Q&A: Sacrificial Logistics

Sacrificial Logistics

Question

I had a question come up in a recent Bible study that stumped me. We are working through Leviticus. It's unclear to me exactly who brought the sacrifices. Was every family responsible to bring the appointed sacrifices? That would make for a lot of sacrifices if the people numbered something over 2 million. It would seem like a logistic impossibility.

Answer

The logistics do seem difficult, don't they? There are many sacrifices and offerings mentioned in Leviticus, so I'll try to offer some general information that will apply across the board.

Some sacrifices were offered only by the priests on behalf of the people. Some were offered by the heads of households on behalf of the households. And some were offered by individuals for themselves.

The problems begin to arise when we look at the fact that some of these sacrifices were to be offered by heads of households on a particular day at a particular place -- such as the doorway of the tent of meeting. If there were 2 million people in the nation, then even if we imagine large families of say 50 people each, and even if the priests worked 24 hours on that day, the priests would still have had to sacrifice, process and offer almost 28 sacrifices per minute -- that's almost one every 2 seconds.

If the doorway of the tent of meeting was understood to include a large area of ground in front of the tent, this might be conceivable (with a good system and a tightly run ship) -- and it would be an amazing and noteworthy spectacle.

In all likelihood, however, there were not 2 million people in Israel (I assume you got this number from standard calculations based on Exodus 12:37). Numbers in the Old Testament are nortoriously difficult to interpret. Often, they are rough estimates and/or symbolic. More to the point of the 2 million population, the Hebrew word "eleph," which is generally translated "thousand," frequently doesn't mean "thousand." It was also the word for "ox," and for a company of men under one leader. Some research indicates that many of these companies of men were considerably smaller than 1,000 -- perhaps 10 or fewer. In any event, if there were anywhere near 2 million people in Israel, they would not have been able to fit in many of the geographical locations (valleys, cities, etc.) in which the Bible places them unless they were very, very tiny people.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.