Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Observations on the use of the number 1,000 (’elef II אֶלֶף) in Scripture

I was recently notified that a respected conservative was entertaining the possibility that the word 1,000 in the Pentateuch meant either "troop" or "clan." If that were the case, the number of male Israelites exiting Egypt would be less than 1/10th of the 600,000 number in English translations. That set me looking at the use of the number 1,000 (’elef II אֶלֶף) in Scripture.

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. The LXX consistently renders ’elef as 1,000 χίλια. Thus the Septuagint translators understood the Hebrew word to refer to the number 1,000.
What does all this data mean?

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.

Update 2/28/2015:
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.

    Saturday, March 19, 2011

    Beyond the Holy of Holies as a Place

    It just struck me for the first time as I was reading/listening to Numbers 18 that ‘most holy’ as a superlative category has a fairly wide range of referents. I have thought of the Holy of Holies as the only “most holy” item, but that is incorrect. In addition to referring to the Holy of Holies, the terminology  קדשׁ קדשׁים is used for the following items:
    1. Altar of burnt offering (Exod. 29:37)
    2. Altar of incense (Exod. 30:10)
    3. Tent of meeting, ark of testimony, table of showbread and its utensils, altar of incense, altar of burnt offering, lamp stand and utensils, laver and base (Exod. 30:26-29)
    4. The incense (Exod. 30:36)
    5. The remainder of the grain offering (Lev. 2:3)
    6. The sin offering (Lev. 6:25, 29)
    7. Guilt offering (Lev. 7:1, 7)
    8. Showbread (Lev. 24:9)
    9. All items “devoted” (cherem) to Yahweh (Lev. 27:28)

      Note: Lev. 21:22 identifies the types of food a priest with a defect may eat as “both the most holy and the holy”

      The Kohathites work with the “most holy things” (Num. 4:4). They alone are allowed to touch them.

      There is a repeated statement that “whatever touches” a most holy object will become holy. The tent of meeting, ark of testimony, table of showbread and its utensils, altar of incense, altar of burnt offering, lamp stand and utensils, laver and its base--all these are said to transmit holiness (Exod. 30:29). In addition, the altar of burnt offering (Exod. 20:27), the grain offering gifts (Lev. 6:18),  and the flesh of the sin offering (Lev. 6:27) are singled out as items that sanctify whatever touches them, unless touched by someone who is unclean from touching a dead body (Hag. 2:13). Although not in the category of “most holy,” the priestly garments also can transmit holiness and thus are not to leave the tabernacle/temple precincts (Ezek. 44:19; cf. 46:20).

      This changes my picture of the tabernacle having a steady upward gradation of holiness from the outside to the inside of the “most holy” place. “Most holy” things were throughout the tabernacle courtyard, holy place, and most holy place. “Most holy” things were being handled (utensils) and interacted with (altars, lamp stand, showbread, showbread table) on a daily basis.

      Tuesday, February 01, 2011

      The Loss of Wisdom

      The urgent “retain” language of Proverbs finally began to sink into my consciousness this last year. Solomon says plenty about gaining, buying, finding, and searching for wisdom. That has been my focus for the past 25 years.

      However, I have begun to notice a pattern in my life. If I don’t regularly teach, talk about, think about, or otherwise call certain truths to mind, they tend to slip out of my consciousness.  Anybody who has taken a foreign language knows the principle “Use it or lose it.”  I’m beginning to understand that principle applies to wisdom too.

      Proverbs 3:1 My son, do not forget my teaching, But let your heart keep my commandments;

      Proverbs 3:18 [Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, And happy are all who hold her fast.

      Proverbs 3:21 My son, let them not vanish from your sight; Keep sound wisdom and discretion,

      Proverbs 4:5 Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding! Do not forget nor turn away from the words of my mouth.

      Proverbs 4:13 Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her, for she is your life.

      Proverbs 5:1 My son, give attention to my wisdom, Incline your ear to my understanding; 2 That you may observe discretion And your lips may reserve knowledge.

      Proverbs 6:20 My son, observe the commandment of your father And do not forsake the teaching of your mother; 21 Bind them continually on your heart; Tie them around your neck.

      These passages highlight the necessity of wisdom’s retention. It is not the case that once gained wisdom is yours. Wisdom is not like silver or gold in this regard. Wisdom, the dual skill of seeing life and all of its circumstances from God’s perspective and as a result of living life God’s way, is like any other skill: it must be maintained through deliberate practice. And like any other skill, the basics must receive focused attention.

      Saturday, January 29, 2011

      Morning Meditations on Yahweh from Proverbs 29

      Prov. 29:13 רָשׁ וְאִישׁ תְּכָכִים נִפְגָּשׁוּ מֵאִיר־עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם יְהוָה׃

      The poor and the oppressor meet together; Yahweh enlightens the eyes of them both.

      Information: Yahweh is responsible for giving sight to the eyes of all men, regardless of their status.

      Implication: All men are dependent upon Yahweh. All men should be grateful. All men are responsible to Yahweh for their use of His gift.

      Inclination, i.e., how should this truth enliven my will and emotions, inclining them to glory in Yahweh and gladness in Him?: I am thankful for sight! Please grant me to fear using your gift for sinful purposes. “Take my eyes and let them be, pure, compassionate like Thee.”

      Prov. 29:25 חֶרְדַּת אָדָם יִתֵּן מוֹקֵשׁ וּבוֹטֵחַ בַּיהוָה יְשֻׂגָּב׃

      Fear of man creates a snare, but the one trusting in Yahweh is safe.

      Information: Yahweh is trustworthy. Yahweh is strong. Yahweh makes Himself available to those who trust Him. Yahweh exercises strength for those who trust Him.

      Inclination: I rest from fear of alarms, from fear of attacks, from fear of the future, from fear of my inadequacies. Ah! Blissful rest in trusting Jesus! I rejoice at my invulnerability in Yahweh. Nothing can touch me that He does not permit. Incline my heart to trust You more fully. Grant me greater grace to trust you in all things great and small.