Faith and Magic: The magic of mathematics

Going back to Exodus, one of the most glaringly impossible things is not magic at all, but math; it’s the glaring impossibility of the number of people marching away from Egypt. I’ve read some Christian books that describe how the tribe was so large it could be seen from space, and how they marched in the shape of a cross, foreshadowing Jesus—all very interesting, but if the tribe was really as large as the book of Numbers says:

Read Numbers 1:45-46. 603,550 men over the age of 20!

It’s a very precise number isn’t it? And that’s just the men of an age to fight. An army bigger than the whole Egyptian army, bigger than several wandering Amalekite tribes put together. A population of over 2 million people (counting women and children) served by only two midwives? A nation where every woman bears around a hundred live children in her lifetime (assuming the accounts of how many Israelites first went to Egypt and how they stayed there are true)? Scary, isn’t it? But…

Read Exodus 19:6, Exodus 17:11. Were they really such a huge tribe?

The Numbers account starts by listing men in each tribe, and the word used for thousand is ‘eleph, which is also translated as “troop.” We’re told that the book of Numbers was written by Moses, but we can probably assume it was compiled from Moses’ writing (and assume Moses didn’t write the account of his own death), so a later writer would have put all the figures together. Perhaps that writer was a mathematician and decided to add the numbers up for himself, taking ‘eleph to mean thousand and feeling very proud of how big his tribe was, while forgetting that God said they were a small and the Amalekite army nearly beat them. The translation works pretty well if we assume a troop, like a slave work-troop, is about ten people. Then we have with 5,550 men age 20 and over, and a tribe of about 20,000 which, surprisingly, is pretty average in history and in the present day for a nomadic tribe.

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