Numbers and the “Threat” to Inerrancy

Currently, I am in the middle of someone’s sick experiment to see how soon MDiv students will go insane under pressure. I just finished one 4 unit Hebrew Exegesis class in only 10 days and am now taking a Pentateuch and Historical Books 4 unit class—in 10 days. Even though I have had to pull three all nighters in a row working on exegetical papers, much of what I am learning in class almost makes up for the pain and suffering.

One of the topics discussed today by Dr. Younger are the inflated numbers in the Old Testament book of Numbers. Basically, the way the numbers are represented in many of our Bibles makes it seem as though there is an absorbent amount of people—way too many for how many there could reasonably be for even a large city in the ancient world. Just one tribe: Ruben is said to have 45, 500 people! There are some who are dedicated to taking a literalist interpretation, who claim this presents a problem for believing the Bible is without errors.

There is actually a very simple resolution to this problem though. The word used is “elef” which can certainly mean 1,000, but it can also mean “clan” (Judge 6 and Micah 5:2). What is the difference in result?

One example of the difference is 46,500 Rubenites vs 46 clans or families with some additional people perhaps not part of the clans.

The strength in this line of thinking is evident when we consider what other parts of Scripture have to say and do a little problem solving. Deuteronomy 7:7 tells us God did not choose Israel because they were the most numerous. This means, the Israelites did not stand as some radical exception to the norm in numbers for the ancient world. Also, when it came to the Israelites conquest of Jericho they are said to have went out with about 3,000 men, but lost and badly defeated on account of 36 men dying? This of course contextually makes no sense if 36/3000 died.

This is a case where understanding the original language the Bible was written in makes all the difference!

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8 thoughts on “Numbers and the “Threat” to Inerrancy

  1. Hi Allison,

    I think that you’re close to the right track. I feel stumped by the numbers less than one thousand but do not believe in the literal numbers nonetheless. I still hope for something better than “some additional people perhaps not part of the clans.” But don’t feel too much pressure to resolve this while focusing on the overall course : -)

    • “I think that you’re close to the right track. I feel stumped by the numbers less than one thousand”

      Basically, the same term is taken as “clan” or “family” in other places in Scripture. If it was the case here, we would be dealing with a technical term rather than the number 1000. Is this what you were asking?

      “I still hope for something better than “some additional people perhaps not part of the clans.”
      That would be the other number. In this case 500 other people. There are people mentioned that we know did not originate among the Israelites who were ethnically from somewhere else, but were now considered part of Israel and belonging to one of the tribes.

      • I understand what you are saying. Sorry that I did not mention this in my first reply, but if your count is the case, then why would Numbers 1:46 say, “The total number was 603,550″? This appears as a literal count of Numbers 1:20-42.

      • I am certainly no expert but isn’t the total also based off of the translation of thousand and the calculations assume a certain number 0f [fighting men] in each tribe? To elaborate (i’ve edited this comment), are we sure that this list represents only fighting men? Here is something from an article I was reading from (just a snippet, you will want to read more bc his support is too long to put here):

        “The census lists then consist of an enumeration of the number of units ÇHafim) into which each tribe is subdivided, and following that, the total number of men to be levied from the tribe. The units column would then be exhaustive, since no subsection would be entirely freed from military obligation, but the number of men would by no means be the total military strength of any tribe. The results may be tabu- lated as follows (together with the very instructive list in I Chron 12).”

        “If this reconstruction be adopted as a working hypothesis, there are a considerable number of narratives which are reduced to common sense, though it cannot be said that all of them fall into order. It will be seen that the units vary in size from about 5 men per unit from Simeon to over 14 men per unit from Gad (for Num 1). The numbers are so random that no pattern can be seen underlying them — historical reality is the best foundation for their interpretation. Above all, for I Chron 12 is this true. What possible basis other than (very fragmentary) traditions could possibly underlie the chaos of this list? We may grant that the attribution to the time of David’s coronation at Hebron may be mistaken, but some time early in the United Monarchy certainly seems called for, and the correctness of the Chronicler’s attribution is a better hypothesis than any other for the curious data concerning the tribe of Benjamin. The unification of the Transjordanian tribes (Reuben, Gad, ^ Manasseh) also makes excellent sense, particularly in view of the narrative in Josh 22. The excessively small number for Manasseh in Num 1 remains as a paradox to be worked out; one wonders whether this may not come from a time before the incorporation of Zelophehad’s daughters (Tirzah and other “Manassite” villages) into the Federation. Finally, the tendency toward larger units in Num 26 indicates that the present chronological order is correct, i. e. Num 1 is the earliest.53″

        –article is: “The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26″ George Mendenhall

      • There is an article I just read too that you might find interesting coming from a different angle. It is: “Military Censuses in Numbers” by Robert Vasholz.

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