My Father’s Article on the Exodus Population Numbers

I think this issue has serious ramifications for the exegesis of the numbers of the Exodus. Many if not most commentators simply assume exaggerated numbers. They have not crunched any numbers. My father shows that exaggeration is surely not necessary in order to understand the census numbers literally in the Exodus and Numbers account. What follows here is an abbreviated summary that my father wrote, and the article itself is available here (see attachment near the bottom).

The purpose of this paper was to demonstrate (with a mathematical model) how the population of the Israelites could have increased during their captivity in Egypt consistent with the specific census numbers noted in the book of Numbers. In particular, it was shown that a family size of 6-8 children throughout the time of captivity could easily account for the census numbers without resorting to metaphorical and/or hyperbolic interpretations of those numbers.

The mathematical model was characterized by the relaxing of any implicit extra Biblical requirement that the number of generations of all lines of all the patriarchs had to be limited to five during the entire time of captivity. The model was designed to include such parameters as the average number of children per family, the rate at which the first born and subsequent male children were killed by the Egyptians, the number of live births per family before and after the Egyptian edict, and a variable associated with multiple births, all of which resulted in a range of the total Israelite population being ~1.4 million to ~1.8 million, with the most likely number being around 1.5 million at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. In all cases, the census numbers in the book of Numbers were forced to be satisfied exactly by the calculational mechanism of the model.

The results showed the following:
1. A typical exponential growth pattern of the Israeli population, similar to that of the population of the United States from 1790 to 1870. This without the unreasonable number of children per family of about 30, as a number of commentators would have us believe would have been necessary. In this case, the model (while being considerably simpler than the actual scenario) was able to account for all the numbers noted in Scripture dealing with the Exodus population. This implies that a more complete and accurate descriptive model would strain neither our understanding of Scripture nor common sense in terms of what the Scriptural numbers mean.
2. That the proportion of first born male children killed would have been considerably greater than that of subsequent male children, thus further illustrating the justice of the passover executing of the firstborn of Egyptian people. The model predicts male baby deaths by the Egyptians to be in the order of hundreds of thousands.

In general, future exegeses of Scriptural passages which contain perplexing numbers should be conducted by including questions about one’s implicit assumptions about such numbers rather than about the actual numbers themselves (In this particular case, for example, an implicit assumption made by many commentators is that the number of generations going from Judah to the Exodus was five for all descendants of Jacob). In this regard, it is hoped that this paper will stimulate further analysis of various numerical information contained in Scripture to help clarify any seeming paradoxes centered around such numbers. The results of such analyses likely may well have sermon applications beyond the details of the specific passages in question. For example, consideration of the abortion statistics in the United States as compared to the the number of deaths of Israelite baby boys suggests that a similar judgment of God upon the United States would not be out of line and that repentance as a nation for the crimes of abortion is urgent.

Two Interesting Comments From Jewish Scholars

I was reading along in my Exodus commentaries on the last part of chapter 32 (the incident of the golden calf). The Levites are ordered to bring God’s judgment on the rest of the Israelites, and they kill 3,000 people that day, which is half of one percent of just the males. I have wondered why it is that so few died. Surely just about the entire nation had gone astray. Now, there was a plague that took more people, as the end of the chapter tells us. However, we are not told how many people died in that plague. The stress of the passage seems to be the smallness of the number of people who died. A lot of people have the wrong idea about the 3,000, thinking that it is such a huge number of people. However, we should be thinking of that number as incredibly small, given the offense to God that the idolatry represented, not to mention the derision of the nations to which Israel’s sin made them subject (verse 25). The entire people deserved to perish.

Enter in this startling comment by a Jew (Umberto Cassuto), on page 421 of his commentary: “It is better that a few Israelites lose their lives rather than that the entire people should perish.” Anyone who knows the New Testament at all will recognize the startling similarity this comment has with Caiaphas’ remarks about Jesus’ death. There is no way to tell in the context whether this similarity was intentional on Cassuto’s part or not. This brings us to Moses’ request, which is basically that he be a substitute for the people, a request that the Lord denies. Another Jewish commentator (Nahmanides) notes the similarity of this passage with the ideas present in Isaiah 53, particularly verse 5: “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” They seem very close to the truth, don’t they? The difference between Moses and Jesus (and the reason why God refuses Moses’ request, according to Ryken’s commentary) is that Moses was sinful, whereas Jesus was not.

The Unique Priesthood of Moses

(Posted by Paige)

We’re working in Hebrews 9 now in my Bible study, and I have been struck afresh by the unique priestly role that Moses has in Israel’s history.  I’m wondering if any of you have remarked on this unique priesthood or taught or read about it.  I’d benefit from your observations about its features and redemptive-historical significance.  Would it be fair to say that Moses’ priestly work of intercession, mediation, & consecration  (esp. Ex. 19-20, 24, 29, 33-34) is something of a cross or a bridge between the patriarchal priestly roles and Aaron’s high priestly line?  It’s fascinating to me that when we think of Israel’s first priest we think of Aaron — but Moses was the priest who installed him!

Thanks in advance for your thoughtful ideas.

Announcing the New Covenant

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a curious question that arose in our Hebrews study recently (starting our second year at ch. 8!):

We understand that the Old Covenant was inaugurated with blood (Ex. 34) and its terms were verbally established for God’s people through the giving of the Law. If the New Covenant was similarly inaugurated with blood (Luke 22), when was its content verbally established?

I suspect possible answers might include one or all of these: at the articulation of the Abrahamic Covenant; in Jeremiah 31; whenever Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God is at hand; whenever the gospel was/is proclaimed after the resurrection of the Son. More? How does the NT itself fit into this picture?

Just curious how any of you would frame an answer, and what you would choose to emphasize as the verbal establishment for God’s people of the terms of the New Covenant. Thanks!

Echoes of the Exodus

(Posted by Paige)

All right, Bible scholars, let me employ you in doing some of my homework for me. Can you think of any mentions of or allusions to the Exodus event in the NT, besides Hebrews 10:1-2? Unless I am completely blanking on something obvious, I think that they must be more indirect than direct. I can easily think of echoes of the Passover or the wilderness wanderings, but echoes of the Exodus are harder to hear. Which is intriguing, given the prevalence of such echoes in an inner-Testamental way, as the prophets rehearse the most significant acts of God in Israel’s history.

A related historical question is whether theological parallels that we see between Jesus’ redemptive work and the Exodus developed from NT teaching or from reading the OT with NT spectacles.

Thanks!

Hail, the Lord God!

The seventh plague is the plague of hail. This is the first plague in the third cycle. Again, Moses rises up early in the morning (cf. 7:15 in the first, and 8:20 in the fourth). In the third cycle of plagues, the ante is up. Death makes its first appearance with this plague. Notice that the Lord tips His hand. He tells Pharaoh exactly why He is doing all this (9:16, quoted in Romans 9:17). What is remarkable here in this plague, however, is that the Lord provides a way of escape in verse 19. Those who wished could escape this judgment. We read of many people in the actual exodus going with the Israelites. They were not Israelites, but went up with them (see 12:37-38). So, even now, the strand of Egypt’s redemption has started, and will end with Egypt being God’s people (Is 19:19-25, noted by Ryken, p. 283), when Jesus the Messiah comes to save His people from their sins.

Pharaoh does not really repent. He says “this time,” but what about all the other times he has sinned? He should have confessed his sin directly to God, and begged forgiveness.

The message is dire for us today, since a greater plague awaits those who will not trust in the way of escape, Jesus Christ. See this plague described in Revelation 16:17-21. Only this time, the hail will be far more severe than the Egyptian plague, the hailstones being about 100 pounds each. And God will offer no chance of escape this time, either. There wilol not be two possible reactions of getting out from under God’s judgment versus undergoing God’s judgment. There will only be the hardness of heart that curses God because of the plague. Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ!

The pictures above are of Tefnut, the goddess of moisture, and Shu, the supporter of the heavens, both of which gods were utterly defeated by the Lord God of Israel.

The Seven-Year Itch

Exodus 9:8-12

The sixth plague concludes the second set of three plagues. As in plague 3, there is not interview with Pharaoh, no rising up early in the morning. Instead, God just tells Moses to do something, and it is done.

This plague has loads of poetic justice. The soot comes from a kiln, one used to make bricks. Moses almost certainly took soot from a kiln that the Israelite slaves had used to make bricks for the Egyptians. As John Currid says, “The furnace, then, was a symbol of the oppression of the Hebrews, the sweat and tears they were shedding to make bricks for the Egyptians. Thus the very soot made by the enslaved people was now to inflict punishment on their oppressors” (p. 196).

In addition, throwing soot into the air was something that Egyptians priests used to do (Ryken, p. 273). They did it to signify blessing. God turned it into a curse. As Ryken says, “God was making Israel’s curse a blessing and was turning Egypt’s blessing into a curse” (p. 273).

There were several gods against which this plague was directed. Amon Re (a creator god) was a god who was supposed to heal diseases. Thoth was a god of healing arts. Imhotep was the god medicine. “But the most common deity for dealing with disease was Sekhmet, whose priests formed one of the oldest medical fraternities in antiquity” (Ryken, p. 272, quoting Currid).

Ah, the poor, foolish magicians! Not only were they impotent when it came to dealing with the plague; they could not even protect themselves!

Many scholars say that the boils were a form of anthrax. Whatever they were, they were impure. In fact, such illness was usually seen as demon-possession by the Egyptians of that time. That was a distressing to them as the physical pain.

And notice that although many passages in Exodus say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, it is also true to say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. There is always mystery when it comes to the intersection of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But at the least, we can say that Pharaoh’s self-hardening was part of God’s plan in such a way that it can also be said that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

So, in our day, do we worship medicine? You bet we do. But as Ryken notes, Jesus Christ alone is Lord of the (B)body (p. 272).

Mad Cow Disease, Egyptian Style

Exodus 9:1-7

In the fifth plague, God strikes the livestock of Egypt. However, as Numbers 33:4 tells us, God was also striking at the Egyptian gods. There were many gods and goddesses represented by various forms of livestock. Foremmost among them is Apis (pictured here), a bull-god who represented vitality and life (Currid, pg. 192). Currid also lists Buchis, Mneuis, Isis, Hathor, and even Ptah and Ra as gods and goddesses which were occasionaly, or even normally represented by various forms of livestock. It comes as no surprise then, when the Israelites first go astray in the wilderness, that their idolatry takes the form of a golden calf (Ryken, pg. 263). They were doing what they already knew: and Egyptian solution to their problems. Ryken also notes that Apis represented sexual prowess, and Hathor (a goddess) represented female glamor (pg. 264). We worship these same gods and goddesses today in our sex-crazed culture. They are empty of meaning, since they divorce sex from God and from relationship, and from its proper place in marriage.

Notice the addition of “God of the Hebrews,” a quick reminder to Pharaoh of the identity of the God whom he is fighting (Currid, pg. 191). This God of the Hebrews is ratcheting up the severity of the plagues in this fifth plague. Not only is it now an attack on life itself (Enns, pp. 215-216), but also it is now the hand of Yahweh, not just the finger (as in 8:19), which is involved (Currid, pg. 192). This, of course, does not imply that Yahweh had to use any more effort to strike the Egyptians. Rather, it means that the severity of the plague is increasing. Lastly, the plague is just as heavy as Pharaoh’s heart. The word used in verse 3 is the same as that used to describe Pharaoh’s heart: the punishment fits the crime (Currid, pg. 193).

One difficulty this text raises is the identity of the “all” in verse 6: did every last one of the Egyptian livestock die? If they did, then how could there be any livestock to suffer in the plague of hail, which Scripture plainly says there were (9:19)? I like Currid’s and Ryken’s explanation the best. Currid notes that the word “all” can often mean “all kinds” of livestock, rather than every single one. Furthermore, the livestock described here is specifically that of “the field” (verse 3): they had been put to pasture. Thus the livestock closer to home had not been affected.

Pharaoh notices that a distinction between Egypt and Israel has been made. He sends out his agricultural agents (though he will not send out the Israelites). The remarkable thing, as Durham notes, is that, although Pharaoh is faced with the knowledge of the Lord’s hand against him, but not against the Israelites, and has proof of such a distinction, he will still not give God the glory. This proves that it doesn’t matter how much evidence an unbeliever can face with regard to the claims of the Gospel: with an unbelieving heart, they will still reject such knowledge. May we not.

Lord of the Flies

Exodus 8:20-32

The fourth plague starts the second cycle of three. Again Moses is directed to go down to Pharaoh at the Nile (where Pharaoh is probably back worshiping his own already-defeated gods); again Moses rises up early in the morning. However, there is a textual difference starting in this plague: the Lord makes a difference between the Egyptians and the Israelites (Enns). Literally, the text of verse 23 says that the Lord will set a redemption between my people and your people. This has to do with election. Just as God set a distinction between Egypt and Israel, so also He now sets a distinction between those who are in Christ and those who are not. The distinction now is based on Jesus Christ’s redemptive work, in which we now have the fulness of spiritual redemption, whereas the OT redemption referred to here is a physical redemption that points to the more important spiritual redemption in Christ (proleptically enjoyed by OT believers).

There are two possibilities for Egyptian gods against whom this plague might be directed (and the plague could actually be directed at more than one god). The first is Kheprer, whose emblem is pictured at the beginning of this blog. This interpretation sees the insect as a scarab (a flying, biting beetle), which was Kheprer’s symbol. Kheprer was the god of resurrection in ancient Egypt. Ryken explains (quoting Barnhouse in the process) that scarabs cleaned up dung from various places in temples, etc. They would form the dung into round balls, which would then be rolled back into their holes. From this, the Egyptians inferred that a giant beetle rolled the sun back into its hole. Thus the scarab became an emblem of the sun, and of the resurrection that the sun enjoyed every day. Kheprer was this god, depicted as a beetle. The other possibility is more simple. The Egyptians also worshiped the god who took care of the fly population: Beelzebub. Enns thinks that this is less likely. However, Ryken notes that the Egyptians did actually worship this god. The territory of these two gods probably overlapped somewhat. Therefore, it is possible that God is attacking and defeating both these gods.

Pharaoh now knows that his magicians are defeated: he does not even call for them! Instead, he starts to rely on his own cunning (Currid). He wants to soften the Lord’s (the law’s) demands, making a bargain with Moses and with the Lord. The fine print of this deal vitiates the whole purpose of what the Lord had given to Moses. Sacrificing within the land was a compromise that could not be, since the Israelites would be sacrificing animals which were sacred to the Egyptians. As Ryken puts it, “sacrificing bulls among the
Egyptians would be like holding a pig roast at a synagogue or cooking burgers in front of a Hindu temple” (pg. 255). In other words, there would be riots and lynching of the Israelites, if they were to accept this compromise. Moses, in effect, is saying that the riots would then be Pharaoh’s fault.

The last part of verse 28 is rich: Pharaoh has been wanting compromise, such that he is still in control of the situation, and then has the audacity to try to “cover all his bases” by asking Moses to pray for him! After doing everything in his power to humiliate the God of Israel, he then asks Moses to pray for him!

Notice that the ending of this plague is just as miraculous as the instigation of it: at the beginning of the plague, not only were there a supernatural number of flies (or perhaps scarabs; we are not quite sure what kind of flying insect it was), but there was a separation: none were in Goshen. Then, at the end of the plague, the Lord simply removed them. Period. “Not one remained” (vs. 31).

The Finger of God

Exodus 8:16-19

This plague comes without any warning, as do the sixth and ninth plagues. Furthermore, this plague is not said to cease. Maybe each triad of plagues has a third, permanent reminder of that triad (Enns, pg. 210). The plague of darkness might cease because there is no triad to follow (Enns, ibid).

It is not certain what kind of bugs these were. Various translations could be given: flies, gnats, lice, mosquitos. But they were irritating, scratchy bugs that left even the magicians unclean (and therefore unable to pursue their offices; see Ryken, pg. 242, quoting John J. Davis). But what may be more important than what they are is where their origin is (Enns, pg. 209). They come from the earth. Possibly this is an attack on the god of the earth Geb, pictured above (Ryken, pg. 240). The earth itself, a power over which the Egyptians did not claim the same kind of power as it did over the Nile, is now turned against the Egyptians, as the water had already. We will also see the air turn against the Egyptians.

Pharaoh had the responsibility to keep ma’at in the world (Ryken, pg. 241). This word means “order.” By decreating Egypt, God, in showing the Egyptians the logical outcome of their idolatry, shows Pharaoh that Pharaoh is not the keeper of ma’at, Yahweh is. The magicians recognize this, at least partially, when they say that “this is the finger of god(s).” It is not certain whether they are affirming their own pantheon, or the God of Israel. At any rate, they acknowledge that they are out of their depth.

We expect certain things like money, pleasure, and power to keep our lives in good order. At the very least, our schedule ought to keep us in order. However, God only keeps the timetables. Jesus Christ has broken the power of all so-called gods in His death and Resurrection. Therefore we should trust in the One who has conquered.

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