The series starts with Jim Snapp’s essay The Quest for the Historical Census, and continues with P. J. Williams’ post The case against the reduction of large numbers, followed by Jim Snapp’s Defending a Case for the Reduction of Large Numbers, then P. J. Williams’ Keep ‘em large, and ending thus far, with Jim Snapp’s A Second Reply in Defense of Reduced Census-Numbers, several of which messages I’ve peppered with comments of my own, particularly the last.
I obviously agree with Jim Snapp that the numbers need to be reduced if they are to be held to represent the reality of the times they ostensibly describe. I differ with him in his method of reconstituting the orginal numbers. He uses a variation of the Mendenhall method (“thousands” and “chiefs”/”bands” having the same spelling in Hebrew, אלפים,the meanings were confused at some point). I rather see within the text itself evidence (1 Kings 4.26 compared to 1 Chronicles 9.25 started it all off) that a multiplication by 10 or 100, depending upon circumstances, has occurred in order to keep the population numbers near a certain preconceived number, and to inflate most other numbers as well. The Assyrians, we know, used precisely the same tactic (see especially Marco de Odorico, The Use of Numbers and Quantifications in the Assyrian Royal Inscriptions. State Archives of Assyria Studies 3. Helskinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 1995). This deliberate, centralized alteration of texts at a point before they were widely known is apparently something that some people have an issue with. I see it as a mistaken instance of scribal “correction” to be corrected. Others, like P. J. Williams, see the population numbers as representative of a trope of sorts, representing the fulfillment of the “be fruitful and multiply” command in Genesis 1.28. One wonders what chariot stalls have to do with fruitful human reproduction, or heads of cattle, amounts of silver, wheat, etc. Indeed, since the trope is never explicitly commented upon, I find it dubious. Also, I find the Mendenhall approach dubious because it is never clear at what point in this theory the confusion was supposed to occur. Pre-exilic numbers in lists were written using a form of Egyptian numeric annotation, not fully written out. Even if they were written out fully, and words were confused with numbers, in what context was this to have happened? It would need to be several steps removed from the text we have, as the numbers are totalled and treated solely as numbers in the text as it stands. Even more importantly, the Penatateuchal military census numbers are not the only ones in the Hebrew Bible exhibiting inflation, but it is a phenomenon that persists throughout almost the entirety of the historical books.
One of the interesting and kind of fun things that happens in reducing the numbers according to my scheme is that in the Exodus, the number of people of Israel and others participating in the original will have been less than the number of people involved in Cecil B. DeMille’s movie version!
Anyhow, it’s a subject I find fascinating, and I’m glad others are interested in it, too.