Saturday, July 14, 2018

Stock numbers

Some numbers in Scripture don't make sense to modern readers. Presumably, they made sense to the original audience (unless the number we read is a scribal error). These numbers may be puzzling in their own right, or be puzzling in relation to in parallel accounts where there's a numerical discrepancy. 

There are different possible explanations. Here I'd like to consider a neglected explanation. What if Bible narrators sometimes use stock numbers? Stop and ask yourself, was the narrator in a position to know the actual figure? And if he didn't know the actual figure, was it a literary convention to use stock numbers? For instance, 2 Kgs 19:35 says the angel of the Lord slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. 

Did someone actually do a headcount? How long would that take? Also, the corpses weren't lined up in neat tidy rows, where you could walk up and down each row, taking a tally. Presumably, this was a pile of corpses, scattered about, with some bodies on top of other bodies. Moreover, it would be easy to lose count. For that matter, is it as easy to count up to thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands in the Hebrew numeral system compared to our modern numeral system? 

What if the narrator didn't know the actual figure, so he used a stock number. He plugged a big number into the account to indicate that lots of soldiers were slain. Big numbers to indicate a big event. 

That's different from hyperbole. It's not conscious exaggeration, but using a large number to indicate this was something big. Really big. Something big happened here.  

The original audience understood that this wasn't the actual figure but a wild estimate. Absent revelation, there'd be many situations in which the narrator didn't know how many people there were, somebody's age, how long it took for something to happen. 

Take the angels at the tomb. One or two? What if the narrator didn't know, so he inserts a stock number into the account. Stock numbers are equivalent to "many", "some", "a few", "a lot". 

We ourselves use stock numbers, viz. six feet under, eleventh hour, inching along, third degree, take five, a ton, a dime a dozen, five will get you ten, forty winks, nine times out of ten, ten-to-one, million/billion/gazillion, a mile away. 


  1. Hmmm. The thing about general big stock numbers is that they tend not to be precisely specified. We say "a million" or "ten million". One significant figure.... just like all of the examples given (except 11 or 12, but those are low numbers). But one hundred and eighty-five thousand is precise - three significant figures.

    1. Actually, 185K is at best a round number.

      In any case, our conventions for stock numbers may be different from the ANE.

    2. "our conventions for stock numbers may be different from the ANE" - that can't be ruled out straight away. But I think the bar for what would count as evidence has been raised by the precision. The concept of precision exists in all cultures and is largely independent of culture: it's inherent in the nature of numbers.

      "185K is at best a round number" - of course. But a high degree of precision can happily co-exist with rounding - and the larger the number gets, the more easy and natural the co-existence. With larger numbers, rounding becomes inevitable, because beyond 3 significant figures is usually pointless. To say someone got up at 7.32 and 20 seconds this morning would strike the hearer as absurd, and again I suggest that would be absurd in any culture, because of the inherent nature of what's being discussed - unless you're specifically discussing something where that extra precisions matters. And with very large numbers, you only omit to round if you have a deliberate reason for not doing so - e.g. taking a precise census. And again, I think the degree of cultural variation for that is within limits.

    3. I think the ancient world was often very imprecise. For instance, it was imprecise about time.

      In a hitech civilization, where a vast network electronic transactions have to be coordinated, precision becomes fanatically important. A nanosecond off and hitech civilization comes to a screeching halt. But the pace of ancient life had far more give.

    4. 185k might also have attained a special meaning due to numerology or other cultural reasons.

      For a modern analogy, the number 9,000 seems fairly specific as opposed to the rounded 10,000...but if you've been around memes you know that "over 9000" has a special meaning that has nothing to do with the value of "nine thousand." (To show how figuratively we still use numerical values without even realizing it, people get 86ed from establishments, there are 404 errors, and you might face a catch-22 at work. All of these numbers seem pretty precise and yet none of the meanings rely on the literal numerical value.)