Biblical Dates and Numbers
The biblical narrative also informs us about the length of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt and the date of the Exodus. The data are not, however, consistent. Thus, 1 Kings 6.1 dates the Exodus to “the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel.” Although we do not know the exact year of Solomon's accession to the throne, we know its approximate date, the mid-tenth century BCE. This would date the Israelite departure from Egypt in the mid-fifteenth century. Exodus 12.40 tells us that the Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years prior to the Exodus; this gives the early nineteenth century for the coming of Jacob and his sons into Egypt. In Genesis 15.13 , however, the length of the sojourn in Egypt is given as four hundred years; and in Genesis 15.16 , the time shrinks to three generations. Moreover, the figure of 480 years is suspiciously schematic: the Bible assigns twelve (a favorite and symbolic biblical number) generations between the Exodus and Solomon, and the standard biblical length of a generation is forty years.
The numbers given for the participants in the Exodus events are impressive, and improbable. Exodus 12.37–38 states: “The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great number”; the report of the census in Numbers 1.46 reiterates this figure. By the time one adds women and children—and anyone else subsumed under the rubric of “mixed crowd”—it is a mass of people, at least 2.5 million, that is moving out of Egypt. Such a number, particularly when combined with “livestock in great number,” would have constituted a logistical nightmare and is impossible; if all 2.5 million people marched ten abreast, the resulting line of more than 150 miles would need eight or nine days to march past any single fixed point. Taken at face value, such a host could not have crossed any ordinary stretch of water by any ordinary road or path in one night; nor could these numbers, or anything remotely approaching them, have been sustained in the inhospitable Sinai desert. Modern census figures suggest a current total of approximately forty thousand bedouin for the entire Sinai Peninsula; in the late nineteenth century CE the figure was under five thousand. The entire population of Egypt in the mid-thirteenth century BCE has been estimated at 2.8 million.
One hint of a more feasible figure for participants in the flight from Egypt is the reference in Exodus 1.15 to two Hebrew midwives; unusually, the midwives are even named. Together, the two met the needs of the entire Hebrew community sojourning in Egypt: in this case certainly not the hundreds of thousands or even thousands of women implied in a census of over half a million men. Perhaps, then, the two midwives reflect a superseded and now lost tradition of a much smaller group dwelling within and presumably departing from Egypt.
Biblical dates and numbers are thus indifferent to concerns of strict historical accuracy. As with other details, the biblical reckonings are subservient to theological images and themes. The improbabilities of the data can be rationalized in different ways: but once rationalized, they lose their claim to ancient authority, historical or otherwise.