Biblical Riddles

By Michael Dallen:

I Evolution
II Creation's Six "Days"
III. Figurative language - the Sun "goes quiet"
IV Biblical numbers: ages and census figures

I. Nowadays, when fundamentalist religious people argue "intelligent design versus evolution," one should ponder what the Bible* really says. It speaks of life's progress from the lowest and simplest forms to the most complex and highest. Why shouldn't the Creator use evolution as His instrument, as a tool like a scalpel, to accomplish exactly that? The Biblical account, as many commentators have pointed out,** actually anticipates Darwin

Now, I am speaking for myself here - not for the foundation, not for my fellow trustees. But one surely must appreciate that the Bible, like any great classic, must be approached on its own terms. We have it, and are blessed in having it, for moral instruction. We have it so we can learn about God and discover how we ourselves are intended to fit into the greater scheme of things. It is not a science textbook - yet the stories it relates reflect things that really happened, in some sense; they are, in essence, as true to reality as any stories concerning the same tremendous things could be.

One also needs to recognize that Israel has something called the Oral_Torah. It's where most of our knowledge of the Seven Commandments of the First Covenant (the Rainbow Covenant) comes from. It explains, elucidates, and extends our understanding of the Written Torah, of Scripture's first Five Books, when the Scriptural text itself seems insufficient.

II. The Torah itself - the Oral Torah - warns against taking Genesis' account of Creation completely literally (Mishnah Torah, Hagigah 2:1; Genesis Rabbah 1). The ancient Hebrew tradition is roomy enough to posit, for instance, that the Universe is 15 billion years old.

Sometimes, with the Bible, what may seem absurd is just a faulty translation. As in the story of Creation, for example.

Moses, at God's command (as I believe, as the Torah teaches), wrote that Creation occurred in six uninterrupted stages or yomim - a word which Biblical literalists translate as days. But Hebrew's yomim, not unlike English's "days," is a versatile word. Moses was surely using it in a figurative sense: not in the sense of conventional planetary days but in the same sense as the yom or day in Isaiah's "Day (yom) of the Lord." (Isaiah 13:6),. That is, as stages, or eras: set, indeterminate, uninterrupted periods of time.

Some religious people will disagree but to most religious people today it's obvious that the six "days" of Creation weren't literal 24-hour days. Certainly, if Genesis' yomim were days they must have been very unusual, since the Earth's sun wasn't created until the fourth "day" (Genesis 1:14).

III. Of course one recognizes, in the Bible's Book of Joshua, that the sun doesn't literally stop in the sky in the course of the battle for Gibeon. That would tear the solar system apart. Rather, the sun "goes quiet" (Job 10:12-13), which is a perfectly natural translation of the Hebrew. Not only that, careful dating reveals that afternoon to have been the occasion of the total eclipse of the sun in the area - an event which probably dismayed Joshua's enemies, the idolatrous, sun-worshipping Amorites.

We also must acknowledge that the story of Job, for instance, is at least partly fictional. Does the Father of Justice play with good and saintly people as with a toy? Or look at the very beginning of Job: can mortal man eavesdrop on Heavenly conversations?

IV. What about: 1) the recounting in Genesis of the extraordinarily long life-spans of certain individuals; and 2) the huge census numbers for Israel that the Bible apparently recounts?

1) One appreciates, again, that the Oral Torah warns against taking the early chapters of Genesis completely literally. One also appreciates that Scripture, in these passages, speaks of the (even then) distant long-ago, of legendary events and times. And perhaps some remarkable individuals did, pursuant to God's will, live extremely long lives - to transmit their culture successfully, possibly, in antediluvian times, when the world was young and rich and the first true men were still relatively disease-free. Anyway, Genesis tells the story this way: this, it seems, is what we need to read and hear, even if we don't take everything in it literally.

2) This has bothered me: the extraordinarily large figures that the Torah supposedly gives for Israel in the desert, in the course of the Exodus. This issue also comes up in regard to the people's offerings in the wilderness, and to the different numerations given for the tribes of Israel generally.

Scripture isn't speaking here of the distant long-ago or legendary times but of the present. Moses himself is writing; Israel is still in the desert. And these numbers are huge, impossible. They aren't even consistent with the rest of the story! They don't jibe with the Scriptural account itself! But there is a simple explanation. And it validates the Written Torah.

Israel took a census "on the first day of the seventh month of the second year" after the Exodus began (Numbers 1:1-45). It counted every male over 20-years old - when a man is fully ready for military service, the Torah teaches*** - from all twelve tribes of Israel except the Levites. (The Levites were counted separately.) The numbers given are unbelievable. If we follow the conventional translation of the Bible's ancient Hebrew, the count was 603,550 men, and another 22,000 men of the tribe of Levy: a total of 625,550 men of military age or older.

This number exceeds the troop numbers for Napoleon's Grand Army when he invaded Russia! The Industrial Age had already begun in Europe; the population had boomed. Still, the only way Napoleon could assemble such a huge army - fewer than 600,000 troops - was by enlisting soldiers not just from France but from most of the countries of Europe.

Similar census results for Israel, taken later, appear in Numbers 26:2, 51: 601,730 men, along with 23,000 able-bodied Levites (26:62).

Beyond the period of the Exodus, during the reign of King David, another census of men of military age in Israel gives an even higher number: 800,000 "valiant men who drew the sword," 500,000 of whom came from the tribe of Judah/Yehuda (2 Samuel 24:9). In 1 Chronicles 21:5 the census figures given are 1,100,000 total; of the Judeans, 470,000. These figures, so it's said, imply a total population - including women and children - of more than five or six million (A.F. Kirkpatrick, Samuel). And Israel, even then, was one of the world's smallest countries..

Those are unreal numbers for the late Bronze Age. Best estimates put the world's total population at the time at about two hundred million - including all China, India, Europe, Africa (including Egypt), Persia and the rest of the Middle East, Pakistan, Japan, the Phillipines, Indo-China, Indonesia, and the Americas.

Another problem with these figures, as we noted above, is that they don't jibe with the Torah itself.

Deuteronomy 4:38 records Moses telling the people that they will soon drive nations "greater and mightier than you" out of the Promised Land. Deuteronomy 9:1 says the same thing. In 7:1, again, the Torah speaks of seven nations in the Land, each of them "greater and mightier" than the nation of Israel. In Deuteronomy 7:7, the Torah describes the people of Israel as "the fewest of all peoples." In 7:17 it notes that the seven Canaanite nations are (each) "more numerous" than the Hebrews.

Let's consider this. If the Hebrews, the people of Israel, numbered just five million, and each of the seven Canaanite nations was just a little larger - say, 5,500,000 - that would put the population of the land, not including the invading Hebrews, at just a little less than 40 million. That would be a population at least five times greater than the entire area - even including Lebanon and Jordan - currently supports. And that's from an era before scientific farming, mechanical water pumps or effective plumbing, not to mention large-scale sewage works, landfills or incinerators. Further, as the Torah itself repeatedly describes the land, it's not urban but rural, pastoral, agricultural, and low-density.

Later in the Bible, the Book of Judges tells us that a mere 600 warriors made up a very respectable contribution from the tribe of Dan. A century later, six of the twelve tribes of Israel could offer no more than 40,000 men of military age; if we double that, to help us roughly account for the other six tribes (including the Levites), the number we get is 80,000. Obviously, there is a huge difference between 80,000 men of military age and the figure of more than 625,000 mentioned earlier. Yet the smaller number comes from a time when the people of Israel had been living and flourishing, relatively speaking, in their Promised Land for generations. There should have been more men available to fight, not fewer.

What's going on with these strange numbers? Again, there's a simple answer.

In Hebrew, the word elef has come to mean "a thousand." Sometimes it's translated as a "myriad" ("many"). Elafim, the plural form, denotes myriads, or thousands. But words' meanings often change over time. Words that refer to numbers are especially hard to pin down, because context alone can't define them.

(The ancient Romans' word for hundred was century, for instance. But "century" began as a military term. An officer called a centurion commanded a unit called a century, which might include anywhere from 15 to 50 to 150 troops or more. "Century," far from being a fixed number, is somewhat like the word "division" in a military context: a division of troops may include four or five thousand soldiers up far past 12,000.)

In fact, it appears that the census lists in the Torah use "tens" and "hundreds" as absolute numbers, reflecting the actual number of fighting men counted. But Moses probably was using the word elef here - as Samuel did too, elsewhere in the Bible - based on military usage, in the sense of a contingent of soldiers of varying numbers, as a squad, or as a group of men assigned to a tent. Ancient Israel probably assembled to fight in units - contingents - based on social or family ties. Some units would be larger than others; they might range in size from five or six men to 15 or more. (This would also follow the pattern of other ancient armies, such as those of Babylon and Rome, with its decuriae, which were organized this way too.)

Later in time this sense of elef as "contingent" was discarded; although it can still connote "very many" or "a myriad," its principal use today is to denote "a thousand." But that's not what Moses meant by it. (The thinking here is based on the work of the early 20th century scholars G.E. Mendenhall and Sir Flinders Petrie, described in Encyclopedia Judaica under "Census.")

When Numbers 1:21 declares, for example, that the tribe of Reuben enrolled "46 elef 500" fighting men, this is conventionally translated as 46,500 men. But if elef in this context really means contingent, as we believe, this passage should be translated, "Those enrolled from the tribe of Reuben, 46 contingents = 500 [men]. That is, the "thousands" or elefim represent contingents or units of men, and the hundreds and tens the actual number of men. So, in Numbers 1:20 - 1:43, the tribe of Shimon raised 59 elefim (contingents), this being actually 300 men. The tribe of Judah/Yehuda, with 74 elefim, raised 600 men. The tribe of Issacher, raising 54 contingents, offered 400 men. Zebulon, 57 elefim, 400 men. Ephraim raised 40 elefim or contingents, or 500 men.. Manasseh, 32 elefim = 200 men in arms. Benjamin, 35 elefim = 400. Dan, 60 = 700 men. Asher, 41 elefim, or 500 men. Naftali, 53 elefim, or 400 men. Gad raised 45 elefim or contingents, consisting of a total of 650 men.

The totals here come out to 5,500 - these being men 20-years old or older. Later, just before entering the Promised Land, after a total of 40 years of life and strife and death in the wilderness, Israel takes another census. The count is lower, according to Numbers 26; it's just 5,000 men.

In the context of the late Bronze Age, an armed force of 5,000, or even an armed force half that size, would make up a very respectable fighting force. Assuming that the total number of the people of Israel, including women and children, was something like four times that number (a reasonable assumption, apparently; the same multiple is frequently applied to the 603,550 figure), we are speaking of a total of 20,000 people, not including the Levites and not including the "mixed multitude" of b'nai noach that accompanied Israel at least part of the way across the desert but which wasn't counted in either census.

Once again, in the context of the late Bronze Age, those are very respectable numbers. Moses, looking the people over, comments proudly that they grew from just the 70 people who originall went down into Egypt and that now, thanks to HaShem, they are "like the stars of heaven for multitude." (Deuteronomy 10:22). That's a good poetic description of such numbers, some 20,000 people or more.

Five thousand men in arms: such numbers don't make Israel's army the largest army on earth - such densely populated countries as Egypt and China would surely have been able to muster more troops - and they don't make the people of Israel one of the largest nations on earth either. The Torah's comments above, about the remarkable, or even miraculous, nature of the coming conquest of Cana'an make sense now. In fact, the whole story of the Exodus comes into clearer focus. Moses wouldn't have needed electronic amplification to address the whole nation; Israel could move without sucking up all the groundwater or polluting it with animal and human waste. As for the pronouncements of modern "experts" that the Torah's account of the Exodus is mythic, let them consider it again in the light of these numbers. They take it out of the realm of the impossible and fanciful and bring it back into history where it belongs. These numbers also validate the Torah. It's accurate, despite the mistakes that mere people have made with it. (It's also natural that people would have made just such a mistake: these numbers don't affect spiritual or legal principles; in times of harsh oppression, as during the long counter-revolutionary reign of King Manasseh (c. 478 BCE), for instance, the old ways of understanding such things would be among the first things to be lost.) It's very, very different from other ancient works. It's no mythology; it's more truthful and realistic than most of us ever even imagined. What the skeptics, cynics and academics thought to be mere exaggeration isn't. Moses was no liar, Moses got it right. Besides its innumerable other sacred qualities, the Torah is a great historical work.


* One refers here solely to the Hebrew Bible, from Genesis to the end of Second Chronicles. Nothing mentioned here or below pertains in any way, either positively or negatively, to the Christian Bible, the New Testament - the word testament coming from the Latin testamentum, or covenant - as it's called. The focus of this article is the First Covenant.

** See J.H. Hertz, the Penateuch and Haforahs (Soncino, 2d edition (1937)), Genesis, Additional Notes, "Jewish Attitude to Evolution" (pp. 194-195).

*** As for relatively recent

***George Orwell, fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the late '30's, probably wasn't thinking of this Torah precept when he wrote that a combat soldier should, ideally, be at least twenty. Men younger than that aren't as reliable as they should be given the grinding demands of war. They have such a deep need for sleep, Orwell wrote, that they are prone to fall asleep even when standing up, even when marching, and even in the course of guard duty ("Notes on the Spanish Militias," An Age Like This: 1920-1940 (1968).]

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