[b-hebrew] Exodus Miracles and 'elep

Walter R. Mattfeld mattfeld12 at charter.net
Tue Aug 3 07:27:56 EDT 2004

Uri wrote :
"It needs hardly be pointed out that the ancient authors and redactors of
these narratives would have been mortified by the possibility of natural
exlanations that detract in any way Yahweh's ability to perform miracles."

I would have to agree with Uri's observation about an ancient Israelite's
reaction. Yet I do believe that this methodology, for modern scholars, is
"on target."

It is quite evident that a number of physical phenomena associated with the
Exodus wanderings are attested in Nature. Seas do periodically dry up and
then refill. For example the Nile delta is called the tongue of the Egyptian
"sea" which God will dry up. In antiquity this delta became a sea every year
upon the flooding of the Nile. An ancient Greek visitor remarked that the
villages in the delta were built on high landforms that became islands at
the time of the flood, reminding him of islands in the Aegean sea. Then
Nature (God ?) would _dry up_ this sea with the abatement of the flooding.
Another location is the head of the Gulf of Suez, where tides vary by ten
feet, low tides exposing shoals east of the modern port of Suez.

A wind from God blows over the sea, making a path. Powerful winds are
attested in the Spring (when the Exodus is understood to have occured). They
are called Khamasine winds (howling dust storms) and can reach wind gusts of
55 miles per hour ! These winds occur in the Isthmus of Suez area, the very
area associated by some with the route of the Exodus. A recent book
exploring the miracles of the Exodus and relating them to natural phenomena
of Egypt and the Sinai is  by Professor Colin J. Humphreys. _The Miracles of
Exodus, A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the
Biblical Stories_. HarperSanFrancisco. 2003. pp.362).

Humphreys also explores the notion of Mount Sinai possibly being a volcano,
as noted by Peter Kirk in an earlier post. He suggests it might be Mount
Bedr in Midian, just north of Medina in modern day Saudi Arabia. He
attempted to argue that the Pillar of Cloud which led Israel to the sacred
mount was an erupting Mt. Bedr.

I was fortunate to recently be able to purchase a used copy of Baruch
Halpern's book _The Emergence of Israel in Canaan_. Chico, California.
Scholar's Press. 1983, and was intrigued by his critique of Professor
Mendenhall's earlier proposal that Hebrew _'elep_ meant "clan" instead of
the traditional reading of "thousand" in regards to tribal lists associated
with the Exodus event. I found his arguments convincing that the traditional
reading of 'elep as "thousand" is correct and that Mendenhall was wrong in
arguing it meant "clan."

Halpern noted that a number of scholars have accepted Mendenhall's proposal
because it solved for them the fantastically large numbers involved in the
Exodus, 600,000+ Hebrew armed warriors leaving Egypt, extrapolated with
wives, children, and grandparents to a horde approaching 2 million souls !
By reading "clan" much smaller numbers could be envisioned for the Exodus
trek. By the way, Humpreys has accepted Mendenhall's reading.

Having concluded that the traditional reading of 'elep meaning "thousand" is
correct, Halpern then argued that these huge numbers meant for him that the
tribal numbers were a creation of the Priestly redactor of the Exile, and
not to be trusted as reflecting the real numbers involved in the Exodus.

Regards, Walter
Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.
mattfeld12 at charter.net

 Below is an excerpt of Halpern's argument on 'elep :

The 'elep problem, "thousand" or "clan" ?

Reference : Baruch Halpern. _The Emergence of Israel in Canaan_. 1983.
Chico, California. Scholar's Press. pp. 334.

Professor Halpern has critiqued Mendenhall's proposal that the tribal lists
appearing in the various Exodus accounts are historical and of that period.
He argues that they are unhistorical and most likely arise from the Priestly
Source (rendered P in the below excerpts) in the Exilic period or later.
Halpern finds fault with Mendenhall's notion that 'elep in the tribal list
means "clan" rather than the traditional reading of "thousand."

Halpern (Emphasis mine) :

"From this brief survey, it should be plain that the P lists represent a
late monarchic or an exilic retrospective view of early Israel"
...Mendenhall maintains that the P lists of Numbers 1 and 26 are
nevertheless pre-monarchic. He bases his claim on the observation that the
term 'elep, usually a "thousands," can also denote "the muster of a
mishpaha, or clan." As a result, he continues, it is legitimate to read a
text such as Numbers 26:18 -"these are the mishpehot of the children of Gad
according to their musters: forty 'elep and five hundreds"- as stating that
Gad consisted of 40 clans: together these fielded 500 warriors. The
attraction of this scheme is immediately apparent: it disposes of population
claims that correlate with no reality in ancient Israelite history, claims
so exhorbitant as in fact to defy the agricultural and industrial realities
of Israel in the pre-Mandatory period. Having thus simultaneously explained
why any author would make such substantial claims (the author did not) and
disembarrassed himself of the claims themselves, Mendenhall finds that the
drastically smaller population figures he has produced are consonant with an
early date for the lists.

The first element of Mendenhall's argument is indisputable. 'elep does have
the meaning "clan," "clan muster" in such passages as Judges 6:15; 1 Samuel
10:19-21. Moreover, the advantages of Mendenhall's reading generally are
manifest. However, there are problems that beset the hypothesis. The first
two of these have to do with the totals of the muster in Numbers 1:46;

Numbers 1:46 states that Israel could field 603,550 warriors. Even if one
reads the foregoing list with Mendenhall, it is impossible to regard this as
a statement that Israel's 603 clans produced 550 warriors. First, the
numbers do not tally (Mendenhall's reading produces 5,550 warriors in the
Numbers 1 list). Second, it would tax our imagination to suppose that the
avarage Israelite "clan" could field only .91663 warriors. The only response
to make is that the verse is in error. So, one reads Numbers 1:46 to say
that Israel had 603 clans, which together fielded 5,550 warriors. Similarly,
rather than 730 warriors (the figure there being 601,730).

This is the first weakness of the hypothesis: there is no reason to supply
any figure before the 730 of Numbers 26:51 or the 550 of Numbers 1:46, let
alone the specific figures that must be chosen. Moreover, there is no reason
to suppose that the Israelite reader to whom these texts were directed would
divine that he was expected to supply these figures -how could the Israelite
be expected to understand that the notation 601,730 or 601 thousands and 730
really meant 601 clans and 5,730 people ? But this first difficulty is
compounded by a more serious one. Read with Mendenhall, the lists and the
summations do not tally. Numbers 1, read with Mendenhall mentions 598
"clans" and 5,550 warriors. Numbers 1:46 has the same number of warriors if
we supply the figure 5,000; but it thinks there were 603 "thousands" or
"clans". Numbers 26 has 596 clans and 5,730 warriors. But Numbers 26:51
(601,730), even read with Mendenhall to imply 5,730 warriors, has 601
"clans." (pp. 113-115. Halpern)

...If one reads Numbers 1 and 26 as they have traditionally been read- Gad's
40,500 meaning 40,500- then the totals reported in Numbers 1:46, 26:51 are
accurate...If the traditionalist who arrived at the sums in Numbers 1:46,
26:51 treated the tribal census figures not as encipherments, but as simple
figures, earlier traditionalists may well have done the same. That is, not
only is there no evidence that the Israelite expected to understand
"thousand" = "clan" code as Mendenhall understands it; there is evidence the
Israelite did not understand it so.

(p. 115. Halpern)

Overall the P lists hold out little hope for the recovery of pre-monarchic
traditions. Quite the reverse, the census lists show every sign of
artificiality in their recollection of early eras. The transmissional
process has created an Israel so amply bestowed in its muster that only
technological backwardness could possibly account for its failures on the
field -against enemies numbering in the tens and hundreds. It follows
logically that the P reports are not likely to be fruitful for the study of
pre-monarch Israel." (p. 116. Halpern)

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