The tribes of Israel wandered in the desert for (a nominal) forty years. During that time, two censuses were reported. These results were:

Tribe First Second
Reuben 46,500 43,730
Simeon 59,300 22,200
Gad 45,650 40,500
Judah 74,600 76,500
Issachar 54,400 64,300
Zebulon 57,400 60,500
Ephraim 40,500 32,500
Manasseh 32,200 52,700
Benjamin 35,400 45,600
Dan 62,700 64,400
Asher 41,500 53,400
Naphtali 53,400 45,400
Total 603,550 601,730

There are two major questions to be answered about these numbers: Why the wide changes in individual tribes while the total remains constant? How could this many Hebrews exist?

Change in tribe sizes. The tribes of Simeon, Gad, Zebulon, Ephraim, and Naphtali decreased substantially, while Issachar, Manasseh, Benjamin, and Asher increased. Ruben, Judah and Dan were essentially unchanged. There are many speculations about the changes, particularly the losses: Plague, God's punishment for rebellion, and battle losses against other nations. I think that a much simpler explanation is realistic: Tribal membership depended more on location than on ancestry. People living in a tribal area during the census were counted as part of that tribe regardless of ancestry.

Too many people. The censuses of the twelve tribes, excluding Levi, included only those males of twenty years or more who were fit for military service. Males twenty and over but not fit for military service, males under twenty, and females were not included. To arrive at the total population, I have estimated the omitted groups. The unfit males could be between 10% and 100% of the fit males. Based loosely on modern Bedouin tribes, I assume 33%. The medium age of modern tribes is 18 years or less. Based on this, the number of males under twenty is about 20% greater than those twenty and over. The number of females is probably equal to the number of males. With these assumptions the total number for the twelve tribes is about 3,530,000.

The two censuses used different bases for Levi. The first counted males between thirty and fifty while the second counted all males over one month. Doubling the second number to include females gives a total Hebrew population of about 3,580,000. This does not include any slaves or captives. Others have calculated the population at 16 million! I cannot find any justification for this number. No estimates were made of the numbers of animals that the tribes possessed.

Total population for Sinai was about 50,000 in 1960, growing to 219,000 in 2000. The 50,000 value is probably the higher than any population prior to 1960. The Sinai population in the first millennium BCE was likely much less than 10,000.

The US Census Bureau publishes historical estimates of world population. The possible date for the Exodus is between 1400 BCE and 1100 BCE. The estimated world population for these dates was 41 million for 1400 BCE and 50 million for 1100 BCE. The population of Egypt was about 3.5 million during this period. Thus, the population of the Israelites would have been at least as large as as that of Egypt; probably greater than any Mediterranean or Middle East nation at that time.

Even sustained by magical sources of water and manna, this many people could not have lived in the Sinai for forty years. In Egypt, they would have been one half the total population. The numbers are obviously inflated: But by how much? One tenth of this number would still be extremely large. One percent (around 40,000) might be possible, but difficult to sustain. Even 10,000 people would make the Hebrew tribes much greater than any group in the desert.

But then these censuses could be from a later date and transferred backward to the mythical time of the Sinai. The numbers would be more appropriate to the period of 1000-800 BCE. Possibly exaggerated, but not greatly.

Archeological research have not been able to find traces of a major migration into the areas that would become Israel. The same people appear to have occupied the same areas continuously from before 2000 BCE. After 1200 these hill tribes started conquering the lower lands. No invasion of Canaan: No migration: No Sinai: No stay in Egypt? Not necessarily. One popular speculation is that only the tribe of Levi migrated from Egypt, bringing the new religion of Yahva. The tribe of Levi could have been very small during their migration - possibly less than a thousand. The ideas of the new religion united the hill tribes that would become the nation of Israel. The other tribes had their initial home lands and continued to capture more. Levi was given independent cities (with surrounding farming areas) distributed throughout the lands of the other tribes.

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