Monday, 5 July 2010

Why Do Orthodox Jews Keep Using the "Elef" = "Chief" Excuse When It Brings Traditional TMS into Question?

Last week's parsha (I'm A Little Behind) discussed a census of Israel in the desert

A frummy once commented:
"As for populations, that is indeed problematic until you learn that the word "elef" could mean "thousand" or "head of a unit of people" (like "aluf" means "chieftain"). That totally changes how you make the count in the Torah of the people. "

Anyways I feel like I'm missing something here. Someone tell me what I'm missing!!! I just do not get why people keep spouting this same old chieftain thing. I'm baffled. There are tons of problems with the whole idea but the worst part is IT JUST DOESN'T ADD UP! Let's just do some chazara:

Same Old Problem: Way too many people recorded in the Biblical census to be realistic

Same Old Suggested Solution:
The Hebrew word elef usually translated as "thousand" also can mean chief, or group, or clan

Fine everyone knows the elef = chief theory. (And if you don't look here)

So since I had just a little too much time on my hands I took a look at the census at he beginning of Numbers (Ch. 1)

Okay take this verse as an example
"those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Reuben, were forty and six elef and five hundred."

Fine that would be forty six clans/chiefs/groups and 500 men. Add 'em all up from all the tribes and you get 598 elef=598 clans/chiefs/groups. Now jump down to the final verse. The last verse sums everything up and says:
"even all those that were numbered were six hundred elef and three elef and five hundred and fifty"

OOPS! Did Moshe (or maybe God) mess up his math and say 603 elef (chiefs) instead of 598 elef (chiefs)?! Shoulda double checked that one.

So I took a look at On the Reliability of the Old Testament by Kenneth Anderson Kitchen over here

And Kitchen basically says the following: The sum of all the hundreds is 5,550. At some point whoever wrote the Bible got a little confused and mixed up the word elef with the thousand from 5,500 and did the math 598+5 = 603. So basically the form that WE have of the Biblical census has been severely distorted due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the word elef.

Now for all you die hard intellifundies out there who just LOVE to shout "elef means chief!!!!" you have a few options in light of this seemingly obvious information:

1. Keep believing that 2 million people can walk around a desert for 40 years unnoticed (God sweeped away the evidence to trick archaeologists!)

2. Believe that the Biblical author botched the calculations and thus the Torah we have is probably not word for word from God.

3. Not do the math! (this is what I assume most intellifundies do)

If none of the above work you can do the following:

1. Say "Elef means Chief" Even LOUDER than before.

2. Bring into question the objective nature of arithmetic POMO Intellifundie style

Seriously am I missing something here?! (Is my arithmetic off? I hate arithmetic!) Is it so simple to find holes in one of the most celebrated pieces of apologetics in MO circles?

This is not an argument Modern Orthodox people should be using!
It completely brings traditional Orthodox TMS into question and is therefore completely inconsistent with their theological position.

(Just to clarify Kitchen's explanation is only a problem to MO-types who insist God/Moshe literally wrote the Torah. If you believe in a gradually developed Torah like Conservative Judaism then this is less of a consistency problem even though this whole interpretation is rather silly in the first place)


Baruch Spinoza said...

About realistic numbers. This is not really related to what you are saying but I thought I bring it up because you might find it interesting. Chronicles Aleph 21:5,6 says the size of King Dovid's army was 1,570,000 but in Shmuel Beis 24:9 it gives the number of 1,300,000. There are two obvious problems. First, we have a contradiction. Second, this number is increabily unrealistic. The largest ancient army was around 250,000 when the Romans went after Hannical of Carthage (and lost). These numbers are about 5 times the size of this. And Hannibal vs Rome was about 2000 years ago while Dovid was about, if he existed, 3000 years ago. This is just so unrealistic. Ignore the number of people at Sinai, if you want to, and just concentrate on the size of this army if you want to see ridiculous numbers. ^_^

G*3 said...

I think most people do 1. The math adds up, there are no inconsistencies, and who are you going to believe: the chumash, or those stupid evil goyishe scientists. (And remember, in some parts of the frum world, the last word is as pejorative as the first three.)

For those who quote the “elef is chief,” it seems according to Kitchen they’re right. Why the math doesn’t add up… we’ll have to assume there was another group (maybe the erav rav) who weren’t included in the detailed census but whose leaders were nevertheless included in the total.

P.S. said...

I thought it was also rendered a group of men, a military unit, as in the lengthy exchange in VT a while back;

Rendsburg, "An Additional Note to Two Recent Articles on the Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt..." Vetus Testamentum 51 (2001), pp. 392-396

It's right that rereading 'elef' doesn't fit with all posukim involved - but it does happen to coincide with the general concensus of a swift rise in population across the Jordan that was roughly 20,000 people, studied by Stager at Harvard.

R. Solomon Sassoon had a symbolic understanding of the calculations, neither a non-literal or "rereading" explanation;

R. Alan Yuter at Bnai Israel Baltimore and the UTJ has written and these matters and is worth engaging on it.

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