In nearly all the discussions of the "problem" of the large number in the Pentateuch I have read, there is very little actual discussion of the way in which the word 1,000 (’elef ) is used in the Pentateuch or elsewhere.
I suspect this is because the linguistic data is so straightforward and consistent that such a discussion would serve to minimize rather than highlight the "problematic" nature of the text. In fact, I have never seen anyone suggest that the word ’elef is mistranslated on the basis of textual analysis.
The consistent basis for suggesting alternative translations is inevitably that people find it impossible to conceive how such large numbers of Israelites lived, moved, and interacted in the ways described in Scripture. Setting aside how it happened, I wanted to look at precisely how this word is used in contexts where items are being counted.
Here are my observations.
- The word ’elef is used to count pieces of silver (Gen. 20:16), men (Num. 31:4), sheep (Num. 31:32), cattle (Num. 31:33), donkeys (Num. 31:34, cp. 31:39), shekels (Exod. 38:25), women (Num. 31:35), cubits (Josh. 3:4), men and women together (Josh. 8:25; Jdg 16:27), songs (1 Kgs 4:32), and chariots (1 Kgs 10:26). Precisely the same lexemes (words) and with the same syntactical conventions (grammar) are used in counting all of these items. In other words, there are no differences in the way Hebrew counted animals, money, distances, and people.
- The use of ’elef with other specific cardinal numbers (e.g., 130, 70, in Num. 7:85) argues that ’elef is a specific cardinal number.
- The use of ’elef together with the numbers ‘hundreds,’ ‘fifties,’ and ‘tens’ argues that ’elef is a cardinal number larger than hundreds and related to it fractionally as the other terms relate to each other (Exod. 18:21, 25; Deut. 1:15).
- The word “hundreds” is used only with the numbers 1-9. There are no examples of a count of 10 or greater hundreds, e.g, eleven hundred or twelve hundred. This data supports the conclusion that, in contexts of counting items, ’elef always refers to a number larger than 999.
- There are examples of four digit numbers with only single digits more than 1000 (e.g., 1005, 1 Kgs 4:32) up to four digit numbers with 9 hundreds more than a thousand (e.g., 3,930, Neh. 7:38). There are no examples of ’elef being used in any context where it naturally refers to a cardinal number other than 1,000.
- The use of fractions when dealing with large numbers (5-6 digit numbers) demonstrates that the number 1,000 was meant by the use of ’elef :
(a) In Numbers 31, Moses recounts the spoil taken in the capture of Moab: 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys, 32,000 female virgins. The spoil was split 50/50 between those who fought and the rest of the congregation. Yahweh was to receive 1/500th of the spoil of the men of war (Num. 31:28).
50% of 675,000 sheep is 337,500 sheep. Out of 337,500 sheep, 1/500th is 675 sheep, which is the precise number recorded in Num. 31:36-37. Out of 16,000 people, 1/500th is 32 persons [נָפֶשׁ], which is the precise number recorded in Num. 31:40.
The same syntax is used when counting people, in this case female virgins, as when counting the animals. In order for this math to make any sense, the word must refer to the number 1,000.
(b) In Exod. 38, Moses counts 603,550 men who were 20 year old and older. Each man was charged ½ of a shekel of silver. That yields 301,775 shekels of silver.
Exod. 38:25 records that there were 100 talents of silver and 1775 shekels of silver collected from the numbering of the congregation. Each talent has 3000 shekels in it. Thus, 100 talents = 300,000 shekels.
The number of shekels of silver collected matches perfectly with the number of men counted. 603,550 men must mean six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty men.
- The NT confirms the rounded total of those who died at Baal Peor as 24,000 (1 Cor. 10:8). Num. 25:9 has 23,000, which is the same figure rounded down instead of up. This adds the weight of NT inspiration to the reading of this syntax as cardinal numbers. It also means that ’elef cannot be read as “units,” “troops,” or “clans” in this context.
- The LXX consistently renders ’elef as 1,000 χίλια. Thus the Septuagint translators understood the Hebrew word to refer to the number 1,000.
It means that there isn’t the slightest linguistic reason to understand the large numbers in the OT as anything other than actual counts of large numbers of items.
As I listened to Numbers 1 yesterday, the very precise language of the census struck me as providing additional contextual support to the conclusion above.
The listing of the first two tribes (Reuben and Simeon) explicitly states that the census included “every male [כָּל־זָכָר] from twenty years old and upward, everyone going out to war” (Num. 1:20, 22). The listening of the following ten tribes assumes the reader understands that “every male” is being counted, and simply repeats the phrase “from twenty years old and upward, everyone going out to war” (Num. 1:24, 26, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42). Almost identical language is used in Yahweh’s instructions for the second census in Num. 26:2.
Given this contextual data, the necessary reading of these numbers is that they represent the number of individual males who were 20 or older, who were able to go out to war. Rendering ’elef as ‘clan’ makes no sense of this contextual data.