Clan or Thousand? A Response to Dr. Vincent Torley

Dr. Vincent Torley responded to my post on “The Use and Abuse of the Amarna Letters by Christian Apologists” in the comments section.
Torley’s response is fundamentally flawed and exhibits a lack of training in Hebrew and Semitic philology. He cites sources that he himself is either not evaluating critically or is unable to evaluate because of a lack of knowledge of Semitic and Hebrew linguistics. 
I will focus on this statement to illustrate my point: "In summary: some 600 families, or clans, left Egypt, consistent with the 70 that entered, the length of stay, and the births there."

For this conclusion, Torley refers us to this apologetic website:
It is clear that Torley has not looked carefully at the lexicography of the Hebrew ’eleph  (אלף), because he is confusing two different words that are spelled the same way.
If one consults The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (= DCH; D. J. A. Clines, ed.), one sees that ’eleph  (אלף) is divided into 4 different homonyms numbered I, II, III, and IV. 
Homonyms are words that are spelled the same way (they may best be characterized as homographs), but they are not considered the same word, principally because they may have different etymologies or meanings.
For example, the English word “left” may refer to a side (my “left” side), or it may be the past tense of the verb “leave.”
Both derive from completely different roots. The verb “leave” probably derives from an Indo-European root *leip- (Calvert Watkins, American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots [2001], p. 48) while “left” (referring to a side) may derive from another root, *(s)leup or *(s)lup.
Or take the word “bill,” a word used for a monetary request for payment. It is spelled the same way as “Bill”  (the shortened form of William; capitalization is irrelevant here because ancient Hebrew did not really use capitals in this way). 
They are not the same word etymologically, but they are spelled the same way now. Only further morphological and historical data can help us differentiate them.
When one looks at the “Torah Musings” website to which Torley refers us, we find this list of supposed examples where the word ’eleph means “clan,” instead of "thousand."

"Ben-Gurion stresses that the word אֶלֶף has also another meaning in the Bible, namely, “family” or “clan”. (This interpretation is found, for example, in [2] – [6]). 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"

The first thing to note is that this list is misleading and philosophically flawed because it includes Exodus 12:37, which is one of the texts where the meaning of ’eleph  is under question. In other words, it already assumes the truth of what is under question, which is a logical fallacy.
Secondly, one of the reasons given by the “Torah Musings” website for not translating as “thousands” in Numbers 1:16 is that “it yields the improbable number of Israel in the tens of millions!”
In other words, “Torah Musings” appeals to modern scientific grounds to determine what is “improbable” for an ancient author.
If we used that logic, then there would be much in the Bible that we could dismiss the same way. That we regard something as “improbable” does not prove that the biblical authors thought it was improbable, especially if they believed in miracles.
Thirdly, and as mentioned, the list confuses at least two Hebrew words that should be differentiated according to DCH.
When ’eleph refers to a clan, then it sometimes has a possessive suffix. For example, in Judges 6:15, the word אַלְפִּי can be plausibly translated “my clan.” It has a possessive suffix, and it is associated with a specific tribe of Manasseh (see also 1 Samuel 10:19). Syntactically, we may analyze it as follows:
’eleph with first person pronominal suffix + definite article with adjectival noun (לדה = “is poor” or “is the poorest”) + preposition (ב = “in”) + name of tribe (Manasseh).  
Here, “my clan is the poorest in Manasseh” (see DCH 2:437) is a plausible translation.  There are no numbers before the word ’eleph.
In contrast, Exodus 12:37 ’eleph is in a syntactical construction that is completely different from that of Judges 6:15: כשש מאות אלף רגלי הגברים. 
As BDB (p. 49), the lexicon authored by Brown, Driver and Briggs indicates, Exodus 12:37 follows a standard order for numerical expressions with ’eleph: number + ’eleph (in the singular) + additional number (if any) + noun (if expressed).
In Exodus 12:37, ’eleph precedes the noun or construct phrase (רגלי הגברים = "men on foot") it modifies, and so it is best read as a numeral, not as a “clan.” Both BDB and DCH cite precisely Exodus 12:37 as a case where ’eleph indicates a numeral (see also 2 Samuel 8:4, 1 Kings 20:29 for similar constructions with “men on foot”).
Furthermore, the word ’eleph in Exodus 12:37 does not have a possessive suffix.
We have corroborative evidence that ancient Jews read ’eleph in Exodus 12:37 as numeral, and not as a “clan.”
One indication is the Septuagint, the name for the complex of Greek translations made by ancient Jews. It renders Exodus 12:37 with a numeral (χιλιάδας = “thousands”): ἑξακοσίας χιλιάδας πεζῶν οἱ ἄνδρες. 
The website to which Torley refers us cites the Targum Jonathan (an ancient Aramaic translation/paraphrase) in Judges 6:15 to show that the word means “family” in that text. There, the Targum Jonathan uses zar‘îtî and “my family” is a suitable translation in Aramaic.
But note that in Exodus 12:37 the Targum (Onkelos) DOES NOT use the Aramaic word found in Judges 6:15, and uses instead the cognate of the Hebrew ’eleph.
Indeed, the corresponding Targums DO DIFFERENTIATE the meaning of the word ’eleph in Exodus 12:37 from that in Judges 6:15.
So, the corresponding Targums and the Septuagint, both translated by ancient Jews, understood ’eleph  in Exodus 12:37 as a number, not as a “clan.”
The same website’s logic would create other problems in Numbers 1. If ’eleph in Numbers 1:16 means “clan” or “family,” then it leaves unexplained what counting “every male, head by head” would mean.
One does not use that phrase to count clans.  Such an understanding would render other parts of that chapter as pure nonsense because it is clear that individuals are being counted.
Consider Numbers 1:2:  “every male, head by head”/ כָּל-זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם
If ’eleph means “clan”, then it leaves unexplained the syntax of the “hundreds” that follow the “clans.” For example, what would it mean to say in Numbers 1:21:

שִׁשָּׁה וְאַרְבָּעִים אֶלֶף, וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת

That is normally translated at 46,500. So, is it really “46 clans and 500”? Five-hundred what?
Clearly what is being numbered is “every male from twenty years old and upward” as mentioned in Numbers 1:20                                

לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם—כָּל-זָכָר מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה       
Note that Bruce K. Waltke, a conservative Christian scholar and linguist, reads  ’eleph in Numbers 1 as a numeral not as a “clan” in his Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (p. 283).

The numbers in Exodus 12:37 are linked to those in Numbers 1, and those numbers are represented as counts of individuals, and not counts of “clans.” A careful linguistic analysis shows that “clan” is probably not the best rendition of eleph in Exodus 12:37, especially as it is linked to the census in Numbers.
Questions for Torley
1. What specific training do you have in Semitic philology or Hebrew linguistics?  If none, then how did you evaluate the accuracy of the website that you provided:
2. Could you specifically explain the syntactic function of “hundreds” in Numbers 1:21?
3. Where else is there a clear example where the directive to count every male, head by head” (כָּל-זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם) is actually a directive to just count clans?
4. Why do the ancient Jewish translators of both the Septuagint and the corresponding Targum understand ’eleph in Exodus 12:37 as a number if it meant “clan”?

NOTE: Unless noted otherwise, all biblical translations are those of the Revised Standard Version.


Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1907).                                                                                       
Clines, D.J.A. (ed.), The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 1993–2011).                                                                                                                              
Waltke, Bruce K. and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990).