And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children.…
The exodus from Egypt lay at the foundation of the national life of Israel. It appears in the history as a supernatural work of God. The subsequent legislation assumes it to have possessed this character. The bond of covenant declared to exist between the people and Jehovah had its ground in the same transaction. They were God's people, and were bound to adhere to him, and to obey his laws, because he had so marvellously redeemed them. Every motive and appeal in the later books is drawn from the assumed truth of the events related here, and of those which happened afterwards in the wilderness. Obviously, therefore, the history of Israel presupposes the truth of this history; while if the narrative of the exodus, as here recorded, is admitted to be true, we are in immediate contact with supernatural facts of the most stupendous order. We do not mean to discuss the question in detail, but the following points may be indicated as suitable for popular treatment.
I. OBJECTIONS. We touch only on that which relates to the number of the people (ver. 37). The difficulty here is two-fold.
1. To account for the growth of the nation of Israel from seventy persons to over 2,000,000 in the space of time allowed for that increase. On this see the exposition. The difficulty is not serious
(1) if we take the plain wording of the history, and admit that the sojourn in Egypt lasted 430 years (ver. 40);
(2) if we do the narrative the justice of allowing it to remain consistent with itself, the increase, on its own showing, being exceptional and marvellous (Exodus 1:7, 14, 20).
(3) If we admit that the descendants of the households which doubtless accompanied Jacob into Egypt, are included in the numbers. But this supposition, however probable in itself, is really not necessary to vindicate the numbers. The truth is, that granting a highly exceptional rate of increase, with 430 years to increase in, the numbers, as will be seen on calculation, appear small, rather than too great. They certainly could not have been much less than the history makes them. The problem is quite soluble even on the hypothesis of the shorter reckoning, in favour of which there is not a little to be said (see Birk's "Exodus of Israel").
2. To account for the possibility of so vast a multitude, including women and children, with flocks and herds, effecting an exodus in a single night (and day). The feat in question is certainly unparalleled in history. Even granting what the narrative (as against Colenso) makes perfectly clear, that the Israelites were in a state of tolerably complete organisation, had ample warning to prepare for starting on that particular night, and had for months been on the tip-toe of expectation, as plague after plague descended on Egypt, it is still an event so stupendous as to be difficult of realisation. The narrative itself, however, does not fail to represent it as very extraordinary. And in pronouncing on its possibility, there are several circumstances not always, perhaps, sufficiently taken into account. Justice is not always done
(1) to the perfectly superhuman efforts a nation can sometimes make in a great crisis of its history. Even an individual, at a time when feeling is highly strained, is capable of efforts and achievements, which, to read of them in cold blood, we might judge to be impossible.
(2) To the order and discipline of which masses of people become capable when called to face an emergency on which they feel that existence itself depends. The picture sometimes drawn of a disorderly rabble pouring out of Egypt has no foundation in the history, and is false to psychology and experience. The narratives of shipwrecks (the Kent, the London, etc.), show us what crowds are capable of in the way of order and discipline, even with certain death staring them in the face. When a people, under the influence of one great overmastering idea, are called upon to execute difficult movements, or to unite their efforts towards one great end, it is incredible what they can accomplish. The feeling of solidarity takes possession of them. They are of one heart and soul. The mass moves and works as if one mind possessed it, as if it were a machine. Orders are obeyed with promptitude; movements are executed with rapidity and regularity; men are lifted for the time out of their littlenesses, and display a spirit of willingness, of helpfulness, and of self-sacrifice truly wonderful. All these conditions were present on the night of the exodus: the result was what might have been anticipated - the people were brought out with wonderful rapidity, and in regular order; "they went up harnessed" - "five in a rank" (Exodus 13:18).-
(3) We must add to these considerations, the singularly exalted state of the religious consciousness in the companies of the Israelites. Everything in their position combined to awe and solemnize them; to fill them with an overmastering consciousness of the Divine presence; to inspire them with boundless and grateful joy, yet a joy tempered with the awful sense of death, as forced upon them by the destruction of the first-born, and the lamentations of the bereaved Egyptians. This also would exercise a powerful and steadying influence upon their thoughts and behaviour, and would aid them in taking their measures with decision and speed.
II. PROOFS. Those who pile up the difficulties of the Bible seldom do justice to the difficulties on the other side. We have to ask -
1. Is it not absurd to say that so extraordinary an event as, in any case, this exodus of Israel from Egypt must be admitted to have been, happened in the full light of the most powerful civilisation of ancient times, while yet the people who came out did not know, or could not remember, or could ever possibly forget how it happened? (Cf. ver. 42.) The Israelites themselves did not believe that they did not know. They had but one story to give of it - the story that rings down in their psalms to latest generations - the same story which, with minute circumstantial detail, is embodied in these chapters.
2. If this is not how the children of Israel got out of Egypt, will the critic show us how they did get out? It is admitted on all hands that they were once in; that they were in bondage; that Egypt was at that time ruled by one or other of its most powerful monarchs; that they came out; yet did not come out by war, but peaceably. How then did they make their way out? If the whole history was different from that of which we have a record, how came it that no echo of it was preserved in Israel, and that this sober and matter-of-fact relation has come to take its place?
3. There is the institution of the Passover - a contemporary memorial. We have already expressed our belief that this ordinance was of a kind which could not have been set up at a time later than the events professedly commemorated by it. Glance at the alternative hypothesis. The basis of the institution, we are asked to believe, was an ancient spring festival, on which were grafted by degrees, as the tradition formed, the rites and ideas of a later age. This hypothesis, however, is not only unproved, but violates every law of historical probability. It must in any case be admitted
(1) that the exodus took place at the time of the alleged agricultural festival.
(2) That the festival thereafter assumed a new character, and was observed, in addition to its agricultural reference, as a memorial of the escape from Egypt.
(3) That the use of unleavened bread in connection with it had reference to the haste of the flight.
(4) Further, that an essential part of this festival was the offering of a sacrifice.
(5) That, being at bottom a spring festival, it must have been observed, with but few interruptions, all down the later history of Israel. But if so much is admitted, we seem driven to admit more. For it is undeniable that the festival, as observed among the Jews, was connected most especially of all with the fact of a great judgment, which was believed to have fallen on Egypt on the night of the exodus, and from which the Israelites had been mercifully delivered by the sprinkling of the lamb's blood upon the door-posts; a memorial of which was preserved in the name (Pass-over). "The relation to the natural year expressed in the Passover, was less marked than that in Pentecost or Tabernacles, while its historical import is deeper and more pointed. That part of its ceremonies which has a direct agricultural reference - the offering of the omer - holds a very subordinate place." (Dict. of the Bible.) It is for the sceptic, therefore, to explain how that which enters into the inmost meaning and heart of the observance, could possibly have been engrafted on it as an accident at a later period - yet a period not later than accords with the ritual prescribed in these very ancient written laws: how, moreover, the people could not only be persuaded to accept this new reading of an old familiar ordinance, but to believe that they had never known any other: that this had been the meaning and ritual of the ordinance from the beginning.
4. We have not as yet alluded to the Pentateuch, but of course the fact is not to be overlooked that the work before us claims to be historical; that it was probably written wholly or in large part by Moses himself; and that in style, circumstantially, vividness of narration, and minute accuracy of reference, it bears all the marks of a true and contemporary history. - J.O.
Parallel VersesKJV: And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children.