Numbers in Scripture can perplex us. Sometimes the numbers seem too large to be really credible. Sometimes there seem to be discrepancies between numbers in different scriptural texts bearing on the same incident. We may come back to some of these issues, but want to just consider one example for the moment, Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians10 to the incident recorded in Numbers 25.

In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 10 the Apostle Paul outlines a number of incidents from the time of the Exodus period as cautionary examples “written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (v11). Without dwelling on the lessons from these examples, the particular issue involving a “Bible discrepancy” occurs in verse 8. “Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand.”

Paul is referring to the terrible incident in the plains of Moab, when, the promised land so close, the long arduous journey nearly done, so many succumbed to the wiles of the Moabite women. Moses’ later observation was that “these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor…” (Num 31:16).

So divine judgment was executed against the sinners and “those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand” (Num 25:9). And here is the dilemma, seized on by critics. Twenty four thousand in Numbers, twenty three thousand in 1 Corinthians 10; a clear discrepancy: the Bible is in error! Can this be satisfactorily resolved? Let us look a little closer and suggest possible explanations. Note that the apostle declares that there “fell in one day three and twenty thousand.” So it is possible that twenty three thousand perished on the day the plague began, while a further one thousand died subsequently, making up the twenty four thousand of Numbers 25:9.

Another suggestion derives from the detail supplied in Numbers 25:4–5: “And the LORD said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel. And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baal-peor.” So about one thousand may well have perished in this way, with a further twenty three thousand perishing in the plague, the whole summarised in verse 9 with a total of twenty four thousand. So Paul’s reference then is to the twenty three thousand who died in the plague by direct divine judgment.

We do not diminish the difficulty sometimes presented by seemingly discrepant numbers in Scripture. But we should carefully consider reasonable explanations before concluding that we have come across a case of the Bible being in error.

In “The Foundation” that introduces our Statement of Faith, it is acknowledged that while we believe that the Scriptures are wholly given by the inspiration of God, there may be errors “due to transcription and translation.”