Studies in Torah

Does ‏אלף ’elef mean ‘thousand’ or ‘clan’ in Exodus and Numbers?

Some have asserted that the huge numbers of people listed in various places in Exodus and Numbers are impossible or unlikely for a number of real-world reasons. Those include lack of mention of such big numbers in Egyptian and other secular accounts, archaeological estimates of populations at the time, food supply and other logistics for such huge numbers during the Exodus, number of years Israel was in Egypt, smaller numbers mentioned in the Bible hundreds of years later, trepidation of Israel to invade the Land despite having huge army, etc.

Rather than exegesis, which is a critical examination of a text from the text, this is eisegesis, which means a critical examination of a text from considerations outside the text.

Does אלף mean thousand or clan/chief in Exodus and Numbers?

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Exegesis focuses on the plain reading of a text, supplemented by other sources in the same work or from a similar time period. When eisegesis relies on other sources that contradict, and thus discount, the plain reading of the text, such analysis leads the text to places it doesn’t go. The contradiction is chalked up to scribal interjection, authors’ ignorance or wishful thinking.

This is a close study of the numbers listed in Numbers 1 (cf. Ex. 12:37 and 38:26), the pattern for which is used in following chapters and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. The plain reading of the text is that the Hebrew word אלף ’elef (Strong’s lexicon No. 505) means thousand, rather than clan, chief or group.

First, Hebrew has a system for counting for large numbers of people, animals, precious metals and other things is similar to the ones-tens-hundreds-thousands system of English and other languages.

Second, by the אלף-means-clan model, the total number in Num. 1:46 isn’t the same as the total number from each tribe, so the supposed discrepancy has been explained by scribal harmonization of the total figure to fit the total for each tribe.

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