Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

September 2000
Of lumber and literalism
Previous 5th Sparrows

The first book of Chronicles in the Old Testament says that the materials gathered in preparation for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem included "more cedar logs than could be counted..." (1 Chronicles 22:4).

Really? An infinite number of cedar logs?

Or is the author merely passing judgement on the numeracy (or lack thereof) of David's court: there were so many that they ran out of fingers?

It seems more likely that the author is merely using a figure of speech meaning "lots". When you and I do this, it is called "exaggerating"; when the Bible does it, we call it "hyperbole". Any notion of Biblical inspiration that is too woodenly literal runs into trouble with these logs.

There probably are people who believe that if the Bible says the number was uncountable, then, dag-gum, it WAS uncountable, and that's all there is to it. But even Jesus uses such exaggeration all the time (well, quite often, anyway), such as when he talks about logs in people's eyes. First century manners and customs were different, but not SO different that people actually wore lumber for contact lenses.

I suppose the difference between exaggeration and hyperbole is that we can call it hyperbole when the exaggeration is deliberate, making some point or having some purpose within the literary context. I can't help but wonder if there's some point in the exaggeration here in 1 Chronicles 22.

It's not just the cedar, but we're told in only the vaguest terms that there was a lot of iron used, and more bronze than could be weighed. There is a reluctance to quantify. And this comes in the chapter after David does evil by trying to quantify his kingdom by taking a census.

The evil is not in the counting itself, of course. Both Old and New Testaments know it's only prudent to figure out your fighting capacity before a battle (see Numbers 1:2-3; 26:2-4 and Luke 14:31). The evil probably comes in wanting to know just "how much you're worth".

David might quantify his kingdom and his glory. The Chronicler resisted any attempt to do that with God and his house. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who wants to be so limited?

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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