Large numbers in the Old Testament
There are a number of places in the Old Testament where numbers are given that seem improbably large. For instance, II_Chronicles 13:1-20 relates how Abijam defeated Jeroboam at the Battle of Zemaraim, with 400,000 men against 800,000, a total of 1.2 million. By comparison, the current active strength of the US armed forces is 1.4 million, from an entire continent. In later times, the Romans held the current territory of Israel, Syria and Lebanon with no more than 6 legions—36,000 men. The total strength of all forces at the battle of Waterloo was 200,000, drawn from a large area of Western Europe.
The largest army assembled in European history before the twentieth century was Napoleon's Grand Army of 691,501 men, that invaded Russia in 1812. Not until the First World War were such numbers seen as are supposedly related by the biblical accounts. The Battle of the Somme saw a total of 149 divisions involved on both sides—a total of perhaps 1.85 million men.
Confusion of words
The Hebrew text contains two easily confused words: "'eleph" and "'alluph". Written without vowels, these words appear the same. "'eleph" means "thousand" and "'alluph" means "chieftain" or "commander of a thousand" or "armed man". It is likely that later scribes misunderstood "'alluph" as "'eleph" and perhaps simplified "400 chieftains" into 400,000, without realising their confusion.
Bronze age and early Iron age warfare was characterised by the distinction between well-armed nobles or "professional" soldiers and ordinary men. Since good weapons were very expensive, only the rich could afford them. This is seen in the Homeric poems, where the chieftains conduct single combats, with their followers looking on. Even in later history, the distinction continues. In many Greek cities, citizenship was restricted to those who could afford the hoplite panoply (the weapons and armour of a heavy infantryman). In the Roman republic, only land-holding citizens were called up for military service, because only they could afford the weapons. When the citizen army was badly depleted by losses caused by incompetent generalship, Marius enrolled the poor "head count", for whom the state had to provide arms. Again, at the battle of Hastings, the Saxon army was made up of well-armed thanes and the housecarls, combined with the ill-disciplined, ill-armed fyrd.
On this principle, it makes a great deal of sense that Abijam should have had 400 well-armed chieftains or professional soldiers, and Jeroboam should have had 800. Besides, the logistics of supplying armies of 400,000 or 800,000 seem far beyond what is known of those times.
Taking the census in the book of Numbers at face value, the total number leaving Egypt was more than 2,000,000, of whom 600,000 were men of military age. If they formed a column 100 people wide and 5 feet between ranks, that would make the column around 100 yards wide and 20 miles long. Add the flocks and herds and it would be more like 60 miles. With straggling of an undisciplined mass, including women and children, it would be more like 100 miles. It would take at least 3 days for such a column to pass through the Red Sea at a normal march rate of 20 miles per day, and 100 yards wide is probably too large for passage through rocky terrain.
On the other hand, Numbers 3 tells us there were 22,273 first born males. That would imply a family size of nearly 100, if the population truly were 2 million. But it makes good sense if the census numbers refer to well-armed soldiers or unit leaders. In that case the population would be around 70,000 which is a good deal more manageable!
On the other hand, the census of Numbers 1 and 2 seems to tie the figures down very precisely. It is argued here that the majority of the first born were redeemed at the first Passover and the 22,273 are only those born since then.
- The Lion Handbook to the Bible, 1st edition, pp. 191-2; an article by John Wenham.
- Large Numbers in the Old Testament John Wenham in Tyndale Bulletin 18/1967
- LDS Training manual (Warning: this is a Mormon text.) This substantially reproduces the Lion Handbook text.
- Bible Class: Problems with Old Testament Numbers