Tuesday, March 07, 2006

600,000 Part II

Ok, to review, here's the problem. Our Torah says 600,000 armed men left Egypt but all the evidence suggests this is impossible. For example: Excavations of the Sinai desert show no trace of a nation of 3 million or an army of 600,000 people. The largest nation in the world at that time (Egypt) had an army of 20,000. And, from a theological perspective, the idea that defeating Amalek and conquering Canaan were miracles is obviated if the ancient Israelites possessed an army not just larger than Egypt's, but larger than the 500,000 man army of Napolean which conquered all of Europe 2200 years later

What's a God-fearing Jew (ie: not you GH) to do?

A clever solution is suggested by someone with a name I forgot (again, not you GH) who points out that eleph, the word for thousand, is also used for family (Judges 6:15) clans and military units; also, in Hebrew eleph is a heteronym for aluf, the word for chieftain, or for an armed soldier, ie: someone carrying more than the weapons of a peasent shepherd.

The number 600,000 appears twice in scripture. Let's look at the two instances in context.

Exodus 12:37
ויסעו בני ישראל מרעמסס סכתה כשש מאות אלף רגלי הגברים לבד מטף

According to the theory presented above, this translates as "And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred (fully armed) chieftains on foot that were men of valor, aside from families. "

Numbers 1:46
ויהיו כל הפקדים--שש מאות אלף ושלשת אלפים וחמש מאות וחמשים

This translates as "All they that were counted were six hundred (fully armed) chiefs, three "thousands" (a military unit) and five "hundreds" (also a military unit) and fifty (of the smallest military unit)."

So far so good, but the heteronym theory takes on a bit of water when we reach the description of the census in Numbers 26, and sentences like this:

אלה משפחת הראובני ויהיו פקדיהם שלשה וארבעים אלף ושבע מאות ושלשים
Translation: These are the families of Reuven: their number was forty-three thousand, seven hundred and thirty; and

אלה משפחת השמעני--שנים ועשרים אלף ומאתים
Translation: These are the families of Simon, twenty-two thousand, two hundred.

The man behind the heteronym theory (still can't recall his name) has a solution for this, too. He suggests reading the census verses as follows:

Reuven: 43 (fully armed) chieftains; 7 hundreds (military units) and thirty (of the smallest millitary unit)
Simeon: 22 (fully armed) chieftains; 2 'hundreds' (military units).

Is it perfect? Of course not. Nothing is perfect. However, the obvious benefit of this approach is that it gives us a way to reconcile the facts of the Torah with the facts of history and the facts of archeology. Yes, it means altering the traditional understanding of the word eleph, but this alteration is fully in keeping with the accepted meaning of the heteronym.