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Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Old Math: Nominal Figures and Biblical Numbers

CounterI have touched on the topic of Biblical Numbers in earlier posts; in this one I shall attempt to wrap up the entire topic as it relates to the supposed accuracy of Bible Translations.

 I once worked in a factory where one of the items we handled was an electrical device with an "8-ft" cord. Now everyone knows that an 8-foot cord is longer than a 6-foot cord and shorter than a 9-foot cord. But do they know that it is exactly 96.0 inches? Well, no. Electrical cords of that length could easily be stretched by the major part of an inch, but for purposes of reaching the nearest electrical outlet, precision right down to the tenth of an inch really isn't necessary. So I had to chuckle when I saw, on the Spanish side of the box, the measurements of this same 8-ft cord given as 244 cm. Now that does happen to be 8.0 feet, but I really doubt that anyone ever got out a tape measure and measured that cord right down to the nearest centimetre. What they basically had was a 2½ metre cord; they just didn't realise that for their purposes of measurement, that was equal to 8 feet.

Take an even more obvious example of round numbers in measurement. Ever heard of a 2 by 4? If you live in a single-family house in North America, it's most likely that you have. It is the standard size piece of lumber for wall construction. But it's not 2 by 4 inches, or even 2 by 4 centimetres; it's actually 1-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches, to the nearest quarter-inch. To avoid false advertising, lumber stores have to note that all lumber measurements are given in "nominal sizes," but everybody already knows that to be accurate, they have to subtract 1/4 to 3/4 of an inch from the nominal size. Even though the lumber is planed to greater precision, it's just not practical to name any more precise a measurement than the nearest inch.

And thus we come to Biblical numbers. Ever notice that Bible measurements are always given in whole numbers, rounding off to more and more zeros as the numbers get bigger? You'll never find a hundred and one or a million and two of anything in the Bible.

Take Job's wealth as a fine example. Do you really think he had exactly 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 1000 oxen, 500 asses, and 10 children? Well, we do know about the children, because there were 7 sons and 3 daughters. But obviously the other numbers were rounded off to the nearest hundred--or maybe even the nearest thousand.

The most precise figures given in the Scriptures are always for the ages of Biblical figures. Methusaleh, for example, lived 969 years. That's obviously not rounding off to the nearest thousand, hundred, ten, or even five. Rounding off to the nearest year gives us a known level of precision for calculating the age of the earth, but after ten generations, we can't be precise to the year any more; ten years is more like it. So in giving broad chronological timespans, note that the Bible always rounds off to the nearest decade or even the nearest century:

-Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.
-For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns along the Arnon.
-Now the time that the children of Israel lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years.
-This was four hundred and eighty years after the people of Israel were rescued from their slavery in Egypt.

These are nominal figures. Sometimes they indicate more precision than is evident; sometimes they don't. Abraham's and Sarah's ages seem to have just happened to both end in zero when Isaac was born, for example. But when the Bible is showing a higher level of precision than is evident, it has ways of saying so:

And he said to them, "I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I am no longer able to come and go, and the LORD has said to me, 'You shall not cross this Jordan.' --Deut. 31:2 (this verse is probably the source of the Jewish tradition that a prophet always died on the anniversary of his life beginning)

And at the end of four hundred and thirty years, to the very day, all the hosts of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt. --Exodus 12:41

And the number of days that David dwelt in the country of the Philistines was a year of days, and four months.  --1 Samuel 27:7

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. --1 Samuel 17:4

Aha. This is actually the only time anyone in the Bible was given a height in partial cubits.  Really??? It may seem incredible to not be any more precise than the nearest 20 inches when giving someone's height, but consider:

Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? --Matthew 6:27

How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?--Matthew 18:12

Perhaps the British can serve us an an example. Before succumbing to the metric system, they typically weighed things in stone rather than pounds (pounds being reserved for referring to their specie). Now, the nominal weight of a stone is fourteen pounds. Obviously saying that a newborn baby weighed one stone would be meaningless unless the number were in fact precise to the pound; in that case one would have to say something like "the baby weighed an entire stone!" But for purposes of giving the weight of an adult a stone was not exactly fourteen pounds; it only represented an approximate range. So an eighteen-stone man was one of considerable size or girth--about 250 pounds.

Since height was typically measured in cubits, one would go from being three to four cubits tall as soon as he crossed that threshold--adding, in nominal terms, one cubit to his stature.

So, back to Goliath. For some reason his height is given more precisely than any other person in the Bible (although the Ark of the Covenant was also measured down to the half cubit). By the way, Ishbi-Benob is actually the only other person in the Bible whose height is given (five cubits, which may then have been in the same range as Goliath's), but Christian History tells us that the Apostle Paul was only three cubits tall. Many are the commentators who leap to the conclusion that Paul was therefore 4' 6", but they are committing the fallacy of overprecision. Not only is their cubit itself too precise, they aren't even rounding to the nearest cubit. Since 3½ cubits is the normal height for a person, all we can say for sure is that Paul was about 10 inches shorter than normal, give or take several inches. He could well have been five foot even.

So for Goliath, we have a more precise measurement for his height: to the nearest five or so inches. Since other giants of antiquity are listed at seven cubits, even his 6½ cubits kept him out of the record books. Were he two cubits less than that, however, the half a cubit by which he was shorter than Ishbi-Benob would definitely put him in the junior league of giants. Only if he were a particularly short giant would it make sense to add that extra cubit--even as a 4½ year old is careful to add that extra half year, it representing as it does a whole eighth of his lifespan. This would also make more sense, given that King Saul, as a tall short man, must have been pretty close in height to Goliath, a short tall man. Yet even though he had his own suit of armor and a sword, he was willing--the coward--to send a shepherd boy, who had neither, up against Goliath.  It would also make sense that David could find Goliath's sword, although obviously bigger than normal, to be of some use to him; perhaps it was more like a dagger to Goliath.  When David said "There is none like it" he could well have been referring to its patented forging, rather than its unique size.

One last note: An Egyptian text gives an interesting height to the giants of Canaan:

"The face of the pass is dangerous with Shasu, hidden under the bushes. Some of them are 4 or 5 cubits, nose to foot, with wild faces."

Note that "four cubits and a span" falls right in the middle of that range. And that "six cubits and a span" puts Goliath way out of it.

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