Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Promised Land or Bust

The Problem with Large Numbers and the Exodus

In a video of a lecture Dr. Hector Avalos gave at Minnetonka, MN, in 2007, Dr. Avalos takes issue with the number of fighting men, some 600,000 according to Exodus 12:37, who crossed the Red (Reed) Sea from Egypt to the Sinai at the beginning of the Exodus.  Dr. Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, in his lecture  “How Archaeology  Killed Biblical  History,” contends that the number cannot be accurate.  Archaeology does not support that huge number, and therefore biblical history must be wrong.

Let’s see.

Dr. Avalos claims that 600,000 fighting men in Exodus 12:37 translates into  2,000,000  people when women and children are added. That is an unbelievable number. But is that truly what is implied in Exodus?

Dr. Ron Allen, my Hebrew professor in grad school, writes about the questions of large numbers in the book of Numbers where the fighting men are again counted:
Literal interpretation of numbers includes understandings that extend from mathematical exactitude, through general approximation, to literary license. The only demand of literal interpretation (better, “normal” interpretation) is that the reader ought to seek to find the use he or she believes the text itself presents and demands.1  (p. 69)

And that is what we’d expect of a scholar dealing with ancient texts, biblical or not. Unfortunately, Dr. Avalos does not seek to find the use the text presents.  He reads the text in English and ignores the genre,  the cultural and literary  conventions, and evidence from the period. Ironically,  he reads the text uncritically and through the eyes of a literalist rather than a scholar.

But there is more going on here than a critique of a small detail in the Exodus narrative. There is an attempt to argue that because of the obviously impossible numbers the entire narrative is discredited.

So let me deal with that first before suggesting a solution to the problem of the numbers.

The question is whether the Hebrews (Israelites) left Egypt, crossed the Red (Reed) Sea and conquered and settled in the land of Canaan in the 14th through the 12th century BCE.  That is the biblical narrative. Is it factual?  And is it supported by archaeology?

Interestingly Dr. Avalos mentions in passing but dismisses one of the crucial pieces of archaeological
evidence, the Armana Letters.

The Armana Letters are tablets written from Canaanite and Syrian vassal rulers to the king of Egypt and date from the late 14th century BCE.  They contain reports of the political and military situation in Canaan from a period of time that would coincide with the biblical description of the conquest in the books of Joshua and Judges.

Dr. Avalos claims that the letters do not show evidence of Israel as an entity in Canaan: “There is no mention of a kingdom of Israel in 1375.”  Now, that will not come as a surprise to a Bible reader. The Bible’s description of that period of time, only 25 years after the exodus, is found in Joshua and Judges, and there is no mention of a kingdom of Israel. There was no kingdom for two hundred and fifty years or more. There were tribal leaders, called judges, and there were ongoing, sporadic, and local battles between Israelite tribes and various Canaanite cities.

The outcome of those battles as described in Judges and even in Joshua, a more heroic version of the “conquest,” is less than decisive. The Canaanites are not immediately nor entirely vanquished.  Many are assimilated.  In some cases the Canaanites live alongside the Hebrews for a long period of time.  The Bible even explains why.  It is because after failing to drive the out Canaanites the people of Israel began to adopt the gods of the Canaanites and did not obey Yahweh. So God left the Canaanites in the land  to test their faithfulness. (Judges 2:20-23) So the situation in Canaan in the late 14th century BCE was not total conquest but ongoing conflict.

And that is what the Armana Letters reveal. They speak of the Habiru or Apiru who were harassing the local Canaanite cities that were in tribute to the king of Egypt. 


Now, the Hapiru are mentioned in many sources from the mid-18th century to the 14th century and in many locations in the Near East, and they could not all be references to the Hebrews. But the name is obviously similar.

Many current scholars dismiss the similarities because they do not see a connection between the Habiru and the Hebrews. Avalos is among them. But that may be a mistake.

Robert Wolfe, PhD history, argues that the connection may be in the identifying characteristics of the Habiru and the Hebrews. 2 The Habiru were nomads, raiders, and escaped slaves. It is entirely possible that the Canaanites would see the Hebrews exactly this way. The Bible itself describes the Hebrews as escaped slaves and nomads.


The other connection is with the cities mentioned in the Armana Letters and the biblical narrative.  In
tablet EA254,  the “mayor of Shechem” reports that his son has joined with the Habiru. Shechem was in the center of the Canaanite hill country northwest  of Jericho. It is the place at Mt. Ebal where Joshua had the Israelites pronounce blessings and curses and where the conquest was initiated (Joshua 8:30).  Yet it is not reported that Shechem was ever conquered or destroyed. Was that because the king’s son joined with the Habiru?  Whether or not that was the case, a number of letters refer to the Habiru in terms that match the biblical narrative.

In addition, archaeological evidence for Israel (the Hebrews) in Canaan is found in the classic markers archaeologists use to  distinguish different groups and identify particular times, pottery shards.

At Hazor, a northern Canaanite city that the Bible describes as destroyed and burned by Israelite invaders (Joshua 11:11,12), Mycenean pottery was found under the burn layer. Mycenean pottery was imported into Canaan by Canaanites.

When was Hazor burned? That can be dated quite reliably to the 14th or 13th centuries.

Yigael Yadin writes, “The Mycenean III type serves as evidence—nearly the only firm testimony available to archaeologists—for absolute dating of strata to the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.”3 An early 14th century date fits perfectly with the biblical account and is a definite marker for a powerful Hebrew presence in Canaan.

Another evidence for the Israelites in Canaan is the Merneptah stele. It is a victory monument of Pharaoh Merneptah. On that stele, dated to 1206 B.C., are listed  peoples in Canaan conquered by the Pharaoh.

That list ends with “Israel.”   It indicates that the people called Israelites or Hebrews were well enough established in Canaan to be considered a trophy by the Pharaoh.

William Dever, PhD archaeology Professor  University of Arizona, says of the significance of the stele in a NOVA 2008 interview: “So the Egyptians, a little before 1200 B.C.E., know of a group of people somewhere in the central highlands—a loosely affiliated tribal confederation, if you will—called "Israelites." These are our Israelites. So this is a priceless inscription.”


The archaeological evidence – and there is more than I’ve listed – is pretty conclusive. The Hebrews/Israelites were in Canaan at the time the Bible indicates. And there is no indication they were there before that date.

But did they arrive in Canaan in a massive invasion about 1400 B.C.? This is the point Dr. Avalos challenges. This is where I return to the issue of huge numbers.

I should note that Dr. Avalos is not alone in his skepticism about the huge numbers. Many biblical scholars have tackled the issue. But one scholar made this point:

The more absurd the figures the less likely it is that they were invented. Absurdity suggests the likelihood that someone has been trying to transmit records faithfully, in spite of the fact that they do not seem to make sense. Failure to recognize this point has tended to make scholars cavalier in their dismissal of phenomena which are crying for explanation.4

That would be my point as well. It would be silly to think that the people to whom the Exodus account was first addressed would have not recognized the absurdity of the numbers – if  they meant to them what they mean to us. It is reasonable therefore to begin with the assumption that the numbers express something different from the 2 million people at which our “traditional” calculation and Avalos' have arrived.

It is appropriate here to note that the huge numbers in Exodus 12 to which Avalos referred are not the
only huge numbers in the Bible nor in the literature and histories of the Ancient Near East. The men before the flood in Genesis 6 are said to have lived many hundreds of years. And in the Sumerian King List, kings were recorded with incredibly long lifetimes.5

Were these kings real? There is no reason to think that they were not. But the lifetimes recorded are surreal. What do we make of them?

There have been various explanations for the large numbers in the Bible. Dr. Ron Allen in the Tyndale commentary on Numbers already cited does a good job of listing and discussing the alternative explanations. (The introduction to the book of  Numbers in the NIV Study Bible lists some of these.)

One is that the figures are accurate. The argument is that given the length of time in Egypt and the fact that the Pharaoh was afraid that the Hebrews would be a threat to Egypt if they were to rebel and takes sides with an enemy (Exodus 1:9,10) that 2 million is not an excessive number.  The reasoning is that there was enough time for the Hebrews to have multiplied to 2 million and the Pharaoh would not have been concerned if the population was small.  The problem remains that 2 million rivals the number of Egyptians in the 14th century.  That doesn’t make much sense.

Another explanation is that it is a corruption of the text. In other words, the numbers we have are not what were originally written. Dr. Wenham gives numerous examples from the biblical text where two writers writing about the same events include numbers that radically differ. His conclusion is that this discrepancy is evidence of a corruption of the text. The copyist simply did not understand how to correctly transcribe the text. The problem is that we do not have a set of numbers that contradict those given in Exodus and Numbers.

Another analysis by Colin J. Humphreys, Physicist and Bible scholar, is that a marker used in the Hebrew text, אֶ֧לֶף has two meanings. One meaning is a thousand – that is how it is traditionally translated. The other is troop or squad leader.6   If we translated Exodus 12:37 that way, we would get אֶ֧לֶף (squad leaders) מֵא֨וֹת (hundred) כְּשֵׁשׁ־ (about 6).  Hebrew reads from right to left, so read in English it would be “about six hundred squads.”  The problem with that idea is that the Septuagint translates the text as ἑξακοσίας χιλιάδας πεζῶν (roughly, “six hundred thousand footmen”). Apparently the translators  didn’t understand אֶ֧לֶף as squad leaders.

There is also the idea that Exodus is an exaggerated legend written in the 3rd century BCE to create a backstory for the newly reborn Jewish nation after the Babylonian captivity.  That would be the reading of Dr. Jacob Wright of Emory University, Chandler School of Theology.  I encountered that reading in a class I audited a few years ago. It also seems to be the reading of Dr. Avalos.

The problem with that is that the Exodus story is woven through all the Old Testament scriptures, both early and late. If the legend was created in the 3rd or 4th  century, it is unlikely that it would have been picked up by the later prophets, prophets who would have been preaching at about the same time as the legend makers were busy creating the legend. Would they not have known? It is even  more of a dilemma when we consider the earlier prophets who are also reliably dated to a time before the exile. How could they have incorporated a legend not yet created?  The only possibility is that the Exodus story and allusions were written into the documents as they were copied in later centuries. But the story of the Exodus is so intertwined that merely inserting a narrative is impossible. And it is too much of a conspiracy theory to be believable.

I think the best explanation is the one suggested by Dr. Allen. He writes in his commentary on Numbers:
I suggest for consideration the possibility that the large numbers in the census lists in the book of Numbers are deliberately and purposefully exaggerated as a rhetorical device to bring glory to God, bring derision to enemies, and point forward to the fulfillment of God’s promise to the fathers that their descendants would be as innumerable as the stars. 7

David Fouts in a doctoral thesis referenced by Dr. Allen indicated that Akkadian records demonstrate a widespread use of the convention of literary hyperbole related to numbers in a military context. In other words, it was a common literary feature. That would support Dr. Allen’s analysis.

Certainly we can find many examples of poetic hyperbole in the biblical text. Psalm 91:7 says “A thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand / but it [the plague] will not come near you.” We read that as a poetic way of saying many. We do not expect that it means exactly 1000 or 10,000. We ourselves use numbers this way. I might say to a friend, “I betcha a million dollars you can’t sink that putt.” And we all understand that I am not making a serious bet of $1,000,000. It is an “expression.”

But what does that do to the factuality of Exodus?

The answer is nothing.

If the Israelite readers (or hearers) of the narrative understood that these figures were exaggerated as a praise to God – as the reigns of Sumerian kings were exaggerated as praise to them – then there is no deception, no legend building.  Remember the Bible is first and foremost a religious text, not a book of history, even though the history may also be factual. It was expected that it would be written as a praise to God.

But it would be equally a mistake to conclude that the numbers in the book of Exodus chapter 12 and Numbers chapter 1 mean nothing.  They are not wild guesses. They are not boastful exaggerations. They are compiled by counting. They are the result in Numbers 1, at least,  of a census.  But they are probably not numbers that we should punch into our calculators to get a precise figure for the population of Israel or of the army. They must be understood in the light of the cultural and literary conventions of the day.

What does this reading do to the historicity of the exodus and conquest narratives?

It reduces the numbers down to a realistic level. It is possible to see a group of two thousand leaving Egypt with about six hundred men of military age.  It is possible to see a group of two hundred thousand leaving Egypt with about sixty thousand men of military age. It is possible to see a group of either size (remember all that generation died in the 40 years of wilderness wandering) invading Canaan and establishing communities throughout the hill country – as the Bible describes.  And it is possible to see that population revealed in the artifacts we now have coming from the period of the 11th to 14th centuries. There is no disconnect between the biblical narrative and history revealed in  the artifacts.

And this reading does not divest the narrative of the miraculous. It does not require - and the text does not make this point - that the large numbers indicate a huge miracle. There were plenty of miraculous events associated with the story and specifically mentioned as signs of God’s provision. Among them are the manna that fed the Israelites, the water from the rock, and the success they had as they took possession of the Promised Land. But the number of people is not implied as a miracle. Escape from Egypt was a miracle, but not the numbers.

Obviously, there are a lot of explanations and no consensus. But to make a controversial issue of the numbers and imply that they are evidence that archaeology refutes the Bible as Avalos does is beyond reasonable.  He needs to do a lot more spade work than he has done to begin to make that case.

1) Allen, Ronald B.,  Numbers-Ruth (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary).  Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2012. Print
2) Wolfe, Robert. “From Habiru to Hebrews: The Roots of the Jewish Tradition.”  New English Review . October 2009.  Newenglishreview.org. Web. Aug. 21, 2016 http://www.newenglishreview.org/Robert_Wolfe/From_Habiru_to_Hebrews%3A_The_Roots_of_the_Jewish_Tradition>
3) Yadin, Yigael. “In the Biblical Account of the Israelite Conquest of Canaan Historically Reliable?” Biblical Archaeology Review, 8:02, Mar.-April 1982.  Web Aug. 20, 2016.
4) Wenham, J.W. “Large Numbers in the Old Testament.” Tyndale Press 1967
5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_King_List
6) Humphreys, Colin J. “THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN THE EXODUS FROM EGYPT: DECODING MATHEMATICALLY THE VERY LARGE NUMBERS IN NUMBERS I AND XXV.”
7) op. cit.

1 comment:

Dr. Hector Avalos said...

I have posted a response here: http://www.debunking-christianity.com/2017/04/the-use-and-abuse-of-amarna-letters-by_20.html