“Your Word Is Truth”
Can Apparent Numerical Discrepancies Be Resolved?
WHEN reading the Bible, persons have at times found seeming numerical discrepancies. In the case of such discrepancies should one assume that they are due to copyists’ mistakes? Or should thought be given to resolving the problems in other ways?
It should be remembered that extreme care was exercised in producing accurate copies of Hebrew Scripture manuscripts. The scribes counted, not only the words copied, but also the letters. If they detected the slightest error, the entire section of the roll where the error appeared was cut out and replaced by a new and faultless one. The scribes read aloud each word before writing. To write even a single word from memory was considered as gross sin. This painstaking effort in copying also included numerical figures, which were written out in full.
It is, therefore, advisable not to be hasty in attributing a seeming discrepancy to scribal error. Efforts should first be made to resolve problems involving numbers. Even if a solution does not appear to be forthcoming, this would not necessarily mean that the text is inaccurate. Unstated factors may be involved.
Sometimes the variation in figures may be because each relates to a different aspect of a particular event. This appears to be the case regarding Nebuzaradan’s entering Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E. Second Kings 25:8 says: “In the fifth month on the seventh day of the month, . . . Nebuzaradan the chief of the bodyguard, the servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem.” Jeremiah 52:12, however, tells us that Nebuzaradan “came into” Jerusalem on the tenth day of the fifth month.
Commenting on this difference of three days, the work The Soncino Books of the Bible (Volume of Jeremiah, p. 353) states: “The interval of three days may be accounted for as representing the date of Nebuzaradan’s arrival on the scene and the commencement of operations.” It would appear that Nebuzaradan arrived at Jerusalem on the seventh day and made his survey from his camp outside the city walls. Finally on the tenth day he actually entered the city.
A somewhat similar example involves the age at which the Levites began their service at the sanctuary. According to Numbers 4:3, 30, the Levites began their service at the age of thirty. But in Numbers 8:24 the age limit for beginning Levitical services is given as twenty-five. The reason for this difference appears to be that two categories of service are being discussed. Therefore certain rabbinical sources present the view that at the age of twenty-five a Levite was introduced into the tabernacle service, but only to perform lighter tasks. Then, at the age of thirty, he would engage in the heavier work, such as dismantling, moving and setting up the tabernacle. Lending support to this conclusion is the fact that “laborious service and the service of carrying loads” are mentioned only in connection with the Levitical work beginning at the age of thirty.—Num. 4:3, 47.
There are times when seeming discrepancies cannot be so easily resolved. Especially is this the case in connection with the numbers given in the books of Ezra (2:1-67) and Nehemiah (7:6-69). Both books list the number of persons from various families or houses who returned from Babylonian exile with Zerubbabel. The accounts harmonize in giving 42,360 as the total number of returned exiles, apart from slaves and singers. (Ezra 2:64; Neh. 7:66) However, there are variations in the numbers given for individual families or houses. In both listings the individual figures yield a total of far less than 42,360. Many scholars would attribute these differences to scribal errors. Whereas this aspect cannot be wholly discounted, there are other possible explanations for the variations.
It may be that Ezra and Nehemiah based their listings on different sources. For example, Ezra could have used a document listing those who enrolled to return to their homeland, whereas Nehemiah might have copied from a record listing those who actually returned. Then, too, there were priests who were unable to establish their genealogy (Ezra 2:61-63; Neh. 7:63-65), and other Israelites may well have faced the same problem. These may not have been listed in the family groupings but could have been included in the total. So the 42,360 persons could be the combined total of the number from each family plus many others who were unable to establish their ancestry. Later, however, some may have been able to establish their correct genealogy. This could explain how a fluctuation in numbers might still give the same total.
Often the context provides the key in resolving apparent numerical discrepancies. A case in point is the number of Levites included in the exchange for Israelite firstborn. In Numbers chapter 3 the census figures for the three families comprising the tribe of Levi yield a total of 22,300. But Numbers 3:39 indicates that the total number of Levite males was 22,000, a difference of 300.
The reason for this difference becomes readily apparent when we are considering the purpose of the figures. Numbers 3:12, 13 reads: “I [Jehovah] do take the Levites from among the sons of Israel in place of all the firstborn opening the womb of the sons of Israel; and the Levites must become mine. For every firstborn is mine. In the day that I struck every firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified to myself every firstborn in Israel.”
From this passage it is evident that all the firstborn belonged to Jehovah and thus normally would have been the ones to serve him at the sanctuary. However, rather than have the firstborn act in this capacity, Jehovah chose the males of the tribe of Levi. But some of the Levites would already have been in line for service at the sanctuary. Why? By reason of their being firstborn. These Levites would therefore not have figured in the exchange. So the 300 Levites that were not counted in when the exchange was made must logically have been firstborn.
The number of firstborn in the tribe of Levi may appear to be unusually small. But it should be remembered that due to polygamy a man could have many sons but only one firstborn. It was the firstborn son of the man and not of the woman that was counted. The population of the tribe of Levi being only about a fifth or a sixth of the average tribe in Israel, the ratio of Levite firstborn compares favorably with that of the other firstborn.
The foregoing examples illustrate that apparent numerical discrepancies can often be resolved. Hence, should you find such discrepancies, carefully examine the context and you may find a plausible explanation. If necessary, seek the help of those who have faith in and a good knowledge of the Bible. By doing so, you will find that generally there is no need to conclude that the variations have resulted through scribal error.