Category Archives: Bible Study

The Large Numbers in the Book of Numbers

We began our study of the book of Numbers at church last night and I spent a little bit of time talking about the HUGE numbers in the book. If you have done much reading on the book of Numbers, then you know that this is a subject that every commentary addresses and for good reasons. Below is a summary of the issue. This summary was adapted from  Dennis Cole’s commentary on Numbers in the New American Commentary series, pages 78-82. Timothy Ashley (NICOT) and Gordon Wenham (TOTC) also have helpful information on this subject in their commentaries on Numbers. My concluding thoughts will follow the summary.

  • Problems with taking the large numbers of Numbers literally – If the number of males who can go to war (1:3) is 603,550 (between 2 and 2.5 million total)
    • 2 – 2.5 million people could not have fit into the land of Goshen
    • The Israelites only had two midwives (Exodus 1:15)
    • Why did God have to intervene to deliver them from Egypt, at the Red Sea, at Jericho, and in the conquest of Canaan?
      • The best historical evidence suggests that Pharaoh’s army at the time of the Exodus was between 20,000 and 25,000
      • The Israelites would have had no problem leaving Egypt with or without weapons and the sight of the Egyptian army closing in at the Red Sea would have been comical
      • The battle stories in the books of Numbers and Joshua show the Israelites to be outnumbered (God was the one doing the fighting)
    • The Old Testament suggest that the Israelites were not large enough to fill the Promised Land – with recent migration, today, the land of Israel is inhabited by just over 1 million people (and it is crowded)
    • The number of firstborn males was 22,273 (3:43) – this means that one out of every 27 men was the firstborn. So every male had, on average 26 brothers plus sisters! Rampant polygamy could not even account for this.
    • While no doubt God could have sustained 2.5 million people in the desert, the simple act of marching 2.5 million people through the mountainous desert would have been a challenge for everyone involved! For Moses to have spoken to the entire population would have been a “logistical nightmare!”
  • Possible Solutions:
    • The numbers are literal and accurate
      • The people were not fully restricted to the land of Goshen
      • The midwives mentioned were not the only two, but representative of all midwives (or possibly the “head midwives”)
      • The Israelites were not trained to fight like the Egyptians – when you tie a baby elephant to a tree it learns that it cannot break away, so even a full grown elephant can be tied to a tree by a little rope (I learned that in 1st grade!)
      • The number of firstborn are those born since coming out of Egypt
      • There are quite a few issues that have to be addressed
    • These numbers come from the Davidic kingdom and a later editor added it into the text of Numbers
      • There is nothing in Samuel/Kings/Chronicles to support this position
      • Most argue that this total number is still too large for the time of the United Kingdom
    • The numbers represent a form of gematria
      • Each letter is given a numerical value
      • “sons of Israel” = 603
      • “every head” = 551, rounded to 550
      • This does not explain the tribal numbers and is very subjective!
    • The Hebrew term for “thousands” for be read as “group” or “clan”
      • Therefore, the tribe of Judah was made up of 74 clans, 600 people
      • This brings us to a total of 598 clans with 5,550 fighting men
      • However, this creates a problem with the census totals
      • This leaves the tribe of Levi with 22 clans of 0 men
      • There are variations of this idea and all of them have similar problems
    • The numbers are symbolic
      • God told Abraham to look at the stars of the sky, the number of stars were symbolic of Abraham’s future decedents
      • These numbers are in accordance with Mesopotamian mathematics and astronomy
      • But would the Israelites been familiar with this type of thought and astronomy?
      • A problem still remains for the tribe of Levi
      • Timothy Ashley said it best, “[it] seems more clever than convincing”
    • The numbers are deliberate hyperbole
      • The numbers of this census are purposefully exaggerated to bring glory to God, fear to the enemy, and point to the future fulfillment of God’s promises
      • One proponent of this position argues that the numbers were inflated by 10
      • This would give us an army of 60,355 with an approximate population of 250,000
      • This does away with the problem of the firstborn – 22,270 firstborn for 60,355 makes for about 2.5 – 3 males per household which is about what we see in the OT
      • These numbers are still large but would still require the hand of God to provide for and protect them – we still have miracles “but miracles that fit the geography, topography, and the times” – R. B. Allen
      • This solution yields some inconsistencies in redeeming the firstborn (this is the biggest problem with this position – if there were 22,270 firstborn but only about 2,200 Levites, then the redemption section of chapter 3 has to be reworked)
      • Would such exaggeration have been confusing to the original readers? Absolutely not! They would have known whether these numbers were accurate or whether they had been inflated and they would have understood why!

In my humble opinion, only the first or last solution work. I do not have a problem with the last solution, other than the inconsistencies it produces. And let me be clear, the argument is that Moses did it on purpose (with inspiration from the Holy Spirit) – no one is saying Moses was just wrong.

At this point in time, I still believe that these are the exact numbers – they are literal and accurate (though I would argue that they have been rounded). I know that such large numbers create some questions here and there, but these large numbers also seem to fit the rest of the numbers we read in the Pentateuch.

And one final comment – just so no one thinks otherwise – God can provide for and protect a group of any size in the wilderness! The main issue here is not God’s ability to provide for 2.5 million people in the Sinai desert. The main issue is whether or not such numbers fit all the details of the exodus story – and I think they can!

Official statement: This is really just a collection of thoughts. This is not meant to be some official position or statement – just me working through the issues, details, options, problems, and potential solutions. I hope you will work through them with me!


Posted by on September 30, 2010 in Bible Study


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Witherington on 1 Corinthians 1 and Baptism

I was very disappointed with *Ben Witherington’s comments on 1 Corinthians 1:13-17 in his commentary A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1st and 2nd Corinthians. His comments are the best example of the problems with theology (specifically systematic theology). He seems to ignore the context in favor of his theology.

Systematic Theology is, basically, a reference to various systems of doctrine. I find it interesting that in the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms by Donald McKim, the definition for Systematic Theology says, “it MAY be based on scripture…” (emphasis mine). To boil it down, systematic theology is when you take your doctrines and beliefs and make a pair of glasses and then sit down and read the Bible through those glasses.

Back to Dr. Witherington – he says that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1:13-17, is saying that baptism is obviously not that important (obviously I am summarizing). To argue that Paul is saying baptism is not important is to ignore completely the context. The Corinthians were attaching themselves to various teachers. It would make sense for some to attach themselves to the one who baptized them. Paul is saying that he is glad that he, that is Paul, did not baptize many of them himself (i.e. Paul did not dunk them in water). He is NOT saying that he is glad they were not baptized. David Garland’s commentary on 1 Corinthians understands this point! Garland says that Paul talks like he cannot remember if he baptized certain ones in order to make a point – it doesn’t matter if Paul baptized them or if Joe Schmoe baptized them.

If Dr. Witherington would like to argue against the necessity of baptism, he should really choose another passage from which to make his point, but I would find problems with those arguments as well.

I chose “In the context” as the name of this blog for a reason – a word or statement finds its correct meaning in the context. You can prove any doctrine you want when you ignore the context!

* Dr. Witherington has written some great material. His emphasis on Rhetoric, especially in Paul’s epistles, has shed some great light on New Testament studies. I have read and own many of Dr. Witherington’s books and commentaries. His commentary on Acts is magnificent. We are simply light-years apart on what we think the Bible teaches about certain subjects (especially baptism). My main problem is the manner in which he seems to ignore the context.


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“Aren’t you glad we’re not under that anymore.”

In my daily Bible reading schedule I have just finished Romans and Galatians. Both epistles deal with the subject of “works of the Law (of Moses)” and “salvation by grace through faith.” On Wednesday nights we are going through the Law of Moses in our Adult Bible class at church. As we go through some of the various laws and requirements commanded of the Israelites you can’t help but be overwhelmed. There is a lot of stuff in the Book of Leviticus. How did they keep it all straight? Why did God make all of these laws? Who could remember all of this?

People often say something along the lines of “I am so glad we don’t have to worry about all that anymore.” I am too. But I want to make two simple points:

  1. Christianity is not a checklist style religion in which we can go home when everything has been marked off. Jews, under the Law of Moses, were quick to leave God at the Tabernacle. And this is why, in the Prophets, God says things like “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors” – Malachi 1:10. These people performed their “check list” duties but did not allow it to affect their heart. As a New Testament Christian, there is no check list, I am a servant of God everywhere I go – not just at church or with other Christians. I can’t leave God at the building. Yes, the Israelites had a lot to “do” but let’s not think that our lives should be free of service to God outside of church.
  2. God forbid the only thing we take away from a study of the Old Testament or the Law of Moses be “Aren’t you glad we don’t have to do all of that”! There is so much to learn from a study of the Old Testament, particularly the Law of Moses. How many times does God say in Leviticus “Be holy for I am holy.” God was instructing these people to do specific things because these specific things were in harmony with the character of God. Don’t plant two kinds of seed in one field – why would God care? Because He was trying to teach His people about purity! Of course I am glad that I am not an Israelite serving at the Tabernacle under the Law of Moses, but I should be able to learn something from those who did!
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Posted by on September 2, 2010 in Bible Study, Law of Moses, Old Testament


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“things which are hard to understand”

“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” – 2 Peter 3:15-16 

In my daily Bible reading, I am reading Romans. I am convinced that the Letter to the Romans is what Peter had in mind when he said, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand.” 

I have so much trouble keeping all of the arguments straight as I read through the book. Paul just unloads quote after quote, allusion after allusion, and, seemingly, runs from one thing to another. Every time I come to the book of Romans I sit down and think to myself, “Ok, I am going to focus and ‘get it’ this time!” – but I always walk away with more questions than answers. 

So, in good OCD fashion, I am going to chart the book out. I use desk calendars to schedule everything and the back of each month provides a great place to write large lists or to play around with charts, scales, and paths. I know exactly what the back of August 2010 is going to be used for. And I have also grabbed Reading Romans by Robert F Turner. I have heard good things about it and hopefully it can help me out. 

What is interesting about Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 3 is that Peter tells his audience in vv 17ff that they need to be careful lest they be carried away. In other words, “Even though it is difficult, you need to figure it out!” 

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Posted by on August 26, 2010 in Bible Study, Romans


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A True Gem

I preach and talk often about the benefits of a daily Bible reading program. I have been so encouraged by the number of brethren at our congregation who are following our schedule this year. One of the many benefits to following a schedule is stumbling on to the occasional gem.

One of our three sections today was from Proverbs. We read just a few everyday . I was getting ready to wrap up my reading when I read Proverbs 11:26 (ESV) – “The people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it.” My mind automatically jumped to Luke 12:13-21 – the Parable of the Rich Fool.

You know the story…he had a great crop one year and did not know what to do with it all. So he tore down his barns and built bigger barns. God’s response was less than favorable and the man died that night. The lesson is obviously one of greed and priorities. In discussing this parable, people often outline what was wrong with the man’s actions. Aside from the obvious answers, some have suggested that the man was going to hold onto to his grain until he could get a better price for it, thus increasing his already plentiful crop. Now think about the proverb again, “The people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it.”

If the man put his large amount of grain into the market, this would have created a buyer’s market. People could have bought grain at a cheaper rate. By withholding his grain, the man could wait for a shortage in the market, increase his prices, and make more money.

With lower prices, the man would not make as much per unit of grain sold but, because of his plentiful crop, he would have been able to sell more units. This man had a chance to help those around him by selling lots of grain at lower prices, yet he acted selfishly, without thought for man (and even worse) God!

I am so glad I read Proverbs 11:26 today!

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Posted by on August 20, 2010 in Bible Study, New Testament


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How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

This time of year, many begin a daily Bible reading plan. This year I have created my own plan in which I read two sections in the Old Testament (i.e. Genesis 1-2 and Psalm 1) and a section from the New Testament (Luke 1). The schedule will go through the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice. Many of our church family is on the same plan, so this past Sunday night I preached a sermon entitled, “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.”

This sermon was not a summary of the book with the same name by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart (which every serious Bible student and reader should read). The sermon consisted of 12 suggestions on how to get the most out of reading your Bible daily. These suggestions are not complicated or very academic. They are simple, practical, and easy-to-remember tips for growing through Bible reading.

  1. Get a good translation – I prefer the English standard version. The old KJV is not a good reading Bible because of the archaic language. Paraphrases are no good because they are the thoughts of one or a few people. The ESV, the NASB, and the HCSB are three of the best translations.
  2. Have a plan – while you could be benefitted by reading random passages everyday, a plan keeps you on a schedule and can help you get through the Bible in one year. Whether you go straight through with four chapters a day, three from the OT and one from the NT, or some other schedule – plans give you structure.
  3. Pray – prayer should always accompany Bible reading and study.
  4. Know what you are reading – Genre (poetry vs. narrative), style (John writes differently than Paul), purpose (the letter to Philemon has a very specific story and purpose), and timeline (Ezra and Nehemiah are after the Babylonian captivity) are important in helping you understand what you read. A simple introduction to the bible can help with these things.
  5. Read like a child – children get excited about these stories. The more we read, the more calloused we become to them. Read it fresh!
  6. Read like an adult – make the connections (i.e. Melchizedek in Genesis 15, Psalm 110, and Hebrews) and read the “boring” sections.
  7. Ask questions – when you ask questions, you will better understand and remember what you have read.
  8. Context is key – always make sure you know “the rest of the story.”
  9. Reread – if you don’t understand something, reread it. If something excites, confuses, or upsets you, reread it.
  10. Find a friend – you are going to notice things you have never noticed before. Find someone who you can share these things with; someone who can keep you excited about reading your Bible.
  11. Stick with it – it is easy to get behind or bogged down in the less exciting sections. Think about how much you will have learned at the end of the year. Think how satisfying it will be to have read the entire Bible in one year.
  12. Apply what you read – the Bible is not just some academic book that we read simply for knowledge’s sake. It is a guidebook, a field-manual for life. Learn it, live it!

I hope these tips help you get the most out of your Bible. Remember, the first step is just picking up your Bible. In 15-20 minutes a day, you can read the whole Bible in one year! I challenge you!

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Posted by on January 12, 2010 in Bible Study


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Writing In Your Bible

Do you like to take notes in your Bible? Some people love to, some preachers make all of their notes for their lessons in the margins, while others think it is down right heretical to write in their Bibles. I have done so sparingly for a couple of reasons.

When I turned eight years old, my parents bought me a great wide-margin, double column, reference NKJV. I set in with a HIGHLIGHTER, line my favorite passages (although it was really just random highlighting). I regret that action to this day. A second thing that keeps me from writing in my Bible is the fact that I am always growing. This means that I am going to change my mind. So for a while, I would make notes in pencil (I should not have made them at all – thanks smudge). Thirdly, when you make notes or highlight, your mind will automatically be drawn to your notes or the highlighted sections and you may miss something else in the text. With that being said, I still take SOME notes in my Bible. My most common note is an added cross reference that was not included in my edition.

Up until recently, I had no clue what utensil to use when making notes or wanting to emphasize a section. Then I found this link – This is an interesting site, not only does is have some interesting tips, it has great reviews on various Bible designs (as the blog’s name indicates).

In conclusion, I purchased a set of Pigma Microns (the set of 16) and a handful of Zebrite highlighters (specifically designed for Bibles). I can personally testify of the quality of these utensils. I did not know what size Microns to purchase so I purchased the who set. After receiving them, I think that I will use the 005 to take notes and the 03 to underline (this was a common suggested on the blog (which I linked above).

I purchased highlighters in all three colors (yellow, green, and blue). The yellow is perfect because it is just enough to make the selection “pop”. I am unsure how (if at all) I will use the green and blue highlighters. The bleed through is minimal (if only 8 year old Jonathan had these).

If you are looking for the perfect pen, you can find the Pigma Microns here –

If you are looking for the perfect highlighter, you can find the Zebrite here –

Good luck and continue to read your Bible. The best Bible is not a perfectly new one, it is not a thoroughly written in one, it is one that is worn out with oil stains. My father will always be my example of what it means to read your Bible! His current Bible is getting to an unusable state. He has read through it who-knows-how-many times. The leather is rubbing off. Pages are tearing. That is how we should treat our Bibles! USE THEM!

Keep reading!

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Posted by on June 14, 2009 in Bible Study


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