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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)?
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3 Answers 3

This is just a brief addendum to a previous answer.

The idiom אֵין מִסְפָּר (ʾên mispār) appears 16x in the Tanak: Gen. 41:49; Jdg. 6:5; 7:12; 1 Chr. 22:4, 16; 2 Chr. 12:3; Job 5:9; 9:10; 21:33; Ps. 40:13; 104:25; 105:34; 147:5; Cant. 6:8; Jer. 2:32; Joel 1:6.

I wholly agree with H3br3wHamm3r81's overall conclusion. However, my own sense is that if you survey the uses of the idiom, the issue is not so much that the one counting runs out of numbers to use, but rather that owing to the vast quantities involved, the mass of {stars, sand, locusts, grain, days, whatever} is simply "uncountable", unmeasurable (this latter term often being used by the JPS Tanakh translation).

On number systems, Otto Neugebauer's work is fundamental in this field. I can dig out more if there's interest, but it won't help with the understanding of Gen 41:49!

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Analysis of Hebrew Text

וַיִּצְבֹּר יוֹסֵף בַּר כְּחוֹל הַיָּם הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד עַד כִּי חָדַל לִסְפֹּר כִּי אֵין מִסְפָּר

וַיִּצְבֹּר - a verb conjugated in binyan Pa'al, 3rd person, masculine gender, singular number, imperfect tense, with vav ha-hipukh, thus converting tense to perfect. It means, "and he gathered in a pile; he piled up."

יוֹסֵף - a proper name, accurately transliterated as "Yosef," but commonly transliterated as "Joseph."

בַּר - a noun, meaning "corn."

כְּחוֹל - the adverb כְּ, meaning "as, like," prefixed to the noun חוֹל, meaning "sand." Altogether, meaning "like the sand of." (Noun is in the נִסְמָךְ position)

הַיָּם - the definite article הַ prefixed to the noun יָם, meaning "sea." Altogether, meaning "the sea." (Noun is in the סוֹמֵךְ position)

הַרְבֵּה - an infinitive absolute conjugated in binyan Hif'il. It functions adverbially, and is translated as "much." See Gesenius, p. 754 (DCCLIV) on רָבָה, "Hiphil," section (1) (a).

מְאֹד - an adverb, meaning "very."

עַד כִּי - altogether, this phrase means "until." See Gesenius, p. 606 (DCVI) on עַד, section (C) (2).

חָדַל - a verb conjugated in binyan Pa'al, 3rd person, masculine gender, singular number, and perfect tense, meaning "he ceased, stopped."

לִסְפֹּר - an infinitive conjugated in binyan Pa'al. The phrase חָדַל לִסְפֹּר consists of the perfect tense חָדַל followed by the infinitive לִסְפֹּר. It is understood as "he stopped counting."

כִּי - a conjunction, meaning "because, for, since."

אֵין - a negative particle, meaning "no, there was no."

מִסְפָּר - a noun, meaning "number." This is also the word used for "number" ("numeral") in modern Hebrew.


English Translation

And Yosef piled up corn very much, like the sand of the sea, until he stopped counting, because there was no number.


Unfortunately, I do not know what numbering system was used by the ancient Israelites. As for the translations, both appear to be saying the same thing. Yosef stopped counting because there was no longer a number able to enumerate the quantity. (By the way, Yosef would not have counted individual kernels of corn; rather, bushels or something of that sort.) Whether Moshe is using hyperbole or not, I'm not certain, but the least we can imply is that Yosef accumulated a vast quantity of corn.

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It may be worth adding that without number is actually idiomatic English and has been since around 1300 (per OED). "Because it was without number" is not a bad translation of the literal "because there was no number". It doesn't actually have anything to do with numeral systems per se. –  Andrew Leach Jan 28 at 15:10
    
I agree with you Andrew. I read this text in the french Louis Segond's version, and was a bit embarrassed not to find the exact equivalent of the french verse in any English version. That's why I said "is very close to the french version" and added the literal translation of the french version: "there was no more number". And the hebrew text seems to be written that way as well... –  Florimond Husquinet Jan 29 at 16:51

The Egyptian numbering system (which is the one that would have been in use) runs out of numbers at 9,999,999. (9 Hehs, 9 tadpoles, 9 fingers, 9 lotus stems, 9 coils, 9 ropes, 9 sticks). Beyond that was infinity. (a footed circle). Originally Heh was infinity, but later the Egyptians allowed for multiple Heh's. BTW Heh was the Egyptian God equivalent of Adam, the first human man.

For a description of Egyptian numbers see: http://gwydir.demon.co.uk/jo/numbers/egypt/intro.htm

For more information about Heh (also known as Huh) see: http://egyptian-gods.org/egyptian-gods-huh/

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