To the reader who is inclined to take Old Testament history seriously, the presence of large numbers – particularly in military accounts – presents a significant problem.
What are we to make of the standing army of Israel of over half a million (Numbers 1:46; 2:32; 26:51)? Or of the 27,000 Aramean soldiers who were killed by a collapsing wall (1 Kings 20:29f)? Or the different accounts given of David’s census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21?
Of course, there have been biblical scholars who have mocked such accounts, and written them off as unhistorical fairytales. But there are at least two ways of understanding these very large numbers while retaining respect for the historical veracity of the texts.
1. The first approach notes that in Hebrew the same group of letters might be vocalised differently, leading to two different words. In the case, ʾelep was consistently read as ‘thousand’ when a different vocalisation would have caused it to mean ‘leader’. In the census in Numbers 1:46, for example, the total of 603,550 might (in the original unpointed consonantal texts) have read ‘600 leaders and 3,550 men’.
This sort of approach has gained considerable support over the years (from W. M. F. Petrie, A. Lucas, R. E. D. Clark, G. E. Mendenhall, J. W. Wenham, J. B. Payne, W. W. Hallo, C. J. Humphreys, D. Merling and G. A. Rendsburg). It suffers, however, from being conjectural, and from assuming that the scribes who mishandled the vocalisations had a rather poor understanding of their own language.
2. The second approach understands these large numbers as examples of numerical hyperbole. The embellishment of numbers (by a factor of ten, a hundred, or even more) was a common practice of the day, and served to glorify the ruling monarch. The number of captives taken by one king might conveniently be twice the number taken by his predecessor. Successive stelae commemorating the same victory can boast increasingly high numbers of those killed (in one case, 14,000, 20,500, 25,000, and 29,000). Then again, account of military victories can be couched in language which is clearly hyperbolic. So, for example, Tiglath-Pileser I (c. 1115–1077 BCE), wrote, “Like a storm demon I piled up the corpses of their warriors … I built up mounds with the (corpses of) their men-at-arms on mountain ledges (and) with the blood of their warriors I dyed Mount Hirihu red like red wool.”
Turning then to the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 13:2–7 gives an account of a battle with the Philistines, who had mustered 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horsemen and people “like the sand of the seashore for abundance.” If the latter expression is hyperbolic, which it clearly is, then we might suppose that the numbers might be too. Then we have the famous statement in 1 Samuel 18:7; 21:11: “Saul has slain his thousands, but David has slain his ten thousands”. This shows how numbers were used to glory leaders and to make comparisons between them.
Whichever of these two approaches were prefer, they reassure us that there are ways of understanding the large numbers of the Old Testament without sacrificing our trust in its essential historicity.
Based on D.M. Fouts, art. ‘Numbers, Large Numbers’ in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, IVP, 2005.
P.S. It is worth noting that different cultures may view numbers in very different ways. In our own day, Greenlanders only count up to 12. After that, they simply say, ‘Many’.