Old Testament numbers explained

The Exodus out of Egypt of the Israelites was a pivotal event for the Jews as a people, and for Judaism/Christianity as religions. Robert Silverberg’s “Roma Aeterna” series posits an alt.history in which the Jews never left – at least until 1970 (our calendar) or 2723 by the Empire’s own calendar.

Aside from interminable difficulties correlating the stratigraphy of the event, the Bible’s numbers are rather suspect. In “Numbers” we get a count of 603,550 men, 20 or older. That would imply about 2.4 million people left Egypt – it’s hard to imagine them fitting in Ancient Egypt as its population is usually estimated at about 1 million. Even harder to believe is the Bible’s claim that the 7 nations Israel was to expel were “greater than Israel” – 21 million people could not have survived in Bronze Age Canaan.

In a 1967 issue of the Tyndale Bulletin Biblical scholar John Wenham posed a rather neat solution – the “numbers” used were also words and the meaning had drifted between the composing of “Numbers” (or its source/s) and the final Redaction of the Torah we have from Ezra/Nehemiah’s day. Thus the words meaning “commander of thousands” and “commander of hundreds” (themselves hyperbole) had been shortened to “thousands” and “hundreds” and thus the later scribes had written them as numbers. This has numerous examples and parallels in the often glaringly different figures between the parallel historical books – “Kings”/”Chronicles”, “Ezra”/”Nehemiah”, and the various old scribal traditions, like the LXX, the Samaritan and Masoretic texts.

Now that John Wenham paper is online…

Large Numbers in the Old Testament

…apparently it’s a condensed version of a longer paper, but by itself it’s quite worthwhile. Makes a lot of sense out of a whole lot of quite silly theorising about multi-millions crossing the Red Sea etc. etc. Wenham figures the adult men number about 18,000 and thus the total populace is 72,000. Still a BIG population to shift across the Sinai, but we know the Hyksos moved about 200,000 on a similar exodus after Ahmose destroyed their major fortresses.

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