The Israelites didn’t leave Egypt unprepared. They left hurriedly, but not without instructions by God, through Moses (Exodus 12:1–28). The people had eaten a Passover supper the night before they left Egypt. Exodus 12:32 and 38 both testify that the Israelites did indeed take great flocks and herds with them when they left Egypt. It is also mentioned in this passage that they took balls of unleavened bread dough, and may have additionally taken food from the Egyptians when they were leaving (Exodus 12:36). So the Israelites definitely did not leave hungry or without provisions.
However we read in Exodus 16:1–3, that it was the fifteenth day of the second month after they departed from the land of Egypt, when the whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. They were so hungry that they were dreaming of the “good old days” of slavery in Egypt when they supposedly had full stomachs. In other words, 75 days after they left Egypt they began to complain about being intensely hungry. How could this be?
The obvious answer is that a lot can change in 75 days, especially with a lot of hungry mouths!1 The second obvious answer is that the Israelites were merely grumbling but not really starving (think of a three-year-old child saying he is starving because he wants some chocolate to eat all the while neglecting his dinner). Let’s evaluate the options in more detail though.
They hungered but were not really starving, for this was the will of the Lord in teaching them to rely on Him.
Potential Solution #1: It could be that the Israelites, who became well known for their grumbling and being stiff necked toward the Lord (e.g., Exodus 32:9; Numbers 14:2; Deuteronomy 9:13) were merely grumbling that they were starving. It seems to be obvious that they were hungry, because God then promised to give them Manna (Exodus 16:4), but saying they were starving was most probably self-pitying hyperbole. Nehemiah 9:21 points out that when the Israelites wandered for 40 years, they lacked nothing. This means they didn’t lack food. When they grumbled that they were starving, it meant they merely didn’t want what the Lord had provided, but wanted something else, perhaps the delicacies and portions they once had in Egypt. Recall that the Israelites’ claim of starving was accompanied by the lament, “when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full!” (Exodus 16:3). At one later stage, the Israelites begged for meat instead of manna, showing they had food, but merely desired something else (Numbers 11:4–6). They hungered but were not really starving, for this was the will of the Lord in teaching them to rely on Him (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Potential Solution #2: The text does not state either way, but the Israelites may have begun killing off their livestock for food almost immediately, and little was left at this point. Perhaps they had killed off all but the best milk-producing cattle and goats, and did not want to sacrifice these too. But we know that they still had livestock as of Exodus 17:3, sometime between 75–90 days after leaving Egypt (Exodus 19:1).
Potential Solution #3: It is also possible that they had been prohibited by God from killing their animals, except as sacrifices—but since Scripture does not state this directly, it is a weaker argument than the former. Another weakness to this argument is that although some sacrifices were to be consumed entirely, with neither the priests nor the people getting any of the meat (Leviticus 1:7–17, 6:30, 16:27), most others involved the priests and Levites getting a portion of the offering and the people getting the rest (i.e., Leviticus 7:15–16).
However, they were told in Leviticus 1:2 that some of their animals were to be reserved for sacrificial purposes since any sin, thanksgiving, dedication, or peace offering to God needed to be a blood sacrifice. We do know that there were sacrifices during this period from the Exodus but before Levitical laws were formalized (e.g. Passover, also Exodus 23:18, 24:5–6, 29:10–41), so there had to be some type of instruction from God concerning animals to be reserved for sacrifice. In any case, assuming that there were sacrifices offered to God similar to those later mandated in Leviticus, it appears probable that the nation of Israel had to by necessity reserve some animals from being eaten, but not all of them. This may have contributed to hunger, but would likely not have been the sole cause.
Potential Solution #4: Another possibility (or at least a supplemental argument) is that some of the animals began dying of thirst. Exodus 15:22 and 17:1–3, and Numbers 20:2 and 21:5 mention that in some of the places they wandered, they went without water for extended periods of time. It is possible that they lost some of their livestock due to dehydration, as well as attrition (either animals wandering off, or becoming weak from travel and dying). In any event, it appears that by the 75th day after leaving Egypt, they had probably exhausted the animals they could freely kill for food, and so were involuntarily fasting at this point.
Potential Solution #5 is just a combination of one or more of the above possibilities. This in fact seems most likely. Apart from direct divine sustainment that we know was provided to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 8:4), livestock would have been hit hard by the travel, heat and lack of water, which they experienced during these first two to three months of the Exodus, and some would have wandered off or been killed for provision. God also had in mind that at least some of the animals would be used for sacrifices, so they would have been removed from the provision allotment.
Considering the size of the Israelites at this time (usually estimated to be between 1.5–2 million people, based on the number of fighting men recorded in Numbers 1:46), it shouldn’t seem surprising that this multitude could eat their way through whatever provisions they had and also any available livestock in less than seventy-five days. According to the USDA (in the year 2000), the average American ate 196 pounds of meat per year.2 Using this as a generous baseline, it is pretty easy to calculate what would be needed to sustain two million people for 75 days—approximately 80,548,000 lbs. of meat. It is estimated that for an average 1,000 lb. cow, only about 430 lbs. is meat, with the rest being the head, hooves, hair, excess fat, skin, bones, blood, and internal organs.3 Assuming that the later biblical proscriptions against eating certain internal organs, skin, bones, and so on for priests (mentioned often in Exodus 29:13–14 and Leviticus 3:3–4) and the rest of the people, then the above amounts of edible meat from the animal look to be correct. Indeed the blood prohibition goes all the way back to Genesis 9:4, and the fat portions being a respectable offering to the Lord go as far back as Genesis 4:4.
We also need to keep in mind that the Israelites were wandering in an area that did not have a lot of forageable vegetation for humans.
Once the numbers are tallied, this equates to 187,321 cattle killed for food, for two million people over a period of 75 days. And if the animals were goats and sheep, then the number required to equal this weight would only be larger. Admittedly, these are estimates, and Americans eat a much higher percentage of meat than almost every other country. But we also need to keep in mind that the Israelites were wandering in an area that did not have a lot of forageable vegetation for humans. Indeed, had the land been rich in resources, they probably wouldn’t have been murmuring about starving. This also means that the Israelites probably were eating more meat than they would have normally, simply to sustain themselves, so the above calculation is probably a fair estimate. It is then easy to see that the available livestock was probably depleted, mostly for food, some through attrition and others being reserved for sacrifice.
Scripture is therefore giving us a perfectly reasonable picture of how the Israelites were hungry and complaining about starving 75 days after the Exodus, even though well provisioned at the outset. Once again, we do not have a contradiction in Scripture, but corroboration that the historical accounts in the Bible are true and trustworthy.