|Are Old Testament Military Numbers Excessive?|
Critics often pose easy dismissals of recorded military numbers in the Bible -- though in this case, they are not alone; secular scholars sometimes offer similar dismissals of similar numbers recorded in ancient secular sources.
For example, Herodotus records that Xerxes' Persian army numbered 1.7 million when it invaded Greece (The Persian Wars, Book VII, Section 60). Historians object to various logistics difficulties and declare this number impossible, figuring that the limitations would only permit Xerxes to have an army about a tenth that number -- or even less.
Am I going to disagree with the historians here? Not exactly -- actually I think they have the solution, too.
The answer is that sources like Herodotus and the Bible are not counting soldiers on active duty -- they are counting the entire military muster of the nations in question. Certainly, for someone like Xerxes, whose empire controlled a area that went from western India to Egypt, 1.7 million is not an unreasonable number.
In that light, maybe we need to give the OT (and other sources) the same courtesy when it claims large numbers such as, in 2 Chronicles 14:9, where Zerah the Ethiopian brought one million men against 580,000 from Judah. But there's also another matter to consdier.
Logistics aside, when an army is on its home turf, like Judah, it doesn't need vast supply lines. The "fridge" is just a few steps away.
At the same time, having the men at one's disposal is not the same as saying they were all engaged simultaneously. We may speak of the United States having a military force of hundreds of thousands or millions; yet we know well enough not all are engaged or fighting at one time, and the recitation of that number does not imply that in any way. We should not read into the texts more than what they say.
But what about Zerah's army? This wasn't his home turf, was it? What about all those pack animals that would be needed?
Actually, an army this big, not traveling that far (Egypt to Palestine), isn't on the same level as, say, Xerxes' wandering hundreds of miles from home, or Alexander the Great's wandering thousands of miles from home. This is an army that is designed to mow down everything in its path and pick the carcasses clean. All the crops, all the animals (domesticated and wild) will be its food. Of course, losing militarily -- probably such a loss was unthinkable for Zerah -- meant major problems, but that's another story.
And there's more -- Zerah had an advantage that Alexander and Xerxes did not; his invasion route was paralleled by the Mediterranean shore. Supplies would go up the Nile and out to sea. And what about using slaves (who cares if they stay hungry? feed 'em the scraps) as well as pack animals? It's not just a numbers game, after all.
There are some related objections we can consider as well.
One critic has said that the mention of Egyptian and Israeli cavalry is anachronistic; cavalry was invented, it is said, in the Middle Ages. But why could this not be evidence for earlier use of cavalry? How hard is it to say, "Let's get on a horse? Let's use horses as battle tools?" (Actually, it's also a matter of how you define "cavalry". It seems that some define it as loosely as merely using horses in battle for any purpose -- which extends the concept much further back.)
Another objection: The Bible records people like David's chief of the captains, Josheb-bas-sheboth, killing 800 men in a battle (2 Sam. 23:8) while another, Abishai, killed 300 men in a fight (2 Sam. 23:18), and Jashobeam also killed 300 in one battle (1 Chron. 11:11). Isn't this a little too incredible to believe?
But let's read the text more charitably: 2 Sam. 23:8 says, "The Tachmonite that sat in the seat, chief among the captains; the same was Adino the Eznite: he lift up his spear against eight hundred, whom he slew at one time." What does "one time" mean? One fight? No -- the same Hebrew phrase is used in Josh. 10:42 ("And all these kings and their land did Joshua take at one time, because the LORD God of Israel fought for Israel:")
Note how the word for "time" is used elsewhere: "And the priest shall dip his finger in some of the blood, and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD, even before the veil." (Lev. 4:17)
One fight? No, one campaign.
Still a little tight for one man? It isn't one man -- Adino's rank was that of a third-rank general (shaliysh). Generals don't do the grunt work in battle. Adino is being credited with all the casualties inflicted under his command, in line with the ancient notion of representational agency. What those you commission do, you do.
This is even more clear in the second example:
2 Sam. 23:18 And Abishai, the brother of Joab, the son of Zeruiah, was chief among three. And he lifted up his spear against three hundred, and slew them, and had the name among three. (cf. 1 Chr. 11:11)
Abishai is an even higher ranker than Adino -- plus, note that to "lift your spear" is to initiate military action (Josh. 8:18, "And the LORD said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear that is in thy hand toward Ai; for I will give it into thine hand. And Joshua stretched out the spear that he had in his hand toward the city."; Nahum 3:3 "The horseman lifteth up both the bright sword and the glittering spear: and there is a multitude of slain, and a great number of carcases; and there is none end of their corpses; they stumble upon their corpses...")
One more issue: The Bible refers to 27,000 Syrians in the city of Aphek killed when a wall fell on them. Critics ask if maybe this was the Great Wall of China?
The verse at issue, 1 Kings 20:29-30: "And they pitched one over against the other seven days. And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined: and the children of Israel slew of the Syrians an hundred thousand footmen in one day. But the rest fled to Aphek, into the city; and there a wall fell upon twenty and seven thousand of the men that were left. And Benhadad fled, and came into the city, into an inner chamber."
We don't need a structure the size of the Great Wall, actually -- we have stadiums that hold 50,000 to 100,000; Aphek need not have been equal in area to one of those for its walls (the word can be used collectively of all four sides of a walled city; cf. John. 2:15) to have fallen on (note that it does not say "killed" in the text) a mere 27K.
This is not, please note, akin to D-Day with troops hiding behind barriers and using precision weapons; this is the equal to a building collapse. One may as well ask how 50,000 might have been killed in the World Trade Center, had valiant rescue efforts not succeeded.
For a related issue, the logistics of the Exodus, see here.
Finally, critics appeal to archaeologists and other scholars who discuss the evidence for expansion of the population of early Israel in small villages at this time, in an area of poor soil and water supplies. How could such a land support so many Osraelites?
In reply, I would only note that I would not take the word of modern scholars who wouldn't survive a moment themselves in such conditions. The ancients were in constant survival mode and had no leisurely time-wasting activities like television eating up their days.
The sweat of one's brow was the key to living -- and every man was a soldier. Any comparison to modern Israel, a nation of 2 million, providing only 264,000 soldiers is itself an anachronism. Modern soldiers are trained professionals; ancient soldiers were any walking, breathing man who could pick up a spear, though the specially trained attained higher rank; this is why their casualty numbers were so much higher than those of our modern battles between professional soldiers.