(2 Sam. 8:4) How many horsemen did David capture?

CLAIM: 2 Samuel 8:4 states, “David captured from him 1,700 horsemen.” However, 1 Chronicles 18:4 explains, “David took from him… 7,000 horsemen.” Which is true?

RESPONSE: This is a scribal error. In fact, this is very popular in 1 and 2 Samuel. Kaiser writes, “The present Hebrew manuscripts for the books of 1 and 2 Samuel have more transcriptional errors in them than any other book or combination of books in the Old Testament.”[1] It was very easy for Hebrew scribes to make errors with numbers. Kaiser writes,

It may be said that if a cipher notation was used with something like vertical strokes for units, horizontal strokes for tens, and stylized mems (the initial letter in the Hebrew word me’ah—“hundred”) for hundreds, then the scribe miscopied a single stroke. Most of the differences, on this supposition, would involve a single stroke.[2]

The Hebrews used words for these figures—not numbers. So, it is anachronistic to say that they added or left off zeroes in their figures. However, as Kaiser points out, these numbers may have been constructed by using strokes in addition to the words. H. L. Allrick points out that ancient Aramaic documents used strokes—combined with words—to count their numbers. For instance, three thousand might be written as “III thousand.” Allrick writes, “As for the Hebrews themselves, there is no doubt they too employed the same principles of numerical notation.”[3] Because of this, the Hebrew numbers were not always accurately transmitted. John Wenham notes a few instances where numbers in the OT have been poorly transmitted.[4]

First, extra zeroes are added. Compare 700 chariots with 7,000 chariots (2 Sam. 10:18; 1 Chron. 19:18), and 40,000 stalls with 4,000 stalls (1 Kings 4:26; 2 Chron. 9:25).

Second, extra zeroes are removed. Jehoiachin was either 8 or 18 years old (2 Kings 24:8; 2 Chron. 36:9).

Third, a number can drop out. 1 Samuel 13:1 states, “Saul was year old when he began to reign.” Most translations add “thirty years old,” because the LXX renders it this way. However, the original Hebrew text doesn’t have this in the text.

Fourth, the variant numbers sometimes have no correlation. For instance, 2 Samuel 23:8 states that Josheb-basshebeth slew 800 men, but 1 Chronicles 11:11 states that he slew 300 men.

Fifth, the number is constant, but the noun is different. For instance, 2 Samuel 10:18 states that there were 40,000 horsemen, but 1 Chronicles 19:18 states that there were 40,000 footmen.

Sixth, the number is confused, because the letters were similar. 1 Samuel 6:19 states, “He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men…” Josephus edits 50,000 out of this number, leaving only 70 slaughtered. Wenham comments, “It has been suggested that the error arose at a time when Hebrew letters were being used for numerals and that áayin (i = 70) was mistaken for nu‚n (n = 50,000).”[5]

Seventh, the digit can be raised or lowered by one. In other words, the digit 2 will usually become 1 or 3. For instance, 1 Kings 7:26 explains that there were 2,000 baths and 2 Chronicles 4:5 states that there were 3,000.

The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) states 7,000 horsemen in both passages.[6] For this reason, the NIV doesn’t present a contradiction on this passage.

[1] Kaiser, Walter C. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988. “1 Chron. 19:18 How Many Charioteers?”

[2] Kaiser, Walter C. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988. See “5. Aren’t Many Old Testament Numbers Wrong?”

[3] Allrick, H.L. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 136 (1954) 24. Cited in Wenham, John. “Large Numbers in the Old Testmament.” Tyndale Bulletin (18) 1967. 6.

[4] See Wenham, John. “Large Numbers in the Old Testmament.” Tyndale Bulletin (18) 1967. 4.

[5] Wenham, John. “Large Numbers in the Old Testmament.” Tyndale Bulletin (18) 1967. 5.

[6] Youngblood, R. F. (1992). 1, 2 Samuel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 3: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (909). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.