Large Numbers In The Old Testament -- By: John W. Wenham

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 18:1 (NA 1967)
Article: Large Numbers In The Old Testament
Author: John W. Wenham


Large Numbers In The Old Testament

J. W. Wenham

It is notorious that the Old Testament in many places records numbers which seem impossibly large. Bishop Colenso fastened upon this point in writing The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined,1 and he devoted the whole of Part I to demonstrating the unhistorical character of the Pentateuch by showing the impossibility of its figures. He realized that on this ground he had an argument which would appeal to the layman, who could not be expected to follow and to weigh the intricacies of the different theories of documentary analysis. He appealed to common sense, and thereby marshalled what was probably the mot devastating argument ever levelled against the historical character of the Old Testament. Colenso wrote his preface in 1862, and his argument has never been satisfactorily answered.

Yet Colenso never explained how it was that these colossal figures ever came to be used. No-one in his senses would, for instance, invent the story of a bus crash in which all 16,000 passengers were killed. The more absurd the figures the less likely it is that they were invented. Absurdity suggests the likelihood that someone has been trying to transmit records faithfully, in spite of the act that they do not seem to make sense. Failure to recognize this point has tended to make scholars cavalier in their dismiss of phenomena which are crying out for explanation.

Furthermore, Old Testament study has long been bedevilled by an unsatisfactory methodology. Critical orthodoxy at the end of the last century established a most complex system of documentary analysis, which dates much of the literature many centuries after the events it purports to record. Subsequent

study has shown that within the putative documents there is material which must be dated far earlier than the dates originally assigned to these documents. The resulting picture of the literary history of the Old Testament is too complicated and confused to be regarded any longer as a satisfactory starting- point for study. It seems far sounder to take each narrative as it stands, and only to invoke scribal or editorial mishandling when all other attempts to make sense of the narrative have failed. Only so will the temptation be avoided of cutting knots which with patience might be untied.

This article is divided into two parts, the first part giving in outline certain suggestions for the solution of the numerical problems; the second applies these suggestions systematically to the Old Testament narratives in the order of their occurrence.2

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