MemberMarch 3, 2021 at 10:14 am
Thomas, I think the numerical corruption of the Hebrew Bible must have happened pretty early for the mistakes to be preserved into the Christian texts too (Paul seems to have been citing the LXX much of the time). And yet, as you note, even that figure of 23,000 deaths by the plague is discrepant with the 24,000 of Num 25:9. So, yes, numbers are a problem. As I listed somewhere up the thread, there are several possible explanations for the errors.
Here is a chopped down section from my 2001 project on the population of the exodus which I will rework and publish when I have some time. I haven’t made my case here for interpreting the aluf as single warriors and the meot as rounded estimates of all people in the tribe, but that’s one option. Another is corruption by multiples of ten.
Problems with other Old Testament numbers
The figures in some Old Testament passages respond quite well to simply reading aluf (‘warrior’) for elef (‘thousand’). For example, the 7000-strong Israelite army under Ahab possibly killed 100 (not 100 000) Syrian soldiers and the wall in Aphek killed 27 (not 27 000) more (1 Kgs. 20:29-30). The Ethiopian invasion was a thousand (not a million) warriors (2 Chr. 14:9) and 185 (not 185 000) of Sennacherib’s captains died overnight (2 Chron. 32:21).
In substituting aluf for elef, however, a number will often result that is definitely too small for the circumstances. For example, instead of the 3000 men who were sent to destroy Ai (Josh. 7:3-4), there would be just 3 aluf. Whether one interprets this as ‘officers’ or ‘soldiers’, it is clearly not a realistic number. If, alternatively, the figure should be reduced by a factor of ten to 300 men, they would have been justifiably defeated in 36 fatalities or about 10% of the deputation and a calamity indeed (vv. 5-9). It is also recorded that 12 000 people of Ai died when Israel finally took the city (v. 25). The tel of Ai (there are a couple of candidates) is small, as borne out by the spies at the time–“for they are but few” (v. 3). The true figure was probably 1200 men, women and children, and fits well with an estimated average ‘tel’ capacity of around 1000 people. Supposing that males over 20 years old make up about a quarter of a ‘natural’ population and some of those are elderly, the defenders of Ai would have amounted to about 200 men.
According to the present text, 14 700 people died by plague after the rebellion of Korah (Num. 16:49). This figure, appearing in the same elef-meot form as the first census could mean that 14 warriors and about 700 people died. An alternative ‘factor of ten’ revision would give 147 deaths. Considering that Aaron hurried to make atonement for the people as soon as the plague began, this may be the more likely figure (vv. 46-48)
After the sin with Midianite women at Baal-Peor, 24 000 Israelites died of plague, the number appearing simply as ‘24 aluf’ (Num. 25:9). As no hundreds (meot) are included in the figure, and yet people other than warriors (aluf) probably died, a corruption by powers of ten is strongly indicated. Of the possible reductions (24, 240 or 2400), a figure of 240 dead is the most likely punishment for a nation numbering in thousands rather than tens of thousands.
<hr align=”left” size=”1″ width=”33%”>
 The “hearts of the people melted, and became as water” because the army had been defeated with the loss of these 36 men. Can one imagine any people being so overwhelmed by so slight a cause if they had a force of over 600 000 fighting men available to deal with so small a city? There is no appreciable relation at all between 3000 and 600 000 warriors.