What was the world population around 970 BC? What was Palestine's population around 970 BC? Does the following bible verse fits in the current historical world population estimatives?

In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand.

2 Samuel 24:9

Accordingly to Bible Timeline the verse is about somewhen around 970 BC

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    If you're looking for a Biblical interpretation you might want to try this StackExchange site instead: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com
    – jfrankcarr
    May 30, 2012 at 11:51
  • @jfrankcarr I'd rather have a skeptical point of view
    – Jader Dias
    May 30, 2012 at 12:17
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    Edited to complete the sentence, as I think it was misleading without the second half. At the time in question, Israel and Judah were supposedly one pan-Jewish state.
    – T.E.D.
    May 30, 2012 at 13:34
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about teleologically adjusting historical narrative to meet a narrative from another humanities discipline. History does not serve to tell confirming tales of cultural narratives. Sep 11, 2014 at 22:01
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    Concur that it is off topic now; there are too many peripheral issues that drag this out of history and into other narratives. Is there a way we can adjust it to merely ask what the world population was in 970 BCE and how the figure was derived?
    – MCW
    Sep 12, 2014 at 11:15

3 Answers 3


According to the graph on the World Population wiki page, global population at 1000 BC was about 50 million. The vast majority of that would have been in the areas of intensive farming, which at that time means Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and perhaps the Indus valley.

So that number doesn't seem completely out of line. However, Israel is much more marginal agricultural territory than Mesopotamia. Reconstructing the Society of Ancient Israel, by Paula M. McNutt postulates a far lower population for the area. In particular, based on archeological evidence, perhaps 40,000 people in the 12th century (which gives them a lot of ground to cover to make a over a million warriors in the next 2 centuries). She admits this doesn't jibe well with biblical accounts.

Here's what McEvedy and Jones' Atlas of World Population History has to say on this very subject:

The collapse of the Egyptian Empire in 1200BC left Palestine
and Jordan defenceless: the Philistines seized the coast, the children of Israel moved in from the desert. According to scripture the Israelites were numbered at something over 2m. Ten thousand would be a better figure, but if they were few they were tenacious: they multiplied and proselytized with such remarkable success that by 800BC they constituted rather more than half the total population of the area - say 0.3m out of 0.5m

For a modern comparison, the state of Israel today has about only 1.5 million men considered "fit for military service". So this Biblical passage would have you believe they almost had as many available in the same area 3000 ago as they could muster today.

Note that current thinking is that Samuel was written sometime around 630-540 BCE, which would have been 300 to 500 years after the events being described. As such, this portion of The Bible should not be taken as a literal history.

The edit I made to the question (adding back in the bit about Judah) should be your first clue. There was no such thing as "Judah" until the civil war after the death of Solomon in 930 (50 years later). That's when the state split, with the 10 northern tribes continuing to call themselves "Israel" and the two southern ones calling themselves "Judah" (which was one of the two tribes' names).

So the sentence is an anachronism. There was no such split then, and "Judah" was just one of the 12 tribes in the country. Most likely if such a report were given, it either wouldn't have been split up at all, or it would have been split up by tribe (which would have required 12 numbers, not two).

Samuel was trying to relate a story, and tell some deeper truths about the authors' conception of God. It was not trying to be a modern-style historical documentary. If you are poking around in it looking for history in every detail, you are completely missing the point.

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    I didn't say "shouldn't be taken literally". I said "should not be taken as a literal history". That seems to me to have the same meaning as your proposed change. Anyone who thinks it should be taken as a literal history is perfectly free to downvote the answer.
    – T.E.D.
    May 30, 2012 at 15:32
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    Thanks for bringing up the context of the Bible, people forget that much of it was written far after the events described. The Bible is not History, but it allows us to look at events through a different set of lenses.
    – MichaelF
    May 30, 2012 at 16:35
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    Well, most of it isn't a great historical reference. However, Mark was written only a generation or so after the events described, Acts was nearly contemporanious, and Paul's letters, while not all actually written by Paul, were essentially a snapshot of the Christian community at the time they were written.
    – T.E.D.
    May 31, 2012 at 14:18
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    -1:"which would have been 300 to 500 years...As such, this portion of The Bible should not be taken as a literal history." Very wrong: From your source: "combining a number of independent texts of various ages" i.e: There were documents that dated back to the time of the actual events that were compiled and edited to arrive that the current text. Traditional biblical scholars also agree to this. According to your reasoning, if today someone writes a book about Columbus based on solid written sources, it's not history because Columbus lived a few hundred years ago. Not really...
    – user2590
    Aug 11, 2013 at 7:45
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    @T.E.D. "Most likely if such a report.." Hebrew text effectively quotes Yoav: Are you saying the quote was later falsified or fabricated? Why? The distinction between Israel and Judah dates to before the civil war-very ancient roots going back to patriarchal times: Joseph and Judah. (The kings of Israel were from the tribe of Joseph & in the prophets we find the "House of Joseph"-Amos 5:6 1 of many) The split was just the final manifestation of the rivalry. Just as "Dixie" referred to the Confederate states before the Civil War, "Israel" referred to the northern areas.
    – user2590
    Aug 11, 2013 at 8:21

How about this explanation: Yes, scripture is literal history, but the translation of the Hebrew word 'eleph' as meaning 1000 is incorrect. Eleph became 1000 about the time of the minor prophets, about 400 BC. This change from the original meaning was a consequence of Hellenistic influence which came into northern Israel from ~450 BC onwards.

Greek thinking involved mathematical precision. Prior to that, eleph was an early Hebrew word with no clear literal numerical number. It was originally imprecise, something like a clan, extended family, troop, company, or something similar - very much less than 1000!

Correct this in its every occurrence of early Hebrew meaning, and all the 'number problems' of scripture (of which there are legion) disappear like the sun on the morning mist.

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    – Community Bot
    Jul 25, 2023 at 11:01
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    "The scripture is literal history" - something you have to support with facts. I have a bit of a problem with talking snakes and donkeys, for example.
    – Jos
    Jul 25, 2023 at 11:42
  • The dates of authorship of various parts of the Bible is a complex subject that hundreds of professional historians have devoted their careers to. "History" as a discipline hadn't been invented yet when most of it was written, so reporting accurate history to modern expectations was never its purpose. So no, there's no simple mathematical transform you can apply that suddenly turns it into a modern-style history text.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 26, 2023 at 13:55
  • ...but the good news is, it shares this status with every other ancient source. We know how to deal with sources like that, because all of them are like that. So as long as we don't turn off our brains just because of its special status to one religion we may or may not believe in, there's no reason it can't be used as a source like anything else.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 26, 2023 at 13:57
  • (OTOH, if you want to turn off your brain, that's certainly your right. That's generally not the way we like to roll on this particular website though.)
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 26, 2023 at 14:02

According to this site the population was around 100 million and the Jewish population was 2 million people, fitting the biblical narrative.

But it could be that this data was extracted solely from the Bible, and not from other sources.

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    The world population estimates of the time period would suggest that an adult male population of 800K in Palestine is a plausible number. That said, numbers in the Bible have been mistranslated at times so that's why I'd suggest the hermeneutics site to probe that aspect.
    – jfrankcarr
    May 30, 2012 at 13:08
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    That site assumes that biblical account of history is accurate, therefore the 2 million.
    – Michael
    Sep 9, 2014 at 7:12
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    An agricultural or nomadic population of 2 million doesn't have 1.3 million "able-bodied men who could handle a sword". You are at least an order of magnitude off, even if we accept the 2 million (which also seems rather inflated)
    – Greg
    Mar 31, 2020 at 2:03
  • Archeological evidence alone refutes any chance such numbers were even remotely possible. Where are the dwellings, cities and villages, of these millions of people? The land of Israel is very small and a large portion of it is an inhospitable dessert. It’s also been excavated for around 200 years. For comparison, the population of Egypt at the time is roughly estimated at about 4 million, and that’s a global superpower even though it was in relative decline.
    – Boaz
    Aug 3, 2020 at 18:54
  • A creationist site proving creationism as a fact. Why am I not surprised?
    – Jos
    Jul 25, 2023 at 11:44

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