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What About Casualty Numbers?
by Farrell Till


1995 / January-February



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" (Ex. 9:18,24). The locusts were likewise very grievous; "before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such" (Ex. 10:10). Yahweh granted Solomon wisdom that none before him had had and that none after him would have (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 (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 (29:6-7). 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 (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 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" (v:22). Only 15,000 Midianite troops were left alive after the battle (8:10). 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" (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 (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" (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" (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 single day!

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 (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 (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" (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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