Translation challenges occur throughout the Bible, but numbers in the Old Testament present us with a special challenge. In Exodus 12:37 the ESV says that Israel consisted of about 600,000 men. Since we’re not given the number of women and children, there’s no way to be certain about the total population. A popular guess gives us 2 million people marching out of Egypt on the night of the exodus.
But we have a problem. In his commentary on Exodus, Douglas Stuart uses the NRSV to show that the Hebrew word for “thousand” has been translated in a variety of ways: thousand, cattle, clan(s), division(s), family(ies), ox(en), and tribe(s). After giving a possible explanation for why this term has such a broad range of meaning, Stuart argues that the Hebrew word should be connected to Israel’s military. He concludes that “platoon” or “squad” are better translations than “thousand.” But how many soldiers were in a “platoon”?
Stuart surmises that each platoon would have had about a dozen soldiers. If Stuart is correct, the 600,000 men should be reduced to 7,200 fighting men (600 x 12). Based on that number, Stuart estimates that the total population of Israel would have been about 28,800—36,000.
So which is it, 2 million or at most 36,000? Since I don’t have the Hebrew competency to argue with my former professor, I’m going to defer to him. (I know appealing to authority can be a logical fallacy, but it can also be the wise move, especially when you trust the authority and when you know you’re in over your head.) If Stuart is correct, when we imagine the people of Israel marching through the wilderness we should think of a group of about thirty to forty thousand people.