My Most Unforgettable Old Testament Scholar

And Why He Still Matters!

By Neil Earle

Evangelical scholar R.K. Harrison was of unfailing common sense in his approach to reconciling anomalies about numbers in Old Testament accounts. Photo by Karl Moore

In the late 1980s one of my alert parishioners ended up sitting next to Roland K. (R.K.) Harrison on an airplane flight.

His brother had studied under Harrison briefly and an engaging conversation ensued. At the time R.K. Harrison was one of the most celebrated evangelical scholars in the world. He had worked on the translation of both the New King James and the New International Version of the Bible – no mean feat.

His reputation had been made years earlier with his publication in 1969 of a monumental 1325 page work titled Introduction to the Old Testament, a work with international clout.

Who’s Afraid of Bible Math?

That volume was of great value recently when discussing a troublesome issue in Old Testament studies, namely, the reliability of the large numbers in the Old Testament account, a question that has bothered many. The figure of 603,350 men leaving Egypt under Moses in Numbers 1:45 – which could tally as many as 3 million counting whole families – has worried serious scholars. There is little archaeological evidence for those famous 40 years wandering in the Wilderness considering the sheer bulk involved. In fact the archaeologist Garstang early estimated from well-preserved military and commercial tablets the population of the Promised Land at below 3,000,000. The Arab writer Ibn Khaldun mentions that 600,000 would form a line out of sight three times further than the horizon.

Still, Bible defenders have made the fair point that Alexander the Great tore through the Sinai on his way to destroy Egypt without leaving a trace. This is true but other historical quandaries remain. For example, Joshua 8’s record of killing 12,000 – all the people of Ai – seems hard to set against Joshua needing only 2-3000 men (7:3) for the original battle with only 36 Israelite casualties (7:5). Joshua 8:25 says the Israelites “utterly destroyed” all the inhabitants of Ai yet Jeremiah 49:3 says they were still around hundreds of years later.

All this has called Biblical numbers into question. These disputes have divided many over the years. As I show below, Harrison was of unfailing common sense in his approach to helping reconcile these anomalies.

BATTLE OF AI: Still tracebale today. Click map to enlarge.

The Inerrancy Detour

The matter of numbers (“Big numbers scare people,” Harrison told me in 1988) has been used by skeptical scholars to invalidate the truth claims of the Old Testament. On the other extreme those who call themselves believers in “inerrancy” – the idea that the Bible is absolutely infallible in all its original statements – treat any deviations from our English Bibles as rank heresy.

If 1 Chronicles 27 relates King David had a bodyguard of some 288,000 men then – so be it. If 2 Samuel 24:9-10 lists 1.3 million men in David’s army – almost the total in the Israeli forces today – then so be it. These numbers were infallible, irrefutable and inerrant!

Or so it is claimed. In the end Harrison’s sage and sagacious advice from his writings helped add some needed perspective on this provocative question.

Interestingly, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX or Septuagint) tends to have lower numbers than the Hebrew Masoretic text of the OT used in our early English Bibles. Goliath is only 6½ feet tall in LXX for example. One of Harrison’s students reported on his “great respect for Scripture…he was a conservative scholar but with a broad and wide mind respecting the Bible as the inspired word of God.” As we will see, Harrison’s respectful and temperate judgment is vital in approaching these issues.

Let’s back up and set the stage.

“The Mother of all Numbers”

Authors Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan in a recent text have called attention to the use of numbers by ancient writers as meaning something beyond sheer addition and subtracting. Even today it is a Middle Eastern trait to exaggerate one’s own position as a tactic to unsettle opponents – propaganda on steroids. In 1990 Saddam Hussein boasted the Americans would experience the “mother of all battles” outside Baghdad when in fact the battle lasted 3 weeks. When Hitler attacked Russia in 1941 he said, “The world will hold its breath.”

A highly exaggerated and colorful use of language is a Middle Eastern trait. Jesus uses hyperbole when he talks about plucking out an eye if it aids us to sin (Matthew 5:27-30). This style is not as prevelant in the Western world but it happens. Consider the over-the-top insults boxers exchange with each other before a big match – Muhammad Ali’s description of one opponent as “the big ugly bear” comes to mind. One purpose here is to seize a psychological edge. The language is stretched. It is a form of what we would call "special effects" in the movies today.

The Ancient Near East expected this style in its history-writing. Assyrian kings record how “they stormed the mountain tops,” the enemy “melted with fear,” “the hills I stained with their blood.” In these expressions more is said than is actually meant. The purpose is to glamorize and glorify the ancient monarchs and their armies. Note the warrior Goliath "trash talk" towards the stripling David in 1 Samuel 17:44. The Egyptian Bulletin of Ramses II reports the despot was held to a draw in one battle yet engaged “millions of foreigners,” whom his majesty fought alone, “none other was with him.”

GAUL: Where Caesar made his name. Click map to enlarge.

Conquest Reports: Ancient and Modern

These are called “conquest reports” and it is the environment in which Old Testament narratives are written. In the Bible, however, the numbers and victories are related as praise to Yahweh not so much the armies of Israel.

This gives conservative Bible readers and scholars a little more room to maneuver beyond the bounds of a crippling inerrancy. Most Bible readers know Jesus is not telling us to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand in order to flee sin. It is exaggeration to make a larger point. In the conquest accounts of books such as Joshua and others, the actual event usually occurred but the descriptions of those events are highly colored. This is where scholars such as R.K. Harrison were such a gift to the church. They understood the exaggerated use of numbers of ancient texts did not undermine the essential historical grounding of the events. Even in our day we recall the inflated body counts given during the Vietnam War or the number of planes the RAF claimed to have shot down during the 1940 Battle of Britain. The battles occurred. The events were real. But the minute details were exaggerated for a reason, details later capable of correction – and they were.

“The Heroic Few” Principle

One example of ancients pushing numbers to the max involves one of history's outstanding generals: Julius Caesar. Many of us had to plow through his account of wars in France and Germany and Switzerland titled The Gallic Wars. It is a document ancient history students cannot easily bypass. Much attention has fallen upon the enormous enemy numbers Caesar cited to – apparently – make his own victories more impressive. David Henige writes of this in the 1998 edition of the impressively named Anales De Demographie Historique. Sixty times Caesar cites numbers. In one report he claims to have wiped out two tribes in the Rhine-Moselle region numbering 430,000 warriors, with not one Roman killed!

This is astounding. However, the historian Tacitus later mentions the same warlike foes appearing in 14 AD, as dangerous as ever. The biographer Plutarch estimates that Caesar claims to have killed about 1,000,000 Gauls in total – a truly unbelievable figure by population calculations. Based on the military to civilian population ratio Henige states that modern-day French geography shows the region could not have held that many people. Caesar was claiming in effect that Gaul had a population beyond the capacity of the land to sustain. Plutarch also downgrades Caesar's encounter with the Helvetian armies from a cited 368,000 to 300,000 and another writer takes it down to 157,000.

And so it goes. Caesar is using the argument of the “heroic few” against the barbarian threat. The Dead Sea Scrolls record similar one-sided accounts in the wars of the Maccabees. A wise scribe concluded that the maneuvers were believable but not the numbers.

This was the way of ancient writing. Careful Bible scholars have defended the technique as common to the time and the place. Ironically, by using that exaggerated style Bible writers reveal their historical writing is authentic – they reflect what we would expect from Iron Age narratives.

A Balanced Judgment

Harrison has a good last word here:

“None of these attempts to scale down the Old Testament numbers is able to account satisfactorily for all the dates involved…the Old Testament numerical computations rest upon some basis of reality which was familiar to the ancients, but which is unknown to modern scholars. In the view of the author, the numbers in the census lists and in such narratives as the Exodus from Egypt are used as symbols…and are not meant to be understood (sic) literally.” And what of that supreme Old Testament miracle at the Red Sea? “By any standards the majesty and miracle of the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea could only be expressed numerically in terms of enormous quantities…”

The formula “believable events/exaggerated numbers” or numbers used as a from of “special effects” is one Harrison and others have offered and it is a balanced, respectable and ultimately humble approach. Therefore we can salute Biblical writers as responsible and purposeful men according to the culture of their times.