In the modern Hebrew Bible all numbers are written out in full, but for a long time the text was written without vowels. The absence of vowels made it possible to confuse two words which are crucial to this problem: èleph and àlluph. Without vowel points, these words look identical: ’lp. Èleph is the ordinary word for “thousand,” but it can also be used in a variety of other senses: e.g. family (Judges 3:2); clan or governor (Zechariah 1:25,33–34); or as a military unit. Àlluph is used for the chieftains of Edom (Genesis 3:3–43); probably for a commander of a military thousand; and almost certainly for the professional, fully-armed soldier.1
If èleph of these passages carries its normal meaning of “thousand,” then many of the numbers appear extremely large. This difficulty has led many to discount the biblical numbers altogether or consider them to be intentional exaggerations. Though èleph usually meant “thousand(s),” the word clearly could also mean a part of a tribe (perhaps best translated “clan”). Given that èleph can mean “clan” and that Israelite soldiers may well have mustered and fought by clans, then èleph might stand for the soldiers who mustered from a particular clan. If correct, this suggests that the Bible may often refer to the number of tribal units rather than total numbers of troops. Most of the large numbers that appear too large shrink down to a more believable but indefinite size if èleph means “clan” or the unit of troops drawn from the clan. It is perhaps more likely that Saul mustered 330 units of soldiers to rescue Jabesh Gilead rather than 330,000 soldiers.2
Numbers in the Book of Mormon are also used as a means to determine rank. In modern language, a military man may be identified by the title of “general” and by the star on his uniform. In the Book of Mormon, a “general” would be identified by the title “captain of 10,000.” It does not mean that he has 10,000 men under his command. A captain of 100 does not mean that he has 100 men under his command. A captain of 50 does not mean that he has 50. It means that he holds a rank. When the pioneer companies were organized, they were divided into captains of 100, captains of 50, and captains of 10 — it was simply a way to identify a role, a rank, or a position; it was a way of dividing the people. “So, when you get to the end of the Nephite wars, with ‘this and his 10,000’ and ‘that and his 10,000’ and ‘someone else and their 10,000’ and they’re all slain, it doesn’t mean that you are reading about hundreds of thousands or millions who are dying. It means that someone in a position of rank and authority and all of those under his command were slain. What those numbers amounted to, we don’t know.”3
1 David Alexander and Pat Alexander, Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 191.
2 Boyd Seevers, Warfare in the Old Testament: The Organization, Weapons, and Tactics of Ancient Near Eastern Armies (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2013), 53–55.
3 “Book of Mormon as a Covenant,” Jan. 13, 2019, 3–4, transcript of talk.