Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni
Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).
כָּל הָאוֹמֵר דָּבָר בְּשֵם אוֹמְרוֹ מֵבִיא גְּאוּלָה לָעוֹלָם (אבות ו, ו)
David Ben-Gurion, the “father” of the state of Israel and its first prime minister, was also a noted scholar of the Bible. The bi-weekly study meetings held in his home attracted some of the greatest scholars, rabbis, and professors in Israel, representing a variety of approaches, from traditional interpretation to Biblical criticism and beyond.
This note summarizes his ideas on a topical question, namely, how many Israelites came out of Egypt in the Exodus . His interpretation has many merits as a viable peshat explanation even if it also faces some challenges. (My own comments are given in parentheses).
His starting point is the exact number of those who went down to Egypt with Jacob. In Genesis 46: 2-8, we find a detailed list of names and that number, 70 families in all. He then proceeds to enumerate methodically the offspring of the latter, by names and numbers, together with a detailed discussion of the number of generations that elapsed from the arrival of those “70” until the Exodus.
(In doing so, Ben-Gurion cites numerous sources and commentators, from the Bible as well as from the Talmud and Midrash.)
Genesis 15:13 cites 400 years of slavery, with the 4th generation returning to Israel – in itself an inconsistency, which Rashi notes also and modifies to 210 years of slavery. Ben-Gurion quotes Rashi here, “… count Jacob’s generations: Judah, Peretz, and Hetzron (these 3 generations went to Egypt), but Caleb the son of Hetzron was among those who entered the Promised Land.” In other words, Rashi ‘allows’ only one generation born in Egypt.
But, notes Ben-Gurion, this is not true of most of the great-grandsons of Jacob: ten of Jacob’s sons — Reuben, Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali – went down to Egypt only with their sons; their grandsons were born in Egypt.
Further consideration includes the two generations of Pharaohs after the death of Joseph: The one “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), and the Pharaoh of the Exodus (Exodus 2:23). Ben-Gurion concludes, therefore, that there were only two generations in slavery in Egypt.
A second major point raised by Ben-Gurion deals with the word אֶלֶף, as it appears in the first tally of the Exodus:
“…כְּשֵש מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הַגְבָרִים…” (שמות י”ב, ל”ז)
with the ‘usual’ translation, “…some 600,000 men on foot…”. (Allowing an average family of 5-6, say, plus the “mixed multitude” that accompanied them, we have here some 4 million people!?).
Ben-Gurion stresses that the word אֶלֶףhas also another meaning in the Bible, namely, “family” or “clan”. (This interpretation is found, for example, in  – ). The uses of this meaning include:
- Exodus 12:37, 20:6, 34:7
- Numbers 1:16, 10:36 — where the use ‘thousand’ for אלף yields the improbable number of Israel in the tens of millions!, 31:5.
- Deuteronomy 5:10, 33:17.
- Joshua 22:14, 22:30.
- Judges 6:15, where the Aramaic translation (Yonathan) is, in fact, ‘family.’
- I Samuel 10:19, 23:23
- Micah 5:1
In summary: some 600 families ,or clans, left Egypt, consistent with the 70 that entered, the length of stay, and the births there.
References  דוד בן-גוריון, “עיונים בתנ”ך” תל-אביב: עם-עובד, 1969 ע’ 243-252.  Abraham Even-Shoshan, “A New Concordance of the Old Testament.”
Jerusalem: Kiryat-Sefer, and Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989.  F. Brown, C. Driver, and C. Briggs, “The B-D-B Hebrew and English Lexicon.” Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1997.  א.ב.ב. גברונסקי, “אוצר לשון המקרא”, מוסקבה-פריז: ל גברונסקי, 1918.  יהודה גור, “מלון השפה העברית”. תל-אביב: “דביר”, 1945.  Ernest Klein, “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for readers of English.” N.Y.: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987.