Friday, May 30, 2008

Bamidbar: Eleph as Military Unit

Some are troubled by the difficulty of 600,000 men (+ women and children) leaving Egypt, claiming it impossible, or incredibly impossible. I am not persuaded of its impossibility, or troubled by it. But anyway, there is alternative to calling it entirely made-up, which some scholars have proposed -- that eleph does not mean 1000 but rather refers to a military unit. Just as we see e.g. shalishim, the captains over Pharaoh's chariots.

This could work with רָאשֵׁי אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל in Bemidbar 1:16:
טז אֵלֶּה קריאי (קְרוּאֵי) הָעֵדָה, נְשִׂיאֵי מַטּוֹת אֲבוֹתָם: רָאשֵׁי אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, הֵם. 16 These were the elect of the congregation, the princes of the tribes of their fathers; they were the heads of the thousands of Israel.
as a setup for the alaphim listed later in the perek.

Thus, we rashei haAlaphim have in I Divrei Hayamim 12:21 in a military sense.
כא בְּלֶכְתּוֹ אֶל-צִיקְלַג, נָפְלוּ עָלָיו מִמְּנַשֶּׁה עַדְנַח וְיוֹזָבָד וִידִיעֲאֵל וּמִיכָאֵל וְיוֹזָבָד, וֶאֱלִיהוּא, וְצִלְּתָי: רָאשֵׁי הָאֲלָפִים, אֲשֶׁר לִמְנַשֶּׁה. 21 As he went to Ziklag, there fell to him of Manasseh, Adnah, and Jozabad, and Jediael, and Michael, and Jozabad, and Elihu, and Zillethai, captains of thousands that were of Manasseh.
כב וְהֵמָּה, עָזְרוּ עִם-דָּוִיד עַל-הַגְּדוּד, כִּי-גִבּוֹרֵי חַיִל, כֻּלָּם; וַיִּהְיוּ שָׂרִים, בַּצָּבָא. 22 And they helped David against the troop, for they were all mighty men of valour, and were captains in the host.
And in Shoftim 6, we have:

יד וַיִּפֶן אֵלָיו, יְהוָה, וַיֹּאמֶר לֵךְ בְּכֹחֲךָ זֶה, וְהוֹשַׁעְתָּ אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכַּף מִדְיָן: הֲלֹא, שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ. 14 And the LORD turned towards him, and said: 'Go in this thy might, and save Israel from the hand of Midian; have not I sent thee?'
טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בִּי אֲדֹנָי, בַּמָּה אוֹשִׁיעַ אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל; הִנֵּה אַלְפִּי הַדַּל בִּמְנַשֶּׁה, וְאָנֹכִי הַצָּעִיר בְּבֵית אָבִי. 15 And he said unto him: 'Oh, my lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my family is the poorest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.'
where alfi means my family.

And in Michah 5:1:
א וְאַתָּה בֵּית-לֶחֶם אֶפְרָתָה, צָעִיר לִהְיוֹת בְּאַלְפֵי יְהוּדָה--מִמְּךָ לִי יֵצֵא, לִהְיוֹת מוֹשֵׁל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל; וּמוֹצָאֹתָיו מִקֶּדֶם, מִימֵי עוֹלָם. 1 But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto Me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from ancient days.

(Though of course we have in Shemos וְאַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל-הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל יִרְאֵי אֱלֹהִים, אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת--שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע; וְשַׂמְתָּ עֲלֵהֶם, שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים, וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת so it certainly is expected that these are nesiim, judges over some subsection.)

Mendenhall in "The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26" notes the above (as well as other things) and suggests that the eleph was a subsection of tribe, upon which the king imposed a levy of men to participate in the military. Thus in that quote from Shofetim, he claims that Gideon is saying that his eleph, the military unit over which he has command, is the smallest in Menashe. For eleph is not a number, but a unit.

He suggests that what we have in Bemidbar is a list of how many elephs there were and then across all elephs, how many men were contributed from the entire tribe. See the figure to the right.

Thus,
כט פְּקֻדֵיהֶם, לְמַטֵּה יִשָּׂשכָר--אַרְבָּעָה וַחֲמִשִּׁים אֶלֶף, וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת. {פ} 29 those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Issachar, were fifty and four thousand and four hundred. {P}

would not mean that there were 54,400 men, but rather that Yissachar contributed 400 men, from its 54 elephs (where each eleph had to contribute to some quota).

His totals them match what we might expect for the size of an army looking at contemporary military censuses.

It is an interesting theory. It does not work with certain aspects of the Biblical text. For example, Bamidbar also sums up these tribal contributions, and hundreds carry over to thousands. And we saw in sefer Shemos, in Shemos 38:26
כו בֶּקַע, לַגֻּלְגֹּלֶת, מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל, בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ--לְכֹל הָעֹבֵר עַל-הַפְּקֻדִים, מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה, לְשֵׁשׁ-מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף וּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אֲלָפִים, וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת וַחֲמִשִּׁים. 26 a beka a head, that is, half a shekel, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for every one that passed over to them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty men.
He assumes that these lists were misunderstood by later authors and works from there.

So this theory does not really seem to save or justify traditional understanding of the nature of Biblical text.

34 comments:

Sam N said...

"I am not persuaded of its impossibility, or troubled by it."

Being that this is a big talking point in the j-blogosphere, could you elaborate on why this doesn't trouble you or convince you?

joshwaxman said...

The short of it is as follows:

1) If we are compelled to say that certain pesukim (like the sum total in Bemidbar, and the one in Shemot) were the result of a later redactor, it would not be the end of the word. There is precedent for this claim within the domain of frum commentators.

2) But, from the text-internal evidence (and this is always a big thing for me), there is indeed an assumption that the Jews were in fact quite numerous. The Torah says that the large population size troubled the Egyptians, and later it troubled Moav (such that they would be licked up) and it troubled the residents of Canaan later as well. And the fact that they were so numerous does not mean they were an unstoppable fighting force either, since these people were not trained in war, but were civilians -- slaves, in fact, who were not necessarily in the best physical condition.

3) Finally, Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I am not even so convinced that we are dating the Exodus to the right century. And furthermore, sometimes evidence is not to be found even though the history was in fact history. (What percentage has not lasted is not known, and cannot be known simply because to know this we would have to have the evidence, which we in fact don't presently have.) Thus, for example, for decades, and until fairly recently, scholars thought that an entire COUNTRY -- Edom -- did not exist in certain centuries, such that references to it at the time of King David must be fictional. But that was because there was a certain area that was too troublesome to dig in, and when they did in fact investigate, they found copper mines (IIRC) which showed complex civilization did exist in those centuries. How much else has not been found? All of this is an art of reconstructing history, sometimes on little evidence. I would not grant it the certainty that many accord it. And the fact that in other cases, the Biblical narrative has been incorrectly accused of inaccuracy on the basis of archaeological evidence (or lack thereof) makes me reluctant to grant it such absolute credence.

All the best,
Josh

Anonymous said...

"Finally, Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Fine. But how on earth can 2.5 million people live in a desert for almost half a century?? You have to posit violations of nature, in which case you've left reality behind anyway so why bother with the rest of the reasons?

joshwaxman said...

I gave the short of it for a reason -- I don't like the arguing of the long of it.

;)

I think the 2.5 million figure can be contested, but let us leave that alone. Let me explain why I do not find that argument persuasive.

You see, surprisingly, Moses asked God that exact question, in the Biblical narrative itself! And God said that he would miraculously provide. And the narrative details the manna and the quail.

If you are going to dismiss the Biblical narrative as fictional because it details miracles, then you do not need to get to questions about the plausibility of 600,000! You can argue from the implausibility of the narrative itself! In which case, in response to your query "so why bother with the rest of the reasons," I would rejoin with "why bother with the rest of the questions?" But from a text-internal standpoint, I do not even see the question.

Not to mention that they had contact with other nations. The text details how they traded at kivrot haTaavah. And how they asked nations to purchase food and water as they passed through. Recall that they left with all the spoils of Egypt. That could certainly have helped them along the way.

All the best (and please choose a synonym),
Josh

ariel said...

To get back to your post, this theory presumes that there were only 5000-6000 adult males in the entire population. That is nowhere near enough to settle the whole land of Canaan, as they are pictured as doing (for the most part) in Sefer Yehoshua.

For that simple reason this theory, and any theory which seeks to drastically reduce the census count, cannot be correct.

joshwaxman said...

to finish up my thoughts from before (it was close to shabbos at the time), there is also the issue that certain pashtanim, such as Ibn Ezra, will admit to miracles mentioned in the Biblical text itself but not unnecessary and "excessive" midrashic miracles. Thus, the Biblical text itself mentions the slav and the mon, but not necessarily something that would account for lack of evidence left in the desert (though statement such as that their clothing did not wear out does work somewhat towards that end).

Also, if one is discarding parts of the story such as miracles, why dismiss dry material such as census lists. Why not sooner dismiss the entire 40-year stay in the desert and say they went directly into the land of Israel?

Ariel:
I am not sure whether you are the same anonymous or not, but to clarify:

Mendenhall was proposing this as a military census list unrelated to the taking over of the land. He was not trying to defend the narrative.

But we can take it as such, if we wish. It is not correct to assume that this represents the entirety of the Israelite adult male population. As he writes in the article,
"Returning for a moment to the Mari letters, we find that on one
specific occasion, Iasmah-Addu is instructed to levy an army from the
various types of population under his rule. Included in the enumeration are the four tribes of the Ubrabi, Iabrii, Iabruri, and Amnani - all of which we know from other letters are subsections of the Banfu-Iamina (Benjaminites). The total from these four sub-tribes is 600 troops
an average of 150 per sub-tribe. It is obvious that the king must have
levied upon each sub-tribe a quota. How each sugagu obtained them
was his own responsibility, and one can easily imagine the tribal palavers which must have taken place when the family heads gathered to decide who had to go. It is highly unlikely that all men of military age had to answer the call to arms on every occasion. We can hardly assume that 600 was the total number of men between the ages of 20 and 45 (or whatever the customary age may have been).

It is here submitted that the census lists of Numbers 1 and 26 are an authentic list from the period of the Federation which reflects this sort of military organization and mobilization, probably coming from specific occasions when the federation army had to be mobilized to meet a common peril."


Thus, this does not represent the entirety of the Israelite population, but just those who were given over to this meet specific quotas. If other battles demanded more people, they presumably could have offered more men up to service.

Furthermore, as entirely tangential to this, we see in sefer Yehoshua that the conquering of the land was quite gradual.

Kol Tuv,
Josh

ariel said...

1) I was not the same anonymous (now I see why you dislike anonymouses)

2) You are right, if the census is just talking about a subset of professional warriors not the entire adult male population, it would be reasonable.

ariel said...

"we see in sefer Yehoshua that the conquering of the land was quite gradual."

But we also see that 3000 soldiers was not nearly enough to conquer Ay with, and the other battles must have used many more.

joshwaxman said...

Interesting point. It is possible.

Though the Biblical narrative claims that that defeat in Yehoshua 7 was due to Achan's sin. And though in the next chapter they go on with more, that does not mean that they did so consistently.

Also, if one is going by this idea of Eleph meaning troop, then

וַיָּשֻׁבוּ אֶל-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו אַל-יַעַל כָּל-הָעָם--כְּאַלְפַּיִם אִישׁ אוֹ כִּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אֲלָפִים אִישׁ, יַעֲלוּ וְיַכּוּ אֶת-הָעָי; אַל-תְּיַגַּע-שָׁמָּה, אֶת-כָּל-הָעָם, כִּי מְעַט, הֵמָּה.

and

וַיַּעֲלוּ מִן-הָעָם שָׁמָּה, כִּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אֲלָפִים אִישׁ; וַיָּנֻסוּ, לִפְנֵי אַנְשֵׁי הָעָי.

could also perhaps mean 2 or 3 military units.

And in other battles they used more, like the 30 "eleph" in the second battle of Ai.

ariel said...

1) Good point about "elef", although I wonder if it is grammatically OK to say "alpayim ish" in a context where "elef" means troop. We don't say "kosayim" to mean two cups, for instance. The "ayim" suffix seems to be mostly for numbers and dual body/clothing parts.

(Machanaim, Adoraim, etc. may not disprove my rule since proper names may be another special case)

2) About Achan, his sin reflected a kind of self-assured overconfidence which was similar to that which led to sending too few soldiers. The sin was internal, the sin's manifestation was Achan's deed, the natural mechanism through the sin was punished was through the making of bad military choices. (Heard this interpretation from I think R' Yuval Sherlo)

Hillel said...

R' Waxman,
A few points (sorry I'm a few years late, but I'm still catching up on your older posts when I have spare time - fascinating stuff):
1) While many militaries in the ancient world used numerical terms to connote units, in almost always referred to the number of men in the unit. Admittedly, my knowledge on this doesn't predate Greece/Rome/Persia, so perhaps the ancient Near East was different, but still... (Although post-Marian reforms, the Roman 'century' did have 80 men, so perhaps some smaller diminishment is appropriate.)
2) The argument for "shalishim" meaning captains is weak (IIRC, Rashi's explanation in the beginning of b'shalach relies on the only other use of shalishim in the Torah, from az yashir, which doesn't actually clarify anything, since it just says the shalishim were drowned in yam suf.) It also doesn't work well in the first pasuk to say shalish means captain, it's awkward phrasing (why tell us there were commanding officers over troops - obviously there were!) and we never see it elsewhere.
3) I don't understand your your argument that 600,000 soldiers doesn't bother you because "the fact that they were so numerous does not mean they were an unstoppable fighting force either, since these people were not trained in war, but were civilians -- slaves, in fact, who were not necessarily in the best physical condition." This is difficult for a number of reasons:
First, the largest army in the world at the time (Babylon) was at best 60,000. BNY had an army 10 times larger than the largest army on earth and still needed miracles to defeat small city-states? For comparison's sake, an army that size would not gather (again?) until Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. I don't care if your army is made up of schoolmarms, if you routinely outnumber an opponent 100 or 200 to 1, you should win easily without any miracles!
Second, certainly by the time of Yehoshua the fighters were not slaves and should have been in peak physical form. If you want to be really frum about it, even the dor hamidbar should have been in peak health post-Sinai (ki ani Hashem rof'echa, etc.)
Third, there is ample evidence that BNY were used in Pharaoh's army as slave-mercenaries: there is good reason to believe they knew how to fight. Under Yehoshua, they perform extremely difficult maneuvers (an assault on five combined armies on unfamiliar terrain immediately following a long night march, strategic retreats facing the enemy, then, on command, charging forward, etc.) - these are not the actions of green troops. It is true they didn't know how to use advanced weaponry (even centuries later, the chariots BNY captures were burned (melted down?) and not used in war since BNY had no charioteers. However, that doesn't mean they didn't know how to fight.

Anyway, all this is a fancy way of saying the problem bother me a great deal and while I think I have some traction on addressing it in a reasonably frum way, it is still in many ways a trarich iyun gadol for me.

KT,
Hillel

joshwaxman said...

"I don't care if your army is made up of schoolmarms, if you routinely outnumber an opponent 100 or 200 to 1, you should win easily without any miracles! "

you would send unarmed schoolmarms into battle to be slaughtered?! the people would not agree to go into slaughter after slaughter. they would turn on Moshe and say that it is better to return to Egypt.

by comparison, we could win in Afghanistan. just send every single American civilian, including unarmed women and children. true, hundreds of thousands would be killed, but we would win. would an American president contemplate this? if he did, would he be immediately ejected from office?

"Second, certainly by the time of Yehoshua the fighters were not slaves and should have been in peak physical form."
the fighters would be. but is everybody to be a fighter?

it turns out to be a great problem if we make certain assumptions. but i don't think that these assumptions are necessarily true.

practically, in sefer Yehoshua, in the actual battles, we see much smaller groups engaging in battles, and not 600,000 men fighting. so if indeed 600,000 is meant, then there would seem to be some sort of draft in play. that would indicate to me that perhaps our assumptions should shift.

kol tuv,
josh

Hillel said...

"you would send unarmed schoolmarms into battle to be slaughtered?"

That's not fair - they were armed, the Torah goes out of it's way to say they were bearing arms! Plus, as I said, there were those who were used as mercenaries in Egypt who were fighters, and ultimately had 40 years to train an army.

"practically, in sefer Yehoshua, in the actual battles, we see much smaller groups engaging in battles, and not 600,000 men fighting. so if indeed 600,000 is meant, then there would seem to be some sort of draft in play."

This is both ikar chaser min hasefer and very, very problematic. The smaller groups don't indicate a draft, which is nowhere mentioned, they indicate the numbers here not meaning what they appear to mean. It just doesn't make any sense at all to say Yehoshua left behind 97% of eligible, able-bodied soldiers - for what purpose?

To suggest BNY knew they had 40 years to prepare for entering the land, and had a pool of hundreds of thousands of young men to train as soldiers (people who literally had nothing better to do with their time), but chose to train only a tiny percentage for reasons never revealed by the text, that argument makes no sense to me.

KT,
Hillel

joshwaxman said...

another point. you send those schoolmarms in, and while they may well outnumber the well-armed opposing army, each individual schoolmarm will not want to die. she will flee in the other direction, to try to escape, and end up trampling other schoolmarms to death. then, the opposing army will pursue and kill her as well.

people don't always behave the way that the generals hope they will behave, in accordance with predefined strategy.

kol tuv,
josh

joshwaxman said...

"That's not fair - they were armed, the Torah goes out of it's way to say they were bearing arms!"
the torah says chamushim. perhaps this means armed. but armed does not (necessarily) mean that they had good weapons and shields for 2.5 million people!

"there is ample evidence that BNY were used in Pharaoh's army as slave-mercenaries"
what is this evidence? are you certain that this is during the appropriate time period? isn't a specific time period an assumption that you first make? the torah text itself does not seem to give us this evidence.

"This is both ikar chaser min hasefer and very, very problematic."
it is right there in the sefer. we see how many people went to war. the answer is then, either:
* the author didn't realize that all 600,000 should have fought in his fiction
* the number is a list from elsewhere, as per Mendenhall
* not everyone fought

"The smaller groups don't indicate a draft, which is nowhere mentioned"
by the war with midyan, each shevet sent an eleph (1000). and not all the members of the tribe went out. this is *explicitly* a draft.

plus, drafts appear to be standard operating procedure. not everyone in a population is a warrior. just as there were drafts in the Mari letters.

"(people who literally had nothing better to do with their time)"
it is a good question what these people did. presumably, they learned Toirah. But they perhaps were craftsmen, who produced items for sale to surrounding countries and to their fellow Israelites. Or they were bakers, and butchers, and cobblers, poets and scribes, etc. They had a lot of cattle which they brought into eretz yisrael. Would they not need shepherds to look after them?

"but chose to train only a tiny percentage for reasons never revealed by the text"
never do we get the impression that the battles go poorly for lack of people to fight. indeed, it seems that they had enough. and then, as in any battle, Hashem helped turn the tide one way or the other.

my point is, you are creating a picture in your head. perhaps it is accurate, but perhaps not. i don't see how we can assert these assumptions with such strength, creating problems, and then be troubled by these problems.

kol tuv,
josh

Hillel said...

Rabbi,
Respectfully, I think you're being too clever by a half here. If we take the numbers at face value, BNY have 600,000 military-eligible men, and 40 years to prepare for war. Thus, there are only two possibilities:
1) BNY acted responsibly, and prepared for war - the extent they had craftsmen and trading abilities, they used it to arm their soldiers (40 years to prepare for battle is a LONG time!)
2) They acted (absent a good explanation) irresponsibly, and did not make appropriate effort to prepare for war. Thus, after 40 years, BNY could muster only a few thousand soldiers, less than 2% of all eligible men. This would be a major failure in leadership, unless it can be otherwise explained. (If you have a such an explanation, of course, I would be interested in hearing it.)

Alternatively, if we assume the numbers should not be taken at face value, the problem is easily resolved. I do not believe there is any need to resort to external authorship to explain these verses, but that's just me. I think it's far easier to assume the numbers mean something else rather than to assume astonishingly poor leadership and cowardice on the part of BNY.

PS: The Midyan 'draft' proves my point exactly: there, only 12,000 (or twelve units) attacked, because God explicitly commanded this. Short of God's command, sending so few would have been criminally negligent! The problem is, God never commands Yehoshua to only take a small portion of the army when he is fighting every other battle! So why not use more>

In the end, I'm happy to assume that some men were bakers or candlestick makers, or they ran out of armor. But 2%? Standard assumption among archeologists is that 20-25% of ALL men would fight, and that's because the rest were either too old, young, sick, injured, or needed for food production and other supplies (see, e.g., Herzog & Gichon). Since the old and young men were not counted, that number should rise to at least 50%. After 40 years, without a single soul required for food or clothing production, BNY should have been able to significantly top 50%. 2%? That requires a much better explanation in my book.

KT,
Hillel

joshwaxman said...

"Respectfully, I think you're being too clever by a half here."
My approach to this whole issue is as follows. I am not trying to persuade you or anyone else. (Indeed, I started the entire comment thread by not elaborating why I didn't think it was a problem.) Rather, I am explaining why *I* am not persuaded. So it is not that I am going out on a limb trying to convince you that approach X is the only way that it makes sense. Rather, I am pointing out that the questions are predicated on assumptions, and that as much as you assert that the assumptions are eminently reasonable, I don't find them convincing and eminently reasonable. At the most, I find them possible, or credible, but not 100% solid. This is highly subjective. But I don't find the assumptions 100% solid.

For example, you write:
"The Midyan 'draft' proves my point exactly: there, only 12,000 (or twelve units) attacked, because God explicitly commanded this. Short of God's command, sending so few would have been criminally negligent!"

This is a matter of Biblical interpretation, and an assumption. I can make a reasonable counter-assumption, that this is not the exception that proves the rule, but rather indicative of kelal Yisrael's general pattern of war, and just by Minyan we have it spelled out. You think it unreasonable, for reasons outside the text, and therefore in general there would not have been a draft. But that is an assumption. I am unconvinced, and don't see the question as inexorable.

Even if I am wrong in this particular assertion, this is not the only one I hang my hat upon.

"Standard assumption among archeologists is that 20-25% of ALL men would fight, and that's because the rest were either too old, young, sick, injured,..."
that is again an assumption. and based on the assumption, we make up numbers, and based on these estimated numbers we have an inescapable conclusion?

"This would be a major failure in leadership, unless it can be otherwise explained. (If you have a such an explanation, of course, I would be interested in hearing it.)"
sure, just so long as you don't take it as my trying to persuade you. also, this is not an indication of failure on the other points, in my mind. but sure, off the top of my head. we see by Gideon explicitly that Hashem wanted a small army so that people would know that the battle was won as a result of Hashem's direction, rather than human might. And so they dismissed a good portion of the army. Back in the midbar, first the Israelites did not want to enter, but then changed their mind, attacked on their own, and got slaughtered. The conquering of Eretz Yisrael -- and the entire conduct in the midbar -- was done at Hashem's direction. Perhaps Moshe deliberately did not create such a massive army. After all, experiencing daily miracles, they knew of Hashem's eventual assistance. And they were preparing for the conquering of the land, in the manner that Hashem wanted it conquered. "Major failure of leadership" is predicated on the idea that it is a human operating with no overt Divine direction and interaction.

Persuasive? Maybe. Possible? It seems like a credible explanation. If so, the question never starts. This is why I am not troubled overmuch by this question. All sorts of other explanations are possible. I don't accept the many assumptions as 100% solid.

also:
"Thus, after 40 years, BNY could muster only a few thousand soldiers, less than 2% of all eligible men."
who says that 12,000 was the size of their entire army? you don't necessarily send your entire army into every battle. otherwise, one disaster/slaughter could destroy your whole army. this strikes me as an assumption. and who says that there were only able to muster this? i don't know what assumptions to make, but i do spot a whole bunch of assumptions, left and right.

chag sameach,
josh

Hillel said...

Rabbi,
I must confess I don't understand how the statements you make work practically based on the text. I realize you say you're not trying to convince anyone, but I frankly don't understand how you can even convince yourself! Lets take them one by one:

1) Re Midyan:
"I can make a reasonable counter-assumption, that this is not the exception that proves the rule, but rather indicative of kelal Yisrael's general pattern of war, and just by Minyan we have it spelled out. You think it unreasonable, for reasons outside the text"

This is simply not correct, for reasons very much inside the text. EVERY battle Yehoshua fights (except, of course, the first battle of Ai), he takes "kol ha'am" or "kol am hamilchama." The text makes clear that Yehoshua does not leave soldiers behind when he goes to war, and the one time he does ends in disaster.

2) Re 25% of males being eligible:
"that is again an assumption. and based on the assumption, we make up numbers, and based on these estimated numbers we have an inescapable conclusion?"

That's unfair. I don't mean ":assumption" like they pulled the number out of a hat. The number is based on studies of the size of armies of various cities compared with the total male population of the cities. True, I should not have written "assumption" rather than "conclusion based on archeological evidence". But still, if you have 1.5 million men total, and you have a few thousand soldiers, I don't understand how that doesn't set off alarm bells in your head!

3) Re failure of leadership:
"The conquering of Eretz Yisrael -- and the entire conduct in the midbar -- was done at Hashem's direction. Perhaps Moshe deliberately did not create such a massive army."

This is, I think, a key point. You can argue the entire conquest was somchim al hanes, that despite having the potential for a massive army God/Moshe intentionally wanted only a small army to, say, show Divine might and power. The problem, however, is that is is a major ikar chaser. God never says, and the text never indicates (as mentioned above) that anything short of all available soldiers were used (you can argue not all eligible men became soldiers, but again, there's nothing in the text). And, based on the section dealing with military exemptions, it seems everyone was expected to fight unless they fell into very specific categories. Plus, if the argument is that everything re war be done al pi Hashem, we would need pi Hashem for such a risky, dangerous decision - where is it? Assuming God/Moshe wanted a small army (even if it's just in your own head) requires some evidence, and I don't think there is any, and there's lots of evidence going the other way (including, of course, the census itsef). Of course, one can answer every problem by saying "miracles", but then what's the point of studying Torah from any rationalist perspective?

4) Re 12,000 men maximum:
"who says that 12,000 was the size of their entire army? you don't necessarily send your entire army into every battle"

As shown above, Yehoshua DOES take the entire army, every single time except Ai 1. Plus, even if the text were silent on this, I could understand assuming some percentage of soldiers were left behind for protection. But 98%? That doesn't make sense as an assumption without any evidence.

Again, I'm not asking for conclusive proof of your beliefs, I just don't understand why you say these questions are based on assumptions when there's significant textual evidence supporting it, and no evidence at all in the other direction.

KT,
Hillel

joshwaxman said...

" I realize you say you're not trying to convince anyone, but I frankly don't understand how you can even convince yourself!"
but by challenging me on this point, you are in effect asking me to prove it, in response. i am not in the mood to do this; and even if i did, you would have other responses, and you would still frankly not understand how i could convince myself!

i am not wedded to ant particular theory, and there are multiple sefeikos here, which i labeled as assumptions. even *if* you disproved one approach, this shows nothing!

as an example, you just spoke of 1.5 million men total. you speak of this as fact, and ask based on this. does the *text* speak of this? or is this an extrapolation, assuming that normal demographics apply to the ancient Israelites? didn't the entire dor which exited Egypt die off? so where does this 1.5 figure come from?!

When Yehoshua went forth the second time against Ai, he *selected* 30,000 men. This is already more than your 2% figure (of 600,000). kol am hamilchama could mean all people who were currently up for serving in the draft. or reuven and gad, who committed to fighting. other places, it could mean all his troops which he took with him. it is interpretation. but they seem to be pretty successful, with what "limited" troops they had. why are you playing armchair general on a *successful* military campaign?!

i don't find your response re Gideon persuasive.

"And, based on the section dealing with military exemptions, it seems..."
this is an interpretation, and assumption. maybe a correct one. but i am spotting a whole constructed edifice, based on assumptions and interpretations.

in terms of exemptions, one of them is one who will fear in battle. it would seem that schoolmarms are exempt. at yam suf, how many people feared? why did Hashem not take them in the straight path to Canaan, again?

let us take an example. who were the chalutz in 6:7 and 6:9? the entire army? or just the warriors of Gad and Reuven? what does Rashi say on 6:9, and in Bemidbar at the time of the oath?

"Again, I'm not asking for conclusive proof of your beliefs,"
so what are you asking for?

"I just don't understand why you say these questions are based on assumptions"
they are. but i am OK with you not understanding.

"when there's significant textual evidence supporting it,"
in your view, based on your interpretation of the psukim.

"and no evidence at all in the other direction."
such as e.g. an explicit draft, which you discount an refuse to extrapolate elsewhere.

this is subjective, imho. but because it is subjective, you are thoroughly convinced (again, imho) of your position to the extent that you believe it objective.

kt,
josh

Hillel said...

Rabbi,
OK, I think you've made your position pretty clear. As I understand it, you have problems with the assumptions I've made on the basis that, alternatively, one could fidn textual support for the existence of a much larger army for Yehoshua, or perhaps miracles or Godly commands that are not explicit in the text and reject normal demographics and military strategy. (Please correct me if I misunderstand your position, but this is what I got from statements like "Perhaps Moshe deliberately did not create such a massive army. After all, experiencing daily miracles, they knew of Hashem's eventual assistance. And they were preparing for the conquering of the land, in the manner that Hashem wanted it conquered.")

My issue with the numbers comes down to this: one can either believe Yehoshua had a big army (30,000+), which doesn't make sense archeologically, for a whole host of reasons, and ignores population demographics of the time, or you could say he had a small, archeologically acceptable army (8-12,000) in which case, if one takes the numbers in Bamidbar at face value, Moshe/Yehoshua are relying on miracles and/or commands from God we are never informed of.

Your solution is certainly true: miracles will always answer every question. I'm just a bit surprised that on this particular issue you are willing to make what appears to me to be an exception to your usual methodology of using common-sense approaches to text by applying the best known science, archaeology, linguistics, etc. You've made it it clear you have no intention of clarifying your position further, and I'm not asking you to, I'm just explaining why I'm taken aback at some of your answers here, since they seem to run counter to your general gisha.

I very much appreciate and enjoy what you write, and I have learned a tremendous amount from your postings and do not wish to exhibit a lack of hakarat hatov - and I certainly understand you have made clear you don't intend to explain your position any further and completely respect your decision in that regard - I just wanted to explain to you why I was surprised by your approach in this instance.

KT,
Hillel

joshwaxman said...

"I very much appreciate and enjoy what you write"...
thanks for your kind words.

"I'm just explaining why I'm taken aback at some of your answers here, since they seem to run counter to your general gisha."
perhaps i'll try to explain a bit how this fits into my general approach.

(and it fits a bit into the difference between deductive vs. inductive reasoning.)

i am a bit skeptical of constructed results stated with absolute certainty. for example, there are relatively few examples of extra-Biblical Biblical Aramaic. Such that every time an archaeologist discovers a new example of it, further reconstructions of the grammar and language are performed by the Semitic linguists. and when someone claims that text X is clearly not true Biblical-era Aramaic because of linguistic feature Y, which we never find, and is thus atypical, it *might* be a good idea to view it with a bit of skepticism. these are general induced principles based on a few (or many) examples.

with the same conviction that you state that an army of 30,000+ does not make sense archaeologically, about 10 years ago people were making the case that the David narrative did not make sense archaeologically. namely, David encountered a developed nation of Edom, and Edom didn't exist in 10th century BCE. the earliest they established the country was 8th century BCE.

then, it turned out that they didn't look in a specific valley in Jordan because it was too hot. and when they finally did, they found evidence of mines, which showed an Edomite presence there in the 10th century. Oops! what happened to their firm convictions?!

and had nobody discovered that evidence, e.g., because of it having been wiped out by some later generation, people would still be making this argument for the ahistoricity of the Davidic narrative for this same reason, with precisely the same conviction.

joshwaxman said...

therefore, i consider them assumptions, and don't jump to rewrite or reinterpret Biblical history in their light. maybe they are true, but maybe not, and these concerns really do not bother me overmuch.

in terms of my general approach, as well, i am reluctant to reinterpret in light of outside evidence. let the text speak for itself. maybe the text is true; maybe the text is false; but i am reluctant to reinterpret based on outside evidence. just as Ramban interpreted maaseh Bereishit to conform to now-outdated theories of science, involving the four elements. if one text claims 600,000, and another claims a full army of 30,000, then a straightforward understanding of it is that there was a draft in play. not every readily deduced detail need be explicitly given, and we have one or two examples. we don't find plenty of details, and we can make the short leap ourselves.

so my general approach is not really one which i would define as my "usual methodology of using common-sense approaches to text by applying the best known science, archaeology, linguistics, etc". it depends on the situation.

in terms of using demographics, to e.g. assume that 1.5 eligible men existed, this is again a calculated result. demographic trends often differ even today from one nation to another. i would not be overly bothered that according to someone's calculations and estimations, in a reconstructed history, things don't make sense. certainly not when those assumptions are contradicted explicitly by assertions in the text itself. what would you say if someone 1000 years from now disputed the demographics of the population of China today, because what they could reconstruct from the demographics of Europe and the US, the Chinese demographics make no sense? assuming they were unaware of the One Child Policy or were aware of it but dismissed it because they did not wish to factor it in?! how many of those nations, had such extreme population growth, as described in Egypt? did all those nations, in one generation, essentially remain with a stable population? did those nations have everyone from the previous generation die in a span of 40 years?

also, in the general case, i am extremely skeptical of constructed peshat on the basis of calculations. for example, when meforshim calculate how old specific Biblical characters must have been because of chronology. this usually involves evidence of a few pesukim, interpreted in a specific way, where it often seems that they could *only* be interpreted in this way, together with arithmetic to see how many years elapsed. but reinterpret one pasuk, and thus relax or change one constraint, and an entirely different picture emerges. calculated peshat i regard as a house of cards and a waste of time. i am seldom convinced by it.

when someone presents to me the argument with all these evident assumptions stated as fact, then my skepticism kicks in. military strategy is arguable and subjective. demographics are calculations, and rules which make sense elsewhere applied boldly and inappropriately to present situation. and so on.

relying on miracles not written in the text is one thing (and is a feature of midrash). but if the Torah explicitly lists miracles, then i won't discount them when trying to arrive at consistent text internal peshat. if one rejects miracles in the text because they are miracles, then who cares about the rest? why bother justifying the rest literally, when these aspects of the tale are so clearly false!

(the last pesukim of this perek are also instructive to me, in the idea that the conquest is to be God-directed. pasuk 9, and pasuk 40 and on; as well as their failure at Ai being a result of violating the cherem rather than the small numbers; and other themes throughout.)

kol tuv,
josh

Hillel said...

Rabbi,
I appreciate your response and will try, as per your request, to stay away from specific issues, but I would like to better understand your methodology, which I think I understand much better now, but am still a little confused about. (And if you have this written up elsewhere, please feel free to point me in that direction, no need to reinvent the wheel on my account.)

He is my basic question: You say you are wary of assumption based on constructed history, which is fair enough. However, there are two issues here, first, even within the text a number of logical and fair assumptions must be made, so I'm not sure what you gain by rejecting constructed history, and second, outside the text, even if you reject constructed history based on archeology, there must be assumptions that you are willing to make, purely based on logic.

As an example of the second, the text says 600,000. Your approach, as I understand it, says "take it or leave it, but let's not allegorize this to mean 10,000 because it squares nicely with current archeological trends." Fair enough. But if there are 600,000 men between 30-60, we must assume SOME number of women and children. I think an equal amount of women and children is an extremely conservative view (i.e, assuming, on average, each eligible man had only one woman and only one child) - perhaps you can even slightly discount the women on account of death in childbirth, etc. - but I don't think it's fair to say we cannot make any assumptions at all about the numbers of women and children, merely because any assumption is, technically, a construction. Perhaps there were 600,000 men and fifty women - one can't disprove it from the text! I think that's simply an unreasonable statement. What is your take on that?

Similarly, I don't understand how one can discount archeology entirely simply because they make mistakes. In other words, an archeological statement about how much grain a given tract of land could produce, say, 3500 years ago in Canaan is by no means infallible. But it is based on documents from the time regarding grain storage and taxes, and artifacts such as actual plows and other farming implements that existed at the time. So while I agree the calculation is far from gospel, and one could fairly say a field could produce more or less, perhaps even double or half, I think it's preposterous to say that maybe they had far more advanced implements and techniques that could produce 100x more grain, we just haven't found the evidence yet. Again, that is constructed history, but I don't understand how a total rejection of the evidence is appropriate.

(CTD)

Hillel said...

(CTD)
As regards internal issues, I think the numbers are again a great example. When the 2 1/2 tribes are counted in Pinchas, their eligible soldiers exceed 100,000 men (dividing Menashe equally - you can mess with their numbers or eliminate Menashe from the equation entirely, it doesn't change the basic issue). When they are counted in Yehoshua, they are estimated at 40,000 men. (I recognize there are other interpretations in Yehoshua, but they just lead to other, similar questions). Taking the text at face value, what happened to the other 60,000? My problem is that in answering this question we are truly flying blind. This is not a question chazal, or even rishonim, as far as I can tell really deal with on any kind of p'sht level. (I have no idea why, any insight you may have would be appreciated). Maybe there was a draft which reduced the number - but why not tell us, and why was there a draft? Maybe they were afraid - but why, and of what? If 60% of these men were cowards, after they had sworn to lead the battle, why are we told nothing? Of course one can come up with dozens of different answers, and even come up with attenuated textual support for them (that is not intended as an insult - I am assuming you will concede that they story of the ma'a'pilim is a far cry from God explicitly telling Moshe/Yehoshua that He will directly control all military decisions). But if you've just gone from rejecting archeological assumption to embrace textual assumption, what have you gained?

Ultimately, what I don't understand is why assumptions based on archeology are improper, while assumptions based on very slight clues in the text, which can a) be easily interpreted differently, and b) were not picked up on by chazal or even later commentators, is an acceptable alternative? You are, I suppose, preserving the literal integrity of the text, but at what cost?

KT,
Hillel

joshwaxman said...

"first, even within the text a number of logical and fair assumptions must be made"
yet when we make such an assumption, we should bear in mind it is an assumption, and perhaps we should have it wrong and should relax it.

"even if you reject constructed history based on archeology, there must be assumptions that you are willing to make, purely based on logic."
i would have to examine each assumption in turn.

"think an equal amount of women and children is an extremely conservative view "
perhaps. we don't know. maybe they all followed Chazal's advice and took steps to have male children. maybe indeed the reason for letting the baby girls live was that they took them and married them, and a vast number of women did not leave Egypt. maybe Israelite men indeed married outside women, such as the Isha Kushit that Moshe took and was criticized for by his sister and brother. Maybe there was indeed a dearth of women. Certainly, they started with 600,000 and ended with 600,000 in the replacement generation.

"Similarly, I don't understand how one can discount archeology entirely simply because they make mistakes."
not because it makes mistakes, but rather it reconstructs history on (by definition) partial evidence. people then take this reconstruction and are so confident that they accuse the Biblical text of being faulty, when really it was a deficiency in the evidence. it is the nature of the beast. and the same people who make this mistake based on lack of evidence and reconstructed evidence merrily go on their way the next time, with the same conviction that their next reconstruction disproves something. they don't seem to have a level of humility that their assumptions are at most assumptions.

(a similar example for camels in the Patriarchal period. it was evidence for ahistoricity until it was not.)

"I think it's preposterous to say that maybe they had far more advanced implements and techniques that could produce 100x more grain, we just haven't found the evidence yet."
it depends on the type of evidence. you've never had one country with advanced technology and another one with less? would digs in Cuba give a sense or the technological level of the US? could there be a rich farmer who has a tractor, even as others around him cannot afford it? perhaps. i am playing devil's advocate to some degree here. it depends on the specific evidence, and just what has been reconstructed, to what degree.

so while you say "I think it's preposterous", you are entitled to say that. but i don't know that i would always agree with your subjective assessments of it. it depends.

kol tuv,
josh

joshwaxman said...

"If 60% of these men were cowards, after they had sworn to lead the battle, why are we told nothing? "
because the tribe promised to serve the role, rather than particular men.

does 100,000 "eligible men" really mean that all of them were going to fight, or does it mean eligible for a *draft*? (kol yotzei tzava would then mean that they were in the age range that in theory, they could go out to war.) the 40,000 in sefer Yehoshua may be from many tribes, each which gave forth some number for the draft. to say otherwise is an assumption.

of course, to say as I am saying is also an assumption. so this is something we don't really know. we can make good guesses, based on what we see in the text, but all along the way, we should realize that it is an assumption.

"Ultimately, what I don't understand is why assumptions based on archeology are improper, while assumptions based on very slight clues in the text, which can a) be easily interpreted differently, and b) were not picked up on by chazal or even later commentators, is an acceptable alternative?"
in terms of (b), I am as good a later interpreter as, e.g., Shadal. Why should I be troubled by this? In terms of (a), absolutely! they are assumptions! and i know that they are!

joshwaxman said...

one final point/expansion regarding "Similarly, I don't understand how one can discount archeology entirely simply because they make mistakes."

let us say the US regularly used tortured confessions to convict people of murder. then, DNA evidence showed that in a few demonstrable cases, the one who confessed was indeed innocent. would we then say that the system was working, and that these are just exceptions which we now caught, since there was luckily DNA evidence? would we continue to use the same methodology of forced confessions, which boldly asserting that as a science, it presents absolutely compelling evidence? or would we say that we should take care when evaluating conclusions which stem from applying this methodology?

kt,
josh

joshwaxman said...

oh, also:
"This is not a question chazal, or even rishonim, as far as I can tell really deal with on any kind of p'sht level. (I have no idea why, any insight you may have would be appreciated)."

my suspicion is that this is the same thing we argued about before, regarding the rape of Dinah. certain things are so obvious, and the answers so obvious, that it need not be said, and absence of an explicit statement does not mean that Rashi was unaware of the glaring "problem" or did not resort to the equally glaringly obvious solution. ("hey, not all 600,00 are fighting!?" "True. They aren't!")

kt,
josh

Hillel said...

Rabbi,
Unfortunately, re the law example you gave, we do continue to use the same obviously failed methodology to convict people (eyewitness testimony of strangers), when there is significant evidence that it is a very unreliable method, but that is a rant for a different day and forum.

(Also, as a side note, I definitely believe that 'yotze tzava' means, as you wrote, people who went out for the army, not those selected to actually fight, and I believe this is an important start in understanding the 600,000 number, but that is a side digression.)

Re the thrust of you point, that everybody is making assumptions,, you don't seem to be accounting for the fact that some assumptions are better than others. Assumptions from evidence are better than assumptions from silence, simple is better than complex, etc.

So to use your examples above, it is true that, knowing only that there are 600,000 men, it is an assumption that there were close to 600,000 women. But that is a better assumption than assuming there were 50 women, since one reflects the natural order and one reflects an unnatural order. Obviously, Torah is filled with miracles and even non-miraculous deviances from the norm, but that doesn't give us the right to assume such things simply because they might have occurred, absent clear instruction from the text, which, re women, we don't have.

I have the same problem regarding your take on archeological evidence. If there's a plow in a field (and archeologists have found ancient farming implements), it's a better assumption that the field next door used the same/similar plow than assuming it was significantly qualitatively better or worse. It's also a better assumption that a vassal state (Canaan) didn't have better farming tools than its lord state (Egypt). Of course this does not hold true 100% of the time, it is still an assumption, but it is a better, more logical assumption. (Note, this is not the same thing as assuming Edom or camels didn't exist, which were arguments from silence, a weak argument absent a tremendous amount of data.)

I understand you are playing devil's advocate and do not necessarily believe the things you are saying to be correct, merely possibilities. However, the fact that to reach your conclusions you are, I believe, consistently favoring weaker assumptions over stronger assumptions should ring a warning bell, no?

KT,
Hillel

joshwaxman said...

"Also, as a side note, I definitely believe that 'yotze tzava' means, as you wrote, people who went out for the army"
it is a pretty important side note, though. but it is your reading of the text. but my reading is otherwise, which means that it is an assumption, followed by a question predicated on that assumption.

In Bemidbar 1, we see כֹּל יֹצֵא צָבָא. Over and over. JPS, not really a "frummy" interpretation, translates this as "all that were able to go forth to war", rather than "all those who went forth to war". i think that reads like me, though you are free to interpret otherwise.

this is the dor hamidbar. do we indeed see a war in the midbar where 600,000 go out to fight?

"Re the thrust of you point, that everybody is making assumptions,, you don't seem to be accounting for the fact that some assumptions are better than others."
of course they are. but many reconstructions are interrelated, since they require an overall picture. and tell me the precise evidence in each case, rather than just the conclusions, so that I can evaluate it and see how compelling it is. (the absence of evidence ones are just prominent, and first there was no evidence and suddenly there is some. how would we know when the assumptions are wrong, usually? because some other theory crops ups to account for the facts?)


"But that is a better assumption than assuming there were 50 women, since one reflects the natural order and one reflects an unnatural order."
but some things are indeed unknowable, and your evaluation of what is "better" is often subjective, and itself an assumption.

"I believe, consistently favoring weaker assumptions over stronger assumptions should ring a warning bell, no?"
and that is why they are assumptions that you, and others favor. (i was indeed playing devil's advocate, just to show you that no assumption *necessarily* is so solid that the opposite is ludicrous). but they are still assumptions. your initial question was predicated on a mixture of several assumptions, each of which, if off, would cause the question to fall away. namely, how to interpret certain pesukim, whether there was a draft in place, whether it is good military strategy to send every possible Israelite into battle, whether demographics of other countries applied to the unique circumstances of Israel, and finally, whether the archaeological record, which was able to omit an entire country for two centuries, could possibly omit the presence of a standing army of 40,000 for several years. (it is also an assumption that we are looking in the right place, and in the right century.)

the parallel for me would be if I would take text-internal evidence and interpret pesukim in exactly the way I decided was most likely, even as others interpret them differently; then show that reality contradicts it, and conclude that "the Torah" is thus clearly false. it is my interpretation of the Torah, and my (or your) interpretation of reality.

it is end of the semester, and I have a lot of work to do, so I might not be able to reply for a while. i hope to get back to you on your next reply eventually...

kol tuv,
josh

Nosson Gestetner said...

Fascinating discussion :)

Hillel said...

R' Waxman,
Sorry it's taken me so long to respond, but here goes:

1) I think there's been a misunderstanding re your first point - we agree that "kol yotze tava" means those who were theoretically army eligible, not those who actually served. When I said "go out for the army", I meant it in the sense of "go out for the basketball team" - trying out, not necessarily making the team.

2) You wrote "many reconstructions are interrelated, since they require an overall picture. and tell me the precise evidence in each case, rather than just the conclusions, so that I can evaluate it and see how compelling it is" and "some things are indeed unknowable, and your evaluation of what is "better" is often subjective, and itself an assumption.

I'm not sure exactly what you are saying here. It's true that everything is based on assumptions, and on some level everything is unknowable, but the question isn't whether one can show that there are inherent assumptions, the question is evaluating the quality of the assumptions. That's the closest we ever get to "knowledge".

Thus, going back to the "men vs. women" point. Of course it is an assumption that, if there were 600,000 men there must have been hundreds of thousands of women, and the true number is unknowable, (even if the Torah had given a number it would still be unknowable) but that's not much of a rejoinder. It's a fair assumption based on everything we know about every society and civilization that has ever existed that mend don't outnumber women 100,000-to-1. If one wanted to argue that in fact that was the true ratio (and I'm not suggesting you do), they would need a compelling reason, not just cite a lack of textual evidence, or else the discussion degenerates from argument based on logic and evidence to argument based on "well, you can't disprove what I'm saying" - which is kind of pointless, no?

3) "the parallel for me would be if I would take text-internal evidence and interpret pesukim in exactly the way I decided was most likely, even as others interpret them differently; then show that reality contradicts it, and conclude that "the Torah" is thus clearly false."

I think that's a great example. That is exactly how evaluation of historical text does (and should) take place. There is no honest alternative. (Mind you, as a ma'amin, I have no problem saying the literal interpretation of a verse is clearly false and that Hashem means something else entirely, and indeed routinely do so.) But for non-Divine texts, that is exactly the case. How else can one approach a text but to take the best available evidence at the time and apply it (albeit with an open mind), to determine whether the text is fact, fiction, or some combination of the two? Of course there's a chance one will later find their underlying assumptions to have been incorrect, but that's simply a chance one takes. After all, what's the alternative? Just throw up one's hands and say "I don't know, anything is theoretically possible" to everything that comes along??

KT,
Hillel

joshwaxman said...

thanks for your reply. i don't know that i really have time to debate this further. and regardless, i am not going to convince you, and you won't convince me. (and recall, that was sort of the point.)

"It's a fair assumption based on everything we know about every society and civilization that has ever existed that mend don't outnumber women 100,000-to-1."
yes, but the precise ratio could differ. in some southern provinces of China, the ratio is 130 boys to 100 girls, because of the one-child policy. and boys outnumber girls by 35 million.

if the newborn girls were taken into sexual slavery by Egyptians, would that change the ratios?

what if all newborn males were killed. would that change the ratio where there were many multiples of girls to each boy?

what if there were some Divine blessing in force (6 in each birth, or just a population explosion), in a society which regarded male children as particularly blessed? and don't tell me that you don't believe in miracles for the sake of evaluating a text, because that is begging the question. the population explosion itself no doubt many have said is demographically impossible or implausible. who says that we are operating by normal demographics, when the text itself indicates otherwise?

"I think that's a great example."
The key words in my quote were "I decided" and "most likely".

really? if there was a passage in Shakespeare referring to historical events, and a more likely and somewhat less likely interpretation; and then it turns out that the somewhat less straightforward interpretation, which still works out, accorded with known history but the other does not, we would conclude that Shakespeare was lying?

Do you know that for years people thought oviraptors stole eggs of other dinosaurs, because they found oviraptor fossils next to egg fossils of a brontosaurus? only recently did they determine that those were *raptor* eggs, such that raptors did not go about stealing eggs.

nothing to do with Torah, but everything to do with realizing that some fields of science, more than others, are founded on some speculation and reconstruction.

"After all, what's the alternative? Just throw up one's hands and say "I don't know, anything is theoretically possible" to everything that comes along??"
The alternative is to investigate as well as possible, but to have a healthy dose of skepticism even while maintaining those beliefs.

and in some instances, indeed, realize that coming to a definite conclusion is not possible. just as in the middle ages, they did not know about DNA and had all sorts of speculative theories about determining traits of offspring. If one knew that in one's lifetime, there was a bit of knowledge (DNA) that would never be discovered, then one would not see any point in producing elaborate comprehensive yet likely false theories, nor would he see any point in drawing conclusions from those theories to apply elsewhere, such as e.g. court cases. He would say that such is not within our present capacity to determine.

kol tuv,
josh

joshwaxman said...

see e.g. Ibn Caspi take this approach as a matter of principle and good scholarship, in terms of proudly declaring that he does not know what Putiel means and that he does not know why Bilaam was in Midian.

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