by Farrell Till
In "The Population Claims," I noted that if we assume the accuracy of the census figures in Numbers, we have to conclude that there were about three million people in the exodus group. The books of Exodus and Numbers make several references to the Hebrew encampments during their wilderness wanderings, but a multitude of three million people would raise several questions about the logistic possibility of encampments that could accommodate this many nomadic people. If each person in the Israelite horde had had only a six-foot by three-foot plot to sleep on at night, this would have been 18 square feet. (A standard-sized twin bed provides 19.5 square feet of sleeping space.) Children would have used less space, of course, but there were undoubtedly many whose size would have required more than 6' x 3', so 18 square feet per person would not be an unreasonable average.
Three million people sleeping at night would have occupied 54 million square feet or six million square yards, even if there were no passage ways left open to accommodate passage for those who heard nature calling in the night. An acre consists of 4,840 square yards, so even if the Israelites had slept at night like sardines, they would have occupied 1,240 acres. This would have been almost two square miles. The family farm that I grew up on in Southeast Missouri had 120 acres, so the entire farm could have slept only a tenth of the Israelites packed together as described above.
A sardinelike scenario, however, was hardly possible, because the Israelites slept in tents (Ex. 16:16; Num. 1:52; Deut. 1:27, 33; 5:30; etc.). Tents have to have space for guy ropes to stabilize them, and certainly paths would have been necessary for the people to walk on as they went about their routines and duties while they were camped. If we suppose that there was an average of 10 persons per tent, there would have been 250,000 to 300,000 tents in the encampments. If we allot the 18 square-foot sleeping space for each person, the tents would have had to average 180 square feet in size. A 12- by 15-foot tent would have provided the necessary 180 square feet for its 10 occupants. If we imagine that the guy ropes were pegged into the ground only four feet from the borders of the tent, the space needed to pitch one tent would have been 12 x 15 with 8 feet for guy ropes added to each dimension (4 additional feet on each side) . The tent would have then occupied a plot of ground 20 feet by 23 feet or an area of 460 square feet. With only a two-foot path on all sides of the tent to allow for passageways to walk on, the plot of ground for just one tent would have measured about 22 feet by 25 feet or 550 square feet. (Since a pathway would have been shared by the tents adjacent to it, only half of the two-foot pathways have been added to the plot dimensions of a single tent. In other words, one foot at the front and one foot at the back would have provided a two-foot pathway if the adjacent tent plots also contributed a linear foot for each pathway.) With 250,000 tents in the camp, the tents alone would have required an area of 137,500,000 square feet or 15,277,777 square yards. There are 5,840 square yards in an acre, so the tents would have occupied an area of 2,616 acres. There are 640 acres in a square mile, so the size of the encampments would have been over 4 square miles.
Besides the people, the Israelites had their flocks and herds with them (Ex. 12:38). This verse speaks about "much cattle," but even without this reference, we would have to conclude that the flocks and herds were enormous because of the requirements of daily sacrifices that the book of Leviticus describes in detail. These requirements will be discussed later, at which time we will see that the animals in these herds would have been far more numerous than the people These herds and flocks would have occupied even more territory than the people, so it's hard to imagine that these encampments could have been smaller than 8 or 10 square miles.
If we settle for a size of 9 square miles, the distance from one side of the camp to the other would have been 3 miles (if it was laid out in a square), so when the Israelites broke camp each time, they would have had to travel at least 3 miles in order for the people on the back side of the camp to reach what had been the front side of the camp. We can hardly imagine people taking down their tents and packing their belongings just to move no farther along than a plot of ground that had been immediately adjacent to the previous camp, so if we assume that the Israelites put only three miles between each encampment in their wanderings, they would have covered a distance of 246 miles in setting up their 41 different camps. This would have been a distance about twice as far as the width of the Sinai peninsula from Migdol (the last encampment before leaving Egypt) and Ezion-geber at the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba, where the Israelites camped just before Aaron died (Num. 33:36-39). So how were the Israelites able to wander for 40 years in the Sinai wilderness without finding their way out by sheer accident?
Inerrantists will argue that the Israelites sometimes backtracked and traveled in circles, but as I will show later, such a scenario as this only adds to the difficulties of believing that three million people with flocks and herds and "very much cattle" could have found in the wilderness the resources necessary to sustain them and their herds for 40 years. It is far more rational to believe that the exodus story is just another biblical myth filled with typically biblical exaggerations.