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Did God slay "50,070" or "70" men in 1 Samuel 6:19?

"And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter." (1 Samuel 6:19, KJV)

Critics say the small town of Bethshemesh would not have had 50,070 inhabitants, so they side with the reading of "70" as found in a few Hebrew manuscripts and the LXX.  However, a
careful study of the context and the passage demonstrates that the Masoretic reading of 50,070 is correct.

First, the context suggests the 50,070 figure is correct.  The description of "great slaughter" (מכה גדולה) is a clue of the magnitude of the death count.  This same phrase is used in the following passages which also provide numerical figures to indicate the magnitude:
  • "And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen." (1 Samuel 4:10)
  • "Where the people of Israel were slain before the servants of David, and there was there a great slaughter that day of twenty thousand men." (2 Samuel 18:7)
The phrase "great slaughter" appears to describe a slaughter in the thousands or at least hundreds.  We must wonder whether 70 would be too low to be considered a "great slaughter" in the context of biblical narratives where we frequently witness death counts in the hundreds or thousands.

Second, 1 Samuel 6:19 does not say 50,070 of the people of
Bethshemesh died.  It says 50,070 of "the people" died as the "LORD had smitten many of the people" and "the people" lamented over this.  This general reference to "people" rather than to a particular town or nationality suggests that not all of the 50,070 slain were inhabitants of Bethshemesh.  This portion of the narrative often describes individuals by their nationalities: e.g. Philistines, Ekronites (1 Samuel 5:10), Bethshemite (1 Samuel 6:18), children of Israel (1 Samuel 7:4).  If the author meant that 50,070 Bethshemites were killed, he could have said, "even he smote of the Bethshemites fifty thousand and threescore and ten men," but the author did not say that.  In fact, the author is often very specific when stating who are killed in these narratives, specifying the nationality of the slain:
  • "And they smote the Philistines...." (1 Samuel 14:31)
  • "And he gathered an host, and smote the Amalekites...." (1 Samuel 14:48)
  • "And Saul smote the Amalekites...." (1 Samuel 15:7)
1 Samuel 6:19 says "the people" died.  There is no indication that these were all individuals from Bethshemesh.  Therefore, there is no problem with the figure in the Masoretic text.