“Thus Saith The Lord!”
Simply taking God at a straightforward reading of His Word, neither this question nor alternate explanations need have ever arisen. I compare this to the question raised by the king’s official in response to Elisha’s prediction of extreme plenty: “Behold if God would make windows in heaven, might this thing be?” (2 Kings 7:2). For his unbelief the official saw the fulfillment of the prophecy of Elisha but did not partake of the feast. This passage was given as a lesson about doubting what God can do.
The verses called into question are these:
And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them. (Exodus 1:7)
But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel. (Exodus 1:12)
Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. (Exodus 1:20)
But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full. (Genesis 15:16).
There is a logical explanation for the enumeration we see in Numbers 3 if one is careful to consider many things (as we will demonstrate). It is thus discouraging when the Scripture is unnecessarily reinterpreted where the meaning is plain. When Jacob went down into Egypt his first and second generation went with him, and they totaled a mere seventy souls, including Joseph and his family who already were in Egypt. Therefore the blessing of multiplication did not rest with them but was filled in the third and subsequent generations in the next two hundred or so years. Joseph was thirty-nine when Jacob entered Egypt, and all his half-brothers were older than he. It is not unreasonable to suppose that they had sons of twenty years of age or more. I believe from comparing various Scriptures that they were in Egypt for 215 years.1 Also we know that the average lifetime was about 120 years, so some of the fourth generation from Joseph would still be alive at the time of the Exodus thus fulfilling the promise God made to Abraham that in the fourth generation they would leave Egypt. Many mistakenly assume that there were only four generations, but Joshua, certainly one of those who left Egypt, was in the tenth generation from Ephraim (1 Chronicles 7:22–27).
Consider the following taken from Numbers 3. From verse 17 we learn that Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. In verse 19 we see that Kohath had four sons: Amram, Izehar, Hebron, and Uzziel, who, combined, had 8,600 male descendants (verse 28) or approximately 2,150 male descendants per son. In verse 39 we read that the tribe of Levi had 22,000 male descendents listed in the first census by Moses.2 Notice the following:
- The total descendants for Kohath (8,600) is consistent with the number of descendants for Levi’s other two sons.3 In fact when you calculate the number of descendants per son, Kohath had the fewest number of descendants per son on the average.
- Compared to the number of descendants the other tribes had, Levi had the fewest number of descendants.
- The word mis̆pāḥâ rendered families (Strong’s 4940) in this chapter is better rendered clan, and is the primary meaning given for the Hebrew word in The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDGB).4 When the 1611 Authorized Version was translated, the word family had the connotation of clan. The Second Edition of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has this listed for the fourth meaning of the word family: “Those descended or claiming descent from a common ancestor: a house, kindred, lineage.”
The Authorized Version was not wrong to use the word family, for the OED cites examples of the usage of this word from the year 1425 to 1737 where the word is used as we now use the word clan.
Perhaps because of this confusion, some writers erroneously conclude that Moses had 8,600 first cousins, and, because this would be absurd, think there must be many generations missing in his family tree, hence the Hebrew word for begat does not mean a father-son relationship. But when we use the correct meaning for the Hebrew word mishpachah, we are not restricted to just four generations in this census, but the sons of Izehar, Hebron, and Uzziel had many generations that would be included in this census.
The Joshua Factor
The growth rate the children of Israel experienced in Egypt is easily within the bounds of possibility.
Using the dates from Ussher and based on the information from Josephus, we know that Joshua is about forty-five at the time of the Exodus. The children of Israel were in Egypt 215 years, so the tenth generation for Joshua occurred in about the 170th year of the sojourn in Egypt. This means his family was having a generation about every seventeen years. Today a generation happens about every thirty to forty years. By the time of the Exodus, it is quite reasonable to assume there were twelve or more generations in his family. Since they lived almost twice as long as people do today, it is not unreasonable to assume the years of childbearing were about twice as long as people living today.
The initial population when Jacob went to Egypt was seventy, and approximately two million or more left Egypt 215 years later, which shows the average growth rate assuming twelve generations of which up to eight generations would still be alive at the time of the Exodus. If you assumed each generation had five to six children, you would end up with this size of population by the time of the Exodus.5
Near our home is the grave of Mr. Edward G. Martin. An excerpt of his obituary is at the end of this article. His first three generations have a slightly larger growth rate than Kohath. When Mr. Martin died, he left over 400 living descendants to his third generation. The growth rate the children of Israel experienced in Egypt is easily within the bounds of possibility. When God’s hand of blessing was upon them by cutting in half the normal time for a generation and doubling or tripling the average family size we have today,6 the results were phenomenal. No wonder the Egyptians were alarmed.
A Blessing And A Curse
The first census Moses took of the children of Israel when they left Egypt totaled to 603,550 males over twenty years of age (Numbers 1:2; 2:32). They had increased from seventy to a mighty nation in just two hundred and fifteen years from the time Jacob entered Egypt to live. During the almost forty years of wilderness wanderings, their population actually decreased slightly to 601,730 (Numbers 26:51) In the first case God blessed them exceedingly until they filled the land of Egypt. (Exodus1:7) In the second case they were cursed because of their unbelief and there was no increase.
Now consider the following cases of the Lord blessing individuals and things.
- Elijah, the widow and her son being fed for thirty-six months (over 3,800 servings) on a cruse of oil and a barrel of flour that initially contained barely enough for two servings (1 Kings 17:14).
- A poor widow getting enough oil from a single pot of oil to fill every pot she could borrow and obtain enough money from selling the oil to support her and her two sons for the rest of their lives (2 Kings 4:2–6).
- Elisha feeding to the full a hundred people and having leftovers from twenty-two loaves of barley and full ears of grain (2 Kings 4:42–44).
- Jesus feeding five thousand men plus women and children from five loaves and two fish and having twelve baskets of leftovers (Matthew 14:19–21)!
- Jesus feeding four thousand men plus women and children from seven loaves and a few little fish and having seven baskets of leftovers (Matthew 15:34–38)!
- Jesus multiplying the catch of fish to almost sink two fishing boats after experienced fisherman had caught nothing (Luke 5:1–11).
- Jesus giving a catch of 153 fish to experienced fisherman who had caught nothing (John 21:1–6).
- God creating an almost infinite number of stars by just saying the word. He made the stars also (Genesis 1:16) is probably the greatest understatment made in any language at any time.
Now consider two cases wherein no particular blessing was bestowed by God. Jair had thirty sons even though he lived hundreds of years after the Exodus when man’s life span was shortened to about seventy years (Judges 10:3, 4; Psalm 90:10). More recently Edward G. Martin died leaving living 453 descendants! In the light of the above examples, it’s clearly possible for God to cause the children of Israel to multiply exceedingly as he said he did in Exodus1:7? Also recall that God told Abraham that the fourth generation of those in Egypt would be in the Exodus, which would be impossible if there were extra generations between Levi and Moses (Genesis 15:16). Let us learn from the past and not again limit the Holy One who spoke countless stars into existence (Psalm 78:41)?
Born November 22, 1903, died February 5, 2006, age: 102 years, 2 months, 13 days.
“Lovingly remembered by 91 grandchildren; 337 great-grandchildren and 15 great-great-grandchildren. Survived by two sisters . . . Predeceased by parents . . . his step-mother . . . one son . . . two grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren; one great-grandchild; four brothers and two sisters.”
This tombstone is in the Winterbourne Old Order Mennonite Church graveyard in Winterbourne, Ontario. The words on it are German. Geborne = born, Den = on, Starb = died, Alter = age, Jahr = years, tage = days. Inscription reads in English, “Born on Nov. 22, 1903, died on Feb. 5, 2006, after 102 years, 2 months 13 days.”
- 10 Children
- 91 Grandchildren
- 337 Great-grandchildren
- 15 Great-great-grandchildren
- Thus, 453 total living descendants
- Predeceased by 1 son, 2 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, 1 great-great-grandchild (14 descendants)
- Thus, 467 total descendants