Monday, May 29, 2006

The case against reduction of large numbers

Here I am going to present some arguments to the effect that the large numbers of Israelites in current texts (MT, LXX, etc.) of the exodus narrative, especially in the book of Numbers, should not be reduced.


  1. Large numbers as a biblical theme
  2. Two internal objections
  3. How an evangelical can shoot themselves in the foot
  4. External objections

1. Large numbers as a biblical theme
Numbers of humans are a significant element of the biblical narrative right from Genesis 1:28 when the humans are told to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’. Such language is echoed in Genesis 6:1, but human sin provokes the Flood, whereafter God reissues his multiplication command in Genesis 9:1. After his election Abra(ha)m is given specific promises of a large number of offspring and it is said that they will in fact be unable to be counted (Gen. 15:5).

We then follow the Genesis narrative carefully as, despite multiple barrenness, the patriarchs begin to multiply. A key point is Genesis 46 when Jacob and family are about to enter Egypt. Here the narrative goes into slow motion as it carefully counts the small number of those who enter Egypt. Jacob has already emphasised the smallness of his family (34:30), saying literally that he consists of ‘men of number’ (i.e. not an uncountable group).

Exodus picks up where Genesis left off. It begins by listing Jacob’s sons and mentioning that, as in Genesis 46, there were only 70 (LXX 75). We then read Exodus 1:7:

‘Now the children of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and became very, very strong, and the land was filled with them.’

But let us not forget that ‘land’ and ‘earth’ are the same word in Hebrew. Thus the large number of Israelites is linked back to the command first given to humanity (Gen. 1:28) and the promises to Abraham. It is in fact a central theme in the narrative.

Pharaoh gets seriously worried. He proclaims, rightly or wrongly, that the Israelites are in fact a stronger nation than his own, or possibly ‘too strong’ for him (Exod. 1:9), but even after this point the narrative reports tw0 further expansions of the Israelites (Exodus 1:12, 20).

The large number of Israelites is mentioned in Exodus 38:26 to be 603,550 men, and this number is confirmed by the quantity of tax in the context.

This number is, moreover, given at great length over the course of Numbers 1-2, and confirmed by multiple totalling. A similar census appears later in Numbers 26. The length of text devoted to this subject in Numbers suggests that the census is extremely important. One source of importance could be the narrative’s stress on the fact that only two men of the exodus generation made it to the promised land. However, it is also naturally linked with the theme of the patriarchal promises of multiple offspring and the emphasis on multiplication among the Israelites. Abraham had been promised so many children that they could not be counted. In these passages we have the many, but they can still be counted.

Numbers also shows us that, broadly speaking, multiplication is suspended during the wilderness period.

In case we had any doubt that the number of Israelites was really huge we have the narrative in Numbers 11, where their numbers are emphasised: ‘all this people’ (11:13, 15). God says that he will provide meat for the people for a whole month (11:20), which Moses views as impossible because there are 600,000 men on foot (11:21-22)—Moses’ objection does not work so well with a smaller number. Moses’ disbelief in God’s ability to provide meat is answered by God’s provision of quail for one day’s journey either side of the camp (let’s say conservatively that this means quail for 15 miles in each direction) and 3 feet deep (11:31). This provision suits the large size of camp.

The next point which emphasises the large number of Israelites is the Balaam narrative (Numbers 22-24). Balak takes Balaam to various points from which he can catch a view of some, but not all, of the Israelite camp (22:41). He emphasises their number (23:10).

The large number of Israelites is again confirmed by the counting of spoil in Numbers 31.

The number of Israelites is thus confirmed by four different means of reckoning (Exodus 38, Numbers, 1, 2, 31) and by the narrative structure of Genesis-Numbers. It is not only the most carefully given number in the Bible, but probably the most carefully given number in antiquity.

If the numbers have been changed then this has occurred in a number of passages in at least two books of the Bible.

2. Two internal objections
Two objections to a literal understanding of the text might be:

a) the number of the bekor, traditionally rendered ‘first born’, is too low (Num. 3:43)
b) the number of people in the land is even greater than the number of Israelites (Deut. 9:1)

a) rests on assumptions about the meaning of the term bekor, which is a term about which we do not know enough. In particular we are not sure of the extent to which this was a fixed status. There is some biblical evidence that it was not (Gen. 25:33; 1 Chron. 5:1). Was one still called bekor after one came to majority, when one had received one’s inheritance or after one’s father had died? Was there a bekor in families where the oldest child was female, or was is only males who ‘opened the womb’ (peter rehem)? Is there anything in the idea that the bekor was at first the first born of the mother and that the term was then applied to the first born of the father? Was there flexibility? Was there an exact parallel between the term when used of animals and when used of humans? What is the relationship between those who were bekor and the age range 20-50? If Pharaoh was ‘first born’ in our sense, why was he not killed in the 10th plague? This requires some sort of study. But quite aside from these questions those who want to use the number of firstborn as an objection to the figure of 600,000 men need to disprove Keil and Delitzsch’s detailed argument that the number refers specifically to the firstborn since the exodus (opening section of their commentary on Numbers).

b) requires us to find out whether it is when the nations are taken singly or together that they are greater than Israel, and whether their ‘greatness’ is entirely numerical.

Thus, objections to taking the large numbers literally are not yet sustained.

3. How an evangelical can shoot themselves in the foot
Here I wish to point out to evangelicals interested in the subject why it would be unwise to try to scale down the numbers at the exodus.

a) When evangelicals assert that, despite multiple totalling, thematic links and textual agreement across all the versions, the text of the Bible is corrupt in regard to the number of Israelites, they make it rather attractive not to be evangelical. After all, the vast majority of scholars from other groups are quite happy for the text to stand as it is. The most significant thing in attracting evangelicals to abandon classic evangelical views of scripture is when they become convinced that other views show a greater loyalty to the scriptures.

b) The external (mss) evidence for the text is overwhelming. Those who posit that the text is corrupt are positing that large swathes of the biblical text have been systematically corrupted. However, the quantity of text and quality of its thematic coherence on the subject of large numbers easily surpasses the quantity and quality of text needed to establish a whole number of core evangelical beliefs, both doctrinal and ethical. The scribe(s) who systematically changed all the numbers has/have about as much evidence for their existence as scribes who inserted trinitarian verses into the NT, or put anti-homosexual practice texts in the Bible. If you’re going to say that the large number of Israelites is textually corrupt, it would surely be easier to argue that John 3:16 is an interpolation.

c) Corruptions common to MT and LXX as well as other versions would have to have taken place considerably prior to the time of the NT. Those who argue that the text is corrupt are likely to have to conclude that the truth about the exodus had been lost before the time of the NT.

4. External objections
There are, of course, massive objections to a narrative with 600,000 Israelite men, but these are entirely historical in nature. Strictly speaking the text-critical decision about the textual integrity of the narrative can be made without regard to the question of whether the narrative is historical and whether it was composed in the fifteenth or the third century BC. It is therefore unnecessary to answer historical objections to the narrative in order to be able to establish that the large numbers should stand.

However, it is necessary for someone who accepts the large numbers and espouses an evangelical position on scripture that says that the narrative is true to explain how that belief could be rational. This is really a topic for another forum and for someone with different expertise from myself. My conclusion from textual criticism is that evangelicals do indeed have a problem, but that this problem is to be solved by historical research (on topics like ancient population estimates, and the archaeology of the exodus and conquest) not by text-critical conjecture.


  1. James M Leonard5/29/2006 10:11 pm

    Nice intersect of biblical theology, textual criticism, and systematics.

    Jim Leonard

  2. "How an evangelical can shoot themselves in the foot"

    I know, it's politically approved speech, but it still grates on the ear. I checked Google for some alternative turns of the phrase, and found rappers and other linguistic innovators to have provided a few:
    "shoot theyself in foot"
    "shoot themselfs in the foot"
    "shoot themselvs in the foot"
    "shoot theyselves in the foot"
    "Congress shot itself in the foot"
    "The gangster accidentally shot himself/herself in the foot"
    "the commentor shoots him/herself in the foot"
    "allow any player to shoot himself or herself in the foot"
    "You shoot yourself in somebody else's foot"

    anything goes, I guess.

  3. Sorry for the PC offence, but I honestly was not trying to be PC. Using generic singular 'they' and even singular 'themselves' are native to me. Linguistic climate change, you know.

  4. maurice a robinson5/30/2006 9:33 pm

    Without attempting to shoot myself in the foot...

    NT text-critical aspects slip into view as well. A well-known OT issue regarding numbers appears in the NT at 1Co 10:8, where most MSS read EIKOSI TREIS CILIADES, but 81 pc vg-mss sy-h read the "more correct" EIKOSI TESSARES CILIADES in agreement with Num 25:9 MT/LXX/Vulg.

    Equally, one should consider such NT cases as Ac 27:37, where most MSS read "276" but B, followed by W-H, has "about 76"); also cf. Re 9:16, where the MSS are significantly divided between DISMURIADES MURIADWN and MURIADES MURIADWN.

  5. MAR:
    "1Co 10:8, where most MSS read EIKOSI TREIS CILIADES [23,000], but 81 pc vg-mss sy-h read the "more correct" EIKOSI TESSARES CILIADES [24,000] in agreement with Num 25:9 MT/LXX/Vulg."

    This looks like just the sort of 'helpful' scribal corruption that Bart Ehrman loves to point out.
    The Geneva NT note reads:
    "Moses readeth foure and twentie thousand, which declareth an infinite nomber."
    Can't say that was very helpful!