Did An Army of 600,000 Israelites Conquer the Land of Canaan?

The traditional Sunday School image shows Joshua leading about 600,000 armed Israelites into the land of Canaan, across the river Jordan. But was that really the size of Joshua's army?

The traditional Sunday School image shows Joshua leading about 600,000 armed Israelites into the land of Canaan, across the river Jordan. But was that really the size of Joshua’s army?

When we read about the nation of Israel crossing the river Jordan to enter the Promised Land, in Joshua 4, something stands out, if you read very carefully. Joshua 4:13 tells us this:

About 40,000 ready for war passed over before the Lord for battle, to the plains of Jericho (ESV).

From this verse alone, you might think that there were a total of 40,000 soldiers in the army of Israel, set to conquer the land. The problem is that according to a census taken prior to the crossing of the river Jordan, of all of the Hebrew men of fighting age (Numbers 26:1-4), the census gave a total number of 601,730 (Numbers 26:51). A previous census taken near the beginning of the wilderness journey, just after the Exodus from Egypt, reveals about the same number, 603,550 (Numbers 1:45-46). The second census is different in that the first generation in the wilderness had perished, replaced by a new generation, leaving only Joshua and Caleb from the first generation still among them, but the numbers are in the same ballpark. Clearly there is a problem lining up the 40,000 armed men that crossed the Jordan with the some 600,000+ recorded in each census.

Nevertheless, the problem is more difficult than this: Assuming a 600,000+ army, this would give you a much larger population total, if you include women and children, at least around 2 million.

That is a lot of people.

In Deuteronomy 7:1-7, we read that God was sending the Israelites into a land to clear away seven different nations of people, each nation being larger than Israel herself. That means at least 14 million people were living in the Promised Land that Israel was to possess, in Canaan, which would be greater than the current population of the corresponding land in the Middle East now. Considering that Gaza alone is one of most densely populated places on earth, it is difficult to comprehend such large numbers of people in the ancient near east, particularly when the current archaeological data shows that the land of Canaan was far less populated then than it is now.

How do we try to resolve this difficulty?1

A Literal Approach to the Numbers

One solution to this difficulty is simply to accept that God could supernaturally sustain a great army of over 600,000, plus women and children, and simply leave the matter at that. Surely, if God can raise a man from the dead, He can supply the needs of such a large group of people, despite the current testimony of archaeology (or lack thereof). God is able to perform such miracles and take care of whatever limitations we have in our current knowledge of ancient history.

God’s ability to provide from such a great mass of people is, therefore, not the question. Rather, the question revolves around what Scripture actually teaches.  This problem in the text is difficult to avoid. With regard to the contrast between the 40,000 in Joshua 4:13, and the 600,000+, some go along with the translation proposed by the scholars of the New Living Translation, tying verse 13 together with the previous verses:

And when everyone was safely on the other side, the priests crossed over with the Ark of the Lord as the people watched. The armed warriors from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh led the Israelites across the Jordan, just as Moses had directed. These armed men—about 40,000 strong—were ready for battle, and the Lord was with them as they crossed over to the plains of Jericho (Joshua 4:11-13 NLT).

This translation is in contrast with other translations, like the ESV and the NIV 2011, that put a definite break between verses 12 and 13. These more literal, word-for-word translations, introduce some ambiguity as to who the “40,000” are. Even the venerable King James Version (KJV), preserves this ambiguity. Reuben, Gad and Manasseh passed over armed “before the children of Israel,” but the “40,000” passed over “before the Lord.”

And it came to pass, when all the people were clean passed over, that the ark of the Lord passed over, and the priests, in the presence of the people. And the children of Reuben, and the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh, passed over armed before the children of Israel, as Moses spake unto them: About forty thousand prepared for war passed over before the Lord unto battle, to the plains of Jericho (Joshua 4:11-13 KJV).

But clearly for the NLT, the idea is that the 40,000 strong only applies to the armed men from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. So, the total count of the army of Israel is left unmentioned here. But before someone breathes a sigh of relief, we must look back at the census breakdown back in Numbers 26:

  • Reuben:     43,730 (verse 7)
  • Gad:            40,500 (verse 18)
  • Manasseh: 52,700 (verse 34)
The combination of Israel and the Palestinian territories is roughly equal in size to New Jersey, but Israel/Palestine is more densely populated (~13 million Israel/Palestine vs. ~9 million New Jersey) ...(graphic source: http://www.iris.org.il/sizemaps/new_jersey.htm)

The combination of Israel and the Palestinian territories today is roughly equal in size to New Jersey, but Israel/Palestine is more densely populated:   ~13 million in Israel/Palestine vs. ~9 million in New Jersey (graphic source: http://www.iris.org.il/sizemaps/new_jersey.htm)

If you total all of that together, 136,930 combined, you still only have less than one-third of those available armed men, from those tribes, crossing the Jordan to join their fellow Israelite brothers to help conquer the land of Canaan. These three tribal groups had made an agreement with Moses that they would settle the land on the eastern side of the Jordan, but that they would pledge to assist the other Israelites in conquering the land on the western side of the Jordan. Joshua makes a big deal with these three tribal groups that they should honor their pledge, and according to Joshua 1:12-18, they wholeheartedly agree. The three tribes would send their fair share of fighting men to cross the Jordan, thus indicating that they were keeping their word.

It just seems odd that the people of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh would make such a pledge and then only send less than a third of their men to go off to battle. Perhaps, they felt that they needed to leave behind a large defense force, east of the Jordan. But were they really honoring their commitment by doing that?

The ambiguities presented here suggest that perhaps another approach is better. Here are a few of the most well-considered alternatives.2

The Symbolic View

Perhaps the numbers as we find in a least some of these passages are symbolic. For example, the Bible is known to possess at least some elements of gematria, where numbers correspond to letters of the alphabet, thus producing a code to spell out different words. Or, there could be an astronomical code. For example, we know that in Numbers 1:37, Benjamin’s total of 35,400, when divided by 100, gives us the number of days in a short lunar year, 354. Most scholars do not favor this view simply because it has been difficult to find a symbolic system that adequately accounts for all of the data.

A Mistranslation of the Hebrew Word for “1,000”

The Hebrew word transliterated in English, ‘eleph, typically means “1,000,” as we read in most English translations today. But it is important to remember that the Hebrew language had a great deal less words in the vocabulary to work with to represent concepts that are readily understood in English. Some say that the average college educated graduate has an English vocabulary of about 35,000 to 40,000 words. However, in biblical Hebrew, they only had less than 4,000 words in the entire language!

Depending on the context, ‘eleph could have the meaning of “military unit,” one of undetermined size, or possibly “tribal leader,”  “clan,” or “family.” For example, consider Jesse’s instructions to David, for him to visit the army of Israel, that was poised to engage the Philistines, before David’s encounter with Goliath:

And Jesse said to David his son, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers. Also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See if your brothers are well, and bring some token from them” (1 Samuel 17:17-18 ESV).

That word “thousand” corresponds to our Hebrew word in question. But the context suggests that “thousand” is a rather awkward translation (“their thousand” what?).  It might be better to read the phrase as:

Also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their military unit.

If this is correct, then we need not restrict the size of the military unit itself to 1,000.3

Could this simply be a translation problem across these various passages? Some even suggest that some textual issue might play a role here, as it is possible that a copyist error over the years crept into the text to create this difficulty.

While this potential solution is promising, various attempts to try to reconcile all of the numbers have produced various and mixed results.  The math is a bit complicated, so there is no need to bore you at this point! Here is a brief list of Bible scholars who have come up with a different total that would account for the entire population of Israel that made their way to the land of Canaan, including male soldiers, women, and children:4

  • Mendenhall: 20,000.
  • Wenham: 72,000.
  • Humphrey: 20,000.
  • Snapp: 130,000.

As you can see, the numbers vary quite a bit. But the broad consensus is that you still get a much smaller population, at least by a magnitude of ten.

The Deliberate Hyperbolic View

There is clear evidence from Ugaritic and Assyrian texts of the same era that it was quite commonplace to intentionally inflate the sizes of military numbers. It would then be consistent with the literary practice of the time for the Bible to use the same literary technique and use hyperbole as well. For example, some suggest that at least with the census in Numbers 1 and 26 that the numbers were intentionally multiplied by ten. There would have not been any reason for the original audience to consider this as a type of deception, if this was the standard literary practice of the day.4

Did some 2 million Israelites, including their 600,000+ army, cross the river Jordan? (photo credit: ExploringBiblelands.Com)

Some background: The Jordan River, for much of the year, is no more than the width of a large creek, near the plains of Jericho. However, Joshua 3:15 indicates that the Israelites crossed the river during the flood stage of the rainy season, which would have been a challenge no matter how large the movement of people. But according to the text, once the Ark of the Covenant went before the people, the waters were stopped several miles upstream (Joshua 3), and the nation of Israel was able to cross in safety, leaving behind memorial stones to signify the event (Joshua 4).
(photo credit: ExploringBiblelands.Com)

Evaluating These Alternative Views

Imagining about 100,000 or considerably less Israelites wandering the Sinai desert is a lot more manageable than trying to envision over 2 million people…. I mean, for 2 million people, that is a lot of ancient “porta potty” technology that you have to contend with, for which the Bible gives us no explanation.

Nevertheless, such a modified population suggested by these alternative views is still a large group of people. Furthermore, it in no way takes away from the supernatural aspect of God’s parting of the Red Sea, or damning up the river Jordan, so that the people of Israel could cross in safety.

However, the drawback to these alternate views is that they drastically alter the traditional interpretation of these Bible texts. Some think that these alternative proposals create more problems than they attempt to solve. Proponents of the traditional view are bothered by such divergent variances in the proposed solutions, and they would rather simply overlook the difficulties presented by the traditional view. The weight of tradition that has stood the test of time has a definite appeal. So it is quite understandable why some would not bother with these ideas.5

More than some would completely reject such a discussion, fearing that by “tinkering with the numbers,” so to speak, we might be “losing” some part of the Bible. However, we live in a skeptical world that largely dismisses the thought of 2-3 million people wandering through the Sinai desert, and then entering the land of Canaan, with no discernibly weighty archaeological evidence to substantiate the Bible story.

Critics have suggested a number of scenarios, that would make such a movement of an enormous crowd, readily implausible. For example, if the Hebrew slaves crossed the Sinai desert, standing in rows of ten, with three feet between each row, such a column of Moses’ followers would extend at least 100-150 miles long, and that does not even include cattle and livestock! Such critics contend that since the distance between Egypt and Israel is less than this proposed length of the Hebrew column, it would mean that the first lines of Israelites would reach into the Promised Land, while there were still Israelites fleeing across the parted Red Sea.

This illustration of the traditional view invites skepticism, but it is not necessary. The column width and other movement aspects with the Israelites need not have happened like that. Nevertheless, you encounter less logistical difficulty when you consider a much smaller population, proposed by the alternative views.

Keeping an Open Mind on the Numbers

Given the current state of our knowledge, it might be best to say that we are simply not sure how many armed Israelites crossed the river Jordan with Joshua, with any exact degree of certainty. In dogmatically insisting on the traditional view, we might be needlessly “losing” a generation of people who are not really sure that they can confidently trust the Bible.

A smaller population creates less of an obstacle for the interested skeptic or doubter. A smaller population would not leave behind the kind of archaeological record, that archaeologists in centuries past have been looking for, assuming the traditional view. For the sake of presenting the Bible as truth to our unbelieving neighbors, leaving the door open to these alternative views might help an unbeliever or wavering believer in their journey towards faith.

But it does more than just remove a potential obstacle. It also might point towards a more accurate understanding of Scripture. Traditional interpretations of the Bible can be difficult to break, despite the contrary evidence, which is partly why most English Bible translators tend to stick with the more common translation for “1000.” Nevertheless, a careful reading of Scripture that identifies this and other instances where this problem manifests itself makes the consideration of these alternative proposals a worthy endeavor to take on its own, in order that we might have a better and more faithful understanding of what God’s Word teaches.

Notes:

1. While archaeological evidence to confirm the biblical history from sometime around the period of David/Solomon and onward is remarkably good, evidence for the earlier history from archaeology is pretty slim in comparison. To dig into more on related topics, consult some of these previous Veracity postings: Did the Exodus Really Happen?, and Exodus: Gods and Kings and the Min and Max of Digging. Veracity co-blogger, John Paine, a year or so ago reviewed the film Patterns of Evidence, and offered his review in the comments section of this post

2. See the Zondervan NIV Study Bible, Kindle location 34144ff., for an expanded discussion that I have summarized in this post. The editors of this study Bible lean more towards the hyperbolic view, explained in this blog post. The ESV Study Bible  also has a discussion of this topic in its introduction to the Book of Numbers, yet the editors of that study Bible lean more towards the traditional view. 

3. As Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen says in On the Reliability of the Old Testament, p. 264, “In Hebrew, as in English…, words that look alike can be confused when found without a clear context. On its own, ‘bark’ in English can mean the skin of a tree, the sound of a dog, and an early ship or an ancient ceremonial boat. Only the context tells us which meaning is intended.” Kitchen argues that in 1 Kings 20:29-30, a wall falling in Aphek in Ahab’s time most likely could not kill “27,000 men,” but “27 military officers” might make better sense. Losing “100” Syrian infantry officers is probably more consistent with the context than “100,000 foot soldiers in one day.” Other examples where the translation of ‘eleph is clearer include Judges 6:15, where most Bible translations use something like “clan” or “family,” Zechariah 9:7, where it could be either “clan” or “tribal leader” (“governor” in KJV), or Genesis 36:15, where it is often translated as “chief.”

4. For the particular detail of these various views, along with all of the math, you can find the original research here: (a) George E. Mendenhall, The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26, (b) John W. Wenham, Large Numbers in the Old Testament, (c) Colin J. Humphreys, The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding Mathematically the Very Large Numbers in Number I and XXVI, and (d) Jim Snapp, The Quest for the Historical Census.   

5. Eryl W. Davies makes the case for the hyperbolic view, arguing that mathematical attempts to try to get all of the numbers to line up are futile, as such attempts fail to appreciate the literary purpose of the Biblical writer.

6. Evangelical scholar Peter Williams considers these alternative views but still finds them unwarranted. He urges students of Scripture to give up the revisionism and stick with the larger, traditional numbers. Williams is also concerned that evangelicals who promote alternative views are shooting themselves in the foot. For example, if the difficulty discussed here is caused by a number of textual errors; that is, when copyists over the centuries have failed to accurately reproduce the text from the original that was written centuries before, then Williams says this invites an attitude of less confidence in the Bible. However, I would argue that you already have a problem with textual/copyist errors. We have it in the New Testament documents (see this discussion about the textual problem in I Corinthians 10:8). Consider the fact that agnostic Bible scholar Bart Ehrman has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his Misquoting Jesus, a popular introduction to the problem of copyist errors in the New Testament documents. True, many Christians have had their faith in the Bible shaken upon reading Ehrman. But is this the fault of the Bible, or is it the fault of those churches that fail to educate their flock about the importance of textual criticism? Evangelical critics of Ehrman, like Daniel Wallace, have answered Ehrman’s critique quite soundly.  Surely, Peter Williams, one of primary scholars behind the ESV translation, is not suggesting that we reverse course and become “King James Only” advocates! The original writers were inspired, but the copyists of those documents over the centuries need not be. Nevertheless, Williams’ criticisms of the alternative views should be taken quite seriously. 

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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