On the plains of Moab, Moses tells the children of Israel this message:
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God…. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you….
It is one of the sweetest moments of Scripture. By no merit of their own will the Israelites be blessed but by the grace of their God. These verses, in a way, are the essence of the entire religion.
Yet, one of the phrases in this discourse causes a bit of a dilemma. It is Moses’s claim that the Israelites were “the fewest of all people.” The claim is strange in light of two facts: the book of Numbers in most English translations claims that the Israelites had 603,550 fighting men at the time of the Exodus (which with a conservative estimate would place the overall population over 2.5 million), and archaeology suggests that the entire region of Canaan and all of its diverse people never numbered more than 3 million.
To better illustrate these numbers, consider the Israelites lining up to march out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. One scholar points out that if 2.5 million people were to line up in rows of ten with 3 feet between each row, the convoy would stretch over 140 miles—some Israelites would still be coming out of the Red Sea as others were marching into the Jordan.
In addition, there are several other archeological facts (e.g. the Battle of Kadesh) and biblical accounts (e.g. the Battle of Ai) that make such a large population for Israel seem unlikely. But the point here is not to cast doubt upon the Bible’s reliability, but to rather seek out a different method of interpretation. The weakness is in us and in translations, not in Scripture.
A possible solution comes with some basic knowledge of the Hebrew term ‘eleph [אֶלֶף]. The word is used 505 times in the Bible in 319 different verses and is usually translated “thousand.” It should be noted that the consonants for the term are the same as aleph—the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and their term for “one.” Since vowels were not part of the original biblical text, there is already some ambiguity. But the real key is another possible translation for ‘eleph meaning “clan” or “squad,” simply suggesting large groups rather than a strict thousand. This derivation of the word comes from the term’s relation to an ox and oxen herds.
While the option of another translation might be enough, scholar George Mendenhall more thoroughly expands on the possible re-interpretation of the Numbers census using the alternate meaning. My friend Jake Owens, in his research paper on this topic (from which I extrapolate several of these examples and figures), explains Mendenhal’s method for dismantling the predicament as follows:
A traditional translation renders the verse as: “those listed of the tribe of Reuben were 46,500.” The numbers in the verse literally translate as “six and forty thousand and five hundred.” Mendenhall, however, would translate ’eleph as “clan” rather than “thousand.” Therefore, the structure of the census is not simply a list of tribal military figures, but a number of fighting squads followed by a second number indicating the amount of warriors from each tribe. This is not uncharacteristic of the ancient Israelites, who regularly grouped themselves with a tribal orientation. Therefore, those listed from the tribe of Reuben then would not be 46,500 soldiers, but 46 squads with 500 soldiers total. This would mean that the total size of Israel’s army would be 5,550 men.
Altering the traditional interpretation of the Bible as given to us is a dangerous game. Yet, in such cases, it seems worth it to invest the time and study to God’s word when reason is affirmed and God’s strength is shown. That’s my favorite part of this exercise: at the end of it, we must rely on the power of God to provide.