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.


    Varipal said…
    this is very interesting article. thanks a lot. hope can follow your blog again.
    Martin said…
    Thanks for posting this. I'm interested what your reference is for 3000 shekels to the talent?
    Grampa Caligula said…
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    you have explained everything in easy way so that any body can understand easily
    Benjy said…
    While I was reading I was trying to figure it by myself before reading your conclusions and I guess I got it the same. Thanks!
    ביטוח מנהלים
    yeti said…
    I enjoyed reading that. interesting way to come to such a conclusion
    rsctt603 said…
    thank you for your hard work.


    Philip Brown said…
    Biblical Data for determining the talent to shekel ratio:
    1. There are three passages that list a total count in terms of talents and shekels:
    Exod. 38:24: 29 talents and 730 shekels of gold
    Exod. 38:25: 100 talents and 1775 shekels of silver
    Exod. 28:29: 70 talents and 2400 shekels of bronze
    2. This data suggests that the talent:shekel ratio is greater than 1:2400.
    3. It also indicates that a standard talent:shekel ratio was used for metals.
    4. Since the census of 20+ yr old men was 603,500 and each man was to be taxed .5 of a shekel, and the resulting total of the tax was 100 talents and 1775 shekels, it necessarily follows that the talent:shekel ration was 1:3000.

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