Non-literal Numbers in the Old Testament

This is such a simple concept that I almost feel ridiculous writing about it, but YECs have swarmed this blog lately.  I thought non-literal numbers in the rest of the Old Testament merited a mention.

Charles Isbell was my first professor of Old Testament (though I’m sure it may have grated on his nerves as a Jewish professor to teach a course called “Introduction to the Old Testament” at a secular university like LSU).  One of the books assigned for this course was Isbell’s God’s Scribes.  In that book, though I can’t put my hands on it anymore, I remember there being a chapter on non-literal use of numbers in the Hebrew Bible.  Even as an evangelical, this chapter didn’t really bother me at all.  People use non-literal numbers all the time.  All that to say, Young Earth Creationism is absolutely lost on me.

I believe there are almost innumerable examples of non-literal use of numbers in the Bible.  Here are a couple of candidates:

  1. 2.5 million people leaving at the time of the (Exodus 12:37) Not likely (though I also realize that some have argued that “thousand” may not really mean “thousand” there).
  2. 430 years of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:40-41) – Exodus 6:14-25 actually only calculates 4 generations between Levi and Moses. That this time period lasted 430 years seems doubtful to me.
  3. The ages of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 20) – I’ve always wondered what the King of Gerar would have wanted with a perhaps nearly 90 year-old, barren woman, but maybe that’s just me.
  4. Jeremiah’s 70 years (25:11) – Jeremiah said the people would serve the King of Babylon for 70 years after the land became a ruin and waste …. Nope, at least not if one reads the 70 absolutely literally.

Perhaps not all of these would work, but there are a myriad of other candidates.  These are just the first that sprang to mind.  I would obviously add to this list of non-literal use of numbers – 6 days of creation, the life spans of people in the book of Genesis, the numbers in the flood account (since they don’t all agree) …  and, oh yes, the age of the earth if you calculate it based on the Book of Genesis.

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5 thoughts on Non-literal Numbers in the Old Testament

  1. Months ago, maybe even a couple of years, I remember discussing here the need to understand the figures of speech used by a culture. Most literalists don’t care to understand the language used by the Bible’s authors.

    Which is ironic … They believe emphatically that it means exactly what it says … whatever the heck that is.

  2. “Ben” in Hebrew does mean necessarly means “son of” but could simply “descendant of”. So X ben Y is still true if X is the grand father of Y.

    Couting the number of generations between two biblical persons to estimate the number of years between them is a bad idea.

    Also, it was frequent for ancient people to become father at 60 (because rich and important people had more than one wife). This “way of life” can still be seen among Negev bedouins today.

  3. The problem is, people say something like “I believe it means what it says” and what they mean by that is “I believe it means what it says TO ME!” As though the Bible was written to them within the last few years.

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