Monday, July 21, 2008

The Myth of the 600,000 - Argument from Silence

As I discussed previously in The Myth of the 600,000 and A VERY Crowded Campsite!, a literal reading of 600,000 adult male Israelites (representing a minimum of 2.5 million people in total) leaving Egypt, living for 40 years in the desert, and then conquering Canaan is logically untenable. For some, such as XGH, this myth is "The question that killed fundamentalist OJ".

I wanted to briefly address one aspect of the 600,000 myth, and that is the lack of any physical evidence of such a large number of Israelites. Here are a few of some of the arguments from OrthoFundies that were mentioned in the comments of the June 2005 Hirhurim post on this subject. (Note that Rabbi Student himself wrote that "no historian accepts that figure", but that he believes "(with perfect faith) that 600,000 men and their families left Egypt."!) [Note: unattributed initials below refer to the original (anonymous?) commentators.]

1)"What evidence would you expect?" Mordechai Housman's comment typifies this oft-stated answer: "How much evidendce [sic] would be there if people ate nothing from the land (they ate manna) around them, and left no garbage? They lived in ananai hakavod (clouds of glory). And people who ate manna did not have to go to the bathroom. Their clothes and shoes did not deteriorate, so they did not leave any materials behind. So what exactly are archeologists expecting to find there? Empty beer cans?" This sentiment is likewise echoed by Toby Katz, Dude, Prof Lawrence Schiffman (according to Observant), and others in the comments there.

(By the way, incredibly, Housman also believes that "the manna came inside edibles they ate those too." Sheesh, people actually believe such pablum?)

2) It was a miracle! RBR takes as literal fact the midrash that states that 80% of the people died during the plague of darkness, meaning that he believes that there were 12.5 million Israelites living in Egypt. (By the way, that's almost as much as the most populous urban area in the world, Shanghai, China, and 1/4 the estimated world population of 1000 BCE!) Anyway, he states that the lack of evidence of either the massive 10 million person holocaust or the 2.5 million survivors travelling in the desert is simply "part of the nes".

3) You wouldn't expect to find artifacts. In addition to the miraculous existence in the desert, MNR states that (according to his archaeology professor) "the desert is actually a bad place for sustaining archaological [sic] remains... so no wonder we can't find any existence of the jews [sic] in the desert - we wouldn't expect to."

4) The emunah peshutah argument. Homestar mentions a circular Kuzari-like argument (it must have been true that there were 1/2 million people because you can't make up such a claim). But ultimately he does the "proof would take away emunah" song & dance.

5) The show stopper: Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.

Now lets look at why these are lame arguments.

To suggest that the Israelites' clothes didn't wear out so no remnants would be found today is just a straw man argument. No archaeologist is looking for clothes or shoes (or "empty beer cans")! That's silly. Cloth is not going to survive after 3000 years in the desert (although, contrary to the original assertion, dry desert climes are more suitable for the preservation of organic material than less arid regions once said materials are buried and thus removed from exposure to the sun. Microbial decay is accelerated in moister environs.) They are looking for any evidence whatsoever of habitation including pottery shards, glass containers, metal tools, and so forth, which do survive.

Always keep in mind that we are talking about a population the size of the city of Chicago! Now I do not side with the minimalists and claim that there was no desert experience at all, only that such a humongous population would leave behind significant evidence of a 40-year sojourn in the desert. But let's look at the words of noted minimalists, Finkelstein and Silberman as stated in The Bible Unearthed:

"According to the biblical account, the children of Israel wandered in the desert and mountains of the Sinai peninsula, moving around and camping in different places, for a full 40 years. Even if a number of fleeing Israelites (given in the text as 600,000) is wildly exaggerated, or can be interpreted as representing smaller numbers of people, the text describes the survival of a great number of people under the most challenging conditions. Some archaeological traces of their generation-long wandering in the Sinai should be apparent. However, except for the Egyptian forts along the northern coast, not a single campsite or sign of occupation from the time of Ramesses II and his immediate predecessors and successors has ever been found in Sinai.

It has not been for lack of trying. Repeated archaeological surveys in all regions of the peninsula, including the mountainous area around the traditional site of Mount Sinai, near Saint Catherine's Monastery, has yielded only negative evidence: not a single sherd, no structure, not a single house, no trace of an ancient encampment.

One may argue that a relatively small band of wandering Israelites cannot be expected to leave material remains behind. But modern archeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world. Indeed, the archaeological record from the Sinai peninsula discloses evidence for pastoral activity in such eras as the third millennium B.C.E. and the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. There is simply no such evidence at the supposed time of the Exodus in the 13th century B.C.E.

The conclusion - that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible - seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods during their wandering in the desert (Numbers 33) and where some archaeological indication - if present - would almost certainly be found.

According to the biblical narrative, the children of Israel camped at Kadesh-barnea for 38 of the 40 years of the wanderings. The general location of this place is clear from the description of the southern border of the land of Israel in Numbers 34. It has been identified by archaeologists with the large and well-watered oasis of Ein el-Quedeirat in eastern Sinai, on the border of modern Israel and Egypt. The name Kadesh was probably preserved over the centuries in the name of a nearby smaller spring called Ein Qadis. A small mound with the remains of a Late Iron Age fort stands at the center of this oasis. Yet repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided the slightest evidence for activity in the Late Bronze Age, not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees."

But, Mr Finkelstein, they lived on manna and didn't go to the bathroom and wore the same underwear for 40 years - what would you expect to find??

- The Israelites had lots of jewelry of silver and gold that were given to them by the Egyptians - so much, in fact, that Egypt was "despoiled" (Exodus 12:35).

- Musical instruments! Even Miriam thought to bring entertainment with her when leaving Egypt (Exodus 15:20).

- Plenty of armament, presumably retrieved from the drowned Egyptians, with which they defeated Amalek, killed worshipers of the Golden Calf, defeated the Amorites, killed all the men of Midian, etc. You'd think that a few swords would be left out of all of the tens of thousand killed. Plus don't forget all of that booty in Numbers 31 - they must have missed a shekel or two, no?

- Isaac (in the Hirhurim comments) puts to rest the notion of "edible bowls", quoting Bamidbar 11:8: "The people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars, and seethed it in pots, and made cakes of it." So the Torah explicitly states that they had grinding mills, pots, and mortars. (And let us not forget that famous "why do have milchigs on Shavuos?" question: because after the Jews received the Torah they had to eat uncooked dairy foods until they could kasher their dishes and utensils.)

- How did the people carry water to their tent? Perhaps with clay water jugs? Or did all 2.5 million just trek on over to the Well of Miriam whenever they were thirsty and use their (edible) ladle?

- What about the complex nature of the mishkan? It required among other things looms for weaving the wool, vats for preparing dye and dyeing wool, smelters for fashioning implements of gold, silver, and brass (and for making the Golden Calf!), tools for cutting the boards, presses for making olive oil, knives for slaughtering animals... Read Exodus 25-29 and tell me that this did not require a large number of workers and sophisticated crafting techniques. Surely something would have been left behind at Kadesh-barnea!

- Any clay utensil that becomes tamei (spiritually contaminated) cannot be later rendered tahor (spiritually pure); it must be broken into pieces. Certainly during a 40 year sojourn in the desert numerous ovens would have become tamei for various reasons (oven touched by someone who had contact with a dead body (50,000 or so people must have died every year), lizard dies inside the oven, etc.) and would have been intentionally broken. Where are all of the oven pieces? [Thanks to Wolf for this suggestion.] (Perhaps, however, Moses ruled like Rabbi Eliezer (!) in the "Tanur Shel Achnai" debate (Bava Metzia 59b) and required that all ovens in the desert be built out of clay pieces which would remain tahor...)

The OrthoFundie is really left with one of two arguments:

1) "Nothing was left behind due to a miracle". This argument is irrefutable because it is outside the realm of debate. It is an admission of "I can't discuss this rationally".

2) "Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack". I often see this stated by Biblical literalists when it comes to the Mabul, and get annoyed because in that case there is abundance evidence of lack. Nevertheless, such an argument can indeed be made about the missing 2.5 million (at least insofar as the sojourn in the desert). It may very well be that tomorrow or next year or next century that archaeologists will make a spectacular discovery that will silence the critics once and for all.

But don't hold your breath...


BrooklynWolf said...

A good post, and one that I may follow up on my blog, but please... don't refer to individuals by initials. I have no idea who "RBR" and "MNR" are -- and if I didn't read his blog, I wouldn't know who XGH was (especially without a link to his recent post on the subject).

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

By the way, you can also include the fact that ovens that became tamei had to be broken. That would certainly leave behind quite a bit of shattered pottery.

jewish philosopher said...

I have a post about archeology which I think deals with this pretty well.

Frum Heretic said...

Wolf - the initials are the same ones used by each commentator in the Hirhurim post. Sorry I didn't make that clear.

Also, I will be updating the post now to reflect your comment about broken ovens. Thanks.

Frum Heretic said...

JP, read it again:

2.5 MILLION people.
38 years in ONE location.

End of story.

(BTW, I am speaking of only one particular phenomenon here, that of the desert sojourn. I hope to do another post that reviews the evidence that argues against the notion that the Torah was a late fabrication.)

jewish philosopher said...

The question is how complete it the archaeological record? I argue, not very.

slaveofone said...

"a literal reading of 600,000 adult male Israelites (representing a minimum of 2.5 million people in total) leaving Egypt, living for 40 years in the desert, and then conquering Canaan is logically untenable."

I'd call that a philosophical statement—not a historical one. And the degree to which something is or is not tenable logically is certainly an arbitrary exercise anyway. I, for instance, find it logically untenable to make a decision either for or against the Exodus story based on a philosophical statement. But, if I have any concept of English at all, a philosophical statement is obviously being used by the author of this post as if it had some sort of weight of decision. So we already see a conflict of perspective which can tell us nothing either one way or the other about the “exodus” except how one person believes another person can or can't see it.

One thing that needs to be taken into account when trying to make a decision that is NOT based on a philosophical statement is the nature of the text we are dealing with. So for starters we can confidently say that the Exodus account appeared separate from and earlier than the advent of History-writing since this took place in the Hellenistic Period and among Greeks. We can also say confidently that it was not assembled as or meant to be understood like book literature, but as scroll matter. Whatever the earlier Exodus text(s) looked like, it(they) would not be understood as Holy Book but as scribal repository. It would be neither Greek nor Modern, but ancient Near Eastern anthropologically, sociologically, and so forth. Et cetera.

Once we begin to understand what we might be dealing with, then we can start saying what it might or might not be saying and at that point we can compare and contrast that with the other historical evidence and arguments available to us to come to a conclusion.

Otherwise... A few comments I have on the arguments...

Archaeologically speaking, ancient peoples traveled on routes known and used by others (for obvious reasons). Four of the place names mentioned in the list Numbers 33 gives of the wilderness sojourn occur in the relief inscriptions of Thutmosis III at Karnak in exactly the same order as they occur in Numbers 33, which indicates that such was part of a known route used by both. If the Israelites did travel on known or established routes—especially desert routes—material possessions and remains would be picked up or used by other travelers as they came across such objects and found need or want of them. This would significantly change the situation from one in which you have thousands or millions of people on an isolated spot and not in contact with other people and their spots to one of motion and exchange across territories and cultures. In other words, we are not dealing with something like the city of Chicago that you can go to and see what's there, but something like the city of Springfield moving up and through the city of Chicago over a period of time while the city of Chicago moves down and through the city of Springfield over a period of time, and then another city coming along from another direction, etc. And thus, if we were looking for the former situation and not the later, it would greatly increase the likelihood of not finding that evidence. And while we might expect archeology to discover evidence of us non-nomadic Modern people if we stayed in a place half a century, archeology would be in a great deal harder position—indeed, a perhaps completely improbable position--trying to find evidence for a specific kind of people in ancient times who came and went across a certain area for that same length of time which was also used by others before, during, and even long after.

So I'd have to say the “what evidence would you expect?” is a valid question and the evidence one would expect doesn't bode well for isolating the Israelites. Indeed, many of the very evidences that distinguish Israelite from something other would not be in play if the narrative can be trusted in any way. So, for instance, we can tell that someone is Israelite because Israelites used a certain type of house construction design. But if someone is traveling nomadically, living in tens, and not building houses because they don't intend to settle down and claim that land their own, we are without our house construction design to verify Israelite from other. And if the Israelites had lived in Egypt for a length of time, they would have, at least, taken on some its characteristics. And we would expect them to carry these characteristics with them when they left (even if they did not literally carry specifically Egyptian stuff with them when they left). And so, therefore, if there was material remains, we might not even be able to differentiate the Egyptian stuff that belonged to the Israelites from the Egyptian stuff that belonged to the Egyptians.

-suitepotato- said...

The idea that any amount of people lived there for forty years is pretty much nonsense right off the bat. There's a tendency in that area of the world to use the number forty a lot. Forty days, forty weeks, forty years. It's an oft used shorthand for "a long while". It relates back to ancient time and date keeping attempts.

If so many as a few hundred people were there forty years, it would have been like the archaeological remnants at Qumran. There would have been some sign found a long time ago.

As repeated investigations of the terrain and biblical accounts have shown, the most likely realistic path was right through the peninsula along known caravan routes. It wouldn't be surprising that Moses took them that way since that is the way to a known Midianite outpost and his wife and father-in-law were Midianite.

There's no way it was 600,000 or 40 years, but they definitely left Egypt, ticked off the delicate sensibilities of the pharaoh yet evaded his troops with judicious timing and choice of place to run, and ran into the tribes living to the east and dallied there a bit before moving north.

I know many people are not in agreement with Simcha Jacobivici, but he does make a good case: the entire Exodus story needs to be reimagined in light of the known verifiable factual evidence from Egypt, Sinai, etc. such as geography, customs, linguistics, etc. Reimagining the existing documented world to make it fit the story doesn't work. The story has a grain of truth to it, but needs to be seen as fitting the world we already know.

-suitepotato- said...

I should also mention that any sizeable cohesive people such as the Israelites living on the caravan route WOULD have engaged in the trade we KNOW happened between Egypt and the tribes to the east. There's ZERO chance ALL of the descendants of those other tribes would have simply forgot to mention the Israelites if they were there very long.

Anonymous said...

In terms of pure mathematics, here is some evidence to the contrary of the statement that going from 70 to several million in 200 years is impossible. This suggests that it is merely improbably.

Frum Heretic said...

I never liked the argument that said that going from 70 to several million was impossible. Folks just quote midrash and say that the Jewish women had sextuplets for each birth! Nevertheless, I would argue against comparing modern day examples to that of ancient times, in which child mortality was extremely high and life expectancy was much lower than that of today.

Anyway, Yitta Schwartz aside, the several million number is untenable for many other reasons.

Reb_Motcha said...

I am Mordechai Housman, and I have never said nor have I ever written what has been quoted here in my name. Please cite the location of that comment. Please e-mail me to discuss this at

Frum Heretic said...

Hi - I don't maintain this blog and only occasionally check it so that I can post any relevant comments. So please excuse the late inclusion and my response.

Any quotes in the article were accurate at the time of inclusion. Unfortunately, hirhurim did not maintain all of their old comments when moving to torahmusings so there is nothing currently found in the 5-year old article link. If you are disavowing the quote(s) made in this post, then it must have been someone else with that moniker.