If the Torah is extremely precise, how come we read these numbers?
Noach 950 or 951?
Noach lived 600 years before the Flood, the Flood lasted over a year, he lived 350 years after the Flood, and he lived till the age of 950. Huh?
Jacob 69 or 70?
With 70 Souls from his loins, Jacob went down to Egypt. Count the names, and you get 69. One of Leah’s (grand)children is counted but not named.
Rashi suggests (full honors for trying) that Jochebed was number 70. Yes, Moses says she was born to Levi in Egypt, but Rashi says she was born as they were entering the Land of Egypt. A border(line) case?
Yet, in the Torah, 70 means ‘many.’ We find 70 ways to grasp the Torah. That’s not restrictive. There are 70 Gentile Nations. Maybe this shouldn’t be taken literally? Unlikely! The Rabbis identify the 70 Peoples by name.
Moses’ Tribe Seizes?
Every time Moses counts the Tribes, he gets to numbers dividable by 1000, 100, or at least 50. Why these round numbers? Every head was carefully, lovingly counted individually. These were not rough estimates.
At larger numbers, the Torah rounds off? Like carpenters count: 2 (duplex), 3 (triplex), many (multiplex)? Or Christians: 1 (Monotheism), 2 (Dualism), 3 (Trinity), many (Polytheism)? Or physicians: 1 (single), 2 (double), 3 (triple), 4 (quadruple), many (multi-)?
When Jewish Law counts days (for a nida, brit milah, pidyon haben, shiva), the smallest part of a first and a last day are each regarded as a full day. The Talmud tells us that an animal of two years and a day is considered three years old. So, two years in the Torah could easily mean 1 year and a day at least. When the Torah means a full year, it says so. Joseph had to sit in jail for another 2 full years—literally: until the end of two years of days.
Western culture does a similar thing. As soon as we have our Xth birthday, we will be in our X+1 years of age. So, when the Torah writes about an animal “of two years,” properly translated, it’s in its second year of life.
So, Noach’s “600 years” is 599 and a day at least. The Flood is 1 year and 11 days. And, “350 years” is 349 years and 1 day at least. Add it up, and you come to 949 years and 13 days at least: “950 years.” Since he was a Tzaddik, I’m sure he died on his birthday, exactly, to the day, at 950 years.
The Rabbis say that Joseph’s wife, Assenat, was adopted by the Potiphar family. She was the biological daughter of the rape of Dinah by Shechem. Lo and behold, she is mentioned in the list of 70, innocently as Joseph’s wife because her old family connection is painful so it’s left open which person is missing from Leah’s offspring, also of Jacob’s loins, but it’s her.
(These 70 are Jacob’s descendants. The daughters-in-law aren’t included.)
I don’t know an answer to why the counts of the Tribes give such round numbers. Were they intended to make reporting by Moses easier? Was it a miracle to tell us that, while everyone counts (pun intended), one more or less wouldn’t have made a difference in the history of the Jews?
When you know or find an answer, please let me know.