The total area of the tabernacle was 100 x 50 cubits (that is roughly 150 x 75 feet or 50 x 25 metres). This area was used to kill the sacrificial animals for the whole population. If you compare this with the size of a modern abattoir that is needed to process even a few thousand animals, even with the benefit of modern mechanization, it is quickly apparent that the tabernacle was incapable of processing the number of sacrifices required for such a large population. Actually the estimate of 2-3 million Hebrews based on 600,000 adult males during a period of very high population growth is conservative; it would probably be higher.
This is one of several reasons that show that the actual number of Israelites who left Egypt and entered Canaan was much lower than traditionally understood. Other reasons are:
- The total population of Egypt at the time has been variously estimated by historians at between 2-5 million people. Were there millions of Hebrews included in this population?
- The difficulty of millions of people travelling together along a road out of Egypt and then crossing the Red Sea in one night.
- The implausibility of a threat from just 600 Egyptian chariots to millions of people.
- The difficulty of maintaining latrine arrangements in a camp of millions of people, where each person had to walk outside the camp for each visit according to the law, especially for the Levites who were camped in the middle of the twelve tribes. Imagine a city that you know. Being an Australian I think of Brisbane with just over 2 million people. Now imagine a camp in the desert where the entire population of Brisbane was camped in a square around a 1200 square metre tabernacle. Everyone would have to walk outside the camp with their shovel for a bathroom visit!
- What size was Jericho? If the army of Israel was 600,000 strong then it must have been many kilometres in circumference. But the entire army had to travel around it seven times in a day! Actually ancient cities with very few exceptions were very much smaller than that. Most archaeologists believe that Jericho was only a few hectares (less than four) and contained thousands or at most tens of thousands of people. If that is the case then an invasion force of 600,000 should have had no trouble overcoming it even without the miracle that God performed, and we would need to imagine 600,000 men walking around a small stockade!
- The Bible emphasizes the formidable task facing Israel in the conquest of Canaan.
Exo 23:29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you.
How could there have been a problem of wild animals taking over if there were millions of Israelites? Until very recent times the whole land has not had such a large population, and certainly not many millions.
It is possible to say: “The Bible says it so I must believe it”. But the Bible, rightly understood, does not say things that cannot be true. We should not switch off our God-given brain when we read God’s Word.
The best explanation seems to be that ambiguity in the meaning of the word translated “thousand” has led to confusion to scribes later in Israel’s history. The word can also mean “chief”, “clan” or “troop”.
Jos 22:14 and with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel, every one of them the head of a family among the clans of Israel.
The word translated “clans” is the same word usually translated “thousand”. Even though for many of the reasons above the scribes must have puzzled at it, they conscientiously transcribed the numbers as they understood them. If this explanation is correct then the number of military-aged men was 5550, giving a total population of about 20,000 people. That number of people would have been an enormous challenge for Moses to manage. But it is much easier to understand than 100 times that number! These significant advantages seem to outweigh the problems that the idea causes.
For more detailed explanations look at these two links: