How Many in a Thousand?
Ralph W. Klein
Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor of Old Testament and Dean, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
According to the Chronicler, Abijah, accompanied by an army of 400,000, attacked the army of Jeroboam which was 800,000 strong and inflicted some 500,000 casualties (2 Chr. 13.3, 17). Abijah’s successor, Asa, supported by an army of 580,000, was able to stave off an invading horde from Ethiopia numbering 1,000,000 (2 Chr. 14.8). These and similar large numbers in the Chronicler have seemed exaggerated, idealistic, or even absurd to nineteenth and twentieth century scholars.
While demographic studies of ancient Israel remain at a low level of sophistication, the population of Israel and Judah was surely not large enough to supply the 1,200,000 troops for the Abijah-Jeroboam war, let alone to resist one million invading Ethiopians. W. F. Albright estimated the total population of Judah in the eighth century at about 250,000, and Roland de Vaux speculated that fewer than 1,000,000 people comprised the population of both kingdoms in the same century. The 500,000 casualties inflicted by Abijah are about the same as the number of deaths on both sides in the American Civil War and as all American deaths in World War II. Armies of 400,000, 800,000, or 1,000,000 are totally out of line with what we know about ancient military forces. When Rameses II and the Hittite king Muwattalis fought, the latter may have had as many as 30,000 troops. At the battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE, Ahab contributed only two thousand chariots and 10,000 infantry, according to the Assyrian Royal Annals (ANET 278-279), and these records are not known for their understatement.
The view that the numbers in Chronicles are exaggerated has been challenged on the basis of a fresh understanding of the word *** proposed by George Mendenhall in an attempt to interpret the census lists of Numbers 1 and 26. Building on Flinders Petrie’s proposal that the Hebrew word eleph means both one thousand and a subsection of a tribe (cf. Judg. 6.10), Mendenhall argued that during the period of the tribal federation eleph meant both a tribal subsection and the military unit that went to war from this subsection. Numbers 1, in his view, referred originally not to 603,550 fighting men, but to 598 fighting units, numbering 5,550 men. He thereby achieved a 90% reduction in the grand total, as well as in the figures for the individual tribes. Similarly, the figures in Numbers 26 were reduced by him from 601,730 to 596 fighting units and a total of 5,750 individuals. More briefly, he proposed a similar interpretation for 1 Chronicles 12, the list of people who came to make David king at Hebron. While the MT suggests that 340,822 men made their way to Hebron, Mendenhall reduced the number to 329 units and a total of about 15,290.
In Mendenhall’s view, this system, in which each tribe provided a certain quota of men for the army, broke down with the rise of the monarchy. The royal standing army had units of a full one-thousand, presided over by an officer (sar) appointed by the king. This royal system was later read back anachronistically into early lists, that is, the military unit designed as an eleph was interpreted as 1,000 fighting men, and so the gigantic numbers of Numbers 1 and 26 and of 1 Chronicles 12 are due to a mistaken understanding of the word eleph. These lists, while garbled in the present text of the Bible, were held to rest ultimately on archaic documents containing realistic figures. Norman Gottwald accepted Mendenhall’s original hypothesis and gave it plausible sociological grounding in The Tribes of Yahweh.
Mendenhall’s hypothesis has been extended to the numbers in Joshua and Judges (by Robert G. Boling), to 1 and 2 Samuel by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr.), and to 1 and 2 Chronicles (by Jacob M. Meyers). This extension, however, has been by no means limited to the Anchor Bible.
In this essay I will evaluate the proposed extension of this hypothesis to the Books of Chronicles and the implications for the Chronicler’s historical accuracy. Before addressing this question directly, we need to recognize the limitations of Mendenhall’s hypothesis--or its revision by Gottwald--even for an understanding of Numbers 1 and 26.
1. Mendenhall believed that these two chapters reflected the period of the tribal federation or, perhaps, the earliest days of the monarchy. A dating to the Mosaic period is out of the question for him.
2. The priestly redactor of Numbers 1 and 26 clearly understood the noun eleph as a designation for 1,000. This is shown by the totals provided in Num 1.46 and 26.1.
3. A passage like Num. 1.33 is usually translated as ‘Those enrolled of the tribe of Ephraim were forty thousand five hundred’ (NRSV). If the narrator had wanted to say what Mendenhall and Gottwald propose, there would be a clearer way to cast the sentence in Hebrew.
4. Gottwald argued that eleph and mispehah are virtually synonymous, but this causes tension in Numbers 26 where the names of the mispehoth for each tribe are given, ranging from one for the smallest tribe (Num. 26.8) to eight for the largest (Num. 26.29-32). The reconstructed alaphim range from twenty-two for Simeon to seventy-six for Judah. Gottwald questioned the scope and integrity of the names of the mispehoth in ch. 26, but this means that the present text of ch. 26 is even farther removed from history.
5. Gottwald has created an additional problem because of his insistence that the schema of twelve tribes does not antedate the time of David. Hence he must argue that the twelve tribe format in Numbers 1 and 26 is also late and inauthentic.
I do not view these five difficulties as raising insuperable problems, but they should warn us that even for the earliest period of Israel the proposed new understanding of eleph is by no means unproblematic. To understand eleph as a tribal or military unit in a post-exilic document like Chronicles, composed after Israel had had long centuries of a standing army, with its units of 100 and 1,000, presided over by the sare of 1,000 etc., would seem to be a doubtful hypothesis at best. These anticipated difficulties multiply when the actual figures in Chronicles are examined.
Many of the numbers in Chronicles were present already in the Vorlage, the Books of Samuel and Kings. In these cases, of course, we can be certain that the Chronicler was not manufacturing exaggerated numbers. The meaning of these figures is an exegetical problem primarily for commentators on the Deuteronomistic History.
In certain cases, slight differences between Chronicles and the deuteronomistic Vorlage allow us to conclude that the Chronicler understood these figures as true thousands and not as military units. According to 2 Sam. 10.6, the Ammonites hired 20,000 foot soldiers from the Syrians of Beth-rehob and Zobah, 1,000 from the king of Maacah, and 12,000 men of Tob. The Chronicler paraphrases this as 32,000 chariots, plus the king of Maacah with his army (1 Chr. 19.7). Surely he meant thirty-two thousand chariots (the sum of 20,000 and 12,000 from his Samuel Vorlage), and not thirty-two ‘units’ of chariots.
A feature in David’s census list also seems to indicate that the Chronicler construed the word eleph as 1,000. According to 2 Sam. 24.9 David numbered 800,000 in Israel and 500,000 in Judah, but in 1 Chr. 21.5 all Israel numbered 1,100,000. The difference between 1,100,000 and the total of 1,300,000 for Israel and Judah in 2 Samuel 24 is that the tribes of Benjamin and Levi were not included in the census as the Chronicler reports it (1 Chr. 21.6). The Chronicler seems to have calculated that the number 1,300,000, implied in his Vorlage, was the product of thirteen tribes (twelve secular tribes plus Levi) times 100,000. Since Levi and Benjamin were not included in the census according to the Chronicler, he reduced the total for all Israel by exactly 200,000.
The notice in 2 Chr. 2.1 and 2.17 that Solomon appointed 70,000 men to bear burdens, 80,000 to quarry stone, and 3,600 to act as their overseers is based on 1 Kgs 5.29-30 (EVV. 15-16). In my judgment the figures in both Kings and Chronicles are not easily interpreted as military units. The Chronicler makes clear his own understanding of these figures in an additional verse (2 Chr. 2.16), which reports that all these laborers were drawn from aliens within Israel. The Chronicler notes further that all these workers totalled 153,6000, the sum of 70,000, 80,000, and 3,600, and not a figure to be parsed as 153 units, consisting of 600 men each. If the Chronicler meant us to understand that Solomon had a work force of 153,600, consisting entirely of aliens, should we be surprised if he informs us elsewhere of armies in the hundreds of thousands?
The Chronicler reports non human objects in multiple thousands, in contexts where it is not possible to understand the word eleph as a unit of fighting men. The hyperbolic size of non human objects suggests that we also ought to understand eleph when used of people as the word for one thousand, however unrealistic or unhistorical such figures may be.
We have already mentioned the 32,000 chariots the Ammonites hired against David (1 Chr. 19.7), a number sixteen times the number of chariots Ahab contributed to the battle of Qarqar. The Chronicler notes that the Ammonites paid 1,000 talents of silver for them (1 Chr. 19.6), an amount calculated by Jacob Myers as 37.5 tons. Before his death (1 Chr. 22.14) David gathered for the house of the LORD 100,000 talents of gold (3,775 tons) and 1 million talents of silver (37,750 tons). Wilhelm Rudolph informs us that the gold would be nine times the world production in 1900. The figures in 1 Chr. 29.4 (3,000 talents of gold, 7,000 talents of silver) and 29.7 (5,000 talents of gold, 10,000 darics, 18,000 talents of bronze, and 100,000 talents of iron) confirm that the Chronicler meant thousands when he used the word *** of precious metals, and that he did not shrink from reporting highly unrealistic amounts.
Equally astronomical are the number of animals donated at the time of Hezekiah and Josiah for passover celebrations. According to 2 Chr. 30.24, Hezekiah and his princes gave 2,000 bulls and 17,000 sheep, while Josiah and various officials contributed 3,800 bulls and 37,600 lambs and kids (2 Chr. 35.7-9). At the dedication of the temple 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep were sacrificed (2 Chr. 7.5).
One of the most significant animal numbers appears in 1 Chr. 5.21. This chapter describes a war between the two and one half Trans-Jordanian tribes and a people called the Hagrites. The Israelite tribes captured 50,000 camels, 250,000 sheep, 2,000 donkeys and--most significantly--100,000 men. Why should this final figure be read as 100 units of men, consisting of an unspecified number per unit, if the Chronicler in the same breath informs us about 302,000 captured animals?
According to Mendenhall, eleph referred to a military tribal unit only in pre monarchical or early monarchical times. He assigned the census lists of Numbers 1 and 26, as we have seen, to the period of the tribal league or the early monarchy. 1 Chronicles 12 deals with the anointing of David at Hebron--hence it could also be from the early monarchy. In his article for the Wright memorial volume, Mendenhall spoke of the census lists as reflecting the military organization of the league inherited by Saul and continued by David. In his earlier article he had already written: ‘Army commanders are now [sc. under the monarchy] sáa*ri*m, and it seems likely that the sáa*r eleph actually commanded a unit whose normal strength was a thousand men. The old tribal subdivisions disappear eventually under the impact of fiscal reorganization under David and Solomon....’ These views correspond with the majority opinion that the monarchy, perhaps beginning with Solomon, had standing armies, whose recruits were not drawn from the tribal units. It is inappropriate, then, when Myers uses the eleph = unit equation to interpret numbers during the much later times of Abijah, Jeroboam, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Amaziah, and Pekah. The Chronicler frequently uses the expressions ‘captains of thousands’ and ‘captains of hundreds’ in monarchical contexts. If the captain of a hundred during the monarchy commanded one hundred men, is it not likely that the captain of a thousand commanded one thousand men, regardless of what the word eleph may have meant during the time of the tribal league.
This leaves only the numbers dealing with the tribal period in 1 and 2 Chronicles as possible occasions for understanding eleph as a military unit.
The first such context is the war of the two and one half Trans-Jordanian tribes against the Hagrites. According to the Chronicler, the Israelite tribes numbered 44,760 (1 Chr. 5.18). While it might be possible to parse this as 44 military units consisting of 760 men, we have already seen that the Chronicler has other figures in the same context which are clearly to be understood as thousands, namely, the 50,000 camels, 250,000 sheep, 2,000 donkeys, and the 100,000 men (v. 21).
A second context is the list of warriors for the tribes of Issachar, Benjamin, and Asher in 1 Chronicles 7. Of the seven numbers given, four do not work for Mendenhall’s hypothesis. The sons of Bela of Benjamin, for example, number 22,034 (1 Chr. 7.7), but it is meaningless to speak of twenty-two military units with an average number of soldiers per unit of 1.5 men. For three additional groups, the numbers are given in whole thousands (36,000 in 1 Chr. 7.4; 87,000 in 1 Chr. 7.5, and 26,000 in 1 Chr. 7.40). While the other three numbers could theoretically be interpreted according to Mendenhall’s hypothesis, this seems quite improbable in light of the fact that the other four names contradict the hypothesis. Hence, in all seven numbers we should understand *** as equal to 1,000.
Even greater complications appear in the third context, 1 Chronicles 12, which Mendenhall himself considered analogous to Numbers 1 and 26. This chapter lists the people from the twelve tribes and a priestly contingent, who came to anoint David at Hebron. The validity of Mendenhall’s hypothesis here faces major obstacles.
1. To get units of people for all twelve tribes, Mendenhall had to split up the numbers given for Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh. Hence, instead of 120,000 men, he read 40 units for each of the three tribes. In order to limit the tribes to twelve he had to count the two parts of Manasseh as one tribe and ignore the data for Levi and the priests.
2. Of the twelve tribes in his list, only four (Judah, Simeon, Ephraim, and Dan) contain figures for both the units and the actual fighting men. For seven of the other eight (Benjamin, Zebulun, Naphtali, Asher, Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh), his reconstructed list contains only a total for units with the actual number of men lacking. For the eighth, Issachar, only two hundred chiefs are listed, neither units nor men.
3. Naphtali, according to Mendenhall’s interpretation, has only 37 units consisting of an unspecified number of men, but it has 1,000 officers or 27 for each unit!
4. Mendenhall excludes the figures for the Levites (4,600 or four units of 600 men), for Jehoiada (3,700 or three units of 700 men), and for Zadok, who was accompanied by twenty-two commanders.
5. Mendenhall did not insist on the attribution of this list to the time of David’s coronation, but he did believe that it came from a time early in the United Monarchy. But why should Judah be represented by 6,800 men (or 6 units) while the vastly less significant tribe of Zebulun had 50,000 men (or 50 units), and the Trans-Jordanian tribes had 120,000 men (or 120 units)? Mendenhall found no pattern in this list and the lists from Numbers 1 and 26 and therefore believed them to be historical. But when in Israel’s history would such proportions--Zebulun nearly eight times the size of Judah--make historical sense?
I believe that these difficulties are so severe that the ‘unit interpretation’ of 1 Chronicles 12 must be given up. Mendenhall had to divide Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh into three tribes, ignore the figures for the priests and other cultic officials, and combine the two halves of Manasseh into one in order to get twelve tribes. But if we include the Levites and other priestly officials as one division, and if we leave Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh undivided, as they are in the biblical text, twelve divisions appear in the present biblical text. Moreover, the number of men in each of these twelve units seems to be schematic and fits well the united, all Israel interpretation for which the Chronicler always strives.
Naturally, Judah, Simeon, Levi, and Benjamin are there--but they are there in relatively small numbers, ranging from 3,000 to 7,100. The tribes from the heartland of the old Northern Kingdom are there, too, 18,000 men from Manasseh and 20,800 men from Ephraim, three to six times as many as the tribes like Simeon, Levi, and Judah. But the most remote tribes had the greatest representation: Dan 28,600; Naphtali 37,000; Asher 40,000; Zebulun 50,000; Reuben-Gad-Manasseh--from across the Jordan--120,000, while Issachar brought its whole tribe! The principle seems to be: the more remote the tribe, the bigger its delegation at David’s coronation. The fringe tribes had the biggest numbers.
We propose keeping the twelve tribal designations given by the Chronicler and interpreting his numbers as symbolic indices of how enthusiastic everyone was for the kingship of David and the unity of Israel. Ephraim and Manasseh were more enthusiastic than Judah. The remotest tribes were the most enthusiastic of all.
A fourth tribal context is provided by the list of the commanders of the monthly divisions in 1 Chronicles 27. According to this list, each of the twelve officers provided 24,000 men for his assigned month. If eleph is to be understood as a military unit here, each officer would have to provide twenty-four units in his month. Actually the officers are not historical since they are demonstrably drawn from a list in 1 Chr. 11.11-47//2 Sam. 23.8-39. The number 24,000 is schematic and probably reflects the notion that an officer would provide for two relays of two weeks each, with 12,000 men in each relay.
Finally, a few of the numbers interpreted according to the eleph = tribal unit principle simply do not work. King Uzziah’s army, for example, is set at 307,500 (2 Chr. 26.13). If this is read as 307 units consisting of 500 men, we wind up with fewer than two people per unit. When Pekah killed 120,000 (2 Chr. 28.6) and Israel took captive an additional 200,000 (2 Chr. 28.8), the text surely cannot be interpreted to mean that Pekah killed 120 units or that Israel took captive 200 units. Note that the captives include women, sons, and daughters.
The result of this survey of the numbers over 1,000 in Chronicles is negative toward using the hypothesis that eleph = a military unit in interpreting these books. Differences from the Vorlage in Samuel-Kings, analogies with large numbers for precious metals and animals, the monarchical setting of many of the numbers, and the failure of the hypothesis to offer an adequate interpretation for the tribal numbers suggest that Mendenhall’s thesis should not be extended to Chronicles, whatever its validity for earlier periods or earlier documents. Now, as before, the high numbers in Chronicles cannot be taken as reflecting historical reality. Rather, the interpreter’s goal should be to see how these numbers are a part of the Chronicler’s message or of his theological agenda.
Sometimes the large numbers may have been used to emphasize that victory over Israel’s enemies was to be attributed to the power of Yahweh and not to the nation’s own military power. Abijah’s victory over the north was in spite of the latter’s two to one military superiority. Similarly, 44,760 Trans-Jordanian tribal members captured 100,000 Hagrites who outnumbered them by more than two to one. Pious Asa won a victory over one million invaders from Ethiopia.
How the Chronicler arrived at these numbers is still hidden from us except in a few cases. In 2 Chr. 2.16 (EVV. 17) we notice that he replaced the 30,000 men of the Israelite levy (1 Kgs 5.27 [EVV. 13]) with 153,000 aliens. The components of this number (70,000; 80,000; 3,600) were drawn from a related context in 1 Kgs 5.29-30 (EVV. 15-16). Secondly, the size of Abijah’s and Jeroboam’s armies was probably related to numbers drawn from the Davidic census (1 Chronicles 21=2 Samuel 24). Thirdly, the round number of one million Ethiopians is considerably larger than the 580,000 men available to Asa, though how the latter figure was calculated still escapes us.
Our understanding of these numbers should not lead us to disparage the Chronicler’s value or to denigrate his theological importance. But neither should we try to force his data into an historical genre. Rather, the Chronicler, like other writers in Israel, used what we would call inflated numbers to give texture and impact to his presentation of Israel’s theological story.