Those Amazing Biblical Numbers
Those Amazing Biblical Numbers:
Taking Stock of the Armies of Ancient Israel
William Sierichs, Jr.
The survival of ancient Israel must have often been in doubt,
since armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands repeatedly
attacked the nascent state. The Israelites once stood off an Egyptian
army of a million. Miraculously, for several centuries, Israel
survived attacks by armies larger than those commanded by Napoleon,
Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the generals of the American
Civil War, and even the massive forces of Prussia and France in
Let's look more closely at this miracle. We'll start by putting
it in a historical context. According to Herodotus, Xerxes' Persian
army numbered 1.7 million when it invaded Greece (The Persian
Wars, Book VII, Section 60), but no reputable historian accepts
this figure. The Persians could not possibly have supplied such
a horde, given the transportation and food handling technology
of the day. For instance, Donald W. Engels calculates that Alexander's
army of 65,000 personnel of all types needed, at a minimum, 1,500
pack animals--and as many as 8,400 whenever it had to cross a
dry or desert area--just to carry one day's supplies (Alexander
the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, p. 19). That
figure increases to 50,400 pack animals for a four-day march in
a desert. In a fertile area, Alexander still needed 40,350 pack
animals at a minimum to carry his supplies for 10 days of marching
(Ibid.). Thus the more generous historians cut the figure for
Xerxes' army to a tenth or about 180,000 troops. More skeptical
historians think that even this figure is much too high and cut
it to 100,000 or so.
Some historians suggest that Herodotus misunderstood his sources
and counted the entire military muster of the Persian Empire.
For an empire that controlled a region stretching from Western
India and South Central Russia, across Pakistan, Afghanistan,
Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, down into Egypt, back up to
Anatolia and into what used to be Yugoslavia, that figure strikes
historians as about right.
Certainly, when Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire,
he faced huge Persian armies at Issus and Gaugamela, forces possibly
as high as 100,000 or even as many as 200,000 troops--but these
figures are much debated. Alexander, who controlled Greece, Macedonia,
Thrace (Southern Yugoslavia), and a little bit of Western Anatolia,
was able to raise between 90,000 and 100,000 troops total, with
about half remaining in Macedonia when he invaded the Persian
Epic battles like these, however, were infrequent in ancient history.
More common were fights like Marathon, where about 10,000 Greeks
met a slightly larger Persian force in 490 B. C. E. or the 13th
century B. C. E. campaign in which the Hittite king Tudhaliyas
IV faced an army of 10,000 infantrymen and 600 chariots in Western
Even more common were raids between tribes of cities, involving
a few hundred, maybe a few thousand. Xenophon's A History of My
Times records numerous instances of these small-scale campaigns:
1,000 emancipated Spartan helots and 4,000 other troops from the
Peloponnese, aided by 300 mercenary cavalrymen; 300 light infantrymen,
200 cavalrymen, and 200 Greek hoplites raiding an area; 800 light
infantrymen and a comparable force of hoplites ambushing another
Great battles with hundreds of thousands of combatants, as we
think of them, did not become possible until the 19th century
and the development of railroads. In the 18th century, Frederick
the Great had an army of 83,000 troops when he became king of
Prussia. Other states--Austria, France, and Russia-- fielded larger
armies, but rarely did they approach 100,000 troops. Frederick's
greatest victories--Rossbach and Leuthen--involved about 75,000
and 115,000 troops respectively on both sides. In the American
Revolution, battles rarely exceeded 10,000 combatants total and
were usually far fewer in number.
Napoleon's greatest victory--Austerlitz--involved about 150,000
troops total. So did Gettysburg, America's greatest Civil War
battle. Napoleon raised 500,000 troops for his invasion of Russia--scattered
in columns up and down the Russian border for hundreds of miles.
Supply problems took many lives. The Union kept about 500,000
troops at arms in the Civil War, supplied by railroads and steamships
and scattered across half the nation, so no one area had to support
such a horde.
The exception to all of these historical military events is ancient
Israel, according to Jewish scripture. For example, in 2 Chronicles
14:9, Zerah the Ethiopian brought one million men and 300 chariots
against King Asa of Judah (908-868 B. C. E.). The ten tribes of
Israel had earlier split from Judah, so Asa commanded only 300,000
warriors from the tribe of Judah and 280,000 from the tribe of
Benjamin (2 Chron. 14:8). Nevertheless, we are told that Asa defeated
the Ethiopians and killed "so many that they could not recover
themselves" (v:13). It helped, of course, that Asa cried
unto "Jehovah his God" before the battle (v:11), and,
quite expectedly, "Jehovah smote the Ethiopians before Asa"
(v:12). It always helps an army to have an omniscient, omnipotent
war-god on its side.
Earlier, King Shishak of Egypt (945-924 B. C. E.) had also attacked
Judah with 1200 chariots, 60,000 cavalrymen, and "infantry
without number" (2 Chron. 12:3) in the time of King David's
grandson, Rehoboam (926-910). Shishak carried off a lot of loot
from many cities in both Israel and Judah. He left a list of his
trophies in Egypt.
These battles must have been spectacular, like scenes from a Cecil
B. DeMille movie, because Rehoboam had 180,000 troops from the
tribes of Judah and Benjamin (1 Kings 12:21) to defend the land
of Judah. Rehoboam might have defeated Shishak if he had had the
army of his forefathers, but, unfortunately for him, the kingdom
had split in a civil war at King Solomon's death. According to
a census of men over 20 ordered by David, his army was huge--800,000
warriors in Israel and 500,000 in Judah, or 1.3 million "mighty
men of valor" (2 Sam. 24:9), unless we want to believe a
record of the same census that put the total number of David's
army at over 1.57 million (1 Chron. 21:5).
Nothing in scripture suggests that King Solomon's army was weaker
than David's, although 2 Samuel 24:15 does note that 70,000 Israelites
died in a plague right after David's census. Solomon himself had
40,000 stalls for his horses and 12,000 cavalrymen (1 Kings 4:26).
For clarification, chariots of that period commonly were pulled
by two horses, with a third horse kept as a "spare."
Thus, Solomon must have had about 9,300 chariots--28,000 horses--plus
his cavalry, although 1 Kings 10:26 says he had only 1,400 chariots
but 17,000 cavalrymen.
The mention of Egyptian and Israelite cavalries is a little strange,
inasmuch as cavalries seem to have originated in the Russian steppes
and moved south into the Middle East around the end of the 10th
century (John Keegan and Richard Holmes, Soldiers: a History of
Men in Battle, pp. 79-80). The Assyrians almost certainly had
cavalry before the Israelites and the Egyptians, and the first
mention of cavalry in Assyrian annals is in the 9th century. [Before
that time, boys or young men rode horses as messengers, but horses
of the Bronze and Early Iron Ages generally were too small to
carry fighting men. Bigger horses came from the north (Ibid.).]
You would almost think that the chroniclers of Israel introduced
an anachronism into their histories, but that couldn't be, because
Yahweh himself wrote these stories. Right?
Anyway, the Israelite army was also tough. David's chief of the
captains, Josheb-bas-sheboth killed 800 men in a battle (2 Sam.
23:8). Another commander, Abishai, killed 300 men in a fight (2
Sam. 23:18), and Jashobeam, another "mighty man" of
David, killed 300 in one battle (1 Chron. 11:11). By comparison,
I don't think Conan the Barbarian ever killed more than a few
dozen men in any battle, according to the chronicles of his deeds
by Robert Howard, but, of course, Conan worshiped Crom, not Yahweh,
so the paltriness of his feats is understandable.
The civil war that divided the kingdom really hurt Israel, because
Rehoboam could muster only 180,000 warriors in the late 10th century
(compared to David's 1.3 or 1.57 million). The Israelites were
fast breeders, however, because a few decades later, 2 Chronicles
17:14-18 tells us that King Jehoshaphat (868-847 B. C. E.) had
five commanders with a total of 1.16 million troops from Judah
and Benjamin. There must have been a plague, though, because by
2 Chronicles 25:5, Judah and Benjamin could raise only 300,000
warriors over the age of 20, and King Amaziah (801-773?) had to
hire 100,000 mercenaries from his neighbor Israel. By 2 Chronicles
26:12-13, however, King Uzziah (Amaziah's son, 787-737 B. C. E.)
was back up to 310,000 troops. [Reading Chronicles is like following
the stock market: the Israelite army is up 100,000 today, down
200,000 tomorrow, up 120,00 by the end of the month.]
The state of Judah fell on hard times in 2 Chronicles 28:5-8,
because first the Syrians killed many men, which may have been
revenge for that time in 1 Kings 20:30 when the Israelites killed
100,000 Syrians in a battle, after which the surviving Syrians
retreated into the city of Aphek, where a wall fell and killed
27,000 more. (This wasn't the Great Wall of China, was it?) Anyway,
back to 2 Chronicles 28. Israel next invaded Judah and killed
120,000 troops and carried off 200,000 civilian captives, who
later were generously released. These captive figures sound suspiciously
inflated. When the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar carried off
the Israelites (2 Kings 24:14-16), he got only 10,000 captives--all
the "men of valor," princes, craftsmen and smiths. Of
course, he didn't get the poorest people, but then they weren't
"mighty men of valor." So the Babylonians must have
slaughtered the bulk of the Judean army, several hundred thousand
perhaps. Evidently, the Babylonians were even mightier men than
the Israelites. [On the Israelite army stock market, this was
the Great Depression.]
Captivity must have had a debilitating effect on the Israelites.
Although they had bred gigantic armies earlier, those 10,000 Israelite
captives in Babylon multiplied to only 42,360 people (Ezra 2:64)
by the time of their return to Judah seventy years later. Of course,
they also had 7,337 servants and 200 singers.
Let's contrast that with the Exodus population of 603,550 tribesmen
over 20 years of age (Num. 1:46). The Levite males one month and
older, who were counted separately, totaled 22,300, if the separate
figures in Numbers 3:22,28,34 are added, but 22,000 according
to Numbers 3:39. God should have invented the calculator 3,000
years earlier. Of course, women and children probably tripled
or even quadrupled these figures, and this was after a long period
of brutal slavery and the Egyptian slaughter of the Hebrew male
infants. Considering that it had all begun from only 76 "souls"
that went into Egypt with Jacob (Gen. 46:26), the Israelite exodus
population should have been much smaller. Apparently, the Israelites
really knew how to be fruitful and multiply in those days but
not centuries later when they really needed a large population.
[By the way, the Egyptian massacre of Hebrew male infants occurred
only after two Israelite midwives refused to kill the babies themselves
(Ex. 1:15-17). How could only two midwives have served a body
of pregnant women giving birth fast enough to have produced such
a large exodus population?]
The prenational Israelites needed all those fighting men. When
the Midianites, a nomadic tribe living in the deserts of Jordan--which
today support a Bedouin population numbering only in the tens
of thousands--invaded Israel, their army was so large that they
could lose 120,000 troops to the Israelite defense and still have
15,000 left (Judges 8:10). And the wasteland of Moab produced
a large army, which lost 10,000 in a battle (Judges 3:29). On
Israel's behalf, Gideon raised 32,000 men (Judges 7:3), ultimately
selecting only 300 to tackle the 135,000 Midianites, who had apparently
made a remarkable recovery from complete annihilation inflicted
by an earlier Israelite army (Num. 31:1-18).
Similarly, Judge Deborah raised 10,000 Israelite warriors from
only two tribes (Judges 4:6) to tackle an invading Canaanite army.
They defeated Sisera, who had 900 chariots (carrying two men each)
and an undisclosed number of infantrymen. But wait! Only a few
decades earlier, the Israelites of the exodus had had 600,000
warriors, yet after Sisera's defeat, Judges 5:8 says Israel had
a mere 40,000 troops available to Deborah. Why, Joshua's advanced
guard in the invasion of Judea had alone numbered 40,000 (Josh.
4:13), [That ancient Israelite army stock market could go from
bull to bear and back again in the blink of a divine eye.] Those
wild stock fluctuations must be why, when the era of the judges
came to a close some time after Deborah, Saul was able to raise
300,000 men from Israel and 30,000 from Judah (1 Sam. 11:8). Saul's
successor David fared even better. He raised 340,000 troops plus
the muster of Issacher immediately after coming to power (1 Chron.
12) and then later, of course, had 1.3 million or was it 1.57
So Saul had plenty of troops to protect his land. That's why,
when the Philistines invaded, Saul raised a massive army of...
3,000 troops? (1 Sam. 13:2). He faced a Philistine horde of 30,000
chariots, 6,000 cavalrymen, and countless infantrymen (1 Sam.
13:5). [By the way, where did the Philistines get their cavalry,
since this was the 11th century B. C. E. and real cavalry was
another 150 years or so away? Egyptian drawings of 12th century
battles with the Philistines show the Philistines with only chariots--
and not too many of those. Surely, Yahweh didn't commit another
anachronism! Say it ain't so, Jeho.]
Evidently, the Philistines were the greatest militarists of history.
The Hittite empire, a superpower of the Late Bronze Age, could
field only 3,500 chariots from an area covering most of modern
Turkey and Syria.
The Philistines, who were confined to the coastland of what is
now Israel, had more than eight times that number, plus that mysterious
cavalry. The Philistines must have done nothing but build chariots
and train every man, woman, and child for combat. Nothing else
could explain that fantastic army they fielded. So why didn't
Saul call out his 330,000 troops? It's a real mystery, because
the people of Israel had to hide in caves and on hills and in
cisterns and tombs (1 Sam. 13:6). You'd think they would turn
out by the hundreds of thousands to defend their country. Poor
Saul had only 600 men left of his mighty army (1 Sam. 13:15).
Israel's army was definitely in a bear market at the time. Remember,
only a few years later, David had 1.57 million troops... or 340,000
plus the muster of Issacher... or 1.3 million. Whatever. David
was riding a bull market in Israelite army futures.
Saul eventually hit a bull market too, for after a long war with
the Philistines, he could field 210,000 troops (1 Sam. 15:4).
God certainly opened the wombs of the women of Israel. Each woman
must have had quintuplets every year, with a child mortality rate
As you can see by now, the dry scrubland of Judea--populated by
scattered villages and small settlements-- could raise gigantic
armies, larger than the Persian Empire's when it faced destruction
at Alexander's hand, larger than Frederick the Great's, larger
than Napoleon's in all his battles save the invasion of Russia,
larger than the Union's and Confederacy's in their epic struggle.
So Israel had the ability to take on its powerful neighbors, such
as the Assyrians, who were stopped by 65,000 infantrymen, 4,000
chariots, 1,200 cavalrymen, and 1,000 camel-riders at the battle
of Qarqar in 853 B. C. E. The Assyrians killed 14,000 enemy warriors,
which undoubtedly included many troops of King Ahab of Israel,
along with armies from his allies--Damascus, Hamath, Cilicia,
and six other Middle Eastern states. Ahab himself had brought
2,000 chariots and 10,000 infantrymen to the battle. [I wonder
if Qarqar was before or after Ahab and his army slaughtered 127,000
Syrians as recounted in 1 Kings 20:29-30?]
Only 14,000 casualties? After all those gigantic battles in which
hundreds of thousands of warriors from the nomadic and semi-nomadic
peoples of dry Jordan and dry Judea were slaughtered in epic struggles,
the Assyrians-- with their giant cities and dense population--could
manage to kill only 14,000 enemy troops? No wonder the Assyrians
didn't win at Qarqar!
Now for a little reality check on all these numbers that the Bible
throws around. In the ancient world, only the really great powers,
such as the Bronze Age Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians,
and later the Persians, fielded armies upward of 50,000 or more.
Around the 19th century B. C. E., the Assyrian King Shamshi-Adad
reported having 60,000 troops for a siege. A typical army might
be the 6,000 troops fielded by several Mesopotamian city-states
of the 19th century during a period of prosperity. Their combined
populations likely exceeded Israel's at the time of Saul and David.
The kings of these states also kept a close eye on logistics.
Even Shamshi-Adad worried about taking care of 400 troops on an
expedition, and one king questioned another about a frequent problem
inplanning a military campaign: "Where would such a numerous
force of men find enough water to drink?" (Stephanie Dalley,
Mari and Karana: Two Old Babylonian Cities, 1984, pp. 141-147).
When Ramesses II fought the Hittites at Kadesh in about 1285 B.
C. E., he recorded their force as 37,000 infantrymen and 3,500
chariots--most with three-man crews--and said that the Hittites
mustered much of the military power of their empire, which covered
most of Anatolia, Syria, and a bit of Iraq (Sir Alan Gardiner,
The Kadesh Inscriptions of Ramesses II, 1975, pp. 41-42). Ramesses
himself had four Egyptian divisions--possibly the largest army
Bronze Age Egypt fielded. Ramesses' father, Seti, had used only
three divisions in a major campaign.
It's worth noting that in his poetic account of Kadesh, Ramesses
claimed to have personally killed hundreds of thousands of Hittites
and their allies (Ibid., pp 10-13), and Ramesses probably lost
the battle. Propaganda was invented long before the Israelites
Smaller states fought with smaller armies. When the 330 princes
from Canaan to Syrian raised a great army in the 15th century
B. C. E. to stop the Egyptian Pharaoh Thothmosis III, they had
about 1,000 chariots. Thothmosis captured most of their army at
Megiddo, in what is now Israel, but recorded fewer than 2,000
captives. He probably did not count the common troops taken captive,
but their numbers were in the few thousands, not the hundreds
Egypt was almost certainly the most populous single state in the
Middle East because of the tremendous agricultural bounty provided
by the regular floods of the Nile. In the first centuries B. C.
E. and C. E., Egypt had 7 million or so people, according to the
census reports then. The great states of Mesopotamia--relying
on the fertile lands around the erratic Tigris and Euphrates rivers--were
close in population to Egypt. Babylon, counting its suburbs, may
have reached a population of 500,000 in the Iron Age.
Israel, by comparison, was tiny in both land and population. Jerusalem
and Shechem were out in the boondocks during the Bronze Age. The
14th century B. C. E. population of the region that is now Israel
is estimated at no more than 250,000, based upon archaeological
discoveries and the analysis of historians ("The Amarna Letters
from Palestine," The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 2, Part
2A, 1975, p. 108). The Egyptian garrison commander at Jerusalem
requested only 50 troops to guard the area around that city. Other
garrisons in 14th century Palestine ranged from 50 to 100 (Ibid.).
The population of the western lowlands possibly shrank at the
end of the Late Bronze Age and then grew as the Sea Peoples (Philistines)
moved in (William H. Stiebing, Jr., Out of the Desert, p. 94).
According to archaeological surveys, the population of the hill
country (early Israel) increased during the Early Iron Age, but
people lived in small settlements, not large cities (Carol Meyers,
Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context, 1988, pp.
Ms. Meyers described the evidence for expansion of the population
of early Israel in small villages at this time. She also noted
the difficulties the Israelite pioneers faced in working an area
of poor soil and erratic water supplies. It was hardly a landscape
that could support armies numbering tens of thousands, much less
hundreds of thousands. In Who Were the Israelites? Gosta W. Ahlstrom
makes similar points about the small size of Israelite settlements
and the difficult nature of the land (1986, pp. 19-22).
Archaeologists have located 23 settled sites for highland Israel
in the Late Bronze Age, an area of about 1,622 square miles. For
the Early Iron Age, 114 settlements are known (Meyers, pp. 51-55).
This region was relatively dry. Farming it was hard work, which
is probably why it was not fully settled until after the lowlands
were occupied. In essence, their surplus population--or perhaps
fugitives fleeing Egyptian raids and the invasion of the Sea Peoples--
overflowed into the hill country.
Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples were already crisscrossing the
area, carrying trade goods, buying agricultural produce of the
settlers in exchange for the animals the nomads raised, and sometimes
raiding the lowlands and retreating into the hills when pursued.
So what about those nomadic Midianites, who supposedly lost 120,000
in a single battle and still had 15,000 left (Judges 8:10)? Gideon
nevertheless had defeated the Midianites with only 300 men (Judges
7:19-22). The allegedly great slaughter of the Midianite army
in Judges 8 came as all the Israelites joined in pursuit. What
can we make of such inconsistencies? The only thing reasonable
minds can assume: the Midianite numbers were sheer fiction. Gideon's
300 is realistic for guerrilla warfare common to the hills. Remember
how the Egyptian garrison commander of Jerusalem needed only 50
troops to reinforce his control over that region?
The independent Early Iron Age state of the hill country of Judea
was hemmed in by the more populous and powerful city-states of
lowland Canaan and Philistia to the west and strong Syrian states
to the north. The 3,000 Israelite warriors of 1 Samuel 13:2 are
realistic. Note that when Saul was pursuing David, David had a
mere 400 supporters (1 Sam. 22:2, everyone "in debt"
or "discontented") or 600 (1 Sam. 23:13).
Saul, David, and Solomon united these growing settlements, conquered
areas, and molded nomads into a nation, but if the Hittites could
raise only 48,000 or so troops from their large empire and if
Pharaonic Egypt couldn't do much better from the densely populated
Nile valley, then the Israelite nation never had 330,000, much
less 1.57 million, warriors. (Note: archaeologists have never
found any record with the names of Saul or Solomon or the "judges"
of Israel. No one really knows if any of these people actually
existed. According to a wire-service story, a reference to the
"House of David" was found in 1994 in association with
the name of Asa, a 9th century king of Judea.)
A comparison with modern Israel will show the absurdity of the
biblical claims of armies numbering into the hundreds of thousands.
Israel today has about 6 million people, but it occupies a larger
area than its progenitor state, including the richer coastal region,
and uses modern farming methods, supported by mechanization. In
the 1967 war in which Israel defeated the combined forces of its
Arab invaders, Israel's population of 2 million provided only
One more reality check: the troops of modern Israel and the forces
of all modern armies are supplied by railroads, motorized vehicles,
aircraft, and powered ships. In the ancient world, armies had
supply trains of ox-drawn carts, donkeys and camels, even sometimes
humans carrying packs, and meat traveling on the hoof. Ancient
cargo ships were sometimes comparatively large-- perhaps up to
400-500 tons in the Bronze Age--but they served only coastal regions.
Not until mechanization and improved methods of food preservation
arrived in the 19th century could armies readily exceed 100,000
troops. World War I is the first time in history when armies of
more than 1 million troops met in combat.
People who claim that the Bible is literally true from beginning
to end are shameless liars, openly insulting the intelligence
of all of us by defending these absurd numbers. (Either that or
they are incredibly naive and simplistic.) The Bible's convoluted
and contradictory figures are propaganda written centuries after
the fact by rulers and priests who had ideological axes to grind.
The stories are fantasy, like Ramesses' slaughter of "millions"
The lies amount to one thing: the faithful want us to believe
sheer nonsense about the past so that we will accept equal nonsense
about the present. History shows that the claims of the ambitiously
driven superstitious add up to nothing but calculated attempts
to make fools of us all.
(Bill Sierichs, Jr., 316 Apartment Court Drive, Apartment 44,
Baton Rouge, LA 70806.)
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