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Exodus 12:37-38 says that the Israelites numbered about 600,000 men besides women and children (plus non-Israelites and livestock). Numbers 1 gives a similar total. This means there would have been around 3.5 million people. There is little to no archaeological nor practical support for this claim.

What explanations are given for the apparent exaggeration of the number of Israelites in the Exodus account? I'm not looking for any particular stance, pro or con. I will gladly entertain convincing arguments demonstrating this as scriptural error or showing a reasonable explanation for it (or whatever other options exist).

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The last paragraph (my own words) on this answer represent my stance: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/4072/423 –  Daи Feb 5 '13 at 5:49
    
I think Mike's answer is pretty good below, but I'm hoping to also have a strong opposing viewpoint also. Whoever cites the most sources will likely win ;) –  Daи Feb 5 '13 at 5:51
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2 Answers

At the time of Nero Egypt had 7.5 million men:

This country is extended as far as the Ethiopians, and Arabia the Happy, and borders upon India; it hath seven million five hundred thousand men, besides the inhabitants of Alexandria, as may be learned from the revenue of the poll tax; yet it is not ashamed to submit to the Roman government, although it hath Alexandria as a grand temptation to a revolt, by reason it is so full of people and of riches, and is besides exceeding large (Works of Josephus, Wars of the Jews 2.385)

As far as I know there is not any historical record of any census done in Egypt at the time of Thutmose II (around 1500 B.C.), which is the time we are probably speaking about. Those who do try to 'guess' at ancient Egyptian populations do so based on “estimates of cultivated area and yields” of the land (a). In other words how much land did they seem to occupy and how well would that land have supported a population. Different people make different guesses with a range of around four million variance.

Now as we have a record of 600,000 men leaving Egypt and just for the sake of argument we estimate the 7.5 million Egyptian men were ¼ of its size at that time (for this is really only guess work anyway) we would have around 2 million men. For the sake of skepticism we reduced this some more to around 1.5 million men 1500 years before Nero, then still the Egyptians would still outnumber Israel.

In any case it would seem that Egypt had more men than Israel at any time in the guesses and when we consider what the scripture says as to why the Pharaoh began to deal cruelly with the Jews, it seems that the number 600,000 makes a lot of sense:

Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. 7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. 8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. (Exodus 1:6-9)

It seems that the men of Israel were starting to compete with the numbers of Egyptians so that Pharaoh was worried they would overtake them. Therefore the number 600,000 seems realistic and there is no apparent exaggeration from my point of view.

If I were trying to reconstruct the population of Egypt at the time of Moses I would not bother with supposed "land yields" (this is a sketchy science at best) but just start with a reliable figure like 600,000 Jews. Then I would make a rough guess on the biblical description that the Egyptians were 1.5 to 3.0 times that (900,000 - 1,800,000). Then we would be saying from 1500 B.C. to 30 A.D. the population grew from around (1.5 - 2.4) million to 7.5 million. There is nothing surprising or unrealistic about this sort of growth at all. If there is supposedly someone who thinks they can with confidence calculate different numbers, I would like to see the calculation and review the assumption they have made. I am confident anybody could easily find huge holes in them.

(a) Life of the Ancient Egyptians by Eugen Strouhal, Deryck Viney, Werner Forman and Geoffrey T. Martin (Nov 15, 1992) Page 134.

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The growth rates given here aren't unrealistic, but that still doesn't even come close to explaining away the logistical problems that a migratory population of millions would have. (Remember, it's not 600,000 people, it's 600,000 men plus all their families.) If each man had, on average, 1 wife and 1.5 children, that's 2 million people. Even with God giving them manna to eat, how do you take care of the other side of the digestive equation, for such an enormous population, without a stable city with a sewer system? And that's just one of the many, many problems that arises at that scale... –  Mason Wheeler Feb 19 '13 at 0:08
    
@MasonWheeler - I see it much differently. If God can't take care of two million Jews walking around in the wide open desert, even while using miraculous means, then there is no God, at least not an all powerful one. Even today war torn countries exceed two million migrants a year without miracles and under worse conditions. Why can't a people migrate all at once under God's protection? –  Mike Feb 19 '13 at 0:21
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I can't remember the source for this, but I recall reading an article explaining that the Hebrew words for "thousand" and "professional soldier" were very similar, different only in the vowels--which, this being ancient Hebrew, did not get written. (I believe the words were aleph and eleph, or something like that.) This is why we see accounts of tens of thousands of men being taken on raids against little podunk towns out in the middle of nowhere in Canaan. Where the original record spoke of something like (just making up numbers) 35 professional soldiers and 80 men to assist them, somewhere along the line that got mistakenly read as 35,000 men and 80 to assist them, and then combined into 35,080 people participating in the raid.

It's been about 10 years since I read the article in question, and I can't find it now. If anyone has seen something similar, please feel free to edit this and add links.

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Dang it! I header that exact same thing in seminary! Oh well, at least I can whole heartedly give you a +1! –  Affable Geek Feb 2 '13 at 1:01
    
You have the correct words hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/4072/423 ;) –  Daи Feb 5 '13 at 5:48
    
(-1) For being wrong, and not taking the time to do any research or count up the numbers before answering. See here for disproof. –  Jas 3.1 Feb 18 '13 at 20:31
    
@Jas3.1: Counting numbers just means that someone somewhere in a long chain of scribes made sure the numbers added up. It doesn't explain the fact that there's not a shred of evidence for a "migratory camp" numbering in the millions (remember, this was 600,000 men, plus women and children). A million people is a huge population, even in a modern city where we pack them all together using all sorts of advances that didn't exist back then to make it feasible. Consider the logistics of a million people where each family has to have their own tent and their own grazing lands... –  Mason Wheeler Feb 18 '13 at 23:54
    
The waste-disposal requirements alone are staggering, especially without a stable settlement where some sort of sewer system could be established! And it also doesn't explain the ridiculous numbers described in the battles, where they'd send tens of thousands of men out on a raid on some tiny town. That simply doesn't make any sense. The theory presented here does, on both counts. –  Mason Wheeler Feb 18 '13 at 23:56
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