Question: Why is it that one event involving numbers, such as a person’s age or the number of soldiers in an army, can be recorded in more than one place in Scripture and those references give apparently contradictory numbers?
For example, 2 Samuel 24:9 and 1 Chronicles 21:5 both give an account of the same event—a census of the number of fighting men available to king David throughout Israel and Judah, but give different numerical totals:
2 Sam. 24:9 Joab reported the number of the fighting men to the king: In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand.
1 Chr. 21:5 Joab reported the number of the fighting men to David: In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who could handle a sword, including four hundred and seventy thousand in Judah.
A second example has to do with a discrepancy over the age of Jehoiachin when he began his reign as king—was he 18, as recorded in 2 Kings 24:8, or 8 years old, as it says in 2 Chronicles 36:9?
These examples represent two of the most common types of apparent contradictions in the Bible when it comes to numbers. The first is an example of misunderstood context, while the other is an example of a scribal error during copying of the biblical text.
The issue of context is familiar to Biblegems readers. In the case of 2 Sam. 24:9 and 1 Chron. 21:5, the key to the problem is found in the reference to “able-bodied men” (“valiant men” KJV) in 2 Sam. 24:9. The term in Hebrew is “hayil,” meaning “battle-seasoned” troops. So the passage in 2 Samuel represents Joab’s report of 800,000 seasoned veterans ready for duty if called upon. The accounting in 2 Chronicles, however, is larger by 300,00 because it lists “all who could handle a sword,” in addition to the veterans.
The second example represents an error made by a scribe in the process of copying the text. Early Hebrew writing, such as that used in 2 Kings 24:8 and 2 Chronicles 36:9, used horizontal lines with a downward hook on the right end to represent a “10”. The number 20 would be shown as 2 of these hooked horizontal lines, one above the other. Vertical lines represented the number “1”. So 12 would be two vertical lines followed by a hooked horizontal line.
A scribe copying the number “18” onto a new parchment could easily misread the number as “8” if one of the horizontal lines were smudged, obscured by a crease or missing because of a tear in the original document. This is not an error in Scripture, or a contradiction, but a human error made in the process of copying. The miracle is how few—and how insignificant—such scribal errors are!
For those interested in an overview of further explanations of apparent Bible contradictions, I refer you to Debate Topics Apologetics 101 at http://debate.org.uk/topics/apolog/contrads.htm