Old Testament Numbers

I’m receiving some interesting feedback on an essay of mine on Number Multiplication in the Historical Books of the Old Testament over on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog.

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.


  1. Just as a quick aside, I wanted to mention that one of the things that I realized early in my career as a classicist is that numbers in Greek and Roman authors were almost always inflated (with some notable exceptions). One reason for that is our misreading at times. Sometimes the Greek word for ten thousand really means something like ‘a really big bunch’, but we read it as ten thousand. Sometimes, the author is reacting what you are noticing in Hebrew and Near Eastern texts. This is particularly true, I think, of Herodotus. So, this supports your point, I think.


  2. Yes, Phil, I agree, of course. I’ve seen that in Liddell-Scott for μυριας and somewhere else, I’m sure. With the number of them unspecified, the same is used in English: myriads, thousands, etc.

  3. Hi Kevin

    Interesting points you make. John Wenham’s old solution seemed to involve a bit of acknowledging both sources of exaggeration and error. One thought I’d like to see emphasised is the apparent absurdity of 22,273 women (mothers of those firstborn males) producing 603,550 adult men, plus who knows how many females and male children. That might give the issue a bit more cogence – that anyone wanting to believe the historical value of the Torah has to understand its limitations too. The Bible has history as much as it records it too.

  4. Thanks for writing, Adam. The way I think this might have happened was a combination of either misunderstanding or deliberate exagerration. First, someone down the road, after Chronicles was written, some scribe in Jerusalem with central control over the documents had one or the other of these impressions:
    a.) (the more charitable solution:) These numbers are ridiculously small! They must be a mistake! I’ll raise them up to what they should be. *OR*
    b.) (the solution involving deliberate alteration:) These numbers are ridiculously small! I’m going to raise them so that they’re as impressive as the numbers of Persian and Macedonian numbers.

    Now, I also think that this is likely the point at which numbers were altered from the old numerical annotation that we know was used, and that the numbers were re-written fully as words (e.g. “60” to “sixty”). So, in this dual process, reflected also in the Vorlage to the LXX and OG versions, the combination of inflation/multiplication of numbers and also rewriting as words would also have been a process easy to screw up in, and there are very likely a number of mistakes in there. But overall, it seems a deliberate, systematic and also almost entirely complete (I think only one number was accidentally not multiplied in both the MT and OG verss, perhaps two in the OG) alteration is what’s taken place here. I don’t see a way to avoid that.

    In the near future, I’ll be getting around to writing about how this multiplication theory of mine applies to models for the exodus and conquest. Essentially, the gist is that when the group is a relatively small and believably-sized one of about 6000 total, a mass escape and wandering in the Sinai and southern Negev is possible. Also the infiltering into Canaan, with only a very few cities attacked and destroyed, but most taken over, the people more mingling with the Canaanites than exterminating them (which mingling is the major theme of Joshua and Judges, where they are explicitly described as NOT having taken their allotted territories by force as instructed), is more in accord with the archaeological evidence. Later down the line, once the population was more settled and outnumbered the Canaanites, large-scale forest-clearing and settlement construction led to that Iron I explosion of settlements in the hill country. I’ll go into more detail later. Thanks for writing!

  5. I find your effort interesting from my own perspective in studying Bible numerology as “mathematical harmonic mythology,” or something similar, however we eventually name it. I’ve touched on some of these numbers in various books and articals since 1974, but of course many of them baffle me. You might look at “Abraham’s Children” on my website to start, intended as a 2nd appendix to my Quran book (which should be posted soon). Ernest

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