In order to understand the events narrated in the Pentateuch, it is of utmost importance to establish precisely how many Jews took part in the Exodus. To begin with, one reads in Exodus 12,37 that "six hundred thousand men left Rameses.” Before leaving Mount Horeb Moses performed a census (Num. 1,1-47) and repeated the process a few years later in the Moab Valley, prior to the invasion of Palestine (Num. 26,1-51). Rather than a true census, it was a head-count of those men able to bear arms and be incorporated into the army. The resulting figures were 603,550 and 601,730 respectively--completely disproportionate, since these numbers would indicate an overall population of at least three million, something quite unreal.
It is practically certain that these figures, instead of resulting from a mania for exaggeration, are the result of a misunderstanding. The Hebrew word for thousand, "elef,” also means "chief.” Sir Flinders Petrie, deducing that those "elefs" were heads of families, calculates a population of about five thousand people. Using the same hypothesis, C.S. Jarvis estimates the population at about twenty-seven thousand. Dr. Anati, basing his calculations on the size of the encampments discovered at the foot of Har Karkom, presumes a population of twelve thousand people.
However, we can find a satisfactory solution in this case, by accepting the most simple and immediate interpretation of the text: that is, by presuming that the word "elef" really does mean "chief.” The Bible informs us quite clearly that the Jewish tribes were composed of a limited caste of "nobles,” legitimate descendants of the founder of the family, plus a great number of servants. Abraham had numerous servants (Gn. 12,5; 13,7; 14,14; 25,15; 15,18; etc.). Jacob had servants (Gn. 32,8-9; 32,17; etc); when he emigrated to Egypt his tribe numbered seventy "nobles" (Gn. 46,8-27), all his children and grandchildren, plus an imprecise number of servants. Jacob’s people probably numbered in the low thousands, since the entire surviving population of Shechem, which he had destroyed a few years previously (Gn. 34,29), had been absorbed into his clan. Each one of Jacob's sons, afterwards, had formed an autonomous tribe, ruled by a clan of nobles. These legitimate descendants of the founder were integral members of these tribes and possessed, as a group, all the tribe's wealth, herds and flocks, including the shepherds and their families.
If--as it would seem according to the indications given in the Bible--this was the social structure of the tribes of Israel, it is inconceivable that, when Moses instituted an army, organized it, and set about counting the conscripts, he considered both nobles and servants as being on the same level. Moses himself, like the compiler of Genesis 46,8-27, must have counted the "chiefs" separately and by a different standard from the mass of servants. The chiefs, certainly counted one by one, became the commanding cadres of the army--the officers--while the latter constituted the troops and presumably were counted only approximately. Moses must have registered the figures of both groups for every single tribe.
This gives us a standard of interpretation for the figures quoted in Numbers. Let us examine a verse relative to the census and taken at random--Numbers 1,21: "Those of the tribe of Reuben as registered were 46 elef and 500." From earliest times this sentence has been read as "those of the tribe of Reuben as registered were 46,500,” an absurd number. One needs only restore the literal meaning to the word "elef" in order to make sense of the verse: "Those of the tribe of Reuben as registered were 46 chiefs and 500 commoners.” The same applies to all the other tribes.
With this in mind, the census figures for the two conscriptions undertaken by Moses are as follows:
1st census 2nd census variations
nob. troops nob. troops nob. troops
REUBEN 46 - 500 43 - 730 -3 +230
SIMEON 59 - 300 22 - 200 -37 -100
GAD 45 - 650 40 - 500 -5 -150
JUDAH 74 - 600 76 - 500 +2 -100
ISAACHAR 54 - 400 64 - 300 +10 -100
ZABULON 57 - 400 60 - 500 +3 +100
EPHRAIM 40 - 500 32 - 500 -8 ---
MANASSEH 32 - 200 52 - 700 +20 +500
BENJAMIN 35 - 400 45 - 600 +10 +200
DAN 62 - 700 64 - 400 +2 -300
ASHER 41 - 500 53 - 400 +12 -100
NAPHTALI 53 - 400 45 - 400 -8 ---
TOTALS 598 - 5550 596 - 5730 -2 +180
As can be seen from the above, the "elef,” i.e. the legitimate descendants of Jacob, were about six hundred, in agreement with Exodus 12,37, and the troops, composed of the mass of servants, just under six thousand. But the latter were only the soldiers inducted into the army; to these must be added the nobles and servants detached to look after the livestock (which could not be left unattended), those unfit for military service, plus the adults of the tribe of Levi, who were not part of this count. So the overall total of adult males was between seven and eight thousand. Assuming a ratio of one-to-four between these and the rest of the population--the women, the children and the elderly--we arrive at a figure for the entire nation of Israel of thirty-five-to-forty thousand people, which seems quite reasonable.
After the Exodus, but immediately prior to the invasion of Palestine, the total figures for the conscripts appear to vary only little. However the variations of increase and decrease are quite considerable if one takes into consideration each tribe individually. Evidently, during the "forty" years in the wilderness, while the overall composition of the population did not vary much, some tribes (in particular those of Rueben, Manasseh and Benjamin) prospered at the expense of others, acquiring livestock and servants.