This contradiction builds on two previous contradictions: #116: How many Israelites left Egypt during the Exodus: 600,000 OR 625,550? and #218: The total number of Levites is 22,300 OR 22,000?
Excluding the contradiction between P’s 625,550 men and E’s 600,000 men, the particular discrepancy here is that between the Elohist source’s first mention of the 600,000 men who left Egypt in Exodus 12:37 and its reiteration of the same 600,000 men in Numbers 11:21, a good number of Israelite men have actually died. . . or excuse me, have been struck down by Yahweh.
For instance, we are informed that Moses and fellow Levites, doing Yahweh’s bidding, slaughter 3,000 Israelites for the Golden Calf offense (Ex 32:28; see #157), yet conveniently we still have a round 600,000 men! The deaths of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10) are not acknowledged; and neither is the indiscriminate number who die by Yahweh’s fire in Num 11:1. Surely we are dealing with a convenient traditional number—an even 600,000 that has no factual or historical bearing (see also #32, #81, and #82).
Alternatively, this textual discrepancy in the E source just about vanishes when we properly reconstruct the E source before it was later redacted together with the Priestly source. As previously noted, there is a doublet with with respect to the quails story (#125; see also #126 & #227). In other words both the Elohist and Priestly source narrated the quails story. Yet the later redactor felt obliged to preserve them both, so he decided, as he did for other doublets (e.g., #127), to place one of the quails stories before the Sinai event (P’s version at Ex 16) and the other after the Sinai event (E’s version at Num 11). I conjecture that in the original narration of both the E and P sources this story occurred in both traditions before the Sinai event. Look at how reconstructing the E source validates this conjecture:
- At Exodus 12:37 we are informed that 600,000 men left Egypt.
- Then the crossing of the Red sea story is told (see #120-122).
- And then placing E’s quail story back to its original place—or putting E’s quail story at Exodus 16 rather than placing P’s there—we get these opening statements:
And Moses said: “The people among whom I am are 600,000 on foot, and you’ve said ‘I’ll give them meat and they’ll eat for a month of days'” (now Num 11:21)
In other words instead of a distance of approximately 2 years and 3 months between the first mention of E’s 600,000 men at Exodus 12:37 and Numbers 11:21, reconstructing the text as it originally was we now only have a span of maybe a month between the mention of these two 600,000 men. Undeniably this is originally what the E author intended. And then with the Golden Calf sin now at Exodus 34, this 600,000 start to dwindle away.