The Israelites in Egypt
Updated: Mar 13, 2022
Limestone relief of Nubian captives, with a scribe selecting two for the court of Tutankhamen; taken from the tomb of Horemheb XVIII, Saqqara (18th Dynasty - c.1332–1323 BC); held Museum of Bologna
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD: come Follow Me Lesson for March 14–20; Genesis 42–50
During Passover week, 7-15 April 2001, a storm of Biblical proportion broke over Las Angeles. The 13 April issue of the Los Angeles Times carried a front-page story by Teresa Watanabe entitled, “Doubting the Story of Exodus.” Watanabe’s story began with the opening line, “After a century of excavations trying to prove the ancient accounts true, archeologists say there is no conclusive evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt, were ever enslaved, ever wandered in the Sinai wilderness for 40 years or ever conquered the land of Canaan under Joshua's leadership.” (latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2001-apr-13-mn-50481-story.html)
Watanabe was reporting on a series of three Passover sermons given by the prominent, Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe to some 2000 people at the Los Angeles Sinai Temple. Watanabe quoted Rabbi Wolpe as saying, “The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” Tom Tugend, reporting in the Jewish Weekly, of Northern California, three weeks later, said that Wolpe forcefully defended his position and quoted him as saying, “It’s a well-known fact that millions of Jews have doubts about the literal veracity of Bible stories. My sermons emphasized that faith is independent of doubt. I wanted the millions of doubting Jews to know that they can still be faithful Jews.” The Rabbi continued, “If scholarly books are written that question the literal veracity of Bible stories, it does not help our credibility to pretend that they don't exist. By discussing these books, we maintain the Jewish tradition of sustaining faith by seeking truth. Ignoring the books, on the other hand, conveys a message of fear: We are afraid that science will shake our faith. I don't believe it should, and that is why I spoke out.” (jweekly.com/2001/05/04/l-a-rabbi-creates-furor-by-questioning-exodus-story)
What are we then to conclude? Is the Biblical account wrong, is it a complete fable, were the Israelites never in Egypt? Or perhaps the archaeology is wrong – or maybe, as often is the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.
First, let’s look at the Israelite population at the time of the Exodus. Population doubling time follows the Rule of 70 (it’s actually 69.3), that is, in order to calculate doubling time (dt), we divide 70 by the growth rate (r): dt = 70/r. Throughout most of the earth’s history, human population growth rates have remained below 0.1% (Michael Kremer, Population growth and technological change: one million BC to 1990, The Quarterly Journal of Economics 681-716, 1993). So at a 0.1% growth rate the doubling time for a population would be around 700 years. If we consider the growth rates during the population booms in 1000 AD and again in 1500 AD, where the growth rate went up to as much as 0.2-0.3%, we get a doubling time of 233 – 350 years. If we even take an average growth rate of 1.0% (a rate two to ten times higher than the calculated rate for most of ancient history, and a rate not actually achieved until about 1930) then the doubling time would be 70 years. Currently, some developing countries have an amazing, and problematic, growth rate as high as 3%. That gives a doubling time of 23 years.
In Genesis 46:27 we are told that, “…all the souls of the house of Jacob, which came into Egypt, were  threescore and ten.” Then we are told in Exodus 12:40, “Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.” Therefore, we have the two critical numbers we need to calculate the number of Jacob’s descendants that would have been in Egypt after 430 years. At a growth rate of 0.1%, which is the most likely for the time, and a population doubling time of 700 years, Jacob’s family would have been less than around 100 people 430 years after arriving in Egypt. At a growth rate of 1.0%, and a doubling time of 70 years, there would have been around 5000 people 430 years later (4480 after 420 years). With a growth rate of 3% and a doubling time of 23 years, the population size would have been between 18 and 37 million after 430 years.
Exodus 12:37 says, “And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children.” That would suggest a total population of around a couple of million, with a population doubling time of around 30 years and a growth rate of about 2.3%. Numbers 1:46 gives an even more precise number of, “…six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty [men].”
First of all, it should be kept in mind that the story of the Israelites in Egypt was passed down, generation to generation, for nearly a thousand years before it was finally written down. It is unknown how much, but highly likely that a lot of hyperbole was added over all those years of re-telling. So let’s look at the number 600,000, or even 603,550 men – making a total population of a couple million.
In his 1976 book, Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt: A Study in Cultural Ecology (University of Chicago Press), Karl Butzer estimated the total population of Egypt’s New Kingdom, around 1400 BC, as being around 2.5 to 3 million. That means that if the 600,000 [men] statements in Exodus and Numbers are correct, then nearly all of Egypt was Israelite at the time. Furthermore, Israel Finkelstein, Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, has pointed out that the modern state of Israel has undergone extensive archaeological surveys. He has stated that, based on those surveys, it can be quite accurately estimated that around 2000 BC (some 600 or so years before the Exodus), there were 220 settlements in what is now Israel, with an estimated population of 40,000. Then, by the eighth century BC (after the Exodus), there were over 500 sites, with an estimated population of 160,000. [Finkelstein, Israel, The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel (Ancient Near East Monographs), Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, 2013] Those numbers give a population doubling rate of around 550 years – and an estimated growth rate of just under 0.1%, which is very much in line with population growth around the world at the time. Those numbers do not suggest any massive population influx at the time – let alone an influx of around two million people [600,000 men and their families]. It is obvious from these numbers that the 600,000 number given in Exodus and Numbers is way over-inflated. We are dealing with people, even highly educated people, at a time for whom extremely large numbers were almost meaningless.
Of course, if the Israelite population in Egypt around 1400 BC was in the range of two million, Egyptian archaeology would be dripping with Israelite archaeology – which it isn’t. But what if the numbers were more reasonable for the time, and Jacob’s descendants in Egypt at the time of the Exodus numbered more like 100 people, consistent with the population growth rates at the time. Then the whole archaeology-Bible conundrum changes dramatically – now we are looking for a drop-in-the bucket. We are looking for archaeological evidence of some 100 people, who the Egyptians could have cared less about, in a total population of 2.5 to 3 million. Even if the total Israelite population was closer to 1000 or so, that is still a relative drop in the bucket. Furthermore, an immigration into Israel around 1300 BC of 100 to 1000 people, would not have appreciably affected the growth trajectory of 40,000 to 160,000 for the time.
If we simply rethink the number 600,000; or 603,550; then the apparent dilemma and the apparent divide between archaeology and the Bible largely disappears. We don’t have to give up knowledge in preference to faith, neither do you have to give up faith in the pursuit of knowledge. Truth will always be the winner.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD