Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Friday, July 10, 2020

Playing with numbers in Numbers

I’ve dealt with serious subjects for the last few weeks. So today I’ll tackle a subject that’s won’t make any difference to anybody. Specifically, numbers. More specifically, the numbers in Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible. 

            The Bible asserts -- not just once but three times -- that Moses led 600,000 men of fighting age out of Egypt. Forty years later, when they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, the Israelites still had 600,000 men able to go to war. 

            So a whole new generation was born while roaming through the deserts and mountains of the Sinai peninsula.

            Which means -- I think I’m correct here -- that there must have been women among them, although the Bible didn’t bother counting women. Or children. Or seniors, such as Moses himself.

            Assuming that birthrates haven’t changed much, 600,000 men probably meant an equal number of women. 

            Add children and seniors, the total nears two million.

            If you’ve ever seen the Sinai desert, it is inconceivable that two million people could wander for 40 years through that arid wilderness. 

            At the ancient city of Petra, in Jordan, I have looked down the valley that funnels up from the coast. It’s the historic trade route, and legend insists that Moses came through here. 

            The valley narrows through Petra. Above Petra, it’s a canyon carved deep through bedrock. Sheer walls reduce the sky to a distant slit. In places, it’s no wider than the double-doors into my bank. 

            Imagine two million people shuffling three abreast through a set of double-doors. Black Friday at Walmart wouldn’t compare.

            Even without “social distancing,” I estimate it would require a column of people about 600 kilometres long. 


Possible solution

            Forty years ago, a math teacher struggled with that problem. He really wanted to believe the Bible. But he had recently returned from a trip to the Sinai desert. And he simply couldn’t believe the numbers in Numbers. 

            Both could be right, he concluded in an article he sent me, if the ancient Israelites didn’t count by tens, as we assume everyone must. Maybe they counted to a different base. 

            That requires some explanation. We count by base-10, largely because we have ten fingers. As comedian Tom Lehrer put it, years ago, “Base-8 is just like base-10 if you’re missing two fingers!” 

            We count all kinds of things in other bases. 

            We count in 7s for weeks; 30s for months; 365s for years. We count couples in 2s; inches in 12s; pounds in 16s; miles in 5280s; cups in 8s and quarts in 32s or 40s, depending on where you live. And heaven only knows what a bushel is.

            Your computer runs on binary code, base-2: It counts 0, 1, 10, 11, 100, 101…

            For base-4, you’d count 0, 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, 12, 13, 20, 21…. And so on.

            If the escaped slaves counted in base-4, two million would be -- in our terms -- only 8200.

            In base-3, under 1500.

            Do I have any proof they counted to a different base? Nope. But those are much more credible numbers. 

            There! Don’t you feel better that you’re not expected to do anything about all that?


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





You endorsed my thoughts about “telephone abuse” in last week’s column. 


“Right on,” said Ruth Buzzard “I have a neighbour who phones me every day to talk. She talks and I listen, to her concerns about her family and her neighbours. But she always asks if it is a convenient time to talk. I’m sure she is lonely. 

            “I hate scam calls. If I get a human being on the line, I tell him his mother would be ashamed of him for scamming little old ladies. Invariably he hangs up, and never phones back!

            “In the olden days I used to sometimes get obscene calls. I wouldn’t say a thing but would quietly put the phone down and let the caller speak into thin air, When he realized there was no reaction he would eventually give up. The beauty of this was that his line would be out of service until I came back hours later and hung up. I wish this still worked on crank calls today.”


Tom Watson wondered, “The rub is: how  do we tell an automated call that they're being abusive? Also, the folks behind these calls don't give a tinker's damn about abuse -- that's their purpose, to abuse us out of our money.”


Isabel Gibson: “Back in the days when no one had answering machines, I don't remember thinking that a call was an intrusion. Now it's a bit like, ‘What do you want? Why are you calling?’

            “After all, they could have emailed. :-)

            “Electronic communications can also be an intrusion. My phone makes a knock-knock noise when someone texts or messages me through What'sApp. Their very immediacy seems to expect (demand?) an immediate response.

            “A wise old friend once said that she never called someone to express condolences: She mailed a card. She figured there were days when the bereaved couldn't rise to the occasion of a telephone conversation, but a card could be laid by until they were in the right frame of mind and heart.


Ted Spencer admitted, “For a time, I made a project of finding pithy witticisms -- dozens of them -- which would appear at random on the bottom of each email I sent. There were some dandies. (‘One should not use a cell phone in any circumstance where one would not confidently fart.’) 

            “Apropos your topic: ‘The invention of the telephone cannot be considered complete as long as it is able to barge into your life like a drunk banging on a bell.’ 

            On those occasions when I don’t answer the phone -- don’t even look at the caller ID -- a feeling of smug self-control suffuses the old visage. And, in case you’re wondering, I’ll not be sending you a text to see if it’s OK to call, as seems to be the current etiquette. Beware the drunk banging on a bell: it’s probably me.”


James Russell had a follow-up: “I understand that sophisticated kids text first and call only if they get OK’d to do so. However, this requires not only a mobile-to-mobile connection, but a habit of constantly checking your phone for texts.

            “I used to welcome people just dropping by, but am more likely now to hope they call ahead. Communications technology never solves the problems of communication, does it?”


Bob Rollwagen was terse: “My phone asks for a message. I check my messages, reply if necessary. Then I put my phone aside. If I happen to be near my phone and I recognize the caller and I am not occupied at that moment, I may answer. If I don’t answer, they can leave a message. I just checked my phone. Three calls, same person, message left each time. Not urgent. I will return the call tomorrow. Thanks for calling. Please call again. Bye.”




Psalm paraphrase


Mistakes compound other mistakes. First I forgot to send Soft Edges last Thursday. So I sent it out this Tuesday instead. But then I included the psalm paraphrase that should have gone out today with the column for last week, so I won’t send out this week’s paraphrase again. That’s almost as confusing as the numbers in Numbers.

            Anyway, the psalm paraphrase was for Psalm 119:105-112. Someone asked. 


You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, please check my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry I posted some new poetic works there a few weeks ago. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca, or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                  I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)








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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: numbers, new math, Sinai, Petra



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