1 Samuel 6:19—How could Beth Shemesh have a population of over 50,000 men?

Problem: After the people of the town of Beth Shemesh had received the ark of the covenant, some of the citizens ignored the sacredness of the ark and looked inside it. This passage states that the Lord “struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people.” However, a population of over 50,000 seems to be much too large for such a community.

Solution: First, this is most probably a scribal or transcription error. The numerical designation in Hebrew usually follows a certain pattern in which the larger number is written first, then the smaller number. The normal manner to write such a number would be “fifty thousand men and seventy men.” However, in this instance, the numbers appear backward. The text actually reads “seventy men fifty thousand men.” In addition, numerical designations are almost always connected by the conjunction “and” so that the statement would read, “fifty thousand men and seventy men.” Again this passage departs from the normal practice by omitting the “and.” These factors have lead many to suspect that the text was inadvertently corrupted in transmission.

Second, it is also conceivable that some explanation for the size of the group has simply eluded investigation to the present. Some future archaeological excavation may uncover evidence to explain why there was in fact such a large group present, or at least involved in the judgment at Beth Shemesh. Although a population of over 50,000 may have been too great for a community like Beth Shemesh, such population sizes were not unheard of in major cities in the ancient world. This large number may yet be accounted for in some way.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.