I had a question about a passage I read recently. It’s the passage in 1
Corinthians 10 that talks about the 23,000 killed for sexual immorality.
However, in Numbers, it states that 24,000 were killed. I ‘ve read Paul
was referring to Ex 32 and not the passage in Numbers. I’ve also read that
possibly an extra 1,000 were killed on another day. This doesn’t sound
convincing. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.


If you do a search of the articles section of the web site, you will find
an article titled “A Remarkable Collection.” There are other articles on
how we got the Bible at the site as well. In the article A Remarkable
Collection, I point out that we have a nearly perfect copy of the original
Hebrew text of the Old Testament, but definitely not a perfect one. The
original writings were inspired, but the copyists were not inspired. They
made errors. Through the science of textual criticism, we can do a good
job of reproducing a Hebrew manuscript very close to the original–close
enough for us to have a very high degree of confidence in our best Hebrew

Having said that, there are definitely some mistakes, even in our best
Hebrew texts. It is impossible to copy the Old Testament manuscripts
dozens of times without making copying errors, no matter how careful one
is. In the article mentioned above, I describe the incredible efforts of
the Hebrew copyists to make mistake-free copies. Still, we know that some
mistakes were made because of the variations in the text. We can get a
good estimate of the number and seriousness of copying errors by comparing
the Dead Sea Scrolls (about 100 BC) to the Masoretic Text (about AD 900).
What one finds, for example in the text of Isaiah, is that over one
thousand years of copying there are a few dozen differences, all of which
are relatively minor. None of the copying errors which occurred over one
thousand years are significant to the meaning of Isaiah.

The case with numbers is particularly difficult for copiers. The Hebrew
system of numbers was somewhat like the Roman in that they used letters
for numbers. Some of the Hebrew letters were quite similar to one
another, making the job of copying numbers even more difficult. When
copying numbers rather than words it is easier to make a mistake because
the context is not as helpful. If I try to write the word tgee instead of
tree, the mistake is obvious from the context. If I write 7552 instead of
7332 the context is not helpful in detecting the copying error. For this
reason, probably the most common copying error in the Old Testament is in
numbers. When I teach on this topic I suggest that those who interpret
the Bible should take numbers with a fairly large grain of salt. If the
Old Testament says that 700 people did such and such, I would not be
suprised if the original was 70 or 770.

Fortunately, the exact numbers used in the Old Testament are almost never
significant to the meaning of the text. This is certainly the case with
the 23,000 (or 24,000) who died in the desert. There is no way that
anyone can claim that the difference is significant to any biblical
teaching. I am assuming that Paul had access to a Hebrew manuscript which
mentioned twenty-three thousand deaths, whereas the most trusted Hebrew
manuscripts have twenty-four thousand. Another possibility I cannot rule
out is that Paul is quoting the Septuagint (Greek) translation but that
his memory was not absolutely perfect in recalling the original. I cannot
rule out the possibility that Paul is making a very small error due to a
memory lapse. I doubt that this is the correct explanation, but I cannot
rule it out. If Paul made a slight error of memory, I do not see how that
impacts the idea of biblical infallibility, as there is no way for anyone
to claim that the exact number is of any significance to the message
conveyed by Paul. It is my opinion that an extremely minor “error” on the
part of a writer does not prove that the text is not inspired, although
some may not agree with me on that.

By the way, I cannot absolutely rule out the “1000 on a later day”
interpretation you mention above, but I agree with you that this is
extremely forced. I do not believe this is likely at all.

John Oakes, PhD

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