[b-hebrew] The Confusion of Hebrew Numbers

George Athas George.Athas at moore.edu.au
Mon Jun 25 21:21:54 EDT 2012

The problem is that when groups of these large numbers are grouped together and added up by a writer, they are the sum of the large numbers. This suggests that the latest redactor (at least) thought that the numbers were to be read straight as we see them translated in English versions today. Whether this was the intention of the earliest writers is unknown without specific manuscript evidence.

Chavoux, you mentioned that 5 million inhabitants in ancient Canaan was not inconceivable. Actually, it is inconceivable. I can't recall who it was (Finkelstein?), but based on the apparent density across a number of settlement sites in the various Iron Ages, and taking into account the number of sites, and the arable land around them, it was calculated that ancient Canaan could accommodate an economy of no more than a million inhabitants. That would be the peak number and it was almost reached in the Roman Era.

This leaves us with a few options regarding the numbers:

  1.  The numbers have been misunderstood and miscalculated by a later redactor
  2.  The numbers are exaggerations
  3.  There may sometimes be a theological significance to the numbers

Either way, we have a problem. Even the texts themselves highlight the problem. For example, Deuteronomy has Moses telling the Israelites that YHWH did not choose them because they were more numerous than any other nation, for in fact they were the smallest of nations. And yet, if there were over 600,000 fighting men leaving Egypt, that would be the biggest army seen in the ANE until the Persians. So why were the Israelites cowering before the Egyptians who were chasing them, since the Egyptians seem never to have fielded any more than about 30,000 fighting men in the field? There's something going on with the numbers, but exactly what, is hard to say.

Dean of Research,
Moore Theological College (moore.edu.au)
Sydney, Australia

From: "Sesamo m." <sesamox at hotmail.com<mailto:sesamox at hotmail.com>>
Date: Monday, 25 June 2012 6:06 PM
To: B-Hebrew <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org<mailto:b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>>
Subject: [b-hebrew] The Confusion of Hebrew Numbers

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)

b-hebrew mailing list
b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org<mailto:b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list