Edward Fudge


A gracEmail subscriber who enjoys math and geometry has tried to calculate the number of quail God sent to the Israelites when they complained of hunger in the wilderness (Num. 11:31-32). His conclusion: 208 billion birds, taking up 26 billion cubic feet of space. This presents another question that concerns our understanding of biblical inspiration: "Is this hyperbole or what?"

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We start with a story detail that translators interpret differently. If the NIV correctly says the birds flew at an altitude of three feet, we have no basis from which to calculate their number. If the birds were stacked three feet deep, as the NASB and some other versions say, one easily wonders whether the author is using hyperbole or exaggeration to make a point. Put it like this. If you unloaded 100 refrigerated rail cars full of frozen quail every hour, you would need five years to unload 208 billion birds.

Of course, God certainly can produce that many quail if he wishes. But is that what the author of Numbers wants us to think? If we read Numbers 11:31-32 aloud, it is easy to imagine a wrinkled grandfather saying the words to a group of Hebrew youngsters. It is one episode in the great Story--the Story of who they are, why they are special, and what God expects them to be and to do.

Every year I sign a doctrinal statement affirming the inerrancy of the original autographs of Scripture. No one can either prove or disprove that point, since no original writing ("autograph") of Scripture is still known to exist. I firmly believe that whatever God intends to communicate in any Scripture is entirely without error. We must ask what God intends to say. For example, Genesis 11 pictures God saying that he will go down closer to see what the builders are doing at Babel, we recognize the statement as sarcasm. We do not conclude that God suffers from nearsightedness or astigmatism.

So what about the 208 billion birds? Believing readers might decide that the author of Numbers intends to be taken literally, and simply chalk it up to a divine miracle. But that is not the only option. The author just might be using hyperbole to communicate truth bigger than the literal words that say it. So bring on the quail! So many birds that little children lean forward with eyes bugged out. Impress the next generation of Israelites with God's faithfulness and provision. Literal statements are not the only way one can communicate truth.




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