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The passuk reads:

לֹ֣א מֵֽרֻבְּכֶ֞ם מִכׇּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים חָשַׁ֧ק יְהֹוָ֛ה בָּכֶ֖ם וַיִּבְחַ֣ר בָּכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־אַתֶּ֥ם הַמְעַ֖ט מִכׇּל־הָעַמִּֽים׃

It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the LORD set His heart on you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples;

Taking this passuk literally- the Bnei Yisrael are the smallest nation.

Further, Devarim 7:1 reads:

כִּ֤י יְבִֽיאֲךָ֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ וְנָשַׁ֣ל גּֽוֹיִם־רַבִּ֣ים ׀ מִפָּנֶ֡יךָ הַֽחִתִּי֩ וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁ֨י וְהָאֱמֹרִ֜י וְהַכְּנַעֲנִ֣י וְהַפְּרִזִּ֗י וְהַֽחִוִּי֙ וְהַיְבוּסִ֔י שִׁבְעָ֣ה גוֹיִ֔ם רַבִּ֥ים וַעֲצוּמִ֖ים מִמֶּֽךָּ׃

When the LORD your God brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and He dislodges many nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you—

This is similarly backed up by the report of the spies, who relate how powerful the nations of Canaan seem in comparison.

And this is confirmed again in the beginning of Eikev:

כִּ֤י תֹאמַר֙ בִּלְבָ֣בְךָ֔ רַבִּ֛ים הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָאֵ֖לֶּה מִמֶּ֑נִּי אֵיכָ֥ה אוּכַ֖ל לְהוֹרִישָֽׁם׃

Should you say to yourselves, “These nations are more numerous than we; how can we dispossess them?”

לֹ֥א תִירָ֖א מֵהֶ֑ם זָכֹ֣ר תִּזְכֹּ֗ר אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לְפַרְעֹ֖ה וּלְכׇל־מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Do not stand in dread of them, for the LORD your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God

However, the census records about 600,000 adult males. Assuming that gets us to a total population of around 3 million, it is problematic to assume that we were the smallest nation.

To illustrate this:

If we assume there are 70 nations, as per Bereshit Perek 10, that leads to a conservative world population estimate of 200 million.

Even if we are more restrictive, and do not use the notion of 70 nations, we run into problems. Explicitly in the Torah, Canaan contained 7 nations, which would put the population of Canaan at least 21 million, a number way beyond what a land so small could sustain without modern agriculture (Feel free to dispute this with data, but that is my understanding).

How do we reconcile both the fact that the Torah gives Bnei Yisrael a very large (for those times) population, and asserts in multiple places that they were indeed very small?

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  • Note that based on some of the descriptions of the fruits of the Land of Israel (see Numbers 13:23), it is very possible that the land was able to support an unusually large population. Jul 7 at 19:19
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Coincidentally, just today I saw an explanation for this issue in Dr. Yitzchak Meitlis's book Parashat Derachim. He explains that there are four differences between the two censuses:

  1. In the second census, there was no order to count specifically the males like in the first census.

  2. No women are mentioned in the first census, while in the second one the daughters of Tzelophchad and Serach bat Asher are mentioned.

  3. In the first census the people were counted according to tribes while in the second one, they were counted according to tribes and families/clans.

  4. In the first census, the Torah writes twice that the census came to count those that were aged twenty and above and were military-able, which is not mentioned in the second census. Rather, it simply says there "This is the enrollment of the Israelites" and nothing else.

From these differences it may be inferred that in the first census, only males aged twenty and above and able to serve in the military were counted, while in the second census, heads of households were counted. This is why women were included: When there was no male at the head of the household, the females assumed that position.

Based on this understanding, we now see that the number of Israelites at the time of the second census was significantly less than what it was during the first census. The total numbers of the censuses are similar - but the percentage of people counted differs significantly. A much larger percent of people from the nation was counted in the second census. Thus we might say that Am Yisrael was made up of a few million or so during the time of the first census, but was made up of many fewer people during the second one. Dr. Meitlis figures they numbered about a third of what they did during the first census.

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  • Does he propose why the population declined so much? Even with the plagues of Korach and Baal Peor and the Eigel and the Slav, that seems like a very large decline. Jul 8 at 4:11
  • @chessprogrammer he lists six instances (some are often forgotten) in which people died from sins: Tav'era, Kivrot Hata'ava, Ma'apilim, Korach, the snakes and Baal Peor. Not to mention people dying because of the Meraglim.
    – Harel13
    Jul 8 at 5:04
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Your question poses 3 verses that seem to indicate that Israel was a smaller nation. Regarding the first 2 verses, see Rashbam that answers both of them

https://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=9617&st=&pgnum=105&hilite=

He says that both verses are connected. That all 7 nations together were larger than the Israelites. Then it goes on to state that they shouldn't think the reason they're going to win the wars were due to the fact that they were larger than each one individually, because they were actually smaller than all 7 together. This explanation should answer the last verse as well along the same lines.

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When my son was very little, he commented on this verse to me: Israel must have been in the desert for a really long time, if they didn't know if they were the biggest nation or the smallest nation!
I don't think the Torah was being "sarcastic", ח"ו. Israel's numbers were actually great; Moses said they were "like the stars in heaven for their multitude" (Devarim 1:10). But as the verse says, they were not chosen for that reason. That would be confusing cause and effect. He loved us, and he wanted to keep the oath he made to our fathers - therefore, he blessed us and multiplied our numbers. In the natural course of events, Avraham could not have had children at all; by nature, we are the least of the nations. Our numbers are only from his blessing.

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I always peek at the Targumim and indeed, Yonoson translates the first verse as:

"לָא מִן בִּגְלַל דְּאַתּוּן גֵּיוְתָנִין מִן כֻּלְהוֹן אוּמַיָא צָבֵי יְיָ בְּכוֹן וְאִתְרְעֵי בְּכוֹן אֱלָהֵן דְּאַתּוּן מַכִּיכֵי רוּחָא וְעִנְוְותָנִין מִכָּל עַמְמַיָא", meaning "you are the most humble and meek of all nations".

That means that he was aware of the problem.

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Truly we are great, as H"Y has chosen us to serve Him, and b'rov 'am hadrath melekh. But only because we do not intermarry therefore we are least, because the other nations may be counted as one since they may intermarry.

Zohar II:164a (end), P. Terumah

"ואת המשכן תעשה עשר יריעת וגו'".
רבי יהודה פתח, (שם יד כח) "ברב עם הדרת מלך ובאפס לאם מחתת רזון". "ברב עם הדרת מלך" -- אלין אינון ישראל, דכתיב בהו (דברים ז ו) כי עם קדוש אתה ליהו"ה אלהי"ך, ואינון עמא דסלקין לכמה אלפין ולכמה רבוון, וכד אינון סגיאין בחושבניהון, יקרא דקודשא בריך הוא איהו, דהא עלאין ותתאין משבחן שמיה דמלכא עלאה, ומשבחן ליה בגין עמא קדישא דא, הדא הוא דכתיב (שם ד ז) רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה.

"Moreover, you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains..." (Shemot 26:1). Rabbi Yehuda opened the discussion saying: "In the multitude of people is the glory of the king, but in the lack of people is the downfall of the prince" (Mishlei 14:28). "In the multitude of people is the glory of the king" refers to Yisrael, about whom it is written: "For you are a holy people to Hashem your Elohim" (Devarim 7:6). They are a people that number many thousands and ten thousands, and when their numbers are great, it is the glory of the Holy One, blessed be He, because those above and those below praise the Name of the supernal King because of this holy nation. This is what is meant by: "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (Devarim 4:6).

ואי תימא הא כתיב, (שם ז ז) כי אתם המעט מכל העמים? אלא מכל העמים ודאי, אבל מעמא חד יתיר סגיאין אינון, דהא לית עמא בכל עלמא רב וסגי כישראל, ואי תימא הא בני ישמעאל והא בני אדום הא כמה אינון, ודאי הכי סגיאין אינון, אבל כל שאר עמין כלהו מתערבי אלין באלין, בנין אית לעם דא בעם דא, ולאלין בנין בעם אחרא ולאלין באחרא, ובגין כך לית עמא בכל עלמא רב סגי כישראל, עמא ברירא ויחידאה, אלין באלין בלא ערבוביא אחרא כלל, דכתיב כי עם קדוש אתה ליהו"ה אלהי"ך, ובך בחר יהו"ה, ועל דא ברב עם הדרת מלך, הדורא איהו דמלכא עלאה קודשא בריך הוא.

If you ask: But it is written, "Because you were more (also: few) in number than all the other peoples" (Devarim 7:7). [He answers:] "Than all the other people": They are certainly the fewest, but of any of these people they are more numerous, for in the whole world there is no nation as great and numerous as Yisrael. If you ask: Behold the Ishmelites and the Edomites, who are numerous. [He answers:] For sure numerous, but all the other nations mix one with the other. This nation has children in this nation and this nation has children in another nation, [but the children of Yisrael do not mix with other nations and no nations mix with them.] Therefore, there is no nation in the world as great and numerous as Yisrael. A select and unique people are they. Among them, there is no intermingle at all, as it is written: "For you are a holy people to Hashem your Elohim, Hashem your Elohim has chosen you..." Hence "in the multitude of people is the glory of the king," namely the glory of the supernal King, the Holy One, blessed be He. [Translation of Michael Berg]

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