Once the Hebrews arrive in Mount Sinai and set up the first of their long-term camps (after a month and a half of near-constant travel), they realize their old ways of resolving disputes and making choices for their lives aren’t going to cut it. Back in Egypt, they only had to please Pharaoh, and Pharaoh’s rules were clear and well-enforced. Now they have to please God. With an entirely new set of rules they’re still learning, and pretty severe consequences for mistakes.
So they line up for hours to bring their questions to Moses. After a full day of barely making a dent in the line, Moses is completely worn out and unable to do anything else. His father-in-law, Yitro (aka Jethro), watches him struggle then offers him advice.
But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right;
you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.
Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God,
and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.
You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens,
and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.
If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”
Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.
Moses chose capable men out of all Israel, and appointed them heads over the people—chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens;
and they judged the people at all times: the difficult matters they would bring to Moses, and all the minor matters they would decide themselves.Exodus 18:17-26
It’s odd to think of needing a chief over every ten people, but when we realize Yitro means ten adult men, it makes a bit more sense. That’s an extended family. Although not described in Torah as such, I imagine that extended families in Egypt live together and share a kitchen, garden, outhouse, and common areas. Some would be big and some small, but the average for each group is probably around 10 men. There will be around the same number of adult women as adult men but then you add in lots of children and teens.
Moses’ family group (including his mother and both his siblings and all their descendants) is larger than most, with 14 males over 20 years. Most family groups will have around 40-60 people, which is about as many as you can have and still know everybody, have household rules and structure, etc.
Multiple this by five (chiefs over fifties) and you get around 250 people. About the size of a small American high school or a medium sized workplace. Chiefs of hundreds doubles that.
Once you get up to one thousand adult males, you’re looking at 4000-6000 people. The exact numbers will vary, and mine are just a guess, but it should be the right ballpark. That’s big enough that you really need the lesser chiefs to represent their communities. This is the size of a really big high school (or combo middle school and high school) in a city or a small town in rural America.
And now you have a court system. A government. Each family group has its own representative. Five family group representatives only chose one to move on to the next level. The level after that is half as many reps. The upper level of representatives take the most difficult cases then decide which ones need Moses to arbitrate.
How many chiefs?
If you take Torah literally, there are 600,000 adult males in the Exodus (translating to perhaps 2-3 million people). That would be 600 top level chiefs consulting with Moses, much too big a number to get anything done. And 60,000 chiefs of tens (despite the wording in Torah, I can’t imagine anyone assuming Moses would personally appoint them all).
If you assume a more reasonable number of fleeing Israelites, like 50,000 total people, 10,000 adult males, the number of chiefs also becomes a lot more reasonable. Perhaps 10 top level representatives that consult directly with Moses, with multiple levels all providing governance for around 1,000 family groups.