Friday, March 12, 2021

Ten thousand

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, here are some thoughts about the term "ten thousand" as used in Mormon 6.


Discussion of 10,000.

The term "ten thousand" appears in the scriptures in these frequencies:

In the Old Testament, it is used to mean a large, but inexact, number. 

8 And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.
(Leviticus 26:8)

This couldn't mean exactly 10,000. What if 100 of them put 9,999 to flight?

Here's another figurative usage:

30 How should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, except their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had shut them up?
(Deuteronomy 32:30)

Here, it refers to a unit, not a precise, literal number.

10 ¶ And Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and he went up with ten thousand men at his feet: and Deborah went up with him.
(Judges 4:10)

Another example of a figurative usage:

11 ¶ And Amaziah strengthened himself, and led forth his people, and went to the valley of salt, and smote of the children of Seir ten thousand.
12 And other ten thousand left alive did the children of Judah carry away captive, and brought them unto the top of the rock, and cast them down from the top of the rock, that they all were broken in pieces.
(2 Chronicles 25:11–12)

There are similar examples in the New Testament.

31 Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?
(Luke 14:31)

15 For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.
(1 Corinthians 4:15)

It doesn't seem plausible that any military unit or other group would have exactly 10,000 people in it. Soldiers die, become sick, leave, etc. Adjusting the term for the unit every time the numbers changed would be unmanageable. You wouldn't refer to the group as 9,999 when one soldier died. It's a round number, not a precise count.

This is what we see in cultures around the world and throughout history; several languages have a term for "10,000" that means a large number or military unit. 

For that reason, I infer that Joseph Smith translated the Nephite term accurately, although the Nephites used it to refer to a unit, not a literal, exact number.

Here are some examples in the Book of Mormon.

28 And also there were sent two thousand men unto us from the land of Zarahemla. And thus we were prepared with ten thousand men, and provisions for them, and also for their wives and their children.
(Alma 56:28)

10 And it came to pass that my men were hewn down, yea, even my ten thousand who were with me, and I fell wounded in the midst; and they passed by me that they did not put an end to my life.
(Mormon 6:10)

Would Mormon have used a different term if he actually had 10,001 men? If he had 9,999? 9,500? 7,500? 

Surely not. And if the term means a unit instead of an exact count, it affects our interpretation of these passages.

12 And we also beheld the ten thousand of my people who were led by my son Moroni.
13 And behold, the ten thousand of Gidgiddonah had fallen, and he also in the midst.
14 And Lamah had fallen with his ten thousand; and Gilgal had fallen with his ten thousand; and Limhah had fallen with his ten thousand; and Jeneum had fallen with his ten thousand; and Cumenihah, and Moronihah, and Antionum, and Shiblom, and Shem, and Josh, had fallen with their ten thousand each.
15 And it came to pass that there were ten more who did fall by the sword, with their ten thousand each;
(Mormon 6:12–15)

Biblical scholars have raised the issue about the Bible as well. Because the numbers given in Exodus seem unrealistically large (600,000 men fleeing Egypt, etc.), scholars have proposed the term was used for a unit or group. That debate continues. 

Here's a quick summary:


The Hebrew word eleph means "thousand" (BDB 48, KB 59 II).  It is used in several senses in the OT.

1. a family unit, Jos. 22:14; Jdgs. 6:15; 1 Sam. 23:23; Zech. 9:7; 12:6

2. a military unit, Exod. 18:21,25; Deut. 1:15

3. a literal thousand, Gen. 20:16; Exod. 32:28

4. a symbolic number, Gen. 24:60; Exod. 20:6; 34:7; Deut. 7:9; Jer. 32:18

5. the Ugaritic cognate alluph means "chieftain," Gen. 36:15

These different connotations cause modern interpreters to question the literalness of the numbers

1. of the exodus

2. of Israeli tribal military units

Here's a paper that quantifies the alternatives.

A wikipedia entry makes an interesting point about the number 10,000:

Many languages have a specific word for this number: in Ancient Greek it is μύριοι (the etymological root of the word myriad in English), in Aramaic ܪܒܘܬܐ, in Hebrew רבבה [revava], in Chinese 萬/万 (Mandarin wànCantonese maan6, Hokkien bān), in Japanese 万/萬 [man], in Khmer ម៉ឺន [meun], in Korean 만/萬 [man], in Russian тьма [t'ma], in Vietnamese vạn, in Thai หมื่น [meun], in Malayalam പതിനായിരം [patinayiram], and in Malagasy alina.[1] 

In many of these languages, it often denotes a very large but indefinite number.[

Given the widespread use of 10,000 to mean a large number, that would seem to be a natural use by the Nephites as well.

In English, we use the Greek word "myriad" to mean a countless or extremely great number, but in classical history it meant a unit of 10,000.

When I studied Greek, we read Xenophon's book Anabasis, which recounts the history of the "ten thousand" mostly Greeks who invaded Persia. The name of the unit did not change with the number of soldiers. 

The wikipedia article explains the actual numbers of men involved: "When the Ten Thousand started their journey in 401 BC, Xenophon stated that they numbered around 10,400. At the time Xenophon left them two years later, their number had dwindled to just under 6,000." 

And yet, Xenophon did not start referring to them as the "six thousand."

Anonymous LDS scholars have observed this:

2. A Thousand May Not Actually Mean a Thousand

It is also possible that “ten thousand” represents a military unit and not an exact number of soldiers. In Hebrew, the word eleph can mean the literal number 1,000, but it can also mean a military squad. (
Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 264; Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai, 153–159.) If this is the case, each military commander could simply have been in charge of 10 “squads” of unknown numbers, putting the number of casualties much lower than they might seem at first. (Other ancient cultures used terms like this as well. The Roman military unit “century” was also the word for 100, but these units often did not have 100 people in them. See Smith, “How Many Nephites?” 286.)

All of this means that the text is subject to multiple interpretations--multiple working hypotheses.

One approach is to take the numbers literally; i.e., each group of "ten thousand" had exactly 10,000 men, not 9,999 or 10,001, and all 230,000 of them died at or near the Hill Cumorah. That has been a common interpretation over the years and has led people to search for archaeological evidence of a war involving hundreds of thousands of deaths (230,000 Nephites plus an equivalent number of Lamanites, so say 500,000). So far as I know, no such archaeological site has been found anywhere in the Americas.

Another approach is to take the numbers figuratively; i.e., each group of "ten thousand" was a military unit of uncertain numbers, or, alternatively, a generalized round number. In this case, we could look at Xenophon as an example. After two years of war, his "ten thousand" had been reduced to under 6,000. In the case of Cumorah, the final battle took place after many years of retreat and carnage. It's anyone's guess how many men in each unit would have died by the time they reached Cumorah, but one could still argue that all 23 units died there. Using Xenophon's example, the number could be 6,000 times 23, or 138,000 Nephites. It could easily be more or fewer than that.

A third approach (the one I favor) also treats the phrase "ten thousand" as a military unit of unknown numbers, but makes a further distinction between the number of units Mormon said he could actually see from the top of Cumorah--two, his and Moroni's--and the number of units he could not then see but could remember and reflect upon with the interjection, "Behold." This means that 20,000 Nephites dying at Cumorah is on the high side. Using Xenophon's example, it could be 12,000, plus 12,000 Lamanites, for a total of around 25,000.

We can infer, although the text does not say it, that there were more Lamanites attacking than Nephites defending. How many Lamanites were killed is also unknown. But we can reasonably infer that at least as many Lamanites died as Nephites, giving a number in the tens of thousands, but well below one hundred thousand. 

All of this means we are dealing with an unknown number of deaths at Cumorah, but most likely a number far lower than 230,000 Nephites. 

This is all another variable to consider when evaluating scientific evidence. 

Here's how Oliver Cowdery described the situation from the perspective of Mormon, who knew the Jaredites had died at the spot and the Nephites were about to die there.

In this vale lie commingled, in one mass of ruin the ashes of thousands [of Jaredites], and in this vale was destined to consume the fair forms and vigerous systems of tens of thousands of the human race [Nephites and Lamanites]—blood mixed with blood, flesh with flesh, bones with bones and dust with dust!

In my view, this description matches the text. We have the death of thousands (but not even ten thousand) of Jaredites, and tens of thousands (but not even a hundred thousand) of Nephites and Lamanites.

Assessing scientific evidence for the death of, say, 25,000 men is significantly different from assessing scientific evidence for the death of 500,000 or more in one location.

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