is also singular, six hundred eleph, and an eleph, seven hundred and thirty.

Moreover, when you look elsewhere in Numbers to see how this word is used, you find the concept of "fighting unit" doesn't work consistently (if at all). In Numbers 3:40ff, a census is taken of all firstborn males, "one month old and upward." The total given in Numbers 3:43 is 22,273. As this number includes infants, toddlers, and small children, "fighting units" seems out of place to say the least.

Just above this census of the firstborn, is a census of the Levites, who were not a fighting tribe. They performed the holy services (some as priests, others as helpers to those priests). They are counted and listed using the same words as in the question. Their total given is 22,000.

Logically, a non-fighting tribe would not have 22 fighting units totaling 0 men.

So the solution of "thousand" vs. "fighting unit" does not make sense in the context of Numbers.

  • does it answer "How should we understand these, apparently, huge numbers of people?" ????
    – user8377
    Feb 7, 2016 at 19:01
  • This is a good refutation of the 'thousands' concept, but doesn't really attempt to answer the question.
    – Steve can help
    May 26, 2016 at 7:24

Short Answer: The numbers are accurate as they have been translated. There were ~600,000 Israelites in the Wilderness (and in Egypt).

Count and re-count

These are those who were numbered of the sons of Israel, 601,730. -Numbers 26:51

Earlier in the chapter we are given the counts of each individual tribe. They are recorded as follows:

  • 1) 43,730 from the tribe of Reuben
  • 2) 22,200 from the tribe of Simeon
  • 3) 40,500 from the tribe of Gad
  • 4) 76,500 from the tribe of Judah
  • 5) 64,300 from the tribe of Issachar
  • 6) 60,500 from the tribe of Zebulun
  • 7) 52,700 from the tribe of Manasseh
  • 8) 32,500 from the tribe of Ephraim
  • 9) 45,600 from the tribe of Benjamin
  • 10) 64,400 from the tribe of Dan
  • 11) 53,400 from the tribe of Asher
  • 12) 45,400 from the tribe of Naphtali

The total, if you add all of these numbers up is 601,730 ... exactly what Numbers 26:51 recorded the total as.


A user on Christianity.SE claimed that the Hebrew words for "thousand" and "soldier" were mixed up in the transcription and translation of the Bible, presenting an extreme exaggeration in the number of Israelites in Egypt and in the Wilderness.Now, if you consider the "thousands" to actually be "soldiers," and the others to be non-soldiers, you get the following count:

  • 1) 43 soldiers and 730 non-soldiers from the tribe of Reuben
  • 2) 22 soldiers and 200 non-soldiers from the tribe of Simeon
  • 3) 40 soldiers and 500 non-soldiers from the tribe of Gad
  • 4) 76 soldiers and 500 non-soldiers from the tribe of Judah
  • 5) 64 soldiers and 300 non-soldiers from the tribe of Issachar
  • 6) 60 soldiers and 500 non-soldiers from the tribe of Zebulun
  • 7) 52 soldiers and 700 non-soldiers from the tribe of Manasseh
  • 8) 32 soldiers and 500 non-soldiers from the tribe of Ephraim
  • 9) 45 soldiers and 600 non-soldiers from the tribe of Benjamin
  • 10) 64 soldiers and 400 non-soldiers from the tribe of Dan
  • 11) 53 soldiers and 400 non-soldiers from the tribe of Asher
  • 12) 45 soldiers and 400 non-soldiers from the tribe of Naphtali

The total, if you add all of these numbers up is 596 soldiers and 5,730 non-soldiers, which is not what the Hebrew text records.

(Furthermore, it is odd to think that the soldiers would be counted down to the last man while the non-soldiers would be rounded off to the nearest hundred ... except in one case!)


The idea that the "thousands" in Numbers 26 (and similar passages) should have been rendered "soldiers" has no exegetical basis. This attempt at making the text of the Hebrew Scriptures more palatable is the equivalent of undermining the veracity of the text; it is no more legitimate than claiming that the numbers were fabricated.

  • same here "How should we understand these, apparently, huge numbers of people?"
    – user8377
    Feb 7, 2016 at 19:02

Two million people still seems rather high for the time period, especially if you're talking about two million people wandering the wilderness for 40 years. Such a high number of people with their animals, belongings, etc., would stretch for dozens of miles. At the most, Egypt then had 7.5 million people total.


The figure of 600,000 men of fighting age (more than 2 million total population) must be rejected on the grounds that such a large group would have left substantial archaeological evidence. In addition, this group would have constituted a population many times greater than the largest city in the world at the time, namely Thebes.

Historian Ian Morris has estimated that by 1500 BC, Thebes may have grown to be the largest city in the world, with a population of about 75,000, a position which it held until about 900 BC.

Theories reducing the numbers by translation or calculation errors may yield a more rational figure. However, a better approach is to recognize that the story, while retaining important religious truths, is largely mythical.

The book Who Were the Israelites and Where Did they Come From? by Michael Dever suggests that rather than a sudden mass migration out of Egypt, a much more gradual process occurred. Moreover, many of the tribes that were later adopted into "Israel" never lived in Egypt at all, but joined its tribal federation and were only later were adopted into the Exodus narrative.

Moses may still be considered a historical figure, but one who has grown to mythical proportions as stories were told around countless campfires and embellished by later priests and scribes. How many actually made the trip? Given that Egypt's largest city had only 75,000 people, no more than 10,000 Hebrew slaves, an probably considerably less. Moreover, these probably did not make the journey all at once but over a period of decades, a few hundred or less at a time.

  • As nomads they might not have left any archaeological evidence; that's not the real problem. The big issue is that if they walked in a column it would stretch a ridiculous distance: being generous and using ranks eight across, 2.5 million people would stretch over 600 kilometers. Assuming generously that one rank passes a given point every two seconds, it would take over a week of 24/7 marching for the entire column to pass. And IIRC my geography, there were places where a rank of four would be maximum, which makes it all twice as bad . . . and that ignores all the livestock!
    – Traildude
    Mar 7 at 5:27
  • To add to the above, if they were superbly disciplined and moved efficiently, just breaking camp would require a week of time -- and that assumes (as I did above) everyone marching 24 hours per day. Use eight hours a day for actual marching/hiking/trudging and the week becomes three.
    – Traildude
    Mar 7 at 5:31

The main question "How many people were involved in the Exodus?" is not possible to answer. But we know that there were at least 603,550 people, according to Numbers 1-2. If we include all who are less than 20 years old, all female, all Levites, and all weaker people who were not ready to fight, the figure can be estimated to be 2.0 ~ 2.5 millions. But again, this is only an estimate and is not possible to confirm.

That being said, the OP also asked at the end, "How should we understand these, apparently, huge numbers of people?" This was asked after the consideration that some scholars suggested other ways to understand the Hebrew word eleph. However, as a few posts had pointed out, in the context of the census in Numbers, it is very unlikely that eleph meant something like team leader instead of a numerical unit. As a numerical unit, the word eleph means 1000.

Furthermore, most scholars ignored another context in which the same number 603,550 was referenced. That context is the counting of the amount of silver received for the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 38). There, the amount of silver received was 100 kikkar ('talent') and 1,775 shekels, which accounted for the 603,550 people, each contributing half a shekel (Exodus 38:25-26; cf. 30:13). 603,550 divided by 2 is 301,775, which easily matches the amount of silver received. However, if you take eleph to mean something else, there is an unsurmountable difficulty of interpretation.

The problem was not introduced by the text, but by those who would like to interpret the text differently in order to take hold to other scholarly commitments.


Consider what Numbers 1:2-3 (KJV) suggests about how "eleph" is used.

2Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls; 3From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel; ...

So, the numbering was to be:

  • by tribe
  • by house/family
  • of all the males able to go to war

And, beginning in Numbers 1:20-21, this pattern is seen in the detail of the numbering recorded:

  • Tribe of Reuben
  • 46 family units/households (not thousands)
  • 500 men able to go to war

And the pattern is repeated for all the tribes, in the verses that follow.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites.
    – Steve can help
    May 26, 2016 at 7:40
  • 1
    What evidence do you have to support that it is not thousands?
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 5, 2016 at 4:10
  • I have edited your answer to format the quote properly, and to change the numbered points to bullets. It can be rolled back to your original, if you prefer.
    – enegue
    Aug 22, 2017 at 21:08
  • As to your suggestion, if "thousands" should be "families"/"households" what are you suggesting about the "hundreds"? You can't simply discard this detail.
    – enegue
    Aug 22, 2017 at 21:24

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