Tuesday 15 March 2016

Ex 1:15 Bible Goggles and large numbers in the Old Testament

Probably the second biggest example of wearing bible goggles, after ignoring the word "logic", is the desire to make Old Testament stories supernaturally large.

The Bible often uses the word "lp" which can mean "thousand", but can also use "troop" or leader". So which one do we choose? If we wear supernatural goggles then of course we want the biggest numbers possible! We want Samson to kill a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass! We want to see two million Israelites march out of the gigantic treasure cities of Egypt! We want everything bigger, as befits a supernatural God!

Critics of the Bible want big numbers too. Because it makes attacking the Bible much easier. Obviously a man cannot kill a thousand other men with a jawbone. And obviously a desert cannot support two million people. What unscientific fools!

But take off those supersizing goggles. Look at what the text says. Take the book of exodus for example. It begins like this:
These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family:  Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.
Seventy people isn't very many. But wait, it says they multiplied, and the king of Egypt thought they might be a threat. OK, let's read that passage:
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”
Notice something? There are only two midwives for all the children of Israel. Babies can come at any time of the day or night, so that's enough for just one midwife working a shift. Sure there are a lot more then seventy people now, but let's see it in perspective: they still only need one midwife.

But wait! Numbers says that the exodus involved hundreds of "lp". So there must be hundreds of thousands, right? Because we all want to read "thousand" and not "company". Well let's look at the book of Numbers. Colin Humphreys discusses the evidence at length,and concludes:
"If there were '273 first born Israelites who exceed the number of Levites' (Num. iii 46), then the total number of Israelite men aged over 20 in the census following the Exodus was about 5000, not 603,550 as apparently recorded in Numbers. The apparent error in Numbers arises because the ancient Hebrew word 'lp can mean 'thousand', 'troop', or 'leader', according to the context. [...] The total number of men, women and children at the Exodus was about 20,000 rather than the figure of over 2 million apparently suggested by the book of Numbers."
But surely the ancient translators would not make a mistake? Judge for yourself. Here is another passage in Numbers:
And of the children of Israel's half, thou shalt take one portion of fifty, of the persons, of the beeves, of the asses, and of the flocks, of all manner of beasts, and give them unto the Levites, which keep the charge of the tabernacle of the Lord. [...] And the persons were sixteen thousand; of which the Lord's tribute was thirty and two persons. (Numbers 31:30, 40)
Thirty and two persons, being one portion in fifty, implies a total number is 1600, not 16000 as written.

Pretty much all the large numbers are like that. Samson killing a thousand people with a jawbone makes no sense. But killing a company of men (perhaps ten)? That makes sense. Two million people in the exodus makes no sense. But twenty thousand in the exodus, as Humphreys shows? Not a problem. The Egyptians routinely sent armies of that size across the desert:
"The Egyptian army in the time of Ramses II (1300 B.C.) has been estimated at more than 100,000 men. This force was comprised largely of conscripts, most of whom garrisoned strong points throughout the empire and carried out public works projects. The actual field army was organized into divisions of 5,000 men that could be deployed individually or as a combined force of several divisions. The Battle of Kadesh in 1304 B.C. between the Hittites and the Egyptians is the first ancient battle for which we have accurate strength figures. In that battle the Egyptians mounted a four division force of 20,000 men against the Hittite army of 17,000." (source)
So all the evidence says that "lp" should mean "leader" or "company", maybe one to ten people or so in these cases. Perhaps "leader of a thousand" in some exotic case, but not here. Yet our supernatural goggles make us always supersize it to "thousand".

Many of the criticism of the Bible rely on exaggerating the numbers. I often read that the Exodus cannot have happened, because there is no evidence for two million people leaving Egypt, and besides, it is impossible. But that isn't what the Bible says. And just yesterday I listened to a podcast saying that Abraham cannot have been real because there is no evidence for a massive migration across the fertile crescent at that time. But the Bible only says one family came over. Just one.

This is just one more example of why I find it hard to take professional Bible scholars seriously. If they would take off their supernatural Bible Goggles, and just look at what the Bible says, then we might be able to have a sensible conversation.

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