600,000 as a Mystical Number
We have seen that the Exodus itself could not have happened as described in the Old Testament and that the motif is mythical. As such, its elements are not literal history but, rather, allegorical, metaphorical, mythical and fictional. In this regard, there exists no credible, scientific evidence of the enslavement in Egypt of a massive number of Israelites, including the supposed 600,000 Israelite warriors.
In Numbers 1, Yahweh orders a painstaking census of all the Israelite males, a feat that would take a considerable amount of time and energy, in the midst of all the other chores assigned to the chosen. Since the number arrived upon (Num 1:46) was the exact figure as in the original Exodus, 603,550 men (Exod 38:26), it remains inexplicable why the all-knowing Yahweh would waste the time of his people in such a futile exercise.
The number appears to be symbolic, rather than actual, rounded off to represent 600,000, with sacred numerological significance. This understanding is common enough to appear in the article on “The Exodus” at Wikipedia:
No evidence has been found that indicates Egypt ever suffered such a demographic and economic catastrophe or that the Sinai desert ever hosted (or could have hosted) these millions of people and their herds. Some scholars have rationalised these numbers into smaller figures, for example reading the Hebrew as “600 families” rather than 600,000 men, but all such solutions raise more problems than they solve. The view of mainstream modern biblical scholarship is that the improbability of the Exodus story originates because it was written not as history, but to demonstrate God’s purpose and deeds with his Chosen People, Israel. Thus it seems probable that the 603,550 people delivered from Egypt (according to Numbers 1:46) is not simply a number, but a gematria (a code in which numbers represent letters or words) for bnei yisra’el kol rosh, “the children of Israel, every individual…”
Rather than representing an improbable amount of “real people,” the biblical number 600,000 evidently constitutes a mystical figure, designed for magical purposes, such as a gematria or numerical code. This fact would negate also the argument, previously noted, that the Hebrew word ' אלף eleph, usually translated as “thousand,” connotes also “group” or “troops,” indicating possibly a much smaller force. This apology is inconsistent with Jewish tradition and other writings, such as the Kabbalah.
In the Kabbalah, we find the 600,000 “letters,” “aspects and meanings” and “interpretations” of the Torah. We also read about the “Six Hundred Thousand Souls,” obviously an allegorical number of importance in mystical Judaism, ostensibly based on its significance in the Exodus. As Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Finkel (b. 1926) states:
There are 600,000 souls in the heavenly realm; these souls are the roots of all the souls of Israel. Each soul is made up of two parts, that is, each soul has an upper part that stays in heaven while its counterpart down below [in this world] inhabits the human body.... the souls of all the Jews are rooted in the 600,000 heavenly souls. Rabbi Finkel
The Kabbalah as a text is a later innovation; however, a significant portion of it, such as this concept, represents a continuation of ancient Judaic ideas, among others.
Jewish mysticism expert Dr. Gershom Gerhard Scholem (1897–1982) describes kabbalistic notions of the 600,000:
They started from the old conception that the souls of Israel who went out of Egypt and received the Torah at Mount Sinai numbered 600,000. According to the laws of transmigration and the distribution of the sparks into which the soul disintegrates, these 600,000 primordial souls are present in every generation of Israel.
To summarize this latter perspective of historicized allegory: “The 600,000 men who came up out of Egypt as Hebrew warriors in the Book of Exodus are 600,000 inhabitants of Israel in the heavens according to the Jewish Kabalah…”
Thus, the number represents not simply one purportedly historical event but an ongoing aspect of mystical Judaism. The question remains, since the Exodus is clearly a mythical event, did the 600,000 exist as a mystical number deliberately utilized in the fictional account of Exodus because of its prior importance?
The Papyrus of Nebseni
Egyptian mythology is perhaps one source of the pre-biblical 600,000 “souls”:
In the Papyrus of Nebseni, the number of the Khus or spirits is reckoned as “four millions, six hundred thousand, and two hundred” (Rit., ch. 64, Papyrus of Nebseni).614
The Papyrus of Nebseni (BM EA 9900) is a version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead named for its scribe in the 18th Dynasty (c. 1587 BCE).
In the Papyrus of Ani version of the Book of the Dead, the numbers are not specified, as the “glorified” are simply “millions and hundreds of thousands.” Egyptologist Sir Peter Renouf’s translation of the Papyrus of Ani, chapter 64, includes an interesting sentence: “‘I know the deep waters’ is my name.”615 Thus, we see a reference to “deep waters,” in Hebrew called תהום tehom, connoting “abyss.” (Gen 1:2) This Book of the Dead chapter in general sounds biblical, reminiscent of parts of the much later book of Revelation.
British Egyptologist Dr. E.A. Wallis Budge (1857–1934) asserts that chapter/spell 64 is “probably one of the oldest of all...” In his edition of the Papyrus of Nebseni, we read:
...“I know the abysses” is thy name. I work for you, O ye Khus— four millions, six-hundred thousand, one thousand and two hundred are they... [I am] over their affairs working for hours and days in setting straight the shoulders of the twelve Saḥ gods and joining the hands of their company...616
Here we see familiar themes, such as “abysses” and a dozen gods, as well as the number 600,000 as a unit of Khus or “spirits.”
The Khus or Spirits
The khus are mentioned throughout the Book of the Dead, especially as part of discussions about the Elysian or Elysium fields or heaven.617 In the same
passage of chapter 64, we read that the deceased, as the “Lord of Life,” requests to “soar like a bird to see the companies(?) of the Khus in the presence of Rā day by day, who vivifieth every human being that walketh upon the regions which are upon the earth.”618 Thus, the khus are associated with the sun god; hence, Ra and the 600,000 could be identified with the solar Moses and the Israelites in the heavenly Promised Land.
Elsewhere the khus or “shining” parts of the “spiritual body” are “wards” who dwell with the gods in heaven, also the underworld or tuat.619 American Egyptologist Dr. Ogden Goelet renders the khus as “bright expanses of gloriousness,”620 evidently reflecting the heavens and/or their starry occupants. Also sounding stellar, they are additionally children of the gods, imperishable and indestructible.621 The khus likewise resemble the “ten thousands of holy ones” that accompany the sun as it emerges from its nightly cavern. As we have seen, these “holy ones” apparently represent the stars.
In “A Hymn to the Setting Sun” from the Papyrus of Mut-ḥetep (BM No. 10,010), we read that every khu “shall come forth by day” and “shall gain power among the gods of the Tuat (underworld), and they shall recognize him as one of themselves; and he shall enter in at the hidden gate with power.”622 The setting sun in this hymn, Ra-Tem, is “adored by the gods and by the Khus in the underworld.” Thus, it is to the khus in the heavenly fields that the “great god” appears,623 much like Yahweh catering to Moses and his 600,000.
We also read in the Egyptian texts about the “maker of the gods,” who “didst stretch out the heavens” and “make the earth to be a vast chamber for thy Khus...”624 Again, we see various solar and stellar themes, including the heavens and the earth as a chamber, like the womb or underworld of the night. There are also references to “seven Khus,” appointed by the underworld god Anubis as protectors of Osiris’s corpse as it is being prepared for resurrection.625