The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: L

Previous Index Next

Large numbers in the OT

The exceedingly high numbers of the able-bodied men over the age of twenty conscripted into the armies of Israel, as recorded in Num 1; 26, continue to trouble modern scholars. The numbers of soldiers in each listing total in excess of 600,000 (603,550 in Num 1:46; 601,730 in Num 26:51). These numbers of men mustered for warfare demand a total population in excess of 2 million. Indeed, perhaps a population of 3 or 4 or even 5 million might be required to supply a conscripted army of 600,000 able-bodied men over twenty years old. Such numbers are exceedingly large for the times, for the locale, for the desert wanderings, and in comparison to the numbers of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan whom the Israelites set out to conquer.

Many faithful readers of the Bible have taken these numbers at face value... Some commentators go to considerable length to work out the mathematical possibilities of these numbers in terms of birth-rate statistics, the logistics of crossing the Red Sea in one night, dwelling in the desert, marching in the order of the tribes, massing on the eastern shore of the Jordan, and conquering the Promised Land (see, for example, Keil and Delitzsch, Pentateuch 2:46-47; 3:4-15). Yet the more the modern reader studies these attempts to make these large numbers manageable in the constraints of the social-geographical context of the Late Bronze Age, the more difficult these issues become. Frankly, we begin to wonder whether we are not engaging in special pleading.

Corruption in transmission

Various solutions have been suggested to solve the problem of the large numbers. Some have argued that these numbers may have been corrupted in transmission. The general faithfulness of the textual transmission of the Hebrew Bible (and the Greek NT) is truly marvelous. At the same time, in neither testament is this process perfect. We have certain examples of corruption of numbers in parallel passages in the historical literature: ie, compare 2Sa 10:18 with 1Ch 19:18; Num 25:9 with 1Co 10:8; see 1Sa 13:1. So it is possible for one to argue that the numbers of the census listings in Num 1-4 and 26 have suffered transmission problems. This is possible, but we may observe that the present text does not betray notices of textual difficulties in these numbers. Moreover, if textual transmission error is the explanation for these large numbers, it would not be the isolated addition of a digit here or the dropping of a digit there. For textual transmission difficulties to be of any "help" in coming to terms with these census lists, they would have to be massive in scope. The entire list has to be in error. Again, the textual record does not betray any discussion of such problems. It almost takes more faith to believe in transmission problems in these lists than it does to work out the logistics of the numbers as they stand.

Different meanings

Others have felt that the word for "thousand" might have a different meaning here than the usual numerical idea. The word "elep" is a graphic term derived from pastoral language that was used to number herds. As one looks out over many sheep, one may speak of an "elep" ("a thousand") sheep. Thus the word "thousands" may be a simple statement of approximation: There were "thousands" of persons in each tribe.

In some Bible passages the Heb word for "thousand" ("elep") is a technical term for a company of men that may or may not equal 1,000 (eg, Num 31:5; Josh 22:14 ["a family division"]; 1Sa 23:23 ["clans"]). Thus one might argue that the term "elep" has lost all sense of a specific numerical value and means simply a "troop." Thus each tribe might be composed of 30 to 70 troops, and the total of the fighting men for these troops would number in the hundreds. This would mean that for Reuben there were 46 troops with 500 fighting men; for Simeon 59 troops with 300 fighting men, etc. This would yield a total of 589 troops and some 5,550 fighting men; with each troop having about 9 or 10 men. This is the preferred conclusion of Noth (Numbers 22,23). The problem with this, however, is that the numbers are totaled in such a way as to regard the term "elep" as one more than 999. To regard the word "elep" as a rough approximation only works where approximation is the intent. (See, for example, 1Sa 4:10, where Israel had 30,000 foot soldiers defeated by the Philistines. Doubtless the number in this passage gives merely an approximation of the number of soldiers who were defeated.)

Others have observed that the term "elep" ("thousand") is very close in spelling to the word "allup", a term meaning "chieftain" or "commander" elsewhere in the Bible. In Gen 36:15-43, this word is used for the chieftains of Edom. Petrie argued in 1923 that the term "elep" may mean a family unit, living in one tent, perhaps a "clan." One solution for the large numbers in these lists may be found in this confusion of the word for "thousand" and that for "chieftain" or "clan." In this way the figure 53,400 (of Asher in Num 26:47) might mean "53 units (chiefs, clans) and 400 men." The figure 32,200 (of Manasseh in Num 1:35) would mean "32 units (chiefs, clans) and 200 men." Such a procedure would give a greatly reduced total for the whole population. But this procedure would also be at variance with the fact that the Bible text adds the "thousands" in the same way that it adds the "hundreds" for the large total. The numbers joined to "elep" and to the hundreds are linked in Hebrew by the simple "and" ("waw"), which normally suggests that they should be added together. This approach would presuppose that the early meaning of the word "elep" (or "allup") as "chief" or "clan" was not understood by later editors, who mistakenly added these words as numbers to the hundreds. Such an approach leads to a greatly reduced number for the fighting men and the total population of Israel than is usually assumed. The totals for the Twelve Tribes in this approach would be 5,550 men and 598 "chiefs." With the additional numbers required for women and children, the population of the community would be more nearly 15,000 to 18,000, rather than the 2 million or more required by the traditional understanding of these numbers.

This sort of speculation, however, has its own difficulties, which may be as hard to solve as the problem of the larger numbers. First, the proportion of "chiefs" to fighting men seems quite top-heavy (46 "chiefs" for 500 men in Reuben; 59 "chiefs" for 300 men in Simeon, etc) This is a very high percentage of officers to fighting men in any army. Second, the totals in Num 1:46; 2:32 do not bear this distinction in the meaning of the term "elep". The ancients were able to add figures in the same manner we do, and they seem to have added the numbers for the Twelve Tribes without any distinction for the hundreds and the thousands as different types of groupings. They carried the figures for the hundreds into the column for the thousands, as any school child might.

A variation on the above approach is given by Noordtzij, who states that we cannot translate the term "elep" as "thousand" but only by an X as we no longer know how large it was. He concludes that the total complement of the army of Israel in Numbers 1:46 should not be read 603,550, but 603 X + 550 men.

Dual meanings

Wenham has a more complex solution to the problem of these large numbers. He believes that the term "elep" is used in two distinct ways in these lists, one to indicate "armed men" and the other to indicate "thousands." Along the way scribes confused the two meanings and simply added both terms as though they were "thousands." Wenham says the numbers for the tribe of Simeon, given as 59,300 (Num 1:22), were originally intended to mean something like 57 armed men and 23 hundreds of units.

But this came to be written: 57 "lp" and 2 "lp" 3 hundreds. He summarizes: "Not realizing that 'lp' in one case meant 'armed man' and in the other 'thousand,' this was tidied up to read 59,300. When these figures are carefully decoded, a remarkably clear picture of the whole military organization emerges. The total fighting force is some 18,000 which would probably mean a figure of about 72,000 for the whole migration."

Many would regard this total as a more satisfactory number for the Hebrew population in terms of its former slave status in Egypt, the gravely difficult conditions for provision of a very large population in the desert, and the fright occasioned by the smallness of their numbers against the fortified cities of Canaan. There are some texts in the OT that suggest the population of the Hebrew nation was quite small. For example, Deu 7:7 states that the Lord's affection was set on Israel, not because they were more numerous than other peoples, "for you were the fewest of all peoples" (however, see below).

Yet in this case, as in the former, the totals of Num 1:46; 2:32 would have to be regarded as errors of understanding by later scribes of an unusual, complex, and otherwise non-attested use of the word "elep". Those who believe strongly in the reliability of the text of Scripture, have difficulty in approaches such as these, for they suggest the possibility of an error in the text of Scripture, even if the error of a scribe at a later time than the writing of the text and made as a later insertion. There are later insertions in the text of Scripture that most scholars regard as mistakes. The "three witnesses" text of 1Jo 5:7,8 is a classic example. Yet the textual critics are unanimous in asserting that no Greek texts from before the sixteenth century have this reading. There is, however, no known textual suspicion for the integrity of Num 1:46. If this is an error in calculation by a later scribe who was unaware of Moses' sophisticated employment of the word "elep" in the census in the desert, we have no record of this.

We do not mean to imply that the above type of approach necessarily springs from an unbelief in miracles as such, as is sometimes assumed; for numerous reverent or conservative scholars have been attracted to this or similar positions. The work of God with His people is miraculous throughout the desert experience, no matter how many or how few they might have been. This type of approach is based on an attempt to find what is believed to be a more realistic number for the peoples of Israel at this time.

The Large Numbers -- Toward a Solution

a. The problem

Still we cannot escape the problem of the large numbers in the Book of Numbers... The principal problem is one of believability. To put it bluntly, the numbers of the tribes of Israel stated and implied in this book just seem to be far too large to be historically credible. If the numbers of the men who are mustered for war from the age of twenty and up actually add up to over 600,000, then the total population would have had to be at least 2 million people -- perhaps considerably more. This does not seem to be an excessively large number for the people of a nation in our own crowded days, but it seems to be nearly an impossibly large sum for the totals of the nation of Israel in ancient times at the very beginning of its existence, a fugitive people fleeing Egypt, crossing the sea in one night, gathering at a mountain in the Sinai, then living a generation in the desert before finally entering Canaan.

But if the numbers of the Bible are correct, we have to imagine a population twice the size of a major metropolitan area, and then to view that vast number of people living their lives in the Desert of Sinai for a period of 40 years. Scholars have attempted to explain exactly how such numbers can be accounted for. Keil, for example, even worked out the mathematics for the crossing of the Red Sea by a population this size. Yet is it reasonable to have to account for these large numbers in this literal a manner?

Here is another comparison. The mid-1988 estimate for the population of the present state of Israel is 4,400,000. The present population of the modern country of Israel is only roughly twice the size of the number of Hebrews who approached from the desert with great fear to conquer the land. The population of Israel is mixed between scattered rural settlements, small towns, and three large cities. As we look at the modern cities with their sprawling size and multistoried buildings, we wonder how the ancient farmlands, towns, and cities might have accommodated such numbers. Since the testimony of the wicked Hebrew spies was an exaggerated report of the size of the cities, their towering walls, and hulking men -- all the stuff of fear -- the implication at the least is that the Canaanite population was significantly larger and more powerful than the approaching Hebrew populace (see, for example, the refrain of proportion: "to drive out before you nations greater and stronger than you": Deu 4:38; 7:1). The more we think of them, these numbers boggle our minds.

Then we may ask what we know of the population of Canaan in the Biblical period. Numerous attempts have been made to estimate populations at various periods. More recent scientific estimations of the population of Canaan during the Iron Age reduce greatly earlier estimates of several million. Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh suggests the combined population of Judah and Israel in the eighth century BC to be about 900,000. Since we may presume that the population of Canaan was as least as dense in the eighth century under Hebrew settlement as 700 years earlier, during Canaanite times, it is just not possible to imagine an invading force of Hebrews that might number several millions having any reason to trust in the Lord God for the conquest of the land. By sheer numbers they would simply overwhelm the native population.

A well-worn problem in the large numbers of the families of Israel in the Book of Numbers has to do with the growth from seventy persons to more than two million in just four centuries. Again, there have been commentators who have worked out the mathematics of this increase and have stated that such an increase, while grandly dramatic, is not beyond the possibility of human reproduction -- particularly when that reproduction capacity is enhanced and blessed by the Lord in fulfillment of his promise to make his people many, though they began with so very few.

We do know that Scripture assures us that the growth of the population of the Hebrew peoples was a dramatic outworking of God's grace, a fulfillment of his promise. The narrative of growth in Exo 1:7 is emphatic. Three verbs along with complementary adverbs and rhetorical flourish exult in the work of God in their dramatic growth: "But the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them." This unprecedented growth of the nation was in fulfillment of numerous promises of God to the fathers (see Gen 17:2,6; 22:17; 26:4; 28:14; 35:11; 48:4). Moses is able to use the patriarchal phrase of abundance as he recounts his experience as their leader: "The LORD your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as many as the stars in the sky" (Deu 1:10; cf Exo 32:13).

Yet there are counter-indications to this immense size of the population also well known: ie, the sheer logistics of 2 million people or more crossing the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) in one night and their organization and provision in the desert for a generation. Now all this is possible within the wonder of the work of the Lord, certainly. We have no doubt of the ability of God to provide for 2 million or 2 billion persons, if that is His pleasure. But we still wonder at these large numbers in terms of the lands and cities of the ancient world. Were the cities of ancient Canaan in the Late Bronze Age sufficiently large to be a formidable threat to the millions of Hebrews who were about to descend on them from the desert? Would the ten spies have been so fearful of the residents of the land if they (the spies) represented a people so very large in numbers? And could the very land of Canaan have absorbed such a huge company in Bible times, right at the beginning of Israel's experience? We do not doubt that the population of Israel under her great kings David and Solomon might have numbered one million. But we pause at the thought of more than twice that many persons right at the beginning of her history.

So there we have it: The numbers of the Book of Numbers are just too large!

b. A suggestion

It is suggested, then, that the large numbers in the census lists in the Book of Numbers are deliberately and purposefully exaggerated as a rhetorical device to bring glory to God, derision to enemies, and point forward to the fulfillment of God's promise to the fathers that their descendants will be innumerable, as the stars.

The figure given in the two census lists for the army of Israel may possibly be a magnification by a factor of ten. An army of about 60,000 men would fit what we know of the criteria of the region and the times. Wenham's reduction to 18,000 (see above) seems to be too small a figure and is based on too complex a solution to be convincing. Similarly, others' reduction by even greater factors leave much too small a figure. We desire a solution that is both simple in concept and yet provides a sufficiently large population to be the fulfillment of promise but not so large as to be seemingly impossible.

The suggestion of a rhetorical exaggeration by a factor of ten has much to commend it. It is a simple answer that does not demand convolutions in numbers that other suggestions require. It results in an army in excess of 60,000 men, with a total population of about 250,000 to 300,000. This sum seems to fit the requirements of the social, geographical, and political realities without diminishing at all the sense of the miraculous and providential care of God. An army of 60,000 is not an insignificant force, but it was likely considerably smaller than the combined armies of the city-states of Canaan at the time. In this way the peoples of Israel must have seemed to be a "swarm" as they lived in Egypt, but they were still "the smallest of nations" when ranked with great world powers. This smaller number accords with the large (but not supernatural!) force the Egyptian Pharaoh sent in pursuit of them to the Sea of Reeds. Six hundred chariots (Exo 14:7) is a considerable force and would surely be a death threat against the unorganized people of Israel. This approach also allows for the drama of the conquest of the Book of Judges, where battles were won by the armies of Israel in league with Yahweh their Great Warrior. This smaller number fits as well for the failures to occupy the full land as that book also details. It also accords well with the well-known Mernepthah stele that records Israel as among the peoples of Canaan during his raid, which we may place during the period of the judges. A population of several million would have more of an impression on this pharaoh!

Again, this smaller number does not diminish the miraculous. It enhances it; for we confront now a cluster of miracles that we may embrace readily rather than shun from some sense of embarrassment, as some do! The supernatural increase of the people in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea in one night, the gathering of the people at Mount Sinai, their daily provision in the desert, their entry into the Promised Land -- all was miraculous! Only the Lord could so provide for this vast number of people in this manner; and mark it well, a population of over one-quarter million is indeed vast. But now we can envision a series of miracles that fits the geography, the topography, and the times.

Furthermore, now we can also deal with the large numbers, not as problem words, but as power words. The deliberate exaggeration was not for misrepresentation. This rhetorical use of numbers was a mark of faith in the Lord who had provided great increase to a family of seventy persons and who one day would make his people as the stars in number. One day they would truly be innumerable -- except to Him, who counts them all and knows their names! These "embarrassing numbers" are not embarrassing at all. These numbers celebrate Yahweh. They are numbers of worship! I envision this text being read in worship celebrations. The studied units, with their formulaic structure and power numbers, would evoke pride of patriotism, sense of belonging, and -- most importantly -- the celebration of the Lord.

It appears to me that the numbers of the census are real figures. They are treated like real integers; there is no confusion of hundreds and thousands. Here are numbers that are internally consistent and coherent. Yet I propose that they may have been deliberately magnified by a factor of ten for rhetorical reasons. The promise was that the people would number as the stars. Six-hundred thousand must have seemed like an "astronomical" number in these early Bible times. Certainly the "real" number of 60,000 men was very large, particularly for the desert sojourn. But the 60,000 would still not be an overwhelming force for the task ahead of conquering the peoples of the land, who are seven in number and far more numerous than Israel. To have any success in their task, this army would need to have the help of the Lord along every step of their path. From the abortive battle in the first generation with the Amalekites (Num 14:44,45) to their decisive victories a generation later with Arad (Num 21:1-3) and the small kingdoms of Sihon and Og (21:21-31), these numbers fit the situation. Here now is a seasoned army of approximately 60,000 men, ready to march across the dry bed of the Jordan River and to take the ancient city of Jericho as the firstfruits of conquest in the land -- an offering to the Lord.

This number of about 60,000 fits the requirements of both a great (miraculous) growth and a manageable size for the time and place of their habitation. The use of deliberate exaggeration by a factor of ten may be regarded as a celebration of the work of the Lord. We have not taken seriously enough the formulaic nature of the chapters that give the numbers of the tribes. Not only does this make "neat" record keeping, there is within these sections a sense of the sublime, of the orderly presentation of an offering of joy to God. These census lists that some moderns find to be frightfully dull may well have been conceived by their author as a joyful offering of praise to God. And may we not think that God takes pleasure in these words still?

This rhetorical use of numbers is also a prophetic symbol (a type!) of the numbers yet to come! One day the people of God will be like the stars of heaven; they will be innumerable, uncountable to all but him who knows the number and name of every star (Psa 147:4)!

The obvious objection one may bring, that people do not use numbers this way today, is not overwhelming. We know that in ancient times numbers were used with deliberate exaggeration for rhetorical effect. One needs only to think of the ancient Sumerian king list to find an example that long predates the time of Moses. In this list the reigns of kings from remote antiquity were vastly exaggerated. We believe this was for the rhetorical function of indicating their tremendous importance. We may also find rhetorical uses of numbers in the genealogies of Genesis.

An even more common use of rhetorical language is in battle boasting and the songs about heroes: "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands" (1Sa 18:7). [This hyperbolic exaggeration of '10 times over' is suggested in other passages, like Ecc 7:19; Zec 8:23; Mat 25:28/Luk 19:24: GB.]

I am aware that some may regard the concept of "rhetorical use of numbers" as a departure from "literal interpretation." In fact, it is not. A departure from literal interpretation would be to spiritualize the numbers, to find some mystical significance in them that was never really intended, or to pretend to some bizarre meaning imported from another environment.

Literal interpretation of numbers includes understandings that extend from mathematical exactitude, through general approximation, to literary license. The only demand of literal interpretation (better, "normal" interpretation) is that the reader seek to find the use he believes the text itself presents and demands. It is an abuse of literal interpretation to insist that the way we use numbers in our digital and pocket-calculator age is the way that Bible persons ought to have used numbers in their day.

(Sources: Ron Allen, "Introduction to Numbers", EBC; DM Fouts, "A Defense Of The Hyperbolic Interpretation Of Large Numbers In The Old Testament", JETS 40:3:378)


"For the purpose of local government the people were provided with 'rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties and rulers of tens'. Obviously, in this context, 'ten', 'fifty', 'hundred' and 'thousand' were the names of administrative units, not exact numbers.

"The ordinary Hebrew word for 'thousand' is sometimes used to mean 'family', and is actually translated that way in Jdg 6:15.

"The Hebrew word for 'captain' is spelt the same as the word for 'thousand', although the pronunciation is different. Since a regiment in the Jewish army was also called a thousand, it is easy to see how this association of words would arise. Thus it is possible that some of the 'thousands' who fought, or were slain in battle, were really captains. If so, then the size of the army of Israel, and of its casualty lists, may possibly have been smaller than they appear in our English Bible" (GT ch 18).


"It would appear that the Heb word for 'thousand' had also a definite idiomatic usage in the sense of 'family' or 'squad' or 'group'. Some instances seem to require one of these secondary meanings. 'Present yourselves before the Lord by your tribe, and by your thousands' commanded Samuel, and they 'came near by their families' (1Sa 10:19-21). Saul had a small permanent army of three thousand men, but soon afterwards these are numbered at six hundred (1Sa 13:2,15). This might indicate a 'thousand' to be a squad of 200 men, but the conclusion cannot be insisted on. However a similar result comes out of a consideration of the capture of Ai. Joshua sent 'thirty thousand' might men of valour against the city (Jos 8:3). If these are the same as the five (literal) thousand mentioned in v 12 -- this is Prof Garstang's suggestion -- then again one 'thousand' works out at approximately 200. If also the twelve 'thousand' inhabitants of Ai (v 25) are computed similarly, this would give a figure of 2,400 for the population of the place -- a figure which accords remarkably well with the size of the site explored by the archeologists.

"The slaughter of 42,000 Ephraimites by Jephthah's men at the fords of Jordan is not easy to harmonize with Ephraim's total of 32,500 at the conquest of the Land. Should the figure be read as 2,040, or were 'thousands' so many squads of fighting men? (Jdg 12:6; Num 26:37).

"In the civil war against Benjamin there is a strange disparity between the large and small numbers cited in Jdg 20:31,21,25. This would cease to be a problem if the suggestion just made applied here also. The remarkable contrast between Saul's 600, in 1Sa 13:15, and his 210,000 in 1Sa 15:4, seems to call for a similar solution. When one comes to the problem posed by the figures in 1Ki 20:29,30, this solution (or something even more drastic) seems to be required. The figures in 2Ch 17:14-19 give Jehoshaphat a standing army 'ready prepared for war' of 1,160,000 besides the garrisons of his many 'fenced cities'. Some find difficulty in taking these figures as real. To others they are a headache. The idiomatic use of the word 'thousand' may help towards a solution here" (WEnj 83,84).

Previous Index Next