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It’s one thing to say about 30 men, it’s another to say about 36 men. At this point 36 is a specific and exact number. Why would it be worded this way? Depending on the translation and language it’s about, almost, around...

Were some of them boys, maybe women? Is this trying to draw attention to another passage, theme, subject? Were some struck but not all died?

And the men of Ai smote of them about thirty and six men; and they chased them from before the gate even unto Shebarim, and smote them at the descent; and the hearts of the people melted, and became as water

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    The Hebrew has a slightly ambiguous syntax that's telescoped in the English translation: "The men of AI struck down [some] of them[,] about thirty-six." Now, the word translated "about" is just the k-preposition. To my mind, what the preposition contributes is not so clear-cut — "about" is a good guess at best. I think it could also be translated along the lines of "namely" or "on the order of". When you fit that into the above syntax it would be specifying how many rather than approximating. Curious what a more experienced scholar will say. – Luke Sawczak Jul 12 at 16:05
  • +1. This question first occurred to me when I was 12 years old reading the bible. I remember wondering what is about 36 men supposed to mean??! I have not yet found a good solution. – Bach Jul 12 at 18:19
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    Thirty-six is three dozen. – Lucian Jul 13 at 6:38
  • @Lucian but that’s a more recent concept or at least not one I’m familiar the Hebrews used. It coincides with a 12 number base system true. math.stackexchange.com/questions/35894/…. I don’t think they meant three dozens. – Nihil Sine Deo Jul 13 at 13:39
  • @Autodidact: For more perspective on this particular topic, see my answers to these three questions. – Lucian Jul 13 at 14:12
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The Narrative
There are two ways combat loses are determined after the battle. One is by direct observation: "I saw so and so killed." The other is by taking role: "So and so did not return." The text is silent as to how the number was determined, but implies it was done immediately:

So about three thousand men went up there from the people. And they fled before the men of Ai, and the men of Ai killed about thirty-six of their men and chased them before the gate as far as Shebarim and struck them at the descent. And the hearts of the people melted and became as water. Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel. And they put dust on their heads. (Joshua 7:4-6) [ESV]

Immediate reports of causalities are never precise. Some who were wounded could die later; some who were thought to have been killed may have been only wounded; some who did not return with the group may straggle in later. This is especially so in situations where the conflict involved pursuit. "Shebarim" (a hapax legomenon), may be "so called, perhaps, from the mines, or stone quarries, which lay in the neighbourhood"1 or "crevices, or ravines. A short distance below Ai the road passes the head of steep glens, which open into the plain of Jordan." 2

Terrain with mines, quarries, crevices, or ravines offer the ability to avoid the pursuing enemy by hiding. So one who did not return with the main force is reported as missing, presumed dead, but may be alive.

Conclusion
The focus of the narrative is on the reaction to the defeat. It is easy to envision an exchange between Joshua and the leader of the returning company: "What happened?" "The men of Ai were too strong and we fled." "Did we lose anyone?" "About 36 were killed." Upon learning of the defeat and loss of life, Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth and was joined by the elders before the Ark.

There may well be some symbolic nature underlying the number; however, a report of "about" is how an initial report of casualties is made. That is to say, a good commander would report the number who did not return as lost in combat, hoping the actual loss of life is less.

  1. Cambridge Bible Commentary
  2. Ellicott's Commentary
  • I can agree with this response. If there isn’t any objection in the next few days yours will be the answer I check mark. – Nihil Sine Deo Jul 30 at 15:28
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Upon rereading this passage it occurred to me that they didn’t have an exact number of combatants to begin with.

“So about three thousand men went up there from the people, but they fled before the men of Ai.” ‭‭Joshua‬ ‭7:4

It therefore stands to reason that if they didn’t have an exact number of men who went up to Ai, upon tallying those who were struck was not an exact count.

The count must have been conducted immediately after their retreat which would have left open the possibility that some either didn’t go up, or were expected to return to camp but presumed dead for the time being.

Until further notice about 36 were struck dead (with the anticipation that one or more were in hiding).

It was not uncommon in warfare at that time to wait at least a day before returning to your own camp.

“And she said to them, “Get to the mountain, lest the pursuers meet you. Hide there three days, until the pursuers have returned. Afterward you may go your way.”” ‭‭Joshua‬ ‭2:16‬

Or

“But these five kings had fled and hidden themselves in a cave at Makkedah.” ‭‭Joshua‬ ‭10:16‬ ‭

  • Why does the inexact number in v. 4 imply that the number in v. 5 is inexact as well? Especially since 36 is so much smaller, it is reasonable that it could be precise. – user2672 Jul 13 at 7:21
  • If you don’t know for sure how many exactly were delegated to go up, then the thirty-six that are unaccounted during the head count remains an unconfirmed number for the time being. About 36 are missing, possibly all dead, unless it is discovered that some never actually left the camp for any number of reasons in the first place and were not present during the head count either. @Keelan. That’s just one possibility, the other is that some did not make it back to camp yet but they were hopeful some would survive and turn up later from hiding. About 36 were dead as best as they knew – Nihil Sine Deo Jul 13 at 13:02
  • Thanks, I follow your reasoning now. In that understanding, the number of people killed is computed as the number of people sent to Ai minus the people alive afterwards. But are there no other ways to count this figure, for instance by asking who is missing a friend/husband/father? – user2672 Jul 13 at 18:47
  • @Keelan that’s probably how they got the number. – Nihil Sine Deo Jul 13 at 21:57

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