Genesis 41:49

Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain, like the sand of the sea; it was so much that he stopped keeping records because it was beyond measure.

Did they have trouble recording the amount under the Egyptian numeral system? Did they run into technical accounting problems?

  • I find it hard - no, impossible - to believe that Joseph was counting grains at all! I know they don't at Walmart. Surely Joseph would be weighing, not counting. Perhaps there is a translation issue? – Ruminator Feb 20 at 21:19

Was Genesis 41:49 literally true?

It was both literally and metaphorically true. Let me explain.

Genesis 41:49 Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain, like the sand of the sea; it was so much that he stopped keeping records because it was beyond measure

Interestingly, even the English word "grain" can be used in two senses: countable and uncountable,

Metaphorically, it was like the sand of the sea. How could they count the number of grains of the sand of the sea? They couldn't. It was uncountable in the linguistic sense, not in the mathematical sense.

Literally, there was so much harvested collection that Joseph stopped bothering counting it. After a certain big big number, there was no more point in further counting it.

Did they run into technical accounting problems?

Yes, large numbers are rather unwieldy in the ancient number systems.

The following was inspired by HoldToTheRod's answer:

Go to https://www.calculateme.com/roman-numerals/to-roman.

Enter 3999999.

It outputs: M̅M̅M̅C̅M̅X̅C̅I̅̅X̅CMXCIX

Enter 4000000.

It outputs: Must be less than 4,000,000

  • Lol that's awesome. I actually had to edit my post because the first time I made a typo on the roman numerals for such a big number. Which i suppose is entirely consistent with the answers we gave =) – Hold To The Rod Feb 20 at 21:11
  • Glad to see you here. – Tony Chan Feb 20 at 21:27
  • Using Roman numerals is anachronistic. Egyptian number system surprisingly has a hieroglyphic symbol for a million ! At any rate, it's not much larger either. – GratefulDisciple Feb 20 at 21:31
  • Yes, the Eqyptian system seems to be better than the Romans. That's surprising. – Tony Chan Feb 20 at 21:38

Pyramids yes, 0’s no

Ancient Egypt’s mathematical system did not have a “0”. 0 didn’t really solidify its place in mathematics until the 5th century (see here)

This may seem a small issue until we consider the tremendous value of a placeholder in counting. To convey 4988 in Arabic numerals you need only 4 characters, and it takes but a split second to decipher the meaning of this number. Compare to Roman numerals, where “4988” is conveyed MMMCMLXXXVIII. That’s 13 characters!!! (and most of us can’t look at that jumble of letters and immediately recognize it for what it means).

In a mathematical system without a 0, large numbers are incredibly unwieldy. When ancient authors speak of something “without number”, in cultural context they are speaking not of infinity in the strictest mathematical sense, but pointing out that they have no efficient mathematical way to describe it.

How to trigger your Computer Science teacher

Even today with computers we run into large number problems. Some computer languages are only designed to handle integers up to 2^32; this doesn’t mean there’s no such larger number; it just means the computer hasn’t been told how to process it. So naturally, as a computer science student, I plugged in a bigger number to see what happened….


One of the most common means of conveying an idea that is difficult to describe is via metaphor. The Bible uses metaphors a number of times to describe really large numbers (as the sands of the sea or as the stars of the heaven are some popular examples), including in the passage cited in the OP. This isn’t a mathematically precise statement, it’s an acknowledgement that it is a really big number.

We’re not all that different today; we use metaphors when something is difficult to describe. Think of all the metaphors used in love notes. Does anybody really intend to call their significant other a sticky substance made by insects? (honey)


They didn’t have a good way to mathematically reckon the amount of grain that had been gathered. In that sense it was without measure, and the most practical way to describe it was via metaphor.

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