[b-hebrew] The Confusion of Hebrew Numbers

Sesamo m. sesamox at hotmail.com
Mon Jun 25 04:06:02 EDT 2012

I've read an article by Damien Mackey some of whose conclusions seem very interesting at first sight, but I'd love to know your opinion.He quotes John Wenham, `The Large Numbers of the Old Testament', Tyndale Bulletin 18 (1967): 19-23, and it tries to explain some perplexing numbers in the Hebrew Bible.The key paragraph is this:
"In the modern Hebrew Bible all numbers are written out in full, but for a long time the text was written without vowels [which] made it possible to confuse two words which are crucial to this problem: 'eleph and 'alluph. Without vowel points these words look identical: 'lp. 'Eleph' is the ordinary word for 'thousand', but it can also be used in a variety of other senses: e.g. 'family' (Judges 6:15, Revised Version.) or 'clan' (Zechariah 9:7; 12:5,6, RSV) or perhaps a military unit. 'Alluph' is used for the 'chieftains' of Edom (Genesis 36:15-43); probably for a commander of a military 'thousand'; and almost certainly for the professional, fully-armed soldier."
I think the most obvious problem here is when we can conclude there has been a confusion by a copist. But in some cases this explanation makes a lot of sense. For instance:
"David's feast in Hebron in 1 Chronicles 12 appears to be attended by enormous numbers, not of ordinary men, but of distinguished leaders - some 340,800 of them. In this case it looks as though in fact there were 'captains of thousands' and 'captains of hundreds', and that by metonomy or by abbrevation 'thousand' has been used for 'captains of thousands' and 'hundreds' for 'captains of hundreds'. 'Thousand' and 'hundred' have been treated as numerals and added together. When these figures are unscrambled, we get a total of roughly 2,000 'famous men', which seems eminently reasonable...."In 1 Kings 20:27-30, the little Israelite army killed 100 (not 100,000) foot-soldiers, and the wall of Aphek [when it fell] killed 27 (not 27,000) more."The Ethiopian invasion had a thousand, not a million, warriors (2 Chronicles 14: 9). 
"10 (not 10,000) were cast down from the top of the rock (2 Chronicles 25:12).""...The total fighting force [of the Exodus Israelites] is some 18,000 which would probably mean a figure of about 72,000 for the whole migration".
Do you think this is a plausible explanation?
This is the link: http://www.specialtyinterests.net/hebrew_numbers.html
Best,Sergio Saavedra (Spain)

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