The Parashah BaMidbar describes a detailed census of the Jewish People one year after the Exodus.
Here is a related Q&A.
Dear Rabbi Simon
Regarding Parashat Bamidbar and Shavuot, I had a question on the number of people during Yetziat Mitzraim (the Exodus). The numbers we most find is that 600K men over the age of 20 (and under 60) left Egypt. Add women and children, and it has been estimated that the total would have been in the visiting of 2-3 million people.
I always found this a staggering amount, considering the logistical and practical problems this entails. If you consider roughly 1m. (social distance 😉 ) between each person, it means that if 100 people are walking side by side, the caravan would be a minimum of 20-30 Km long, or even longer as they must have had donkeys, wagons and livestock for the journey. It’s hard to understand how such a caravan would travel through a wilderness or cross the Yam Suf.
I read Searching for Sinai by Rabbi A. Hool and I found it difficult to imagine such a large caravan travelling from Egypt to Mount Sinai. (He does not address that difficulty BTW.)
According to Google (for whatever it’s worth), the world population in 1000 BCE was estimated to be 50m.
The difficulty here is that the Jewish people have always been very small in number. Even at their numerical height in the 1930’s, the Jewish population stood at 16m out of a world population of 2 billion!
In an article (from a non-Jewish source admittedly), I read an explanation that the word ‘eleph‘ (usually translated as thousand) may not necessarily mean a thousand in this context but rather a unit or clan. Therefore, the numbers would be reduced to 598 units/clans consisting of 5500 men; adding up the eleph‘s and me’ots (hundreds) separately.
In other words, 20-30,000 people leaving Mitzraim and wandering through the wilderness.
Without going into the details of the reasoning (the article obviously contains elements that go against our accepted tradition), I was wondering if any of our traditional Jewish sources support this view? Those numbers seem far more sustainable for a journey through rugged terrain for so long and also seem to be more in line as a small nation compared to the total world population.
Looking forward to hearing your view.
Vast population in the Wilderness: I agree that this is difficult to sustain in practical, naturalistic terms. There is a school of thought that maintains that all the details of this sort are intended to convey a sense of a large number, and also offer deeper meanings, ie through homiletics, allusions, numerology and the like. In this approach, the numbers need not be taken as factually and historically precise. That is not necessarily the intent of the Torah and accepting these numbers at face value is not part of the essential convictions of a believing Jew.
(I would note that some follow such an approach in explaining the problem of the missing 164 years in Jewish history in the Persian and Babylonian eras.)
I once saw a reference to an article dealing with your question, which I have now found online. Perhaps this is the source to which you referred. I believe the author is a religiously observant Jew, but in matters such as these one should evaluate the arguments on their own merit. https://www.thetorah.com/article/recounting-the-census-a-military-force-of-5500.
Although I have not studied it exhaustively (and please note that there are essays on this website with which I definitely do not agree), this article at least tries to interpret the Torah in a way which is both rational and respectful (even if a bit radical).
My view is that questions such as these are perfectly valid, yet they ultimately do not impact upon our appreciation of the mitzvot and values which are the essence of the Torah.
Rabbi Rashi Simon