Prior to entering the land of Canaan, the Israelites brazenly committed idolatry and sexual immorality with the Moabites. They consequently suffered divine judgment, and “those who died of the plague were twenty-four thousand” (Num. 25:9, ESV).
About fifteen centuries later the apostle Paul references the exploits of ancient Israel to warn the disciples at Corinth about the sins of idolatry and sexual immorality. He writes: “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Cor. 10:8).
Moses says “twenty-four thousand” and Paul says “twenty-three thousand,” an apparent discrepancy that has been referred to as “the infamous case of ‘the missing thousand,’ for which there is not an entirely satisfactory solution.”1 But before we so readily dismiss the foundational principle of biblical inerrancy, why not consider other plausible explanations?
It has been suggested that the additional 1000 of Moses’ account is applicable to “all the leaders” who were hanged (v. 5) and other men who were killed (v. 6) prior to the subsequent deaths.2 While the number cited by Moses refers to “those who died of the plague,” we are assessing the statement in English translation. The operable word in the Hebrew text is maggephah, which can also be rendered “fatal blow” (Ezek. 24:16) or “slaughter” (1 Sam. 4:17; 2 Sam. 17:9; 18:7).3 In Numbers 25 not all the deaths were the result of a plague (vv. 4-8). In contrast, Paul speaks of the victims who “fell in a single day” rather than the total fatalities inclusive of the ones before and/or after this single day.
The solution may be even simpler. It is not a foregone conclusion that Paul is even alluding to the incident in Numbers 25. In the previous verse he has just quoted Exod. 32:6 and is likely referring to the number who fell on that occasion. Even though Exod. 32:28 records the deaths of “about three thousand men,” this figure applies to those killed by the sword, while vv. 33-35 report the ensuing aftermath of the plague.4 Paul simply reveals the death toll of a separate event.
Whatever may or may not have been the nature of Paul’s example, there is no legitimate (much less blatant or provable!) discrepancy as many have surmised.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Gordon D. Fee, First Corinthians 456.
2 John Gill, Exposition of the Bible <Web>.
3 Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, s.v. מַגֵּפָה.
4 Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties 141.
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