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Number Discrepancies in Old Testament History

Number discrepancies in Old Testament recordsThe Bible is often attacked by critics, especially regarding books of Old Testament history, because of obvious discrepancies between numbers given in some Bible accounts as compared to parallel passages in other accounts. 

Several such instances could be considered, but we will focus on four that are representative of the group: (1) the number of arms-bearing men in Judah and Israel (cf. 2 Samuel 24:9 to 1 Chronicles 21:5); (2) the number of Syrian charioteers slain by David (cf. 2 Samuel 10:18 to 1 Chronicles 19:18); (3) the number of stalls in Solomon's stables (cf. 1 Kings 4:26 to 2 Chronicles 9:25); (4) the number of baths in the "molten sea" (cf. 1 Kings 7:23,26 to 2 Chronicles 4:5).

Note to begin with that these discrepancies are unconvincing as evidence against Bible inspiration simply by virtue of the fact that they are so obvious and glaring! Had these variations existed at the time the Old Testament books were written, surely the writers themselves would have noticed them. Even if they were uninspired, they would have corrected such glaring differences. This of itself argues that the differences did not exist when the Bible was written but must have been introduced into the text in later years.

Each of these controversies can be resolved by understanding one fundamental fact about the Hebrew numbering system. The Jews, instead of writing numbers out in word form, often simply used a numeral to indicate a quantity. Many of their symbols resembled one another very closely, the distinctions sometimes being based on such minor details as a dot or a variation in the width or length of a certain part of the figure.

Since the Holy Spirit guided the writers, the numbers in the original manuscripts of the Old Testament would have been written identically in each of the parallel verses. However, with the passing of time these manuscripts no doubt faded or became smudged so that, when later copies were made, certain symbols might easily have been mistaken for others. Combine this with the fact that the copyists and translators of the scriptures were themselves fallible and uninspired, and it becomes quite plausible for errors to have entered the text which we today would have no way of correcting.

Adam Clarke makes this point as follows:

To attempt to reconcile them [the number discrepancies] in every part is lost labour; better at once acknowledge what cannot be successfully denied, that although the original writers of the Old Testament wrote under the influence of the Divine Spirit, yet we are not told that the same influence descended on all copiers of their words ... (Vol. II, page 378) [emphasis Clarke's] ,

Although other solutions have been offered for most of these controversies, this one basic argument seems to be the most reasonable explanation in almost every case.

In closing, we emphasize that no issue can be proved to be a contradiction until there is no possible, logical answer for it. In this case, when the facts are understood, the amazing thing is that we have so few such difficulties in the Bible as compared to other ancient literature. Finally, and most important, we note that not one of these disputed passages deals with points of doctrine or with commands that are essential to human redemption.


Clarke, Adam. Holy Bible with Commentary and Critical Notes. Old Testament, Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1826.

Haley, John W. An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible. Nashville: B. C. Goodpasture, 1958.

Keil, C. F. and F. Delitzsch. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. translated by James Martin. Vol. VI. Grand Rapids, Michigan; Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1950

For more information on this subject, please visit our Bible Instruction web site at /instruct/ and study our in-depth articles there about Bible claims to inspiration and the evidence for God, Jesus, and the Bible. 

(c) Copyright Feb., 1964, 2009, David E. Pratte

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