Old Testament History

The primary purpose for the Old Testament as it now exists is revealing why we have Christ. There is no pretense of answering all the questions of any particular age, much less ours today. Rather, we are required to examine the claims on their own terms. This requires we enter another realm; indeed, the Bible assumes the reader has already been drawn into that world and needs to understand what is required to live there. Only by accident does the Bible offer any sort of apologetic to those outside that realm. It isn't supposed to make much sense unless you are driven to obey what you find before you find it. It is already difficult enough to understand by those so driven. This study offers no grand scholarly defense of anything, but pretends to open doors for those who struggle to make sense of something they already know they need.

The Bible must be read from its own context, which is the ancient Hebrew culture of the Nation of Israel, while under the Covenant of Moses. In Hebrew literature, context is everything. The writers of each portion assume a certain amount of common knowledge among the readers. From where we stand today, we find ourselves too often at a loss to understand the importance of what is written because we lack that context. Reconstructions are often a matter of on going debate. We would be fools to demand and expect all details be resolved to our Western cultural standards. Instead, we walk in faith, trusting God for two things in particular. First, that God has preserved the text with sufficient fidelity to the originals that we can bow the knee to what the Bible demands of us as if it were God's own words. Second, we trust He has preserved sufficient knowledge of how to read that text so we can obey Him according to His satisfaction.

The study aims to provide a rough outline of Old Testament chronology. While dates are offered in the typical Western notation, no one should assume these dates are certain. We should acknowledge there is plenty of sincere debate and that part of it rests on the very questionable assumptions of dating the history of other nations, Egypt in particular. Modern Western dating of Egyptian chronology is frankly a house of cards, so the best we have is a working estimate of dates. What matters far more is the apparent order of events and less the numerical dates. This study builds on certain assumptions merely for the sake of convenience. If the Hebrew authors didn't bother to nail it down so precisely, it must not have been too important.

The starting point is a desire to know what God demands of us. He preserved a portion of writings from the people He called to bring His revelation to the world. It is utterly impossible to extract from the Scripture narrative all the details that would satisfy our curiosity. This the is the story of redemption, not the story of humanity from any presumed objective point of view. Beware the tendency to think we have the whole story. What we have is what matters for the sake of our obedience to God. There is no other purpose for the Bible, so any alleged pure history approach from our context would be misleading in itself. A primary difference between our context today and that of the ancient Hebrew people is the very fundamental assumptions about reality itself, the intellectual frame of reference regarding what matters in the first place. We seek in this study to bridge the gap between those two contexts.


Footnote: Biblical Body Counts

A particularly difficult and contentious issue is the accuracy of various counts of people under different circumstances. What makes the claims of the Hebrew Bible more worthy of acceptance than the scriptures of any other ancient people or religion? All we can offer here is an answer for those who already believe.

There are plenty of examples in pagan cultures where some written record ascribes exceeding great glory to their rulers and the fine people he ruled. They might claim he was three times normal size, lived at least 2000 years, sired several thousand children, etc. Then we find his body, shorter than most modern humans. We test his DNA to find he died at age 60. Digging for his subjects finds most of them slightly smaller and dying on average at 40. So for us it seems a matter of exaggeration. If we find enough graves containing the right DNA, we can discuss his progeny, too.

Another legendary record will speak to us of a city of ten million inhabitants, but digging down to solid rock, we find a rather smallish town. Even if everyone in the town stood shoulder-to-shoulder, there wouldn't be room for more than ten thousand. Could we blame a bad translation? Maybe, but more likely what we call "pious fraud." They really meant well, wanted folks to think highly of them, or maybe just had to deal with a master who was a megalomaniac and thought he was a god.

So if the story of Moses tells us the census returned a body count of two million men, plus uncounted women, children and old folks, how is that any different? Pagan records are clearly lying and the stories they tell aren't supported by any evidence, or simply are too improbable. The Babylonian version of The Flood describes a square boat, which we know wouldn't work. It's been tried -- repeatedly. Noah's Ark was described in more realistic fashion. This is a trend we can point out, should someone ask. Archeology keeps proving the accuracy of the Bible in at last some parts. So the part about two of every species in Noah's Ark must also be true enough, if we take the time to understand it properly from the Hebrew mystical intellect of those who wrote it. For those of us who believe, it's true because the story comes from the One True God.

To someone who believes in no god, that sounds like more pious fraud. Without the Holy Spirit to convince them, the Bible is just another ancient tale full of outlandish claims, most which have no archaeological support. Yet we believe. We have enough trouble convincing our own fellow Christians to leave behind their Western rational assumptions to see the Bible as it was given, but with non-believers, we have the added problem they lack any motivation to listen at all. For the latter, we want to offer at least some evidence our belief is reasonable within the context of our own acknowledged assumptions. We realize that maybe we just don't understand what the author meant, or maybe there were simple little scribal mistakes when making copies over the centuries.

We don't have room here to chase all the details of how the Bible came to us over the many centuries. In short, people in ancient times wrote on fragile materials in ancient languages using entirely different conceptions about the world. Someone decided some of these records were worth keeping, so they made new copies. But the language had changed some, so they wrote differently and had to change a few words to make sense to readers of their day, especially in place names. Since it was the Word of God, we Christians assume He kept watch over things to insure nothing really important was lost. Yet it's all too obvious that the copies we have left today just don't agree 100% on some details. So we do our best to decide how to weed out the obvious scribal errors, but some things just can't be settled. So we have a story in 2 Samuel 24 where David takes a census of all the men in Israel eligible for military service. The same story appears in 1 Chronicles 21. When the count is given, we have from the first 800,000 in the North, and 500,000 in the South. In the latter account it's 1.1 million and 470,000. Which is wrong? Could it be both? This is the Word of God! It's not supposed to be like this.

Let's consider for a moment what we know of that time and place from other records, or at least can guess. It seems that other nations of similar culture to the Hebrews also conducted a census from time to time. They also counted only fighting men. They did it by noting that some men were average Joes who worked for a living, but might have their own weapons for defense against robbers and wild animals. During the slow season when not much work was done, they might get together and practice a little. They would naturally be aided in their training by men of wealth and power, who had all the time in the world to do nothing but train and collect weapons. Being richer, they had a better diet and were physically larger than the average Joe. These men were professional warriors, as almost every ancient nobleman was. They had skill and experience and attitude to match. They would lead in battle. Based on their experience and skill, they would lead varying sizes of groups, usually made of the average Joes who had been conscripted.

As near as we can tell, these professional warriors were counted separately from the conscripts. The census would probably come back with a count of warriors and a count of conscripts. Our problem is that in Hebrew, the common word for a "professional warrior" was the same as the word for 1000 men. That's probably because the average warrior could lead that many and might be as useful in battle as that many, for all we know. By David's time, they might have begun assigning men a rank name based on their leadership ability, instead of our modern captains, colonels, and such.

So in a particular village, we have 32 professional soldiers and 420 conscripts. Of that cadre of 32, four are competent to lead large formations of 1000, and the rest can handle up to 100. The count might look like this: 4 "thousands," 28 "hundreds" and 420. Somewhere down through the years, a scribe looks at this and tries to make sense of it. In his day, the nomenclature had changed. He decides this is just a body count and doesn't know why it's like this, but decides to clean it up. It looks to him like 4,000 + 3200 + 420. That adds up to 7,620. So an actual 452 bodies of mixed skill becomes a much larger number.

Did it happen that way? Nobody knows for sure, but things we do know point that way. Given what we also know of all the other details of life, we might wonder about an army of over one million being available to David. Even with modern technology, it's hard to cram bodies into a city with small land-space. Best we can tell, most cities of David's time in Palestine weren't too big. There also weren't too awful many of them. They seem never to have had more than two floors in their buildings, and while they might live in tighter quarters than we could tolerate today, it still doesn't add up. There might have been that many humans total, but not that many soldiers.

Will it change our standing with God either way? I can't imagine how it will affect anyone's personal salvation. Jesus' death, burial and resurrection didn't depend on whether David had one million or just 100,000. We know he had enough to keep every nation on his border scared for the most part. So when we hear that Moses left Egypt with 2 million men and we compare that with what we know about Egypt -- Egypt never had an army larger than 20,000 -- why didn't that many men just turn and overwhelm Pharaoh's troops? Maybe it's another case of errors in transmission. Surely, God could have empowered Moses to lead that many and God could rain enough manna to feed that many. Even if we account for God's miracle protection on their population growth during their 480 years in Egypt, it doesn't square with even the most exceptional birth and survival rate. Given the confusion of the Hebrew words for "soldier" and "thousand," we can offer the guess that 250,000 marched out of Egypt. That might give us 100,000 men of fighting age and maybe as many as one in ten a professional. That means a mere 10,000 professional soldiers (or less) and a large herd of untrained ex-slaves to face up to 20,000 trained Egyptian warriors with chariots and without conscripts.

Of course, there is a class of Christian that will charge blasphemy, as if God is bound by their Western obsession with precision and absolutism. The blasphemy is in their attitude, which was never a part of God's revelation. As far as we can tell, these Christians worship the Bible, not the God who gave it. Our salvation depends in part on recognizing that Israel took some laps around Mount Sinai, not on how many there were doing it. There were not enough to fight Egypt's army, but after living in the desert forty years, they were numerous and tough enough to knock out poorly organized tribal nations in Canaan and others along the way. We still can't decide if it was the Reed Sea or Red Sea, we don't know for sure whether the modern Mount Sinai is the same one in the Bible. We can't even identify half the other places named in the Exodus.

So when a certain king is listed as being crowned at eight years of age in one place and eighteen in another, we don't need to fret. Of all the details in Hebrew writing, numbers are probably the weak spot in transmission. They simply didn't care about that sort of precision, and there's nothing wrong with their approach. Only rarely is the count of something too obviously correct, so we need not enslave our minds to such obsessions. In a culture that didn't bother to write the vowel sounds of their language, we have enough to worry about getting more critical details clear. If we believe that Our Lord protected the keeping of His Word, we have to believe that discrepancies only appear in things that don't really matter.


Ed Hurst
25 October 2003, revised 09 February 2016

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