Tag Archives: israelites

Hebrew population history according to the Bible

How many Israelites were there when Jacob (AKA Israel) was born? Well, I don’t think he counts. Let’s define Israelites as descendants of Israel (AKA Jacob). So then the answer would be zero.

The Bible doesn’t say exactly when Jacob had children. But by the time his father died, he had 13 of them. And the Bible calls them Israelites.

When Jacob’s family moved to Egypt when he was 130 years old, there were about 70 descendants of Israel. (The exact number given varies between different parts of the Bible. It could be anywhere from 66 to 75.)

One Pharaoh later, it says the Israelites multiplied greatly and filled the land so much that the Egyptians felt threatened. By the time of the exodus, they had about 600,000 men, plus women and children. So they went from less than a hundred to over a million people during the time they lived in Egypt, which the Bible says was no more than 430 years.

And how many generations did that take, to get from 70 to over a million? About two? Kohath was one of the 70 who moved to Egypt, Amram was his son, and Moses was his son. (Moses was 80 by the time the exodus happened, but if they were in Egypt 430 years then these generations would have to be like 175 years apart. So Moses’s age doesn’t make much difference. It’s still just two generations.)

For the population to grow that much in just two generations, each woman would have to have around 300 children. I suppose that could happen… if, say, they all kept getting pregnant nonstop from age 5 to age 73, and each pregnancy only lasted 21 weeks, and they all had twins every time, and no one died. Does that seem likely? At that rate, it would only take two more generations before there would be more Israelites than there are people in the world today. No wonder the Egyptians were nervous. But that wasn’t too much for just two midwives to handle, apparently.

Shortly after the exodus, Moses describes the Israelites as being as numerous as the stars in the sky. How many is that? Well, the number of stars in the observable universe is like a trillion times more than the number of humans who will ever exist. But the number of stars visible to the naked eye from Earth in the absence of light pollution is less than 50,000. I’m gonna say the second interpretation is way closer to a reasonable number of people. Plus, that’s what it sounds like the Bible meant the first time it compared people to stars. So… the number of Israelites suddenly fell from over a million to less than 50,000?

Then just a year after the exodus, Moses takes a census and counts over 600,000 non-Levite men at least 20 years old, and at least 22,000 Levite males at least a month old. So now they’re back over 1.2 million people. And that’s not counting most of the people under 20.

About 40 years later, Moses took another census. Almost all the Israelites from the first one had already died by this time, but the numbers weren’t much different. There were still over 600,000 Israelite men who were 20 or older, and 23,000 male Levites at least a month old.

When Moses died, not long after that, he said again that the Israelites were as numerous as the stars in the sky. So I guess they’re back below 50,000 again.

Post-settlement population

In the days of the judges, it says there were 25,600 fighting men in the tribe of Benjamin. Multiplying that by 12 tribes, it seems like there would have only been about 300,000 fighting men in all of Israel then, instead of 600,000. Except Benjamin was a particularly small tribe, so I guess there could have still been around the same total number of men there had been… At least until the other Israelites murdered most of the Benjamites, which would reduce the number of Israelites by more than 50,000.

Wait, is that why Benjamin was a small tribe? Maybe it is; maybe 25,000 men was typical for an Israelite tribe before that happened. In which case we can go with the estimate of 300,000 Israelite men. So the total number of Israelites would be over 600,000, but after the Benjamite genocide it would be less than 600,000, maybe. It’s hard to tell exactly, when the Bible keeps leaving so many people out of the count because they’re the wrong age, sex, tribe, etc. for fighting.

When Saul became king, it says there were indeed only 300,000 fighting men of Israel, plus 30,000 fighting men of Judah. (Who they’re counting separately for some reason, even though Judah was supposedly part of the kingdom of Israel at that time.) When David became king of all Israel, just 50 years later, Israel only had 30,000 fighting men. What happened?

Then during Absalom’s brief reign, it says the people of Israel “and Judah” were “as numerous as the sand on the seashore“. How numerous is that? Well, there are about 372,000 miles of coastline in the world, and about 31% of those are sandy. So that’s about 115,000 miles of sandy shores. The coastline of Israel is 170 miles, but ancient Israel had different borders. Their coastline was maybe 2/3 of that, which is around 115 miles.

So Israel’s seashore was about a thousandth of all the world’s beaches. The number of grains of sand on all the beaches in the world has been estimated to be in the quintillions. So the grains of sand on the seashore of ancient Israel would probably be in the quadrillions.

When God told David to take a census and then got mad that David took a census, there were either 1.1 million fighting men in Israel (including Judah), or 1.3 million in Israel “and” Judah, depending on which part of the Bible you believe. Either way, their total population would now be more than 2 million.

And then during Solomon’s reign, one part of the Bible says they were as numerous as the sand on the seashore again, which is a thoroughly unreasonable number of people. And another part says they were as numerous as the dust of the earth, which is several orders of magnitude worse. I’m making a graph of these wild population swings, but I’m going to have to leave out these sand and dust numbers. At that scale, you wouldn’t be able to see anything else.

Continue reading Hebrew population history according to the Bible
Share this post:

The Story of the Lost Ark
God Gives You Cancer

Back when Israel was led by Samuel, there had been a war between the Israelites and the Philistines, and Israel was losing. The Israelites thought it might help if God was with them, so they brought out the ark of the covenant. When the Philistines heard that a mighty enemy god had arrived, they were afraid, and they knew they would have to fight hard to defeat Israel. So the Philistines fought hard, and defeated Israel.

They killed tens of thousands of Israelites, captured the ark of God, and took it to the temple of their god Dagon. But then Dagon started bowing down to the ark, and the Philistines started getting tumors. They tried moving the ark to different cities, but Philistines died wherever the ark went.

After seven months of this, the Philistines decided they should send the ark away. They put the ark on a cart and let two cows take it back to Israelite territory. When the Israelites saw that the cows had brought their ark back, they were so grateful that they… killed the cows.

But then when 70 Israelites looked inside the ark at the things that God had told Moses to put there so people could look at them, God killed them all. Now the people who had found the ark of God didn’t want to keep it, since it seemed to bring death everywhere it went. So they sent the ark to the house of some guy named Abinadab.

Continue reading The Story of the Lost Ark
God Gives You Cancer
Share this post:

The Story of King Ish-Bosheth
The One Where Nearly Everybody Gets Killed, But It's Not God's Doing for a Change

After Saul and his whole family died, his dead son Ish-Bosheth succeeded him as king of Israel. But David was made king of the tribe of Judah. The commander of the army of Israel was Saul’s cousin Abner, and the commander of the army of Judah was David’s nephew Joab.

These commanders thought it would be fun to see some men stab each other to death. So they made two dozen of their soldiers stab each other to death. But Joab’s brother Asahel didn’t like that, so he chased Abner. Abner didn’t like that, so he stabbed Asahel to death. Joab didn’t like that, so he chased Abner, too. But then Abner suggested not chasing him. So Joab stopped chasing him.

King Ish-Bosheth offended his commander Abner by accusing him of sleeping with Saul’s girlfriend. So Abner decided to desert Ish-Bosheth and help David take over Israel. When Abner offered to help David become king of all Israel, David agreed to let him do that… but only if he did David a favor first.

By this time David had married at least four women. But Saul had taken back his daughter Michal, David’s first wife, and given her to somebody else. David had Abner steal Michal back for him and make her other husband go away. After doing that, Abner went off to convince the Israelites to make David their king.

But David’s commander Joab didn’t like Abner, who had killed Joab’s brother. Joab thought Abner must have only come there to spy on David for Ish-Bosheth. So Joab found Abner and stabbed him to death. David didn’t like that (even though he had previously declared that Abner must die). So David put a curse on Joab’s family, and later had his son kill Joab.

Continue reading The Story of King Ish-Bosheth
The One Where Nearly Everybody Gets Killed, But It's Not God's Doing for a Change
Share this post:

The Story of the Hunt for David
David Joins Israel's Enemies

David went to the Philistine city of Gath to escape from Saul. But the people there thought they recognized him as a notorious Philistine slaughterer. So David pretended he was insane, and then he ran away and hid in a cave.

Then he went into a city and fought the Philistines who were attacking it. But God told him that Saul was coming, and that the people of the city would hand him over to Saul to keep him from destroying their city. So David left the city, and what God predicted didn’t happen.

Continue reading The Story of the Hunt for David
David Joins Israel's Enemies
Share this post:

The Story of David and Goliath
David Risks His Life for Nothing

Goliath, a Philistine who was almost ten feet tall, challenged Israel to choose a man to fight him one-on-one. The losing nation would then become subject to the winning nation. David was told that King Saul would give great wealth and his daughter to the man who killed Goliath. So David told Saul he would fight Goliath.

Saul thought David was too young and inexperienced to do that, but David pointed out that as a shepherd, he had plenty of experience killing things. Saul let David try on his armor, but David (Saul’s armor-bearer) wasn’t used to bearing Saul’s armor. So he went to fight Goliath with no armor and no sword.

Continue reading The Story of David and Goliath
David Risks His Life for Nothing
Share this post:

The Story of the Rejection of Saul
Not Evil Enough to Please God

King Saul attacked his enemies, the Philistines, but the Israelite army was outnumbered and had almost no weapons, so they ran and hid. Saul tried making a burnt offering so God would help him. But then Samuel told him that was a foolish thing to do, and now God had rejected Saul and would have to find a new king for his people.

Later, Samuel told King Saul that God wanted him to break God’s law and kill all the people and animals in the city of Amalek for the sins of their ancestors. So Saul ambushed the city and killed all the people except the king of the Amalekites,1 and all the animals except the best ones, which his men were planning to sacrifice to God later. Then God realized that he had made a bad decision when he made Saul king. Because Saul had failed to kill everyone and everything immediately,2 God rejected Saul as king of his people. Again.

Continue reading The Story of the Rejection of Saul
Not Evil Enough to Please God
Share this post:

The Story of Jonathan and the Cursed Honey
Saul Tries to Starve His Own Army

During a war with the Philistines, King Saul’s son Jonathan ate some honey that he found on the ground. But then someone informed him that his father had said anyone who ate anything that day would be cursed. Jonathan thought that was dumb. By depriving them of food, Saul was making his army too weak to fight the Philistines. So Jonathan sneaked away and started killing Philistines himself. Then God made the Philistines panic and attack each other so the Israelites wouldn’t have to.

Continue reading The Story of Jonathan and the Cursed Honey
Saul Tries to Starve His Own Army
Share this post:

The Story of the Inauguration of Saul
Your Cattle or Your Eyes

When Samuel was getting old, his evil sons were next in line to take over the nation. The people of Israel suggested appointing a king to lead them instead. But Samuel didn’t think that was a good idea, so he asked God about it. God didn’t like the idea either, because he thought that meant his people wouldn’t consider him their king. But he told Samuel to do it anyway.

So Samuel warned Israel that their king would steal their property and enslave them. And he said God would never save them by putting an end to the king’s reign. The people said they wanted a king anyway, because all the other nations had kings. When God heard this, he said Samuel should go ahead and give them a king.

A tall, handsome young man named Saul came to Samuel to see if the prophet could tell him where his father’s lost donkeys were. Before he could ask him, Samuel told Saul that the donkeys had already been found while he was away looking for them.

Then Samuel took Saul home with him and kissed him and oiled him and told him God had made him the ruler of his people. Saul hid, but when the people of Israel found out that he was to be their king, they got God to find him for them. And they dragged him out and made him their king.

Continue reading The Story of the Inauguration of Saul
Your Cattle or Your Eyes
Share this post:

The Story of King Abimelek
The King Who Wasn't Killed by a Woman

Gideon was another judge of Israel. He destroyed a pagan object of worship that his father had made, and then he made his people a new one. He also tortured or killed anyone who wouldn’t give his men free food. The Israelites liked Gideon so much, they wanted him to become their king. But he refused. After Gideon died, his son Abimelek murdered his 70 brothers, and then he was made the first king of Israel.

Continue reading The Story of King Abimelek
The King Who Wasn't Killed by a Woman
Share this post:

Discrimination by nation

I’ve been cataloging everything the Bible has to say about various forms of discrimination. One type of discrimination that gets a lot of attention in modern times is racism. And the version of the Bible I’m working with does appear to use the word “race” in that sense a couple of times. But back in biblical times, they didn’t really have the same concept of “race”. So rather than write about “racism” in the Bible, I’m going to discuss the closest thing the ancients actually did have: Discrimination by nation.


Let’s look at the least discriminatory parts of the Bible first. It says Israel isn’t the only nation God cares about; the nations are all the same to him. He cares about what people do, not who their ancestors are. God loves foreigners and wants his people to love them too. He says his people shouldn’t mistreat or oppress foreigners. They should judge everyone fairly and justly and treat the foreigners among them the same as the native-born Israelites, because they once lived as foreigners in Egypt.1

In fact, there’s one passage that just assumes Israelites want to help foreigners in need, and encourages them to help each other the same way they would help foreigners. (That’s not going to do much good in the cases where that assumption is wrong.)

Sometimes the Bible says its laws should be applied equally to Israelites and foreigners living in Israel. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, though. Mostly what that means is that people will get stoned to death if they don’t follow the rules of the religion of the people of the country they happen to be in. But if foreigners do worship and obey him, then God will… allow them to worship and obey him.

God did occasionally disapprove of his people oppressing foreigners. (At least when they did it without fearing him.) But that didn’t do much good when he was telling them to oppress them most of the time. Foreigners were amazed and confused on the occasions when Israelites actually decided to be nice to them.

An angel who was the commander of God’s army said he was not on Israel’s side or on their enemies’ side. God thinks all nations are worthless and just wants everybody to die.2 Equality! David once entrusted the ark of the covenant to a Philistine, and later he allowed hundreds of Philistines to join his army.3 That’s quite a difference from how he normally treated Philistines. Solomon asked God to answer the prayers of foreigners, though I’m not sure it says God agreed to that part.

When Ezra said all the Jews should disown their foreign wives and children, there were about four people who disagreed. Jesus once healed a girl even though she was a Canaanite, though it took some convincing. There was one Samaritan who was willing to help a Jew… in a story Jesus made up.

After Jesus died, Peter convinced himself that foreigners could be saved, which his peers thought was a pretty weird idea. He decided he should preach to Gentiles even though it was against God’s law to associate with them. Paul, too, thought God now judged people according to their actions, their beliefs, or his own whims, and not by their nationality.

Ambivalently unequal ordinances

Sometimes the Bible says things about certain nations that I’m not sure whether to classify as favorable or unfavorable treatment.

It says God gave his laws to Israel, and not to any other nation. Some of those laws suggest that being a foreigner living in Israel automatically makes you disadvantaged and unable to provide for yourself somehow. But to make up for that, God’s law says Hebrews have to give foreigners free food. It says Hebrews aren’t allowed to eat animals they found already dead, but they can give them to foreigners to eat.

It says every seven years, an Israelite has to cancel any debts that another Israelite owes them. But they don’t have to do the same for a foreigner. And an Israelite isn’t allowed to charge another Israelite interest. But they can make a foreigner pay interest.

Jesus told his followers to only preach their message to Jews, at least at first.

Between Gentile nations

The Bible says God had his people wipe out a lot of other nations and steal their land. But it says God didn’t want them to invade the land of the Ammonites.

The Moabites and the Midianites both led Israel into sin in the Peor incident. God told Israel to go to war against Midian because of this. But he told them not to go to war with Moab, even though they did the same thing.

The Romans thought it was okay to violently punish people without a trial, as long as they weren’t Roman citizens.

Continue reading Discrimination by nation
Share this post: