Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tall Tales Of Wilderness Wanderings (Part 1 of 13): Logistical Improbabilities in the Wilderness-Wandering Tales The Population Claims

by Farrell Till
The "tall tale" was a part of American folklore, which was expressed in the creation of characters like Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Johnny Appleseed. Tall tales, however, were not unique to American literature. They existed in earlier nations, including the ancient Hebrews, who left the world a maze of such stories that were best represented by the unlikely tales that were spun about their 40 years of wilderness wanderings after they had left Egypt. When these tales are examined carefully, critical readers should have no difficulty seeing in them elements that would tax the imagination of any rational person asked to believe their historical accuracy.

The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy relate various adventures and misfortunes that the Israelites experienced after their exodus from Egypt. The logistics in many of these wilderness-wandering tales are too improbable to believe and in some cases even downright impossible. To see the absurdities in these tales, one has to understand first the improbability of the size of the Israelite horde that the Bible claims left Egypt. The census that Moses conducted the second year after the exodus (Num. 1:1) revealed that there were 603,550 men of military age (Num. 1:46). Military age began at 20, but there also seemed to be a provision that these men had to be physically able to "go forth to war" (vs:3, 20, 22, 24, 26, etc.). We have no way of knowing how many physically or mentally disabled men there would have been in this group, but we can reasonably assume that there were at least some. I will return to this matter later, but for now I want to establish reasonable population figures based on what the Bible directly claims. If there were 603,550 able-bodied men fit to "go forth to war," we can reasonably assume that there was also an approximate number of able-bodied females in the same age group. This would add up to 1,207,100 who were at least 20 years old. If there were this many who were at least 20, we could reasonably think that there were approximately that many who were 19 or younger. Hence, the population for these two groups alone would have totaled 2,414,200.

If biblicists wish to argue for the historical accuracy of the Pentateuch, then they would have to recognize that the 2.4 million population estimate for males and females in this age group is probably too low, because the Bible gives reason to assume that there would have been more females than males in this age group. Exodus 1:15-22 tells of a decree that pharaoh issued to midwives ordering them to kill all Hebrew male babies that were born. The decree specifically stated that if the child born was a "daughter," she should be kept alive (v:16). If we assume that this decree had any effect at all on the Hebrew population, then there would have necessarily been more females than males, so if there were over 600,000 male who were 20 and above, there would surely have been at least some imbalance of females in the Israelite population. Surely, then, no one can reasonably challenge the 2.4 million figure for Israelites, both male and female, who were 20 and above.

No upper age limit was stated for military service, but we can hardly imagine that Yahweh would have drafted the old and infirm into the army of his chosen ones. That there were old and infirm ones in the Israelite population was at least claimed in Exodus 10:9, where Moses demanded of Pharaoh that the Israelites, young and old, be allowed to go serve Yahweh their god. Deuteronomy 25:18 states that when the Israelites were in the wilderness, the Amalekites "smote the hindmost" of the Israelites, "all that were feeble behind." It is reasonable to assume that these "feeble" ones would have included at least some elderly people. As for the physically and mentally handicapped, the Bible at least claims that there were such in the Israelite population, because Leviticus 21:16-24refers to dwarfs and people who were blind, lame, hunchbacked, and afflicted with scurvy, and commanded Aaron not to permit them to assist in any of the tabernacle ceremonies. In a population that had almost 2.5 million hale and hardy ones, it certainly wouldn't be unreasonable to think that there were at least 85,800 disabled, and old and infirm people, so if we just add this conservative estimate to the 2,414,200, we would then have a round number of 2.5 million. If anyone should argue that the 85,800 figure is arbitrary, then keep in mind that nothing was allowed in the 2.4 estimate for the imbalance of females that would have resulted from pharaoh's decree to kill male babies.

The tribe of Levi was not numbered in the military census: "But the Levites after the tribe of their fathers were not numbered among them [of military age]" (Num. 1:47). So we have to add a reasonable estimate of the Levite population to the 2.5 million in all of the other tribes. In Numbers 3, we do have a census of Levites that was conducted for another purpose, and it showed that there were 7,500 Gershonites (v:22), 8,600 Kohathites (v:28), and 6,200 Merarites (v:34). These numbers make a total of 22,300. As the verses just cited will show, however, these were all males, so we could reasonably expect that there was an approximate number of Levite females, so if we add 44,600 to the 2.5 million already counted, we then have a total of 2,544,600.

Israelites were not the only ones in the wilderness wanderers, because we are told in Exodus 12:38 that when the Israelites left Egypt, they had with them "a mixed multitude," as well as their flocks and herds, even "very much cattle." This mixed multitude was referred to elsewhere in the wilderness stories. This "mixed multitude that was among them [the Israelites]" participated in the near food riot that led Yahweh to blow quails all around the encampment (Num. 11:4). This "mixed multitude" could not have been Israelites, because after "Moses" related that the multitude "lusted exceedingly" for meat, he went on to say, "And the children of Israel also wept again" (v:4). So whatever this "mixed multitude" was, it has to be considered non-Israelite. We have no way of knowing what a "multitude" would be, but it surely wasn't just a handful of "strangers," a term that was used in reference to them in other passages. If all biblical claims about the head counts are taken at face value, we have to conclude that there were between 2.5 and 3 million people in the horde that left Egypt with their flocks and herds and "very much cattle."

With the population of the exodus horde established, I can now begin to show that the biblical writers fabricated stories about the wilderness wanderings without taking into consideration the population of the group they were writing about. Let's take the 40-year period of the Israelite wanderings as a simple example. The Sinai peninsula is about 150 miles long from north to south and about 120 miles across at its widest point. Since it is shaped like an arrowhead, it is much narrower in other places. The exodus stories ask us to believe that about 3 million people wandered in this wilderness for a period of 40 years, but how likely is it that 3 million people could do that in a relatively confined area without finding their way out of the wilderness?

Let's suppose that these 3 million traveled, say, 200 abreast, taking with them their tents, herds, and other possessions as they marched along. How long would this line of humanity have been? If they traveled this way, there would have been 15,000 rows, and if they had only 3 feet between the rows, they would have been strung out over a distance of almost 9 miles. However, it is unreasonable to think that people traveling with their tents and herds could have been compacted together with only 3 feet between the rows. So even if they had formed a horde of people and animals 20 miles long and had traveled only 20 miles per day, far enough for the people in the back to be out of the abandoned camp site before the front of the column stopped to make camp again, their 41 different encampments (Num. 33:5-49) would have moved them a minimum distance of 820 miles, which would have equaled about 7 transits across the Sinai peninsula. So they sometimes backtracked or traveled in circles, some inerrantist will say. Well, if so, why didn't they stay in the same encampments on their second or third trips through? Surely, there would have been some advantages in doing this, since the terrain would have already been prepared as camp sites, but all 41 encampments had different names, an indication that the writer(s) of Numbers thought that all of the locations were different.

Rather than seeing this part of the exodus story as an accurate historical account, it is more reasonable to think that the writer(s) resorted to excessive exaggeration (characteristic of ancient literature) without stopping to consider logistic requirements of moving a population of three million for 40 years through the settings of the wilderness wanderings. Inerrantists reading this will say that there is no real problem here, but in due time, I will demonstrate that there are just too many logistically impossible claims in the exodus stories for rational people to believe that they are accurate historical accounts.  

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