Genesis 41:49 (King James Version)
And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number.
Without being a perfect equivalent, this english version is very close to the french version by Louis Segond:
Genesis 41:49 (Louis Segond Version)
Joseph amassa du blé, comme le sable de la mer, en quantité si considérable que l'on cessa de compter, parce qu'il n'y avait plus de nombre
To be more precise: il n'y avait plus de nombre = there was no more number
So the french version has this unusual phrasing that looks a lot like a literal translation from the hebrew text. To me, this looks like an hint the numeral system in use in that time wasn't a positional one based on a finite and limited set of symbols, but maybe one of the same category as the Roman system. Meaning they had to create more and more ways of expressing numbers as they needed larger numbers.
The text often resort to pictures such as "the sand of the shore" or "the stars of the heavens" to express large numbers. Maybe this is not so much a matter of poetry, but they really were experiencing difficulties with representing large numbers.
On the other hand, other translations in french as well as in english don't really hint towards this interpretation:
(...) for it was beyond measure (car cela dépassait toute mesure)
If something is "beyond measure", it may not be because there is no symbol to represent such a number, but for several other reasons, like nobody has enough time to count.
So, my questions are:
- Which version of the verse is the closest to the original text?
- Do we know what numeral system was in use at that time (this time probably being anterior to the moment the Genesis was actually written down)?