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On being fruitful and actually multiplying

In this week’s parsha, Bamidbar, Moshe and Aaron, at Hashem’s command, conduct the tribal census. The outcome: 603,550 males between the age of 20 upwards who are fit to go out to the army, plus 22,000 Levite males over the age of one month. This implies a much higher total population for the Children of Israel, probably numbering in the millions.

Given the long history of biblical criticism, the assumption that the Torah is not to be taken as truth, but as some kind of concoction to serve the interests of later generations, has now become deeply ingrained, even sadly among many, possibly most, Jewish academic biblical scholars.

One such example I came across claims that the actual outcome of the census is 5,500, not 603,550 – this is based on an assumption that the word ‘elef’ (אלף) is not referring to thousands but to ‘contingents’ or groups (similar to the ‘alufim’ of Esav (אלוף), recounted at the end of parshat vayishlach). Thus the number of counted males per tribe is actually the hundreds that are stated in the Torah: i.e. for Reuben, 46,500, according to this theory, actually means 46 contingents with 500 men. (see https://www.thetorah.com/article/recounting-the-census-a-military-force-of-5500 )

There are some readily apparent flaws in the logic (even if one discounts the Torah’s own repeated testimony of the Israelites’ rapid population growth rate in Parshat Shemot) – for example, what about the 22,000 Levites, are they 22 contingents with zero men? What about the total of 603,550 counted males – does that mean 603 contingents with a total of 550 men? And what of the 603,550 half-shekels in Parshat Pekudei – do shekels form contingents?

However, the more troubling aspect is the mindset. To quote the article, written by Professor Ben-Zion Katz (I’m guessing he’s Jewish 🙂 ):

“One serious problem with accepting even the broad outlines of the exodus and wilderness-wandering accounts is the great number of Israelites the Torah claims were involved: upwards of 2 million. Even scholars who accept some sort of historical exodus, such as Richard Elliott Friedman, say that the numbers are impossible to accept. Many Bible scholars dismiss the great numbers as fanciful, or as a late innovation by the Priestly author, not reflecting the actual number of early Israelites. Nevertheless, for those scholars who wish to see the Torah as coming from one Author or as internally consistent, the census numbers have remained a serious problem.

The problem here is not so much about academics calling into question miracles detailed in the Torah, which is a theological issue. The deeper problem is the mindset by which the possibility of truth in the Torah’s account seems to be automatically denied as a matter of principle, and doing so by ascribing miraculous qualities to phenomena that can be readily explained in natural terms. This then makes it easier to heap further doubt on the truth of the Torah in the modern secular mind because anything miraculous can be immediately rejected.

To test just how miraculous the population growth of the Jewish people would need to be, I built a very simple mathematical model.

  • The model assumes, conservatively, that only the 55 named male children of the 12 sons of Jacob would bear children after coming to Egypt (even though the sons of Jacob were said to be in their 30s, 40s and early 50s at the time, still child-bearing, especially given Israelite practice was polygamous, and Torah shows that our forefathers had younger wives).
  • It further assumes, based on our tradition, the Egyptian exile lasted 210 years, and not 400 or 430 years, as per a plain reading of the Torah text.
  • It also assumes, again conservatively, each generation accounted for a period of 30 years (even though it would likely have been much less, given that women typically married in their teenage years, and started bearing children without delay thereafter).
  • Finally, it assumes that per 100 surviving children, 45% would couple up (making allowance for gender imbalance in the birth patterns, and for some of the children deciding not to marry).

The model shows that an average of 9 surviving children per family would be required for the initial 70 souls that descended to Egypt with Yaakov Avinu to reach a total population after 210 years of 2.2 million.

This hardly seems miraculous given the family sizes in the Orthodox community we still see today. It also hardly seems miraculous given that Israelite women of the period would have had a period of 20-30 years to bear children, and given that the Divine command was to be fruitful and multiply (birth control was not known to be practiced). Moreover, the described lifestyle of the Children of Israel in Goshen, a semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle in a fertile, water-rich land, separate from the stresses and diseases of mainstream urban Egyptian society, seem ideal for raising large families.

I have read a lot of biblical criticism. I still believe in the truth of the Torah.

About the Author
Adam Gross is a strategist that specialises in solving complex problems in the international arena. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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