CLAIM: Paul states that 23,000 died (1 Cor. 10:8), while Numbers 25:9 states that 24,000 died. Which is true?
RESPONSE: There are two major ways to harmonize this passage:
First, Paul could be referring to the initial slain –not the total slain. Advocates of this view notice that Paul wrote, “Twenty-three thousand fell in one day” (1 Cor. 10:8). It could be that Paul is noting the number who died initially (on that one day), rather than the total number. Similarly, a newscaster might report that 146 people died in a collapsed bridge and 23 were injured. Later, however, some of the injured might die later in intensive care. His report on the initial day would be true –even if more died later. Since some of the leaders of Israel were executed on a different day (Num. 25:4-5), it’s likely that Paul is referring exclusively to those slain by the plague.
Second, Paul is referring to Exodus 32 –not Numbers 25. Since Paul quotes Exodus 32:6 in the previous verse (1 Cor. 10:7), advocates of this view believe that Paul is actually referring to the idolatry at the golden calf in Exodus 32. Since Exodus 32 does not mention the number slain, it could be that Paul is the first inspired author to mention this. In this case, no contradiction would be warranted, because two separate episodes are being recorded here.