Large Numbers in the Old Testament

The exceedingly high numbers of the able-bodied men over the age of twenty conscripted into the armies of Israel, as recorded in Numbers 1:26, continue to trouble modern scholars. The numbers of soldiers in each listing total in excess of 600,000 (603,550 in Numbers 1:46; 601,730 in Numbers 26:51). These numbers of men mustered for warfare demand a total population in excess of 2 million. Indeed, perhaps a population of 3 or 4 or even 5 million might be required to supply a conscripted army of 600,000 able-bodied men over twenty years old. Such numbers are exceedingly large for the times, for the locale, for the desert wanderings, and in comparison to the numbers of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan whom the Israelites set out to conquer.

Many faithful readers of the Bible have taken these numbers at face value. Some commentators go to considerable length to work out the mathematical possibilities of these numbers in terms of birth-rate statistics, the logistics of crossing the Red Sea in one night, dwelling in the desert, marching in the order of the tribes, massing on the eastern shore of the Jordan, and conquering the Promised Land (see, for example, Keil and Delitzsch, Pentateuch 2:46-47; 3:4-15). Yet the more the modern reader studies these attempts to make these large numbers manageable in the constraints of the social-geographical context of the Late Bronze Age, the more difficult these issues become. Frankly, we begin to wonder whether we are not engaging in special pleading.

Various solutions have been suggested to solve the problem of the large numbers. Some have argued that these numbers may have been corrupted in transmission. The general faithfulness of the textual transmission of the Hebrew Bible (and the Greek NT) is truly marvelous. At the same time, in neither testament is this process perfect. We have certain examples of corruption of numbers in parallel passages in the historical literature: i.e., compare 2 Samuel 10:18 with 1 Chronicles 19:18; Numbers 25:9 with 1 Corinthians 10:8; see 1 Samuel 13:1. So it is possible for one to argue that the numbers of the census listings in Numbers 1 through 4 and 26 have suffered transmission problems. This is possible, but we may observe that the present text does not betray notices of textual difficulties in these numbers. Moreover, if textual transmission error is the explanation for these large numbers, it would not be the isolated addition of a digit here or the dropping of a digit there. For textual transmission difficulties to be of any “help” in coming to terms with these census lists, they would have to be massive in scope. The entire list has to be in error. Again, the textual record does not betray any discussion of such problems. It almost takes more faith to believe in transmission problems in these lists than it does to work out the logistics of the numbers as they stand.

To continue reading this Bible article, click here.

Author: George Booker

Keywords: Elep, Numbers, Large numbers, Exaggerated numbers, Incorrect numbers, Numeric errors, Errors, Errors in the Bible, Census, Fighting men, Population

Bible reference(s): Numbers 1:21, Numbers 1:23, Numbers 1:25-27, Numbers 1:29, Numbers 1:31, Numbers 1:33, Numbers 1:35, Numbers 1:37, Numbers 1:39, Numbers 1:41, Numbers 1:43, Numbers 1:46, Numbers 2:4, Numbers 2:6, Numbers 2:8, Numbers 2:9, Numbers 2:11, Numbers 2:13, Numbers 2:15, Numbers 2:16, Numbers 2:19, Numbers 2:21, Numbers 2:23, Numbers 2:24, Numbers 2:26, Numbers 2:28, Numbers 2:30, Numbers 2:31, Numbers 2:32, Numbers 3:22, Numbers 3:28, Numbers 3:34, Numbers 3:39, Numbers 3:43, Numbers 3:50, Numbers 4:36, Numbers 4:40, Numbers 4:44, Numbers 4:48, Num. 26:51, Num. 25:9, Num. 26:47, Deut. 7:7, 1 Sam. 18:7, 1 Sam. 10:19-21, 1 Sam. 13:2, 1 Sam. 13:15, 1 Sam. 15:4, Judges 20:31, Judges 20:21, Judges 20:25, Judges 12:6, Num. 26:37, 2 Chron. 17:14-19, 2 Samuel 10:18, 1 Chron. 19:18, 1 Cor. 10:8, 1 Sam. 13:1

Source: “Large Numbers in the Old Testament”.

Page indexed by: inWORD Bible Software.