Those Amazing Biblical Numbers:
Taking Stock of the Armies of Ancient Israel
by William Sierichs, Jr. 1995 / January-February
To Be Discussed:
The survival of ancient Israel must have often been in doubt, since armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands repeatedly attacked the nascent state. The Israelites once stood off an Egyptian army of a million. Miraculously, for several centuries, Israel survived attacks by armies larger than those commanded by Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the generals of the American Civil War, and even the massive forces of Prussia and France in 1870.
Let’s look more closely at this miracle. We’ll start by putting it in a historical context. According to Herodotus, Xerxes’ Persian army numbered 1.7 million when it invaded Greece (The Persian Wars, Book VII, Section 60), but no reputable historian accepts this figure. The Persians could not possibly have supplied such a horde, given the transportation and food handling technology of the day. For instance, Donald W. Engels calculates that Alexander’s army of 65,000 personnel of all types needed, at a minimum, 1,500 pack animals–and as many as 8,400 whenever it had to cross a dry or desert area–just to carry one day’s supplies (Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, p. 19). That figure increases to 50,400 pack animals for a four-day march in a desert. In a fertile area, Alexander still needed 40,350 pack animals at a minimum to carry his supplies for 10 days of marching (Ibid.). Thus the more generous historians cut the figure for Xerxes’ army to a tenth or about 180,000 troops. More skeptical historians think that even this figure is much too high and cut it to 100,000 or so.
Some historians suggest that Herodotus misunderstood his sources and counted the entire military muster of the Persian Empire. For an empire that controlled a region stretching from Western India and South Central Russia, across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, down into Egypt, back up to Anatolia and into what used to be Yugoslavia, that figure strikes historians as about right.
Certainly, when Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire, he faced huge Persian armies at Issus and Gaugamela, forces possibly as high as 100,000 or even as many as 200,000 troops–but these figures are much debated. Alexander, who controlled Greece, Macedonia, Thrace (Southern Yugoslavia), and a little bit of Western Anatolia, was able to raise between 90,000 and 100,000 troops total, with about half remaining in Macedonia when he invaded the Persian Empire.
Size of Ancient Battles
Epic battles like these, however, were infrequent in ancient history. More common were fights like Marathon, where about 10,000 Greeks met a slightly larger Persian force in 490 B. C. E. or the 13th century B. C. E. campaign in which the Hittite king Tudhaliyas IV faced an army of 10,000 infantrymen and 600 chariots in Western Anatolia.
Even more common were raids between tribes of cities, involving a few hundred, maybe a few thousand. Xenophon’s A History of My Times records numerous instances of these small-scale campaigns: 1,000 emancipated Spartan helots and 4,000 other troops from the Peloponnese, aided by 300 mercenary cavalrymen; 300 light infantrymen, 200 cavalrymen, and 200 Greek hoplites raiding an area; 800 light infantrymen and a comparable force of hoplites ambushing another force; etc.
Great battles with hundreds of thousands of combatants, as we think of them, did not become possible until the 19th century and the development of railroads. In the 18th century, Frederick the Great had an army of 83,000 troops when he became king of Prussia. Other states–Austria, France, and Russia– fielded larger armies, but rarely did they approach 100,000 troops. Frederick’s greatest victories–Rossbach and Leuthen–involved about 75,000 and 115,000 troops respectively on both sides. In the American Revolution, battles rarely exceeded 10,000 combatants total and were usually far fewer in number.
Napoleon’s greatest victory–Austerlitz–involved about 150,000 troops total. So did Gettysburg, America’s greatest Civil War battle. Napoleon raised 500,000 troops for his invasion of Russia–scattered in columns up and down the Russian border for hundreds of miles. Supply problems took many lives. The Union kept about 500,000 troops at arms in the Civil War, supplied by railroads and steamships and scattered across half the nation, so no one area had to support such a horde.
Israel Is the Exception?
The exception to all of these historical military events is ancient Israel, according to Jewish scripture. For example, in 2 Chronicles 14:9, Zerah the Ethiopian brought one million men and 300 chariots against King Asa of Judah (908-868 B. C. E.). The ten tribes of Israel had earlier split from Judah, so Asa commanded only 300,000 warriors from the tribe of Judah and 280,000 from the tribe of Benjamin (2 Chron. 14:8). Nevertheless, we are told that Asa defeated the Ethiopians and killed “so many that they could not recover themselves” (v:13). It helped, of course, that Asa cried unto “Jehovah his God” before the battle (v:11), and, quite expectedly, “Jehovah smote the Ethiopians before Asa” (v:12). It always helps an army to have an omniscient, omnipotent war-god on its side.
Earlier, King Shishak of Egypt (945-924 B. C. E.) had also attacked Judah with 1200 chariots, 60,000 cavalrymen, and “infantry without number” (2 Chron. 12:3) in the time of King David’s grandson, Rehoboam (926-910). Shishak carried off a lot of loot from many cities in both Israel and Judah. He left a list of his trophies in Egypt.
David’s Army Exceeds 1.57 Million Men!
These battles must have been spectacular, like scenes from a Cecil B. DeMille movie, because Rehoboam had 180,000 troops from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (1 Kings 12:21) to defend the land of Judah. Rehoboam might have defeated Shishak if he had had the army of his forefathers, but, unfortunately for him, the kingdom had split in a civil war at King Solomon’s death. According to a census of men over 20 ordered by David, his army was huge–800,000 warriors in Israel and 500,000 in Judah, or 1.3 million “mighty men of valor” (2 Sam. 24:9), unless we want to believe a record of the same census that put the total number of David’s army at over 1.57 million (1 Chron. 21:5).
Nothing in scripture suggests that King Solomon’s army was weaker than David’s, although 2 Samuel 24:15 does note that 70,000 Israelites died in a plague right after David’s census. Solomon himself had 40,000 stalls for his horses and 12,000 cavalrymen (1 Kings 4:26). For clarification, chariots of that period commonly were pulled by two horses, with a third horse kept as a “spare.” Thus, Solomon must have had about 9,300 chariots–28,000 horses–plus his cavalry, although 1 Kings 10:26 says he had only 1,400 chariots but 17,000 cavalrymen.
The mention of Egyptian and Israelite cavalries is a little strange, inasmuch as cavalries seem to have originated in the Russian steppes and moved south into the Middle East around the end of the 10th century (John Keegan and Richard Holmes, Soldiers: a History of Men in Battle, pp. 79-80). The Assyrians almost certainly had cavalry before the Israelites and the Egyptians, and the first mention of cavalry in Assyrian annals is in the 9th century. [Before that time, boys or young men rode horses as messengers, but horses of the Bronze and Early Iron Ages generally were too small to carry fighting men. Bigger horses came from the north (Ibid.).] You would almost think that the chroniclers of Israel introduced an anachronism into their histories, but that couldn’t be, because Yahweh himself wrote these stories. Right?
Individual Killing Machines!
Anyway, the Israelite army was also tough. David’s chief of the captains, Josheb-bas-sheboth killed 800 men in a battle (2 Sam. 23:8). Another commander, Abishai, killed 300 men in a fight (2 Sam. 23:18), and Jashobeam, another “mighty man” of David, killed 300 in one battle (1 Chron. 11:11). By comparison, I don’t think Conan the Barbarian ever killed more than a few dozen men in any battle, according to the chronicles of his deeds by Robert Howard, but, of course, Conan worshiped Crom, not Yahweh, so the paltriness of his feats is understandable.
Huge Vacillation In Armies Sizes
The civil war that divided the kingdom really hurt Israel, because Rehoboam could muster only 180,000 warriors in the late 10th century (compared to David’s 1.3 or 1.57 million). The Israelites were fast breeders, however, because a few decades later, 2 Chronicles 17:14-18 tells us that King Jehoshaphat (868-847 B. C. E.) had five commanders with a total of 1.16 million troops from Judah and Benjamin. There must have been a plague, though, because by 2 Chronicles 25:5, Judah and Benjamin could raise only 300,000 warriors over the age of 20, and King Amaziah (801-773?) had to hire 100,000 mercenaries from his neighbor Israel. By 2 Chronicles 26:12-13, however, King Uzziah (Amaziah’s son, 787-737 B. C. E.) was back up to 310,000 troops. [Reading Chronicles is like following the stock market: the Israelite army is up 100,000 today, down 200,000 tomorrow, up 120,00 by the end of the month.]
The state of Judah fell on hard times in 2 Chronicles 28:5-8, because first the Syrians killed many men, which may have been revenge for that time in 1 Kings 20:30 when the Israelites killed 100,000 Syrians in a battle, after which the surviving Syrians retreated into the city of Aphek, where a wall fell and killed 27,000 more. (This wasn’t the Great Wall of China, was it?) Anyway, back to 2 Chronicles 28. Israel next invaded Judah and killed 120,000 troops and carried off 200,000 civilian captives, who later were generously released. These captive figures sound suspiciously inflated. When the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar carried off the Israelites (2 Kings 24:14-16), he got only 10,000 captives–all the “men of valor,” princes, craftsmen and smiths. Of course, he didn’t get the poorest people, but then they weren’t “mighty men of valor.” So the Babylonians must have slaughtered the bulk of the Judean army, several hundred thousand perhaps. Evidently, the Babylonians were even mightier men than the Israelites. [On the Israelite army stock market, this was the Great Depression.]
What Happened to Jewish Fecundity?
Captivity must have had a debilitating effect on the Israelites. Although they had bred gigantic armies earlier, those 10,000 Israelite captives in Babylon multiplied to only 42,360 people (Ezra 2:64) by the time of their return to Judah seventy years later. Of course, they also had 7,337 servants and 200 singers.
Let’s contrast that with the Exodus population of 603,550 tribesmen over 20 years of age (Num. 1:46). The Levite males one month and older, who were counted separately, totaled 22,300, if the separate figures in Numbers 3:22,28,34 are added, but 22,000 according to Numbers 3:39. God should have invented the calculator 3,000 years earlier. Of course, women and children probably tripled or even quadrupled these figures, and this was after a long period of brutal slavery and the Egyptian slaughter of the Hebrew male infants. Considering that it had all begun from only 76 “souls” that went into Egypt with Jacob (Gen. 46:26), the Israelite exodus population should have been much smaller. Apparently, the Israelites really knew how to be fruitful and multiply in those days but not centuries later when they really needed a large population. [By the way, the Egyptian massacre of Hebrew male infants occurred only after two Israelite midwives refused to kill the babies themselves (Ex. 1:15-17). How could only two midwives have served a body of pregnant women giving birth fast enough to have produced such a large exodus population?]
The prenational Israelites needed all those fighting men. When the Midianites, a nomadic tribe living in the deserts of Jordan–which today support a Bedouin population numbering only in the tens of thousands–invaded Israel, their army was so large that they could lose 120,000 troops to the Israelite defense and still have 15,000 left (Judges 8:10). And the wasteland of Moab produced a large army, which lost 10,000 in a battle (Judges 3:29). On Israel’s behalf, Gideon raised 32,000 men (Judges 7:3), ultimately selecting only 300 to tackle the 135,000 Midianites, who had apparently made a remarkable recovery from complete annihilation inflicted by an earlier Israelite army (Num. 31:1-18).
Similarly, Judge Deborah raised 10,000 Israelite warriors from only two tribes (Judges 4:6) to tackle an invading Canaanite army. They defeated Sisera, who had 900 chariots (carrying two men each) and an undisclosed number of infantrymen. But wait! Only a few decades earlier, the Israelites of the exodus had had 600,000 warriors, yet after Sisera’s defeat, Judges 5:8 says Israel had a mere 40,000 troops available to Deborah. Why, Joshua’s advanced guard in the invasion of Judea had alone numbered 40,000 (Josh. 4:13), [That ancient Israelite army stock market could go from bull to bear and back again in the blink of a divine eye.] Those wild stock fluctuations must be why, when the era of the judges came to a close some time after Deborah, Saul was able to raise 300,000 men from Israel and 30,000 from Judah (1 Sam. 11:8). Saul’s successor David fared even better. He raised 340,000 troops plus the muster of Issacher immediately after coming to power (1 Chron. 12) and then later, of course, had 1.3 million or was it 1.57 million? Whatever.
So Saul had plenty of troops to protect his land. That’s why, when the Philistines invaded, Saul raised a massive army of… 3,000 troops? (1 Sam. 13:2). He faced a Philistine horde of 30,000 chariots, 6,000 cavalrymen, and countless infantrymen (1 Sam. 13:5). [By the way, where did the Philistines get their cavalry, since this was the 11th century B. C. E. and real cavalry was another 150 years or so away? Egyptian drawings of 12th century battles with the Philistines show the Philistines with only chariots– and not too many of those. Surely, Yahweh didn’t commit another anachronism! Say it ain’t so, Jeho.]
Evidently, the Philistines were the greatest militarists of history. The Hittite empire, a superpower of the Late Bronze Age, could field only 3,500 chariots from an area covering most of modern Turkey and Syria.
The Philistines, who were confined to the coastland of what is now Israel, had more than eight times that number, plus that mysterious cavalry. The Philistines must have done nothing but build chariots and train every man, woman, and child for combat. Nothing else could explain that fantastic army they fielded. So why didn’t Saul call out his 330,000 troops? It’s a real mystery, because the people of Israel had to hide in caves and on hills and in cisterns and tombs (1 Sam. 13:6). You’d think they would turn out by the hundreds of thousands to defend their country. Poor Saul had only 600 men left of his mighty army (1 Sam. 13:15). Israel’s army was definitely in a bear market at the time. Remember, only a few years later, David had 1.57 million troops… or 340,000 plus the muster of Issacher… or 1.3 million. Whatever. David was riding a bull market in Israelite army futures.
Saul eventually hit a bull market too, for after a long war with the Philistines, he could field 210,000 troops (1 Sam. 15:4). God certainly opened the wombs of the women of Israel. Each woman must have had quintuplets every year, with a child mortality rate of zero.
As you can see by now, the dry scrubland of Judea–populated by scattered villages and small settlements– could raise gigantic armies, larger than the Persian Empire’s when it faced destruction at Alexander’s hand, larger than Frederick the Great’s, larger than Napoleon’s in all his battles save the invasion of Russia, larger than the Union’s and Confederacy’s in their epic struggle. Truly remarkable!
So Israel had the ability to take on its powerful neighbors, such as the Assyrians, who were stopped by 65,000 infantrymen, 4,000 chariots, 1,200 cavalrymen, and 1,000 camel-riders at the battle of Qarqar in 853 B. C. E. The Assyrians killed 14,000 enemy warriors, which undoubtedly included many troops of King Ahab of Israel, along with armies from his allies–Damascus, Hamath, Cilicia, and six other Middle Eastern states. Ahab himself had brought 2,000 chariots and 10,000 infantrymen to the battle. [I wonder if Qarqar was before or after Ahab and his army slaughtered 127,000 Syrians as recounted in 1 Kings 20:29-30?]
Only 14,000 casualties? After all those gigantic battles in which hundreds of thousands of warriors from the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of dry Jordan and dry Judea were slaughtered in epic struggles, the Assyrians– with their giant cities and dense population–could manage to kill only 14,000 enemy troops? No wonder the Assyrians didn’t win at Qarqar!
Now for a little reality check on all these numbers that the Bible throws around. In the ancient world, only the really great powers, such as the Bronze Age Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and later the Persians, fielded armies upward of 50,000 or more. Around the 19th century B. C. E., the Assyrian King Shamshi-Adad reported having 60,000 troops for a siege. A typical army might be the 6,000 troops fielded by several Mesopotamian city-states of the 19th century during a period of prosperity. Their combined populations likely exceeded Israel’s at the time of Saul and David. The kings of these states also kept a close eye on logistics. Even Shamshi-Adad worried about taking care of 400 troops on an expedition, and one king questioned another about a frequent problem inplanning a military campaign: “Where would such a numerous force of men find enough water to drink?” (Stephanie Dalley, Mari and Karana: Two Old Babylonian Cities, 1984, pp. 141-147).
When Ramesses II fought the Hittites at Kadesh in about 1285 B. C. E., he recorded their force as 37,000 infantrymen and 3,500 chariots–most with three-man crews–and said that the Hittites mustered much of the military power of their empire, which covered most of Anatolia, Syria, and a bit of Iraq (Sir Alan Gardiner, The Kadesh Inscriptions of Ramesses II, 1975, pp. 41-42). Ramesses himself had four Egyptian divisions–possibly the largest army Bronze Age Egypt fielded. Ramesses’ father, Seti, had used only three divisions in a major campaign.
It’s worth noting that in his poetic account of Kadesh, Ramesses claimed to have personally killed hundreds of thousands of Hittites and their allies (Ibid., pp 10-13), and Ramesses probably lost the battle. Propaganda was invented long before the Israelites appeared.
Smaller states fought with smaller armies. When the 330 princes from Canaan to Syrian raised a great army in the 15th century B. C. E. to stop the Egyptian Pharaoh Thothmosis III, they had about 1,000 chariots. Thothmosis captured most of their army at Megiddo, in what is now Israel, but recorded fewer than 2,000 captives. He probably did not count the common troops taken captive, but their numbers were in the few thousands, not the hundreds of thousands.
Egypt was almost certainly the most populous single state in the Middle East because of the tremendous agricultural bounty provided by the regular floods of the Nile. In the first centuries B. C. E. and C. E., Egypt had 7 million or so people, according to the census reports then. The great states of Mesopotamia–relying on the fertile lands around the erratic Tigris and Euphrates rivers–were close in population to Egypt. Babylon, counting its suburbs, may have reached a population of 500,000 in the Iron Age.
Israel, by comparison, was tiny in both land and population. Jerusalem and Shechem were out in the boondocks during the Bronze Age. The 14th century B. C. E. population of the region that is now Israel is estimated at no more than 250,000, based upon archaeological discoveries and the analysis of historians (“The Amarna Letters from Palestine,” The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 2, Part 2A, 1975, p. 108). The Egyptian garrison commander at Jerusalem requested only 50 troops to guard the area around that city. Other garrisons in 14th century Palestine ranged from 50 to 100 (Ibid.). The population of the western lowlands possibly shrank at the end of the Late Bronze Age and then grew as the Sea Peoples (Philistines) moved in (William H. Stiebing, Jr., Out of the Desert, p. 94). According to archaeological surveys, the population of the hill country (early Israel) increased during the Early Iron Age, but people lived in small settlements, not large cities (Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context, 1988, pp. 51-55).
Ms. Meyers described the evidence for expansion of the population of early Israel in small villages at this time. She also noted the difficulties the Israelite pioneers faced in working an area of poor soil and erratic water supplies. It was hardly a landscape that could support armies numbering tens of thousands, much less hundreds of thousands. In Who Were the Israelites? Gosta W. Ahlstrom makes similar points about the small size of Israelite settlements and the difficult nature of the land (1986, pp. 19-22).
Archaeologists have located 23 settled sites for highland Israel in the Late Bronze Age, an area of about 1,622 square miles. For the Early Iron Age, 114 settlements are known (Meyers, pp. 51-55). This region was relatively dry. Farming it was hard work, which is probably why it was not fully settled until after the lowlands were occupied. In essence, their surplus population–or perhaps fugitives fleeing Egyptian raids and the invasion of the Sea Peoples– overflowed into the hill country.
Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples were already crisscrossing the area, carrying trade goods, buying agricultural produce of the settlers in exchange for the animals the nomads raised, and sometimes raiding the lowlands and retreating into the hills when pursued.
So what about those nomadic Midianites, who supposedly lost 120,000 in a single battle and still had 15,000 left (Judges 8:10)? Gideon nevertheless had defeated the Midianites with only 300 men (Judges 7:19-22). The allegedly great slaughter of the Midianite army in Judges 8 came as all the Israelites joined in pursuit. What can we make of such inconsistencies? The only thing reasonable minds can assume: the Midianite numbers were sheer fiction. Gideon’s 300 is realistic for guerrilla warfare common to the hills. Remember how the Egyptian garrison commander of Jerusalem needed only 50 troops to reinforce his control over that region?
The independent Early Iron Age state of the hill country of Judea was hemmed in by the more populous and powerful city-states of lowland Canaan and Philistia to the west and strong Syrian states to the north. The 3,000 Israelite warriors of 1 Samuel 13:2 are realistic. Note that when Saul was pursuing David, David had a mere 400 supporters (1 Sam. 22:2, everyone “in debt” or “discontented”) or 600 (1 Sam. 23:13).
Saul, David, and Solomon united these growing settlements, conquered areas, and molded nomads into a nation, but if the Hittites could raise only 48,000 or so troops from their large empire and if Pharaonic Egypt couldn’t do much better from the densely populated Nile valley, then the Israelite nation never had 330,000, much less 1.57 million, warriors. (Note: archaeologists have never found any record with the names of Saul or Solomon or the “judges” of Israel. No one really knows if any of these people actually existed. According to a wire-service story, a reference to the “House of David” was found in 1994 in association with the name of Asa, a 9th century king of Judea.)
A comparison with modern Israel will show the absurdity of the biblical claims of armies numbering into the hundreds of thousands. Israel today has about 6 million people, but it occupies a larger area than its progenitor state, including the richer coastal region, and uses modern farming methods, supported by mechanization. In the 1967 war in which Israel defeated the combined forces of its Arab invaders, Israel’s population of 2 million provided only 264,000 soldiers.
One more reality check: the troops of modern Israel and the forces of all modern armies are supplied by railroads, motorized vehicles, aircraft, and powered ships. In the ancient world, armies had supply trains of ox-drawn carts, donkeys and camels, even sometimes humans carrying packs, and meat traveling on the hoof. Ancient cargo ships were sometimes comparatively large– perhaps up to 400-500 tons in the Bronze Age–but they served only coastal regions. Not until mechanization and improved methods of food preservation arrived in the 19th century could armies readily exceed 100,000 troops. World War I is the first time in history when armies of more than 1 million troops met in combat.
People who claim that the Bible is literally true from beginning to end are shameless liars, openly insulting the intelligence of all of us by defending these absurd numbers. (Either that or they are incredibly naive and simplistic.) The Bible’s convoluted and contradictory figures are propaganda written centuries after the fact by rulers and priests who had ideological axes to grind. The stories are fantasy, like Ramesses’ slaughter of “millions” of Hittites.
The lies amount to one thing: the faithful want us to believe sheer nonsense about the past so that we will accept equal nonsense about the present. History shows that the claims of the ambitiously driven superstitious add up to nothing but calculated attempts to make fools of us all.
(Bill Sierichs, Jr., 316 Apartment Court Drive, Apartment 44, Baton Rouge, LA 70806.)