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Hard Sayings of the Bible is the handy reference book you need. Here you will find explanations of over five hundred of the most troubling verses to test the minds and hearts of Bible readers. Four seasoned scholars, all with a notable gift for communicating with people in the pew, take you behind the scenes to find succinct solutions to a wide variety of Bible difficulties, ranging from discrepancies about numbers to questions about God's justice.

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Today's Study

1 Corinthians 10:8: Twenty-three Thousand or Twenty-four Thousand?

In the warning of 1 Corinthians 10:8 we notice that the main point is that Christians should not commit immorality. Yet the number surprises us when we look at Numbers 25:9: "But those who died in the plague numbered 24,000." Which text is correct? Why did Paul use one number if the book of Numbers has another?

In some situations of this type the solution is easy: the New Testament is citing the Greek version of the Old Testament, while the Hebrew version, the basis of English Bibles, reads differently. In this case that is not the solution. All of the various versions of the Old Testament and all known Jewish traditions agree that 24,000 is the correct number. How could Paul have gotten a different number?

Some apologists have resorted to speculation. One theory says that while the total number who died was 24,000, the number that died "in one day" was only 23,000. Another theory argues that the true number was 23,500, and while Numbers rounded it up, Paul rounded it down. The truth is that both of these ideas are pure speculation. No Jewish tradition contains either of these ideas, nor does Paul give any explanation in this verse that would lead us to believe that he is doing one of these things. While either of these theories could be true, only special divine revelation could have revealed them as truth to Paul, and Paul does not claim such special revelation in this passage.

It is difficult to explain exactly what happened. The one place where 23,000 appears in the Old Testament is Numbers 26:62 (the number of the male Levites a month old or more). It is possible that Paul, citing the Old Testament from memory as he wrote to the Corinthians, referred to the incident in Numbers 25:9, but his mind slipped a chapter later in picking up the number. Paul dictated his letters, and if he had written copies of the Old Testament to check, which he often did not, they would have been scrolls and thus awkward to use. It is unlikely that he would unroll one to check a number in a passage. It is certainly not because 23,000 was meaningful that Paul chose it, for it is 24,000 that is a multiple of 12 and which appears in other places in the Old Testament (for example, multiple times in 1 Chron 27). Of course we cannot rule out the possibility that there was some reference to 23 or 23,000 in his local environment as he was writing and that caused a slip in his mind, although given that he was thinking about the Old Testament the explanation from Numbers 26:62 is the more likely.

What does this mean? In this passage in Corinthians Paul was not attempting to instruct people on Old Testament history and certainly not on the details of Old Testament history. What Paul is doing is using a known Old Testament text as an illustration. He assumes that his readers know the Old Testament text and will recognize the incident. Their knowledge that the Old Testament incident happened should then warn them that God might do something like it again, if they behave like Israel did. In regard to the point that Paul is making, there is no difference whether 10 individuals or 1,000 or 20,000 or 24,000 died. The point is that they committed immorality and they died, as the Corinthians may also die if they commit immorality.

Thus here we have a case in which Paul apparently makes a slip of the mind for some reason (unless he has special revelation he does not inform us about), but the mental error does not affect the teaching. How often have we heard preachers with written Bibles before them make similar errors of detail that in no way affected their message? If we notice it (and few usually do), we (hopefully) simply smile and focus on the real point being made. As noted above, Paul probably did not have a written Bible to check (although at times he apparently had access to scrolls of the Old Testament), but in the full swing of dictation he cited an example from memory and got a detail wrong. Since he is not writing an Old Testament commentary, the issue is not that he slipped, but whether or not we will take warning from his teaching and not presume on our baptism and participation in the Lord's Supper to save us from judgment should we fall into immorality like the ancient Israelites did. The issue is not the missing 1,000 from the Old Testament, but whether we will be counted among those judged by God in the new.

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