Those Puzzling Old Testament Numbers -- By: John Wenham

Journal: Bible and Spade (First Run)
Volume: BSP 04:1 (Winter 1975)
Article: Those Puzzling Old Testament Numbers
Author: John Wenham


Those Puzzling Old Testament Numbers

John Wenham

The old testament at various places records numbers which seem impossibly large. Some have assumed that these figures were simply invented, and are evidence that the Bible is historically unreliable. But who would make up such figures? Would any man invent a story of a bus crash in which 16,000 passengers were killed? It is much more likely that these Old Testament numbers were faithfully copied out, despite the fact that they did not seem to make sense. Invention does not satisfactorily account for them. The explanation must lie elsewhere. And in fact patient research has gone a long way toward resolving this knotty problem.

A Bible scholar suggests an explanation for contradictory and gigantic numerals

There is evidence that the Old Testament text is on the whole marvelously well preserved.

There is also evidence from the parallel passages in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles and (especially) in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 that numbers were peculiarly difficult to transmit accurately. We have instances of extra noughts being added to a number: 2 Samuel 10:18 reads “700 chariots,” 1 Chronicles 19:18 reads “7,000.” A digit can drop out: 2 Kings 24:8 gives the age of Jehoiachin on accession as 18, whereas 2 Chronicles 39:9 gives it as 8. In Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 the digits often vary by one unit. And there are other errors of copying, many of which are easily explained.

In the modern Hebrew Bible all numbers are written out in full, but for a long time the text was written without vowels. The absence of vowels 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, RV) 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...

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