“Lots” in Translation!

  • Question from WCC, USA

    When I read stories in the Old Testament, especially wars and battles, it appears the number of persons killed in a day or in a battle, is unreasonable. For example, 1 Kings 20:30, a city wall fell and killed 27,000 warriors. Is something different about the O.T. numbering system or translations?

    The unfeasibly large numbers, usually relating to people, found in the Old Testament are usually attributed to errors in textual transmission or problems with the original, vowel-less Hebrew that the Old Testament was written in. Comparable passages often have different numbers – e.g. In 2 Kings chapter 24, Jehoiachin is 18 when he ascended the throne of the Southern kingdom of Judah, while in 2 Chronicles chapter 36, he is only 8. Besides missing digits, there are instances of added noughts (hundreds become thousands) and even places where the number disappears altogether. The original text reads: “Saul was years old” in 1 Samuel chapter 13, verse 1.

    The main problem arises with the military ‘statistics’ surrounding the various battles of the Bible and the censuses taken of Israel during the Exodus and subsequent time in the Wilderness. Here the simplicity of the archaic written Hebrew is probably to blame. The word ‘eleph is the ordinary word for ‘thousand’, but was also used as a technical term for a military unit. Unlike the Roman ‘century’, which nearly always contained a hundred men, the ‘thousand’ was not always so big, sometimes just relating to the men of a particular clan or who had a particular leader. The word ‘alluph means ‘leader of a thousand’ (i.e. a military unit) or ‘chieftain’ and came to be used to describe the professional, fully-armed soldier. Without vowel points above the words, which were only put into the text much later, these words look exactly the same: ‘lp (the apostrophe is the Hebrew letter aleph).

    Without going into too much detail, most of the large numbers involved in battles or censuses can be explained this way, which gives a much more coherent view of Israelite history. It is believed that when the accounts were written up or the censuses recorded, they would list the people involved in the order of professional soldiers, then military units of drafted men. So, for example if there were 50 professionals, leading 20 military units, that would be written as 50 ‘lp and 20 ‘lp. If a later scribe took it upon themselves to ‘tidy up’ the text, it would make sense to add these together as 70 ‘lp. If the distinction between the armed men who were known as ‘thousands’ and the ‘thousands’ themselves was not noted, a vastly inflated figure of ‘70,000 men’ would be preserved for future generations.

    When this numerical increase is taken into account, Israelite history makes much more sense. The censuses in the book of Numbers can be reconstructed to their original levels, with a number for the Exodus of about 72,000 people, far more manageable that the sum of three million found in the current text. Most battles were little more than skirmishes; a large army would be a few thousand drafted men with everyday weapons such as slings, with a few hundred fully-equipped and trained professional infantry. The wall that fell at Aphek (in 1 Kings chapter 20, verse 30) killed 27 Aramean ‘alluph (professional foot-soldiers), not 27 ‘eleph (thousand) Arameans. The census conducted by David did not list in excess of 1 million men of fighting age – that would mean an unsustainable population of over 5 million people in the area of Palestine – but 120,000 possible soldiers, with a projected population of half a million.

    The textual confusion surrounding numbers, and the current translation of the text, does throw some doubt onto the provenance of the Old Testament records. The development of the Hebrew language and the confusion of the copyists and editors of the Old Testament combined in this case to make the accounts harder to believe. In one sense, this is understandable. Writing from the point of view of someone who believes his nation is especially favoured by God, the Biblical historians would prefer to believe that Israel inflicted a crushing defeat on their enemies by killing 100,000 of them, rather than a mere 100. Similarly, the Exodus becomes far more impressive with several million forefathers on the move.

    The people writing this did so from the vantage point of belief and there is no evidence to suggest that they deliberately ‘bigged up the numbers’ to intentionally mislead anyone. The question, though, is why, with these numbers so easy to accurately reconstruct, do modern Bible translators insist on sticking to the obvious erroneous numbers? That’s a question that only the Bible translation committees can answer, but until these inaccuracies are ironed out, many people will find the impossibly huge numbers in the Old Testament a convenient means of dismissing the Bible as unbelievable.

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