Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
POPULATION

IT would help to a better understanding of the institutions of Israel, if we could determine the size of its population. A demographic survey is essential for any sociological research, but, as usually happens when ancient civilizations are the subject, the lack of accurate statistics makes the problem complex.

There is, of course, some numerical information in the Bible, but it is not very helpful. According to Ex 12: 37-38, 600,000 foot-soldiers came out of Egypt, besides their families and a mixed multitude who went with them. Before the departure from Sinai ( Nb 1: 20-46), a detailed count of the tribes gives 603,550 men over twenty years of age (cf. Ex 38: 26); the Levites are counted separately, and there are 22,000 over a month old ( Nb 3: 39), and 8,580 between the ages of thirty and fifty years ( Nb 4: 48). In the plains of Moab ( Nb 26: 5-51), the total strength of the tribes is 601,730 men over twenty, and there are 23,000 Levites over a month old ( Nb 26: 62). There is no great discrepancy between these various figures, but they presuppose a total population of several millions leaving Egypt and living in the desert, which is impossible. They are merely the expression of the way in which men of a much later age imagined the wonderful increase of the people, and the relative importance of the original tribes. In particular, Judah is the strongest and Simeon the smallest.

Another census is recorded, for the time of David ( 2 S 24: 1-9). This is a record of the kingdom at its widest extent, when it included Transjordan and stretched as far as Tyre and Sidon and the Orontes. It lists 800,000 men liable for military service in Israel, and 500,000 in Judah. In the parallel passage ( 1 Ch 21: 1-6) the Chronicler has put the figure for Israel even higher, though he excludes non-Israelite territories. The lower total, in 2 S, is still far too high: 1,300,000 men of military age would imply at least five million inhabitants, which, for Palestine, would mean nearly twice as many people to the square mile as in the most thickly populated countries of modern Europe. Moreover, to interpret these figures (or those of Numbers) as including the women and children is to go against the explicit statements of the text. We must simply acknowledge that these figures are artificial.

More reliable evidence is found in 2 K 15: 19-20. In 738 B.C. Tiglath- Pileser III imposed on Israel a tribute of a thousand talents of silver; in order

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