Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Puzzling numbers

A stock objection to the inerrancy of Scripture is the presence of apparently unrealistic numbers as well as numerical discrepancies between different books. In some cases this can be chalked up to scribal error, but there seems to be a more pervasive pattern. Here's an interesting observation:

It is widely recognized that the totals attributed to each tribe in Num 1 ought to be viewed with some caution. At the outset it is remarkable that in this census of all 13 tribes, the total for every tribe is a round number, divisible by 100 in most cases, and 50 in others. In a census of the tribes we would surely have expected some uneven numbers, as reflected for example in the 22,273 firstborn males mentioned in Num 3:43. This latter figure creates another unusual statistic. If the total number of adult makes is 603,550, the total number of all males is likely to be in the region of 800,000, at a conservative estimate. If the total number of firstborn males of all ages is 22,273, this gives a ratio of about one firstborn male for every 36 adult makes. Assuming that there were roughly equal numbers of males and females born within a family, these statistics would imply that on average each married couple had about 72 children. T. D. Alexander, Exodus (IVP 2017), 241.

This is further evidence that modern readers are at a loss to understand how OT numbers work. Presumably, they made sense to the original audience, so there's a numerical idiom that we're missing at this distance.   


  1. I'd assumed (I haven't studied this question) that the count of 'firstborn' is a count of a particular subset.

    Presumptively, Pharaoh himself was a firstborn. We know that he didn't die. His son did. Similarly, I suppose, in the Israelite households, whether the head of the house was a firstborn or not was irrelevant. It was the **heir** who was the firstborn at issue. That fits in with the theology of the Passover. A son who had come to maturity; a son reaching his time to inherit.

    That observation seems rather obvious to me; as such, if that's all Alexander wrote (I don't have that resource), I think he's being a bit trivial with such a superficial analysis.

  2. I've been loving Alexander's commentary so far. On a tangential note, he has a forthcoming Genesis commentary, as does Richard Hess and Duane Garrett. Good times.

    It seems that the lion's share of the numerical puzzles in the OT are from the Pentateuch. But that would be over 400 years before the reign of David, and another 400 years before the Babylonian exile. Surely the written Hebrew language changed quite a bit during that time.

    I think we have to think of what the proto-Hebrew that Moses would have used would have been like. It would have reflected the conventions that were common in the surrounding cultures of the time- as many have pointed out, this would include symbolic numbers, exaggerated numbers, sexagesimal number systems, etc. This is compounded even more if Moses used earlier Joseph and pre-Joseph sources in who-knows-what language (cuneiform?) to write Genesis. Perhaps by the time of the exile these conventions were obscure and perplexed even Jewish exiles.

    Incidentally, these sorts of features do point to the fact that the Pentateuch was not an exilic fabrication, since the language reflects an earlier form of Hebrew.