Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Bad Numbers in Numbers

The Bad Numbers in Numbers

Glenn R. Morton 2019

I am always amazed at how we Christians consistently and in every way possible chose to make our Bible false and thus our religion a target of scorn.  Young-earth creationists tie the Bible to an absolutely false view of geology and biology, proclaiming that this makes the Bible true.  The liberals, on the other hand, do the same as the French army in World War II, just raise their arms in surrender, pronouncing that even though the stories in the Bible, like the Fall, the Flood, the talking snake, Balaam's donkey etc are clearly historically and scientifically false, they are greatly to be revered for showing us how to live. In no other area of life do we cherish that which is false. We don't proclaim the moral virtue of the luminiferous ether, nor do we proclaim the great lessons to be learned by believing bad air causes malaria. We have rejected belief in witches,  and now know they don't exist as envisioned by those in Salem and elsewhere. We do not fondly speak of how belief in witches taught us moral lessons like the difference between good and evil. Yet we will do that with the early Biblical stories.  We Christians seem to have all the will to properly defend our faith as a cup of flour does!

Then we have the Biblical translators, who, ever so prayerfully, chose meanings of words that make the Bible ridiculous. Why we do this? I don't know except for the general fact that we Christians seem not to think much out of the box, think creatively, or strategically. We do what our peers and predecessors do, regardless of how ludicrous that makes the Bible look. We do this even though the solution to this problem has been out there for 35 years or more.  We need desperately to change our ways, ceasing to eagerly gift our critics with hammers with which they can beat our religion to a bloody pulp.

One might think that there is loads of comparative linguistics between Hebrew documents from the time period in which Numbers 1 was first put on parchment, allowing us to understand the use of Hebrew words.    There isn't. As far as I can determine we have a few Sinai inscriptions from 1850 BC to 1450 BC, which have been translated. From 925 BC we have inscriptions on the Siloam Tunnel, and from 701 BC we have the first extant scroll.  Thus there is little data with which to ensure we are understanding the use of all the words correctly.  This is a problem but one that won't be easily overcome.

The passage in question goes through each tribe in the following fashion:

Of the children of Simeon, by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, those that were numbered of them, according to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war

I recall vividly my college New Testament survey prof making huge amounts of fun of the census numbers in Numbers 1. (I needed a pud humanities course that semester).  The traditional interpretation says that there are 603,550 men above 20 years of age.  Since this number doesn't include women, children, and old men, it means that something like 3-5 million Hebrews were wandering the desert during the Exodus along with their cattle, sheep, donkeys and other animals.  To show how ludicrous this number is, estimates by McEvedy and Jones suggest the world population at that time was around 27 million.(  Do we really beleive that the Hebrews were 11% of the world population?  Pharoah sent 600 chariots to bring the slaves back.  Does anyone think that 600 men, or 1,200 if there were 2 men per chariot, could threaten 3 million people enough to make them go back to Egypt?  Right off the bat, we can see how these numbers, translated by 'professional language experts' leads to ridicule of the Scripture

I ran into the solution of this problem in an article by Rabbi Michael S. Bar-Ron "THE GOOD TORAH SENSE OF THE "ALPHA-ELEPH". It can be downloaded for free on He goes through the difficulties, beginning with the small number of chariots expected to bring back the 3-5 million slaves. Bar-Ron notes that the entire Egyptian army at this time didn't exceed 40,000 men.  Are we to think that 40,000 men will control 3 million escaping slaves?  Why on earth would the 3 million Hebrews have been worried about such a mosquito of an army?

Bar-Ron points out that 3 million people couldn't even fit into the encampment sites named and would drink the springs dry long before the last people in line arrived at the spring.  Indeed, I have a doorway in my house that I can barely fit through with my shoulders, it is 23 inches wide.  Assuming that is the spacing of people with 19 inches from the guy in front and back, a million man army would be miles long and a 3 million person group would be longer still.  The picture below is said to be part of a two million person crowd.

I calculated the food requirements for 3 million and calculated that at a 1/4 lb meat per day for adults and 1/8 lb meat for children you would need to slaughter 1420 cows per day, or 17500 sheep or 23700 goats.  Having had cows on my ranch I can estimate the required herd size to supply that meat for 40 years.  A cow usually has one calf each year.  This means that one must have 1420 x 365=518,000 cows. My 100 ac ranch could only support 25 cows and their calves, that is, one pair per 4 acres.  In dryer West Texas the cows per acre drops to an average of 11 acres per calf cow pair.  The cows alone would occupy about 8900 sq miles. So much for an encampment.

Water would also be a serious problem for such a crowd. Bar-Ron writes:

"While the army of Xerxes the Great is believed today to have numbered 100,000 to 150,000 men (not a million),13,14 Herodotus relates that it was so immense, that when they arrived at the Echeidorus River, his soldiers drank until it ran dry from their mass consumption." p. 4

Deut 7:1 speaks to the reality of the Hebrew population. It was small, not large:

"When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou"

To believe that there were 3 million Hebrews, but then to also believe that seven nations of Canaanites were bigger than them, means that we must believe most of the global population was in Canaan at that time--24 million people+!

Further, Deut. 7:7 The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people

So how do we fix this ridiculous number in Numbers?

Ron-Bar sees this as an issue of us not understanding a dual meaning of the Hebrew word, eleph.  He gives these examples to show that the word eleph, normally translated 'thousands' may be chief when involved with the army.

"Speaking of that young, desert-raised generation of Israelite warriors, why, in Joshua 7,2-5 were "the hearts of the people melted and become as water" with the tiny loss of 36 warriors out of 3,000 (three alaphim) that were sent on the first, failed attack upon tiny `Ai? That would be a loss ratio of only 1%. Large-scale death was a common aspect of war, especially ancient warfare of those days."

"How did 27,000 (27 eleph) men get crushed by a falling wall at Aphek in 1 Kings 20,30, and that after the Israelites had decimated 100,000 (100 eleph) Aramean foot-soldiers? Besides 127,000 being close to the total population of the Levant region at the time, how could the collapse of the wall

of one of those diminutive ancient cities (see Point 10 above) wipe out a number of a people that could fill a medium-sized Category 4 sports stadium of our day? "p. 7

He then suggests:

"What is needed is a new understanding of the term אלף -eleph, as none of the above issues make any sense when אלף -eleph means a thousand. Yet all these verses and demographics recorded in TaNaKh make sense if the term אלף -eleph meant "clan chief" or "clan brigade" when human beings are being counted."

Clearly given the wall sizes of that day, it would be impossible for 27,000 men to be crushed by such a wall. Clearly this tells us that eleph doesn't mean thousand in this context.  But if it was a title for a leader, then things become clear.

For those who think that words only have one meaning, think again. In every language we find dual meanings for the same word or sound.  The word 'bound' can be used to indicate that prisoners are bound, that you are constipated, or that something is certain to happen: "It is bound to happen."  It's meaning depends on context.  The word buggy can mean a carriage, and early car, a house full of insects or a computer code that contains many errors.  Context determines the meaning.  Yet our translators, who know this of languages, chose to make the meaning of eleph such that it makes the Bible an object of scorn.  It is truly sad that those who ought to be interested in advancing Christianity do so much damage by their thoughtless choice of meaning.

Ron-Bar notes that this solution has been out there for over 35 years. 

Of greater weight is the opinion of the renowned Israeli scholar, Professor Manashe Har-El of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who also supported a different reading for אלף -eleph, a position similar to our own:25 ‘Eleph is related to the Arabic word aileh meaning “family”. If we accept the

assumption that eleph refers to a family, then from Numbers 1:21 it is evident that the twelve tribes constituted 598 families and 5,550 men of war.’ Har-El does not equate אלף -eleph with "clan leader" or "family head" but just "family", so he gets a lower number by not adding 598 leaders to the total. But his basic concept is the same. To the credit of his position, we must not forget that the phrase used in Numbers is ‘counted by families’.  (Ron-Bar, p. 12)

The above suggests that the census in Numbers be read as: 

of the tribe of Reuben, were forty and six clan chiefs/leaders/families and five hundred (warriors)

Michael Dallen suggests a slightly different reading. He writes:

"When Numbers 1:21 declares, for example, that the tribe of Reuben enrolled "46 elef 500" fighting men, this is conventionally translated as 46,500 men. But if elef in this context really means contingent, as we believe, this passage should be translated, "Those enrolled from the tribe of Reuben, 46 contingents = 500 [men]."

Reading the passage in either of these fashions leads to the following numbers which fit with what we know of the Sinai environment and population size of Egypt, and the world at that time. The first column is either chiefs, leaders or families.  Given the wall collapse passage above, I think saying they were leaders is the best choice for the meaning of this word:


So, now we have a quite small number of people, maybe 30,000 in total.  In this way the entire issue goes away.

An objection comes in the question of why does Numbers tally the number of people in the way it does.  I don't like Bar-Ron's answer, which is that it was done to obscure the number because God didn't like the Hebrews taking census'.  I would suggest that some later scribe tried to help out by tallying the census and inserted his results into Scripture.  We know of several places where this took place. Alternatively, maybe the Babylonian Scribes who put all this together had lost touch with the way the Hebrews had counted their number.  In any event, the conventional way to look at these numbers just invites ridicule upon our religion.  It is a self-inflicted wound upon our faith. I guess the real question boils down to the issue of whether we believe the story of the bible is rational or irrational.

Another objection is found in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament under the eleph entry. It says:

It is occasionally alleged that since ʾelep means a company of a thousand men it could mean any military unit, even of reduced strength. From there it came to mean a family unit or clan, even a small one. But this means that the 1000’s of the mustering of the soldiers in Num 1 and 26 is reduced to a small figure in accord with the desire of the commentator. The wilderness wandering and its miraculous supply is also reduced to naturalistic proportions. But it should be remembered that the conquest of Transjordan and of Palestine was not accomplished by a handful of men. Also such juggling must alter the text of the Numbers passages which by the addition of their totals clearly speak of 1000’s of soldiers. r.l.h. Scott, J. B. (1999). 109 אָלַף. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 48). Chicago: Moody Press.

This small number fits quite well with what God said he wanted. He didn't want the people thinking their power had delivered Canaan to them. He said so several times, and with an army of 5500, there would be no doubt that the victory was God's not theirs. Secondly, how can the author of the TWOT entry be so sure that a small number didn't conquer Canaan. After all, the Hebrews were unable to completely drive the Canaanites out. Secondly, Cortes, when he conquered the Aztec Empire, marched on Tenochtitlán in mid-August 1519, along with 600 soldiers, 15 horsemen, 15 cannons, and hundreds of indigenous carriers and warrior. Wiki.

Tenochtitlan had between 200-400,000 people in it and it was conquered by less than 2,000 men. Lest people think it was easy because of the European technology, in one battle Cortez lost 870 men and had flee back to his staging area to escape being destroyed.  Then he obtained replacements from Cuba. The thing that allowed the Europeans to conquer the Aztecs was lack of food stored in that city. The Aztecs could not sustain a long seige.

Pizzaro used 200 men to capture the Inca Empire; and Tariq, according to Wiki, used 12,000 troops to beat an army of 100,000 and thus conquer Spain.  When Napoleon invaded Russia he took 685,000 men.  The Russians had 240,000 men opposing him.  Using typical Russian tactics, this smaller force using hit and run tactics, whittled Napoleon's army away.  Napoleon won Moscow, but had to leave after a month stay, returning to France with a shadow of the million men he had at his peak.   Given these examples, the claim that a small army can't overcome larger ones is a weak objection indeed, and seems to assume that God actually had nothing to do with Canaan's conquest.

1 comment:

  1. Glenn, I think you have hit the nail on the head with this post.

    While I would hope for better from translation committees--why not a footnote?--I think they often feel constrained by 2 closely related factors:
    1. What does the KJV say? Readers feel comfortable with the KJV renditions; they often just want updated syntax.
    2. How much criticism will we face from the TWOT authors and other upholders of the traditional translations?

    Ultimately the translation committee puts in a lot of work, and they like to get paid for it. So these considerations box them in, I suspect.

    I'm not saying there's not a good faith case to be made on the other side. But why not at least give a footnote on alternate meanings of eleph?