Death at Beth Shemesh
The Philistines wanted no more of the Ark of the Covenant. Ever since they had defeated the Israelites and captured the ark, they suffered immensely. God struck the inhabitants of Ashdod with tumors (1 Samuel 5:6). Next He sent tumors upon the men of Gath (1 Samuel 5:8). Then, in Ekron, “there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there. And the men who did not die were stricken with the tumors” (1 Samuel 5:11-12). The Philistines finally decided to send the once-coveted ark back to Israel on a cart pulled by two cows. Without a driver to direct the way, the cows transporting the ark went straight for the Israelite town of Beth Shemesh. Sadly, not long after the ark reached the town of Beth Shemesh, the men of the town “looked into the ark” and God “struck the people [Israelites] with a great slaughter” (1 Samuel 6:19, emp. added). How many died? 50,070 men (NASB; Hebrew ’elep chamishiym ’iysh shib ‘iym).
Many have questioned the 50,070-men figure in 1 Samuel 6:19. How could that many men have looked into the Ark of the Covenant? Could that many men have even been in Beth Shemesh? Did the Bible writer just make a mistake here?
First, no one can be certain how many people were in Beth Shemesh when the Philistines returned the ark. Although the 50,070 figure may sound too high to some, no one knows for sure if such a number was impossible. Unlikely? Perhaps. But “stranger” things have happened. How odd is it that some 200,000 people converge outside the 15,000-person town of Talladega twice a year to watch cars go in circles? How amazing is it that 75 of Abraham’s descendants grew to a family of approximately two to three million people in only 215 years (see Bass, et al., 2001; Exodus 1:5; 12:41; Numbers 1:46). How unlikely was it for King Hezekiah to be delivered from the mighty Assyrian army? Indeed, when it looked like unavoidable defeat for the king of Judah, the Angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrians in one night (2 Kings 19:35). The point is, we must be careful dismissing with the wave of the hand any numbers found in Scripture simply because they may not sound feasible on the surface.
Second, what about the question regarding the likelihood of 50,000 people peering into the ark? Once again, that which some might call “unlikely” is not equivalent to the “impossible.” Furthermore, there are several things that the text does not indicate. First, we cannot know how long the ark had been in Beth Shemesh prior to God bringing judgment upon the men of the town. It could have been two days, two weeks, or two months. (Recall that the ark had previously been in the Philistines’ possession for seven months—1 Samuel 6:1.) Innumerable people could have seen the ark during this time. Second, the text does not indicate that 50,000 people peered into the ark at the same time. Although, if it is possible for 100,000 people to sit hundreds of feet away and watch a pigskin bounce around on a football field, and if it is possible for one million people to stand in Times Square and watch the New Year’s Eve ball drop, then 50,000 people looking into the ark at virtually the same time is not outside the realm of possibility. Still, the text simply says that the men “looked into the ark” and God “struck the people with a great slaughter” (1 Samuel 6:19). It does not say that they all looked into the ark at the exact same time.
Finally, although it cannot be proven beyond all reasonable doubt that the 50,070 figure is erroneous, there is the very real possibility that either (1) the Hebrew has been misunderstood, or (2) a copyist made an error in the transmission process. The fact is,
[N]owhere else is a figure like 50,070 written in this fashion according to the grammar of biblical Hebrew. Normally the wording would have been either…“seventy man and fifty thousand man” or else in the descending order—which was far more usual…“fifty thousand man and seventy man” (Archer, 1982, p. 169, emp. added).
“The fact that neither of these customary word orders was followed in the received Hebrew text of this passage” could possibly indicate a transmissional error (Archer, p. 169). Some Bible translators (e.g., RSV, NIV), in fact, are so certain that the numerical figure in this passage has been corrupted through scribal transmission that they just use the 70 figure. No doubt, they believe the Hebrew should be understood the way Josephus understood it in the first century (6.1.4), and the way “a few Hebrew manuscripts” have the number—just 70. Others, like Faussett, have explained the number, saying, “God smote in the proportion of 50 out of the 1,000, i.e. one twentieth instead of one tenth of the population…; seventy men in all, out of the population of Bethshemesh, which amounted to 1,400 in this view” (“Bethshemesh,” 1998).
It may be that no one will ever know with certainty this side of eternity whether the 50,000 figure in 1 Samuel 6:19 represents a copyist’s error or a genuine, albeit extraordinary, number of Beth Shemesh inhabitants that actually died at the hand of God. Keep in mind, however, that even if a copyist did introduce an error here, that in no way reflects upon the inerrant, inspired writers. [NOTE: To read our foundational article on copyists’ errors, see Lyons, 2007.]
Archer, Gleason (1982), Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Bass, Alden, Bert Thompson, and Kyle Butt (2001), “How Long Was the Israelites’ Egyptian Sojourn?” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=796.
“Bethshemesh” (1998), Fausset’s Bible Dictionary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Josephus, Flavius (1987 edition), Antiquities of the Jews, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
Lyons, Eric (2007), “Inspired Writers and Competent Copyists,” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=2093.