The general term God uses to describe these folk tells us they were mixed, and they were many. Apparently not part of a single "family grown great," as the Moabites or Canaanites were, they bear no family or national appellation. Yet, as vague as the term mixed multitude appears, a careful analysis yields an abundance of information.
Multitude. The Hebrew word for multitude is rab meaning "great," "many," or "large." Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words claims that rab, whether referring to people or things, "represents plurality in numbers or amount." In Exodus 5:5: Pharaoh, speaking to Moses and Aaron, alludes to the population of Israel by calling them rab, "many." So, the mixed multitude was large, perhaps consisting of thousands or millions of individuals.
Mixed. The Hebrew word translated mixed, gehrev, appears only 11 times in God's Word. Twice the translators rendered gehrev as mixed (Exodus 12:38; Nehemiah 13:3). In its other nine appearances, however, we get the strongest indication of its meaning. All nine of these instances are in Leviticus 13:48-59, where God gives Moses and Aaron His law concerning leprosy.
Notice Leviticus 13:47-48:
Also, if a garment has a leprous plague in it, whether it is a woolen garment or a linen garment, whether it is in the warp or woof of linen or wool, whether in leather or in anything made of leather.
Both mixed of Exodus 12:38 and woof of Leviticus 13:48 are translations of gehrev.
But how different are the subjects of Exodus 12 and Leviticus 13! The former text concerns the Exodus, the seminal historic event of national Israel. The latter deals with a law concerning leprosy. What could mixed and woof have in common?
Answering that question requires that we look first at woof in the context of its sister word, warp. Warp and woof are weaving terms:
Warp refers to the lengthwise threads in a woven article; they are the threads that hang down in a loom, running parallel to the bolt of cloth being created.
Woof (also called the filling) refers to the threads that crisscross the warp, running at right angles—perpendicular—to them; they interlace among the warp, over and under, over and under.
By extension, woof has come to mean "a basic or essential element or material," according to the dictionary. Clearly, both warp and woof are important to the integrity and strength of a garment. A bolt of cloth lacking either warp or woof simply will not "hang together." The warp and the woof complement each other. Properly united, they form a strong fabric, for example, a carpet, which can take the rough-and-tumble wear of years.
The connection between woof of Leviticus 13 and mixed of Exodus 12 now becomes clear. In Leviticus 13, gehrev refers to the woof or filler of a woven cloth: in Exodus 12, gehrev refers to people. God is speaking by way of analogy. He develops that comparison in Exodus 12:48-49:
And when a stranger sojourns with you and wants to keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land. For no uncircumcised person shall eat it. One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who sojourns among you.
In Exodus 12:37-38, God hints at a dualism which verses 47-48 develop. In doing so, He answers at least two important questions for us:
If the mixed multitude is the folk of the woof, what people make up the warp? Exodus 12:37-39 mention two groups of people—Israelite and the mixed multitude marching out of Egypt. Verses 47-48 establish that dualism as a dichotomy, a clear, distinct division. There is "a great gulf fixed" between Gentile and Israelite that only circumcision can bridge.
Thus, metaphorically, God expresses the Israelite-Gentile dualism as the warp and the woof. The Gentile is the woof, the gehrev that marched out of Egypt with the children of Israel. The Israelite is the warp.
What is the relationship of the peoples of the woof to those of the warp? We saw earlier that the defining characteristic of the warp-woof relationship is unity: A woven cloth is useless without both warp and woof. It is a relationship of interdependence. The warp-woof metaphor of Exodus 12 stresses the union of peoples. In fact, the relationship appears almost symbiotic, an "intimate living together of two dissimilar organisms in a mutually beneficial relationship."
The very same chapter records the first Passover, introduces us to the mixed multitude and outlines the condition under which God would accept Israelite and Gentile. God required physical circumcision for both. Through circumcision, the Gentile can take the Passover and become completely united under "one law" with the Israelite (Exodus 12:49). Warp and woof together make one fabric. Israelite and Gentile together make one nation under God. They become one physical nation under one constitution—God's Law.
God uses the warp-woof metaphor behind the word mixed to illustrate an important principle: He can turn a dichotomy into a union. Figuratively, He can weave diverse threads, running crosswise to each other, into a single, strong fabric. This metaphor from weaving describes how He works with His people.
At the time of the Exodus, God was offering the woof—the mixed multitude—the chance of a lifetime. In His grace, God was at that time offering these Gentile folk the opportunity to take their place with the children of Israel, interlaced with them, as an integral part of the fabric of the nation He was building. An essential part! What an opportunity these people had for national greatness! The mixed multitude was on the ground floor of God's nation-building.
We cannot identify with certainty these peoples' ethnic and national backgrounds. Some of them may have been native Egyptians who, witnessing the power of God in their land, forsook their own weak gods and cast their lots with the "winning team." The word mixed certainly indicates that they were not of a single ethnic origin. Rather, it appears that they were a veritable kaleidoscope of peoples, probably black and yellow and red slaves the Egyptians had gathered in their conquests. To God, they were a folk of rich potential, having qualities He wanted as part of His own "rainbow coalition." God was, indeed, weaving a "coat of many colors."
The Mixed Multitude