What about casualty Numbers?
What about casualty Numbers?
William Sierichs' article on biblical armies should convince any
objective reader that Yahweh's inspired writers had a penchant
for hyperbole. If the great armies of fairly modern times, such
as those that fought in the Napoleonic wars, numbered only in
the tens of thousands, what reasonable person can believe that
tiny Israel and its neighboring nations could have fielded armies
that numbered in the hundreds of thousands? Obviously, then, biblical
writers were prone to exaggeration.
In their zeal to extol the greatness of their God Yahweh, the
Hebrews often resorted to exaggeration. The plagues that Yahweh
brought against Egypt, for example, were described as the severest
that had ever happened. The hail was "very grievous, such
as had not been in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation"
The locusts were likewise very grievous; "before them there
were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such"
Yahweh granted Solomon wisdom that none before him had had and
that none after him would have ([ref005]1 Kings 3:12).
It isn't surprising then that Bible writers would inflate numbers
to make their nation and their god appear greater than surrounding
nations and gods.
The writer of 1 Chronicles claimed that David prepared 3,000 talents
of gold from Ophir and 7,000 talents of silver to overlay the
walls of the temple ([ref006]29:3-4).
To this, the "princes of the fathers" contributed 5,000
talents and 10,000 darics of gold and 10,000 talents of silver
These contributions of gold and silver were to be used only to
overlay the walls of the temple. Altogether (so we are told),
David had prepared 100,000 talents of gold and 1,000,000 talents
of silver to be used in building the temple and all of its vessels
([ref008]1 Chron. 22:14).
A talent in biblical times varied from 75 to 98 pounds. Thus,
if only the lower weight is used in calculating, we determine
that over 8 million pounds of gold and over 76 million pounds
of silver were used in building the temple--or so the Bible claims.
Using Encyclopedia Britannica (15th Edition, 1980, Vols. 8 &
16, pp. 237, 778) as their source, footnotes in _The_Bible
Handbook_ point out that this is "nearly three times
the total amount of gold produced worldwide between 1492 and 1700"
and "more than five times the worldwide production of silver
in 1970" (Reprinted by American Atheist Press, Austin, Texas,
1986, p. 82). In terms of today's market values, the Israelite
temple had $50 billion of gold and $6.5 billion of silver in it,
but what reasonable person can believe that a tiny desert kingdom
in the 10th century B. C. had such huge reserves of precious metals?
Obviously these were exaggerations designed to magnify the majesty
and greatness of Yahweh and his specially chosen people of Israel.
That biblical writers exaggerated the size of armies was clearly
demonstrated in Sierichs' article, but the exaggerations extended
to battlefield casualties too. To understand this, we need only
compare the casualties recorded in famous battles of more modern
times to those claimed in the Bible. Eighty-five thousand Union
and 70,000 Confederate troops clashed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,
in a three-day decisive battle of the Civil War that cost the
North 23,000 lives and the South 20,000 (_Encyclopedia_Americana_,
1991, Vol. 12, pp. 707-710). In contrast to this, as Sierichs
noted, we are told that Gideon's army of 300 men killed 120,000
Midianite soldiers in a battle recorded in [ref009]Judges 7.
This small band achieved this phenomenal victory by creating a
night-time confusion that caused the Midianites to "set every
man's sword against his fellow" ([ref010]v:22).
Only 15,000 Midianite troops were left alive after the battle
If only General Hooker had thought to use this tactic, he could
have decimated Lee's army and saved the lives of thousands of
his own soldiers.
On December 2, 1805, Napoleon's army of 70,000 (a paltry number
in biblical terms) met 80,000 Austrian-Russian troops in battle
at Austerlitz. The allied armies suffered 25,000 casualties, but
Napoleon lost only 9,000 (_Ibid._, Vol. 2, p. 700).
This, however, was nothing compared to a stunning defeat that
King Ahab's army inflicted on the Syrians at Aphek, where "the
children of Israel slew of the Syrians a hundred thousand footmen
in one day" ([ref012]1 Kings 20:29).
As Sierichs related in his article, the remnant of the Syrian
forces fled to the city of Aphek, where a wall fell on them and
killed 27,000 ([ref013]v:30).
Why, the collapse of this wall killed 25,000 more than the Americans
lost during the D-Day assault on Omaha Beach (_Ibid._,
Vol. 29, p. 402), and that was one of the bloodiest battles fought
in Word War II.
To show the utter absurdity of biblical casualty figures, we need
only compare them to the official numbers of those who died in
the WWII battles for Normandy. After General Omar Bradley's forces
established a beachhead on Utah Beach with surprisingly light
casualties (compared to the other beaches), the famous Battle
of the Hedgerows began on July 1, 1944, and lasted until St. Lo
was captured on July 8th. Bradley's forces suffered 40,000 casualties
during those eight days (_Ibid._, p. 404), but this
was nothing compared to the losses that Judah's King Abijah inflicted
on the forces of Jeroboam, who reigned over the northern kingdom
after Israel had broken away from Judah following Solomon's death.
In a single battle, Abijah's army "slew [the Israelites]
with a great slaughter, so there fell down slain of Israel five
hundred thousand chosen men" ([ref014]2 Chron. 13:17).
Isn't that amazing? In all of the battles that U. S. forces fought
in during World War II, only 292,131 were killed in combat (_Ibid._,
p. 529), yet the army of a tiny desert kingdom 3,000 years ago
inflicted almost twice that number of casualties in a single battle!
Of course, we are told that when Jeroboam's forces attacked Judah
from both the front and the rear, "they [the Judeans] cried
unto Yahweh, and the priests sounded with the trumpets. Then the
men of Judah gave a shout, and as the men of Judah shouted, it
came to pass, that God smote Jeroboam and all Israel before Abijah
of Judah" (vv:14-15). So undoubtedly that explains the reason
for the phenomenal success of Abijah's army on that day. If U.
S. troops at Omaha Beach had had a few priests blowing on trumpets,
no doubt they could have shouted such heavy losses on German forces
that the war would have ended that day.
The Battle of the Bulge was another decisive engagement of World
War II. On December 16, 1944, the Germans in a surprise assault,
broke through Allied lines near Bastogne, Belgium. German and
Allied forces fought until the Germans were driven back to the
original battleline at the end of January. This was an engagement
of several battles, which inflicted about 100,000 German and 76,000
Allied casualties (_Ibid._, p. 407). In biblical terms,
however, the six-week Battle of the Bulge was a mere skirmish.
In a battle that Sierichs mentioned, Israelite forces under King
Pekah invaded the southern kingdom and "slew in Judah a hundred
and twenty thousand in one day" ([ref015]2 Chron. 28:6).
Just imagine that! The German and Allied forces, equipped with
heavy tanks, artillery, mortars, machineguns, hand-grenades, landmines,
fighter planes, bombs, etc., fought for six weeks in one of the
fiercest engagements of World War II, and only 176,000 were killed
on both sides, yet a primitive army equipped with only swords
and spears inflicted over two thirds that many casualties in a
Few biblical battles were fought that didn't allegedly inflict
thousands of casualties. Bradley's forces landed at Utah Beach
on D-Day at a loss of only 200 men (_Ibid._, p. 402),
but when David engaged the Syrian army of King Hadarezer, he killed
40,000 horsemen ([ref016]2 Sam. 10:18).
At Waterloo, on June 18, 1815, Napoleon's army of 80,000 engaged
Wellington's allied forces of 68,000 (David Chandler, _The
Campaigns_of_Napoleon_, pp. 1065-1066). This was the battle
that ended Napoleon's military career, but in it he sustained
only 25,000 losses. Wellington's forces suffered 19,000 casualties.
However, the confrontation between the army of Judah and Ethiopia's
forces of one million ([ref017]2 Chron. 14:9)
ended with the Judeans completely routing the Ethiopians. In this
case, the biblical historian was restrained enough not to give
specific Ethiopian casualty figures, but he did imply that they
were extremely heavy: "(A)nd there fell of the Ethiopians
so many that they could not recover themselves; for they were
destroyed before Yahweh" ([ref018]v:13).
If indeed so many fell that the Ethiopians could not "recover
themselves," then surely they had lost hundreds of thousands
from their army of a million. To assess the probability that primitive
armies were able to inflict losses far beyond those of modern
armies, we need only to apply the principle of critical analysis
that we noted in the Autumn 1993 issue of TSR (p.11):
When you lack evidence, the only way to decide whether or not
to believe something is to ask: Is it likely? If you tell me a
bird flew past my window, I will probably believe you, even though
I did not see it myself and I have no evidence. That is because
such a thing is likely. I have seen it happen before. It is more
likely that a bird flew past my window, than that you are deceiving
me. But if you tell me a pig flew past my window, I will not believe
you, because my past experience tells me that such things do not
happen, and so I presume that what you reported is false. Thus,
where there is no evidence we have to rely on our own past experience
of the sort of things that really happen (Carl Lofmark, _What
Is_the_Bible?_ pp. 41-42).
Any objective person who applies this principle to the battlefield-casualty
numbers in the Bible can only conclude that they are gross exaggerations.
If modern armies, equipped with the latest weaponry mentioned
above, even in fierce battles were able to inflict casualties
numbering only a relatively few thousand, then reasonable people
will understand that the primitive armies of the Bible couldn't
have killed as many as 500,000 in a single day. Furthermore, if,
as Sierichs pointed out, the army of modern Israel numbered only
264,000 in a time of critical national emergency, who can believe
that primitive Israel was able to field the gigantic armies that
biblical writers claimed?
Bible fundamentalists sorely need to read the Bible with their
heads and not their hearts.
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