“70.” The Masoretic Hebrew text, which is normally used for the translation of the Old Testament, reads “fifty thousand, seventy,” but in this instance, as in some other places in the Old Testament, there was an obvious copyist’s error. Beth-shemesh was one of the Levitical cities scattered around Israel, and it was in the tribal area of Judah (Josh. 21:16). Today, Beth-shemesh is a seven-acre tel (a tel is an ancient city mound), so Beth-shemesh was not a large city; the entire population of Beth-shemesh did not number 50,000. When the ark showed up at Beth-shemesh, it was totally unexpected, and some of the men of the town were harvesting wheat (1 Sam. 6:13). The people of the town celebrated when the ark was recovered, and some of the men looked into the ark and subsequently died. Given the size of the town and the fact that its arrival in town was a surprise, 50,000 people could not even have come from the surrounding area.
Furthermore, there was no way a number as large as 50,000 people could reasonably look into the ark. It seems clear that it was 70 people who died. The original reading of “70” is preserved in a few Hebrew manuscripts. Some scholars have proposed that the original text read 70 men and 50 oxen, which was then misunderstood as 50,070 men, but there is no proof for that, even if it is a reasonable attempt to explain how 70 became 50,070.
It could perhaps be that the Hebrew, “70 men; 50,000 men” could possibly be an overall number of the people who died in the whole ark incident: 34,000 Israelite warriors (1 Sam. 4:1, 10), and obviously many Philistines died due to the war, plagues, and mice. So it is possible that in all, some 50,000 people were “struck” by Yahweh.