Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
I. NUMBER AND ARITHMETIC
II. NOTATION OF NUMBERS
1. By Words
2. By Signs
3. By Letters
III. NUMBERS IN OLD TESTAMENT HISTORY
IV. ROUND NUMBERS
V. SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS
1. Seven and Its Multiples
(1) Ritual Use of Seven
(2) Historical Use of Seven
(3) Didactic or Literary Use of Seven
(4) Apocalyptic Use of Seven
2. The Number Three
3. The Number Four
4. The Number Ten
5. The Number Twelve
6. Other Significant Numbers
I. Number and Arithmetic.
The system of counting followed by the Hebrews and the Semites generally was the decimal system, which seems to have been suggested by the use of the ten fingers. Hebrew had separate words only for the first nine units and for ten and its multiples. Of the sexagesimal system, which seems to have been introduced into Babylonia by the Sumerians and which, through its development there, has influenced the measurement of time and space in the western civilized world even to the present day; there is no direct trace in the Bible, although, as will be shown later, there are some possible echoes. The highest number in the Bible described by a single word is 10,000 (ribbo or ribbo', murias). The Egyptians, on the other hand, had separate words for 100,000, 1,000,000, 10,000,000. The highest numbers referred to in any way in the Bible are: "a thousand thousand" (1 Ch 22:14; 2 Ch 14:9); "thousands of thousands" (Dan 7:10; Rev 5:11); "thousands of ten thousands" (Gen 24:60); "ten thousand times ten thousand" (Dan 7:10; Rev 5:11); and twice that figure (Rev 9:16). The excessively high numbers met with in some oriental systems (compare Lubbock, The Decimal System, 17 ff) have no parallels in Hebrew. Fractions were not unknown. We find 1/3 (2 Sam 18:2, etc.); 1/2 (Ex 25:10,17, etc.); 1/4 (1 Sam 9:8); 1/5 (Gen 47:24); 1/6 (Ezek 46:14); 1/10 (Ex 16:36); 2/10 (Lev 23:13); 3/10 (Lev 14:10), and 1/100 (Neh 5:11). Three other fractions are less definitely expressed: 2/3 by "a double portion," literally, "a double mouthful" by (Dt 21:17; 2 Ki 2:9; Zec 13:8); 4/5 by "four parts" (Gen 47:24), and 9/10 by "nine parts" (Neh 11:1). Only the simplest rules of arithmetic can be illustrated from the Old Testament. There are examples of addition (Gen 5:3-31; Nu 1:20-46); subtraction (Gen 18:28 ff); multiplication (Lev 25:8; Nu 3:46 ff), and division (Nu 31:27 ff). In Lev 25:50 ff is what has been said to imply a kind of rule-of-three sum. The old Babylonians had tables of squares and cubes intended no doubt to facilitate the measurement of land (Sayce, Assyria, Its Princes, Priests, and People, 118; Bezold, Ninive und Babylon, 90, 92); and it can scarcely be doubted that the same need led to similar results among the Israelites, but at present there is no evidence. Old Hebrew arithmetic and mathematics as known to us are of the most elementary kind (Nowack, HA, I, 298).
II. Notation of Numbers.
1. By Words:
No special signs for the expression of numbers in writing can be proved to have been in use among the Hebrews before the exile. The Siloam Inscription, which is probably the oldest specimen of Hebrew writing extant (with the exception of the ostraca of Samaria, and perhaps a seal or two and the obscure Gezer tablet), has the numbers written in full. The words used there for 3,200, 1,000 are written as words without any abbreviation. The earlier text of the Moabite Stone which practically illustrates Hebrew usage has the numbers 30, 40, 50, 100, 200, 7,000 written out in the same way.
2. By Signs:
After the exile some of the Jews at any rate employed signs such as were current among the Egyptians, the Arameans, and the Phoenicians--an upright line for 1, two such lines for 2, three for 3, and so on, and special signs for 10, 20, 100. It had been conjectured that these or similar signs were known to the Jews, but actual proof was not forthcoming until the discovery of Jewish papyri at Assuan and Elephantine in 1904 and 1907. In these texts, ranging from 494 to circa 400 BC, the dates are stated, not in words, but in figures of the kind described. We have therefore clear evidence that numerical signs were used by members of a Jewish colony in Upper Egypt in the 5th century BC. Now, as the existence of this colony can be traced before 525 BC, it is probable that they used this method of notation also in the preceding century. Conjecture indeed may go as far as its beginning, for it is known that there were Jews in Pathros, that is Upper Egypt, in the last days of Jeremiah (Jer 44:1,15). Some of the first Jewish settlers in Elephantine may have known the prophet and some of them may have come from Jerusalem, bringing these signs with them. At present, however, that is pure hypothesis.
3. By Letters:
In the notation of the chapters and verses of the Hebrew Bible and in the expression of dates in Hebrew books the consonants of the Hebrew alphabet are employed for figures, i.e. the first ten for 1-10, combinations of these for 11-19, the following eight for 20-90, and the remainder for 100, 200, 300, 400. The letters of the Greek alphabet were used in the same way. The antiquity of this kind of numerical notation cannot at present be ascertained. It is found on Jewish coins which have been dated in the reign of the Maccabean Simon (143-135 BC), but some scholars refer them to a much later period. All students of the Talmud are familiar with this way of numbering the pages, or rather the leaves, but its use there is no proof of early date. The numerical use of the Greek letters can be abundantly illustrated. It is met with in many Greek papyri, some of them from the 3rd century BC (Hibeh Papyri, numbers 40-43, etc.); on several coins of Herod the Great, and in some manuscripts of the New Testament, for instance, a papyrus fragment of Mt (Oxyrhynchus Pap., 2) where 14 is three times represented by iota-delta (I-D) with a line above the letters, and some codices of Rev 13:18 where 666 is given by the three letters "chi" "xi" "vau" (or digaroma). It is possible that two of these methods may have been employed side by side in some cases, as in the Punic Sacrificial Tablet of Marseilles, where (l. 6) 150 is expressed first in words, and then by figures.
III. Numbers in Old Testament History.
Students of the historical books of the Old Testament have long been perplexed by the high numbers which are met with in many passages, for example, the number ascribed to the Israelites at the exodus (Ex 12:37; Nu 11:21), and on two occasions during the sojourn in the wilderness (Nu 1; 26)--more than 600,000 adult males, which means a total of two or three millions; the result of David's census 1,300,000 men (2 Sam 24:9) or 1,570,000 (1 Ch 21:5), and the slaughter of half a million in a battle between Judah and Israel (2 Ch 13:17). There are many other illustrations in the Books of Chronicles and elsewhere. That some of these high figures are incorrect is beyond reasonable doubt, and is not in the least surprising, for there is ample evidence that the numbers in ancient documents were exceptionally liable to corruption. One of the best known instances is the variation of 1,466 years between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint (text of Codex Vaticanus) as to the interval from the creation of Adam to the birth of Abram. Other striking cases are 1 Sam 6:19, where 50,070 ought probably to be 70 (Josephus, Ant., VI, i, 4); 2 Sam 15:7, where 40 years ought to be 4 years; the confusion of 76 and 276 in the manuscripts of Acts 27:37, and of 616 and 666 in those of Rev 13:18. Hebrew manuscripts furnish some instructive variations. One of them, number 109 of Kennicott, reads (Nu 1:23) 1,050 for 50,000; 50 for 50,000 (Nu 2:6), and 100 for 100,000 (Nu 2:16). It is easy to see how mistakes may have originated in many cases. The Hebrew numerals for 30, etc., are the plurals of the units, so that the former, as written, differ from the latter only by the addition of the two Hebrew letters yodh ("y") and mem ("m") composing the syllable -im. Now as the mem was often omitted, 3 and 30, 4 and 40, etc., could readily be confused. If signs or letters of the alphabet were made use of, instead of abbreviated words, there would be quite as much room for misunderstanding and error on the part of copyists. The high numbers above referred to as found in Ex and Nu have been ingeniously accounted for by Professor Flinders Petrie (Researches in Sinai) in a wholly different way. By understanding 'eleph not as "thousand," but as "family" or "tent," he reduces the number to 5,550 for the first census, and 5,730 for the second. This figure, however, seems too low, and the method of interpretation, though not impossible, is open to criticism. It is generally admitted that the number as usually read is too high, but the original number has not yet been certainly discovered. When, however, full allowance has been made for the intrusion of numerical errors into the Hebrew text, it is difficult to resist the belief that, in the Books of Chronicles, at any rate, there is a marked tendency to exaggeration in this respect. The huge armies again and again ascribed to the little kingdoms of Judah and Israel cannot be reconciled with some of the facts revealed by recent research; with the following, for instance: The army which met the Assyrians at Karkar in 854 BC and which represented 11 states and tribes inclusive of Israel and the kingdom of Damascus, cannot have numbered at the most more than about 75,000 or 80,000 men (HDB, 1909, 65b), and the Assyrian king who reports the battle reckons the whole levy of his country at only 102,000 (Der alte Orient, XI, i, 14, note). In view of these figures it is not conceivable that the armies of Israel or Judah could number a million, or even half a million. The contingent from the larger kingdom contributed on the occasion mentioned above consisted of only 10,000 men and 2,000 chariots (HDB, ib). The safest conclusion, therefore, seems to be that, while many of the questionable numbers in the present text of the Old Testament are due to copyists, there is a residuum which cannot be so accounted for.
IV. Round Numbers.
The use of definite numerical expressions in an indefinite sense, that is, as round numbers, which is met with in many languages, seems to have been very prevalent in Western Asia from early times to the present day. Sir W. Ramsay (Thousand and One Churches, 6) remarks that the modern Turks have 4 typical numbers which are often used in proper names with little or no reference to their exact numerical force--3, 7, 40, 1,001. The Lycaonian district which gives the book its name is called Bin Bir Kilisse, "The Thousand and One Churches," although the actual number in the valley is only 28. The modern Persians use 40 in just the same way. "Forty years" with them often means "many years" (Brugsch, cited by Konig, Stilistik, 55). This lax use of numbers, as we think, was probably very frequent among the Israelites and their neighbors. The inscription on the Moabite Stone supplies a very instructive example. The Israelite occupation of Medeba by Omri and his son for half the reign of the latter is there reckoned (II.7 f) at 40 years. As, according to 1 Ki 16:23,29, the period extended to only 23 years at the most, the number 40 must have been used very freely by Mesha's scribe as a round number. It is probably often used in that way in the Bible where it is remarkably frequent, especially in reference to periods of days or years. The 40 days of the Flood (Gen 7:4,17), the arrangement of the life of Moses in three periods of 40 years each (Acts 7:23; Ex 7:7; Dt 34:7), the 40 years' rule or reign of Eli (1 Sam 4:18), of Saul (Acts 13:21; compare Josephus, Ant, VI, xiv, 9), of David (1 Ki 2:11), of Solomon (1 Ki 11:42) and of Jehoash (2 Ki 12:1), the 40 or 80 years of rest (Jdg 3:11,30; 5:31; 8:28), the 40 years of Philistine oppression (Jdg 13:1), the 40 days' challenge of Goliath (1 Sam 17:16), the 40 days' fast of Moses (Ex 34:28), Elijah (1 Ki 19:8), and Jesus (Mt 4:2 and parallel), the 40 days before the destruction of Nineveh (Jon 3:4), and the 40 days before the Ascension (Acts 1:3), all suggest conventional use, or the influence of that use, for it can hardly be supposed that the number in each of these cases, and in others which might be mentioned, was exactly 40. How it came to be so used is not quite certain, but it may have originated, partly at any rate, in the idea that 40 years constituted a generation or the period at the end of which a man attains maturity, an idea common, it would seem, to the Greeks, the Israelites, and the Arabs. The period of 40 years in the wilderness in the course of which the old Israel died out and a new Israel took its place was a generation (Nu 32:13, etc.). The rabbis long afterward regarded 40 years as the age of understanding, the age when a man reaches his intellectual prime (Ab, v, addendum). In the Koran (Sura 46) a man is said to attain his strength when he attains to 40 years, and it was at that age, according to tradition, that Muhammad came forward as a prophet. In this way perhaps 40 came to be used as a round number for an indefinite period with a suggestion of completeness, and then was extended in course of time to things as well as Seasons.
Other round numbers are: (1) some of the higher numbers; (2) several numerical phrases. Under (1) come the following numbers. One hundred, often of course to be understood literally, but evidently a round number in Gen 26:12; Lev 26:8; 2 Sam 24:3; Eccl 8:12; Mt 19:29 and parallel. A thousand (thousands), very often a literal number, but in not a few cases indefinite, e.g. Ex 20:6 parallel Dt 5:10; 7:9; 1 Sam 18:7; Ps 50:10; 90:4; 105:8; Isa 60:22, etc. Ten thousand (Hebrew ribbo, ribboth, rebhabhah; Greek murids, murioi) is also used as a round number as in Lev 26:8; Dt 32:30; Song 5:10; Mic 6:7. The yet higher figures, thousands of thousands, etc., are, in almost all cases, distinctly hyperbolical round numbers, the most remarkable examples occurring in the apocalyptic books (Dan 7:10; Rev 5:11; 9:16; Ethiopic Enoch 40:1). (2) The second group, numerical phrases, consists of a number of expressions in which numbers are used roundly, in some cases to express the idea of fewness. One or two, etc.: "a day or two" (Ex 21:21), "an heap, two heaps" (Jdg 15:16 the Revised Version margin), "one of a city, and two of a family" (Jer 3:14), "not once, nor twice," that is "several times" (2 Ki 6:10). Two or three: "Two or three berries in the (topmost) bough" (Isa 17:6; compare Hos 6:2), "Where two or three are gathered together in my name," etc. (Mt 18:20). Konig refers to Assyrian, Syrian, and Arabic parallels. Three or four: the most noteworthy example is the formula which occurs 8 times in Am 1:3,6,9,11,13; 2:1,4,6, "for three transgressions .... yea for four." That the numbers here are round numbers is evident from the fact that the sins enumerated are in most cases neither 3 nor 4. In Prov 30:15,18,21,29, on the other hand, where we have the same rhetorical device, climax ad majus, 4 is followed by four statements and is therefore to be taken literally. Again, Konig (same place) points to classical and Arabic parallels. Four or five: "Four or five in the outmost branches of a fruitful tree" (Isa 17:6). Five or six: "Thou shouldest have smitten (Syria) five or six times" (2 Ki 13:19), an idiom met with also in Tell el-Amarna Letters (Konig, ib). Six and seven: "He will deliver thee in six troubles; yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee" (Job 5:19). Seven and eight: "Seven shepherds, and eight principal men" (Mic 5:5), that is, "enough and more than enough" (Cheyne); "Give a portion to seven, yea, even unto eight" (Eccl 11:2). In one remarkable phrase which occurs (with slight variations of form) 24 times in the Old Testament, two Hebrew words, meaning respectively "yesterday" and "third," are mostly used so as together to express the idea of vague reference to the past. the Revised Version (British and American) renders in a variety of ways: "beforetime" (Gen 31:2, etc.), "aforetime" (Josh 4:18), "heretofore" (Ex 4:10, etc.), "in time (or "times") past" (Dt 19:4,6; 2 Sam 3:17, etc.).
V. Significant Numbers.
Numerical symbolism, that is, the use of numbers not merely, if at all, with their literal numerical value, or as round numbers, but with symbolic significance, sacred or otherwise, was widespread in the ancient East, especially in Babylonia and regions more or less influenced by Babylonian culture which, to a certain extent, included Canaan. It must also be remembered that the ancestors of the Israelites are said to have been of Babylonian origin and may therefore have transmitted to their descendants the germs at least of numerical symbolism as developed in Babylonia in the age of Hammurabi. Be that as it may, the presence of this use of numbers in the Bible, and that on a large scale, cannot reasonably be doubted, although some writers have gone too far in their speculations on the subject. The numbers which are unmistakably used with more or less symbolic meaning are 7 and its multiples, and 3, 4, 10 and 12.
1. Seven and Its Multiples:
By far the most prominent of these is the number 7, which is referred to in one way or another in nearly 600 passages in the Bible, as well as in many passages in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha, and later Jewish literature. Of course the number has its usual numerical force in many of these places, but even there not seldom with a glance at its symbolic significance. For the determination of the latter we are not assigned to conjecture. There is clear evidence in the cuneiform texts, which are our earliest authorities, that the Babylonians regarded 7 as the number of totality, of completeness. The Sumerians, from whom the Semitic Babylonians seem to have borrowed the idea, equated 7 and "all." The 7-storied towers of Babylonia represented the universe. Seven was the expression of the highest power, the greatest conceivable fullness of force, and therefore was early pressed into the service of religion. It is found in reference to ritual in the age of Gudea, that is perhaps about the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. "Seven gods" at the end of an enumeration meant "all the gods" (for these facts and the cuneiform evidence compare Hehn, Siebenzahl und Sabbath bei den Babyloniern und im Altes Testament, 4 ff). How 7 came to be used in this way can only be glanced at here. The view connecting it with the gods of the 7 planets, which used to be in great favor and still has its advocates, seems to lack ancient proof. Hehn (op. cit., 44 ff) has shown that the number acquired its symbolic meaning long before the earliest time for which that reference can be demonstrated. As this sacred or symbolic use of 7 was not peculiar to the Babylonians and their teachers and neighbors, but was more or less known also in India and China, in classical lands, and among the Celts and the Germans, it probably originated in some fact of common observation, perhaps in the four lunar phases each of which comprises 7 days and a fraction. Conspicuous groups of stars may have helped to deepen the impression, and the fact that 7 is made up of two significant numbers, each, as will be shown, also suggestive of completeness--3 and 4--may have been early noticed and taken into account. The Biblical use of 7 may be conveniently considered under 4 heads: (1) ritual use; (2) historical use; (3) didactic or literary use; (4) apocalyptic use.
(1) Ritual Use of Seven.
The number 7 plays a conspicuous part in a multitude of passages giving rules for worship or purification, or recording ritual actions. The 7th day of the week was holy (see SABBATH). There were 7 days of unleavened bread (Ex 34:18, etc.), and 7 days of the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:34). The 7th year was the sabbatical year (Ex 21:2, etc.). The Moabite Balak built Balaam on three occasions 7 altars and provided in each case 7 bullocks and 7 rams (Nu 23:1,14,29). The Mosaic law prescribed 7 he-lambs for several festal offerings (Nu 28:11,19,27, etc.). The 7-fold sprinkling of blood is enjoined in the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:14,19), and elsewhere. Seven-fold sprinkling is also repeatedly mentioned in the rules for the purification of the leper and the leprous house (Lev 14:7,16,27,51). The leprous Naaman was ordered to bathe 7 times in the Jordan (2 Ki 5:10). In cases of real or suspected uncleanness through leprosy, or the presence of a corpse, or for other reasons, 7 days' seclusion was necessary (Lev 12:2, etc.). Circumcision took place after 7 days (Lev 12:3). An animal must be 7 days old before it could be offered in sacrifice (Ex 22:30). Three periods of 7 days each are mentioned in the rules for the consecration of priests (Ex 29:30,35,37). An oath seems to have been in the first instance by 7 holy things (Gen 21:29 ff and the Hebrew word for "swear"). The number 7 also entered into the structure of sacred objects, for instance the candlestick or lamp-stand in the tabernacle and the second temple each of which had 7 lights (Nu 8:2; Zec 4:2). Many other instances of the ritual use of 7 in the Old Testament and many instructive parallels from Babylonian texts could be given.
(2) Historical Use of Seven.
The number 7 also figures prominently in a large number of passages which occur in historical narrative, in a way which reminds us of its symbolic significance. The following are some of the most remarkable: Jacob's 7 years' service for Rachel (Gen 29:20; compare 29:27 f), and his bowing down 7 times to Esau (Gen 33:3); the 7 years of plenty, and the 7 years of famine (Gen 41:53 f); Samson's 7 days' marriage feast (Jdg 14:12 ff; compare Gen 29:27), 7 locks of hair (Jdg 16:19), and the 7 withes with which he was bound (Jdg 16:7 f); the 7 daughters of Jethro (Ex 2:16), the 7 sons of Jesse (1 Sam 16:10), the 7 sons of Saul (2 Sam 21:6), and the 7 sons of Job (Job 1:2; compare 42:13); the 7 days' march of the 7 priests blowing 7 trumpets round the walls of Jericho, and the 7-fold march on the 7th day (Josh 6:8 ff); the 7 ascents of Elijah's servant to the top of Carmel (1 Ki 18:43 f); the 7 sneezes of the Shunammitish woman's son (2 Ki 4:35); the heating of Nebuchadnezzar's furnace 7 times more than it was wont to be heated (Dan 8:19), and the king's madness for 7 times or years (Dan 4:16,23,25,32); Anna's 7 years of wedded life (Lk 2:36); the 7 loaves of the 4,000 (Mt 15:34-36 parallel) and the 7 baskets full of fragments (Mt 15:37 parallel); the 7 brothers in the conundrum of the Sadducees (Mt 22:25 parallel); the 7 demons cast out of Mary Magdalene (Mk 16:9 parallel Lk 8:2); the 7 ministers in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:3 ff), and the 7 sons of Sceva (Acts 19:14, but the Western text represents them as only 2). The number must no doubt be understood literally in many of these passages, but even then its symbolic meaning is probably hinted at by the historian. When a man was said to have had 7 sons or daughters, or an action was reported as done or to be done 7 times, whether by design or accident, the number was noted, and its symbolic force remembered. It cannot indeed be regarded in all these cases as a sacred number, but its association with sacred matters which was kept alive among the Jews by the institution of the Sabbath, was seldom, if ever, entirely overlooked.
(3) Didactic or Literary Use of Seven.
The symbolic use of 7 naturally led to its employment by poets and teachers for the vivid expression of multitude or intensity. This use is sometimes evident, and sometimes latent. (a) Evident examples are the 7-fold curse predicted for the murderer of Cain (Gen 4:15); fleeing 7 ways (Dt 28:7,25); deliverance from 7 troubles (Job 5:19); praise of God 7 times a day (Ps 119:164); 7 abominations (Prov 26:25; compare 6:16); silver purified 7 times, that is, thoroughly purified (Ps 12:6); 7-fold sin; 7-fold repentance, and 7-fold forgiveness (Lk 17:4; compare Mt 18:21); 7 evil spirits (Mt 12:45 parallel Lk 11:26). The last of these, as well as the previous reference to the 7 demons cast out of Mary Magdalene reminds us of the 7 spirits of Beliar (Testament to the Twelve Patriarchs, Reuben chapters 2 and 3) and of the 7 evil spirits so often referred to in Babylonian exorcisms (compare Hehn, op. cit., 26 ff), but it is not safe to connect our Lord's words with either. The Babylonian belief may indeed have influenced popular ideas to some extent, but there is no need to find a trace of it in the Gospels. The 7 demons of the latter are sufficiently accounted for by the common symbolic use of 7. For other passages which come under this head compare Dt 28:7,25; Ruth 4:15; 1 Sam 2:5; Ps 79:12. (b) Examples of latent use of the number 7, of what Zockler (RE3, "Sieben") calls "latent heptads," are not infrequent. The 7-fold use of the expression "the voice of Yahweh" in Ps 29, which has caused it to be named "The Psalm of the Seven Thunders," and the 7 epithets of the Divine Spirit in Isa 11:2, cannot be accidental. In both cases the number is intended to point at full-summed completeness. In the New Testament we have the 7 beatitudes of character (Mt 5:3-9); the 7 petitions of the Paternoster (Mt 6:9 f); the 7 parables of the Kingdom in Mt 13; the 7 woes pronounced on the Pharisees (Mt 28:13,15,16,23,25,27,29), perhaps the 7 sayings of Jesus, beginning with "I am" (ego eimi) in the Fourth Gospel (Jn 6:35; 8:12; 10:7,11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1), and the 7 disciples at the Lake after the Resurrection (Jn 21:2). Several groups of 7 are found in the Epistles and in Revelation: 7 forms of suffering (Rom 8:35); 7 gifts or charismata (Rom 12:6-9); 7 attributes of the wisdom that is from above (Jas 3:17); 7 graces to be added to faith (2 Pet 1:5 ff); two doxologies each containing 7 words of praise (Rev 5:12; 7:12), and 7 classes of men (Rev 6:15). Other supposed instances of 7-fold grouping in the Fourth Gospel are pointed out by E.A. Abbott (Johannine Grammar, 2624 ff), but are of uncertain value.
(4) Apocalyptic Use of Seven.
As might be expected, 7 figures greatly in apocalyptic literature, although it is singularly absent from the apocalyptic portion of Daniel. Later works of this kind, however--the writings bearing the name of Enoch, the Testaments of Reuben and Levi, 2 Esd, etc.--supply many illustrations. The doctrine of the 7 heavens which is developed in the Slavonic Enoch and elsewhere and may have been in the first instance of Babylonian origin is not directly alluded to in the Bible, but probably underlies the apostle's reference to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2). In the one apocalyptic writing in the New Testament, 7 is employed with amazing frequency. We read of 7 churches (Rev 1:4, etc.); 7 golden candlesticks (Rev 1:12, etc.); 7 stars (Rev 1:16); 7 angels of the churches (Rev 1:20); 7 lamps of fire (Rev 4:5); 7 spirits of God (Rev 1:4; 3:1; 4:5); a book with 7 seals (Rev 5:1); a lamb with 7 horns and 7 eyes (Rev 5:6); 7 angels with 7 trumpets (Rev 8:2); 7 thunders (Rev 10:3); a dragon with 7 heads and 7 diadems (Rev 13:3); a beast with 7 heads (Rev 18:1); 7 angels having the 7 last plagues (Rev 15:1); and 7 golden bowls of the wrath of God (Rev 15:7) and a scarlet-colored beast with 7 heads (Rev 17:3) which are 7 mountains (Rev 17:9) and 7 kings (Rev 17:10). The writer, whoever he was, must have had his imagination saturated with the numerical symbolism which had been cultivated in Western Asia for millenniums. There cannot be a shadow of doubt that 7 for him expressed fullness, completeness. As this inquiry will have shown, the significance of the number is practically the same throughout the Bible. Although a little of it may have been rubbed off in the course of ages, the main idea suggested by 7 was never quite lost sight of in Biblical times, and the number is still used in the life and song of the Holy Land and Arabia with at least an echo of its ancient meaning.
The significance of 7 extends to its multiples. Fourteen, or twice 7, is possibly symbolic in some cases. The stress laid in the Old Testament on the 14th of the month as the day of the Passover (Ex 12:6 and 16 other places), and the regulation that 14 lambs were to be offered on each of the 7 days of the Feast of Tabernacles (Nu 29:13,15) hint at design in the selection of the number, especially in view of the fact that 7 and 7 occur repeatedly in cuneiform literature--in magical and liturgical texts, and in the formula so often used in the Am Tab: "7 and 7 times at the feet of the king my lord .... I prostrate myself." The arrangement of the generations from Abraham to Christ in three groups of 14 each (Mt 1:17) is probably intentional, so far as the number in each group is concerned. It is doubtful whether the number has any symbolic force in Acts 27:27; 2 Cor 12:2; Gal 2:1. Of course it must be remembered that both the Hebrew and Greek words for 14 ('arba'ah asar; dekatessares) suggest that it is made up of 10 and 4, but constant use of 7 in the sense above defined will have influenced the application of its double, at least in some cases.
Forty-nine, or 7 X 7, occurs in two regulations of the Law. The second of the three great festivals took place on the 50th day after one of the days of unleavened bread (Lev 23:15 ff), that is, after an interval of 7 X 7 days; and two years of Jubilee were separated by 7 X 7 years (Lev 25:8 ff). The combination is met with also in one of the so-called Penitential Psalms of Babylonia: "Although my sins are 7 times 7, forgive me my sins."
Seven multiplied by ten, or 70, was a very strong expression of multitude which is met with in a large number of passages in the Old Testament. It occurs of persons: the 70 descendants of Jacob (Ex 15; Dt 10:22); the 70 elders of Israel (Ex 24:1,9; Nu 11:16,24 f); the 70 kings ill treated by Adoni-bezek (Jdg 1:7); the 70 sons of Gideon (Jdg 8:30; 9:2); the 70 descendants of Abdon who rode on 70 asscolts (Jdg 12:14); the 70 sons of Ahab (2 Ki 10:1,6 f); and the 70 idolatrous elders seen by Ezekiel (Ezek 8:11). It is also used of periods: 70 days of Egyptian mourning for Jacob (Gen 50:3); 70 years of trial (Isa 23:15,17; Jer 25:11 f; Dan 9:2; Zec 1:12; 7:5); the 70 weeks of Daniel (Dan 9:24); and the 70 years of human life (Ps 90:10). Other noticeable uses of 70 are the 70 palm trees of Elim (Ex 15:27 parallel Nu 33:9); the offering of 70 bullocks in the time of Hezekiah (2 Ch 29:32), and the offering by the heads of the tribes of 12 silver bowls each of 70 shekels (Nu 7:13 ff). In the New Testament we have the 70 apostles (Lk 10:1,17), but the number is uncertain with Codices Vaticanus and Bezae and some versions reading 72, which is the product, not of 7 and 10, but of 6 and 12. Significant seventies are also met with outside of the Bible. The most noteworthy are the Jewish belief that there were 70 nations outside Israel, with 70 languages, under the care of 70 angels, based perhaps on the list in Gen 10; the Sanhedrin of about 70 members; the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek by Septuagint (more exactly 72), and the 70 members of a family in one of the Aramaic texts of Sendschirli. This abundant use of 70 must have been largely due to the fact that it was regarded as an intensified 7.
Seventy and seven, or 77, a combination found in the words of Lamech (Gen 4:24); the number of the princes and elders of Succoth (Jdg 8:14); and the number of lambs in a memorable sacrifice (Ezr 8:35), would appeal in the same way to the oriental fancy.
The product of seven and seventy (Greek hebdomekontakis hepta) is met with once in the New Testament (Mt 18:22), and in the Septuagint of the above-quoted Gen 4:24. Moulton, however (Grammar of Greek New Testament Prolegomena, 98), renders in both passages 70 plus 7; contra, Allen, "Mt," ICC, 199. The number is clearly a forceful equivalent of "always."
Seven thousand in 1 Ki 19:18 parallel Rom 11:4 may be a round number chosen on account of its embodiment of the number 7. In the Moabite Stone the number of Israelites slain at the capture of the city of Nebo by the Moabites is reckoned at 7,000.
The half of seven seems sometimes to have been regarded as significant. In Dan 7:25; 9:27; 12:7; Lk 4:25 parallel 5:17; Rev 11:2; 13:5 a period of distress is calculated at 3 1/2 years, that is, half the period of sacred completeness.
2. The Number Three:
The number three seems early to have attracted attention as the number in which beginning, middle and end are most distinctly marked, and to have been therefore regarded as symbolic of a complete and ordered whole. Abundant illustration of its use in this way in Babylonian theology, ritual and magic is given from the cuneiform texts by Hehn (op. cit., 63 ff), and the hundreds of passages in the Bible in which the number occurs include many where this special significance either lies on the surface or not far beneath it. This is owing in some degree perhaps to Babylonian influence, but will have been largely due to independent observation of common phenomena--the arithmetical fact mentioned above and familiar trios, such as heaven, earth, and sea (or "the abyss"); morning, noon and night; right, middle, and left, etc. In other words, 3 readily suggested completeness, and was often used with a glance at that meaning in daily life and daily speech. Only a selection from the great mass of Biblical examples can be given here. (1) Three is often found of persons and things sacred or secular, e.g. Noah's 3 sons (Gen 6:10); Job's 3 daughters (Job 1:2; 42:13) and 3 friends (Job 2:11); Abraham's 3 guests (Gen 18:2); and Sarah's 3 measures of meal (Gen 18:6; compare Mt 13:33 parallel); 3 in military tactics (Jdg 7:16,20; 9:43; 1 Sam 11:11; 13:17; Job 1:17); 3 great feasts (Ex 23:14); the 3 daily prayers (Ps 55:17; Dan 6:10,13); the 3 night watches (Jdg 7:19); God's 3-fold call of Samuel (1 Sam 3:8); the 3 keepers of the temple threshold (Jer 52:24); the 3 presidents appointed by Darius (Dan 6:2); the 3 temptations (Mt 4:3,5 f,8 f parallel); the 3 prayers in Gethsemane (Mt 26:39,42,44 parallel); Peter's 3 denials (Mt 26:34,75 parallel); the Lord's 3-fold question and 3-fold charge (Jn 21:15 ff); and the 3-fold vision of the sheet (Acts 10:16). (2) In a very large number of passages 3 is used of periods of time: 3 days; 3 weeks; 3 months and 3 years. So in Gen 40:12,13,18; Ex 2:2; 10:22 f; 2 Sam 24:13; Isa 20:3; Jon 1:17; Mt 15:32; Lk 2:46; 13:7; Acts 9:9; 2 Cor 12:8. The frequent reference to the resurrection "on the 3rd day" or "after 3 days" (Mt 16:21; 27:63, etc.) may at the same time have glanced at the symbolic use of the number and at the belief common perhaps to the Jews and the Zoroastrians that a corpse was not recognizable after 3 days (for Jewish testimony compare Jn 11:39; Yebamoth xvi.3; Midrash, Genesis, chapter c; Semachoth viii; for Persian ideas compare The Expository Times, XVIII, 536). (3) The number 3 is also used in a literary way, sometimes appearing only in the structure. Note as examples the 3-fold benediction of Israel (Nu 6:24 ff); the Thrice Holy of the seraphim (Isa 6:3); the 3-fold overturn (Ezek 21:27 (Hebrew 32)); the 3-fold refrain of Psalms 42--43 regarded as one psalm (Ps 42:5,11; 43:5); the 3 names of God (the Mighty One, God, Yahweh, Josh 22:22; compare Ps 50:1); the 3 graces of 1 Cor 13; the 3 witnesses (1 Jn 5:8); the frequent use of 3 and 3rd in Revelation; the description of God as "who is and who was and who is to come" (Rev 1:4); and `the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit' (Mt 28:19). In some of these cases 3-fold repetition is a mode of expressing the superlative, and others remind us of the remarkable association of 3 with deity alluded to by Plato and Philo, and illustrated by the triads of Egypt and Babylonia and the Far East. It cannot, however, be proved, or even made probable, that there is any direct connection between any of these triads and the Christian Trinity. All that can be said is, that the same numerical symbolism may have been operative in both cases.
3. The Number Four:
The 4 points of the compass and the 4 phases of the moon will have been early noticed, and the former at any rate will have suggested before Biblical times the use of 4 as a symbol of completeness of range, of comprehensive extent. As early as the middle of the 3rd millennium BC Bah rulers (followed long afterward by the Assyrians) assumed the title "king of the 4 quarters" meaning that their rule reached in all directions, and an early conqueror claimed to have subdued the 4 quarters. There are not a few illustrations of the use of 4 in some such way in the Bible. The 4 winds (referred to also in the cuneiform texts and the Book of the Dead) are mentioned again and again (Jer 49:36; Ezek 37:9), and the 4 quarters or corners (Isa 11:12; Ezek 7:2; Rev 20:8). We read also of the 4 heads of the river of Eden (Gen 2:10 ff), of 4 horns, 4 smiths, 4 chariots, and horses of 4 colors in the visions of Zechariah (1:8, Septuagint; 1:18 ff; 6:1 ff), the chariots being directly connected with the 4 winds; 4 punishments (Jer 15:3; Ezek 14:21, the latter with a remarkable Assyrian parallel), the 4 kingdoms in Nebuchadnezzar's dream as interpreted (Dan 2:37 ff) and Daniel's vision (Dan 7:3 ff); the 4 living creatures in Ezek (1:5 ff; compare 1:10), each with 4 faces and 4 wings, and the 4 modeled after them (Rev 4:6, etc.). In most of these cases 4 is clearly symbolical, as in a number of passages in Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Whether the frequent use of it in the structure of the tabernacle, Solomon's temple, and Ezekiel's temple has anything to do with the symbolic meaning is not clear, but the latter can probably be traced in proverbial and prophetic speech (Prov 30:15,18,21,24,29; Am 1:3,6, etc.). The 4 transgressions of the latter represent full-summed iniquity, and the 4-fold grouping in the former suggested the wide sweep of the classification. Perhaps it is not fanciful to find the idea in the 4 sets of hearers of the gospel in the parable of the Sewer (Mt 13:19-23 parallel). The rabbis almost certainly had it in mind in their 4-fold grouping of characters in six successive paragraphs (Ab v.16-21) which, however, is of considerably later date.
4. The Number Ten:
As the basis of the decimal system, which probably originated in counting with the fingers, 10 has been a significant number in all historical ages. The 10 antediluvian patriarchs (Gen 5; compare the 10 Babylonian kings of Berosus, and 10 in early Iranian and far-Eastern myths); the 10 righteous men who would have saved Sodom (Gen 18:32); the 10 plagues of Egypt; the 10 commandments (Ex 20:2-17 parallel Dt 5:6-21; the 10 commandments found by some in Ex 34:14-26 are not clearly made out); the 10 servants of Gideon (Jdg 6:27); the 10 elders who accompanied Boaz (Ruth 4:2); the 10 virgins of the parable (Mt 25:1); the 10 pieces of silver (Lk 15:8); the 10 servants entrusted with 10 pounds (Lk 19:13 ff), the most capable of whom was placed over 10 cities (Lk 19:17); the 10 days' tribulation predicted for the church of Smyrna (Rev 2:10); the use of "10 times" in the sense of "many times" (Gen 31:7; Neh 4:12; Dan 1:20, etc., an idiom met with repeatedly in Tell el-Amarna Letters); and the use of 10 in sacred measurements and in the widely diffused custom of tithe, and many other examples show plainly that 10 was a favorite symbolic number suggestive of a rounded total, large or small, according to circumstances. The number played a prominent part in later Jewish life and thought. Ten times was the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) uttered by the high priest on the Day of Atonement; 10 persons must be present at a nuptial benediction; 10 constituted a congregation in the synagogue; 10 was the usual number of a company at the paschal meal, and of a row of comforters of the bereaved. The world was created, said the rabbis, by ten words, and Abraham was visited with 10 temptations (Ab v.1 and 4; several other illustrations are found in the context).
5. The Number Twelve:
The 12 months and the 12 signs of the zodiac probably suggested to the old Babylonians the use of 12 as a symbolic or semi-sacred number, but its frequent employment by the Israelites with special meaning cannot at present be proved to have originated in that way, although the idea was favored by both Josephus and Philo. So far as we know, Israelite predilection for 12 was entirely due to the traditional belief that the nation consisted of 12 tribes, a belief, it is true, entertained also by the Arabs or some of them, but with much less intensity and persistence. In Israel the belief was universal and ineradicable. Hence, the 12 pillars set up by Moses (Ex 24:4); the 12 jewels in the high priest's breast-plate (Ex 28:21); the 12 cakes of showbread (Lev 24:5); the 12 rods (Nu 17:2); the 12 spies (Nu 13); the 12 stones placed by Joshua in the bed of Jordan (Josh 4:9); the 12 officers of Solomon (1 Ki 4:7); the 12 stones of Elijah's altar (1 Ki 18:31); the 12 disciples or apostles (26 t), and several details of apocalyptic imagery (Rev 7:5 ff; 12:1; 21:12,14,16,21; 22:2; compare also Mt 14:20 parallel 19:28 parallel 26:53; Acts 26:7). The number pointed in the first instance at unity and completeness which had been sanctioned by Divine election, and it retained this significance when applied to the spiritual Israel. Philo indeed calls it a perfect number. Its double in Rev 4:4, etc., is probably also significant.
6. Other Significant Numbers:
Five came readily into the mind as the half of 10. Hence, perhaps its use in the parable of the Virgins (Mt 25:2). It was often employed in literary division, e.g. in the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the part of the Hagiographa known as the Meghilljth, the Ethiopic Enoch and Matthew (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1; compare Sir J. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae(2), 163 ff). It seems to have been occasionally suggestive of relative smallness, as in Lev 26:8, the 5 loaves (Mt 14:17 parallel), 1 Cor 14:19, and perhaps in Tell el-Amarna Letters. It has been remarked (Skinner, "Gen," ICC, 483) that the number occurs repeatedly in reference to matters Egyptian (Gen 41:34; 45:22; 47:2; Isa 19:18), but there seems to be no satisfactory explanation. Sixty: Although, as was before observed, there is no direct trace in the Bible of the numerical system based on 60, there are a few passages where there may be a distant echo. The 60 cities of Argob (Dt 3:4; Josh 13:30; 1 Ki 4:13); the 60 mighty men and the 60 queens of Song 3:7; 6:8, the double use of 60 of Rehoboam's harem and family (2 Ch 11:21), the 3 sacrifices of 60 victims each (Nu 7:88), and the length of Solomon's temple, 60 cubits (1 Ki 6:2 parallel 2 Ch 3:3), may perhaps have a remote connection with the Babylonian use. It must be remembered that the latter was current in Israel and the neighboring regions in the division of the talent into 60 minas. A few passages in the Pseudepigrapha may be similarly interpreted, and the Babylonian Talmud contains, as might be expected, many clear allusions. In the Bible, however, the special use of the number is relatively rare and indirect. One hundred and ten, the age attained by Joseph (Gen 50:22), is significant as the Egyptian ideal of longevity (Smith, DB2, 1804 f; Skinner, "Gen," ICC, 539 f). One hundred and fifty-three: The Greek poet Oppian (circa 171 AD) and others are said to have reckoned the number of fishes in the world at this figure (compare Jerome on Ezek 47), and some scholars find a reference to that belief in Jn 21:11 in which case the number would be symbolic of comprehensiveness. That is not quite impossible, but the suggestion cannot be safely pressed. Throughout this discussion of significant numbers it must be borne in mind that writers and teachers may often have been influenced by the desire to aid the memory of those they addressed, and may to that end have arranged thoughts and facts in groups of 3, or 4, or 7, or 10, and so on (Sir John Hawkins, Horae Synopticae2, 166 f). They will at the same time have remembered the symbolic force of these numbers, and in some cases, at least, will have used them as round numbers. There are many places in which the round and the symbolic uses of a number cannot be sharply distinguished.
(GemaTriya'). A peculiar application of numbers which was in great favor with the later Jews and some of the early Christians and is not absolutely unknown to the Bible, is Gematria, that is the use of the letters of a word so as by means of their combined numerical value to express a name, or a witty association of ideas. The term is usually explained as an adaptation of the Greek word geometria, that is, "geometry," but Dalman (Worterbuch, under the word) connects it in this application of it with grammateia. There is only one clear example in Scripture, the number of the beast which is the number of a man, six hundred sixty and six (Rev 13:18). If, as most scholars are inclined to believe, a name is intended, the numerical value of the letters composing which adds up to 666, and if it is assumed that the writer thought in Hebrew or Aramaic. Nero Caesar written with the consonants nun (n) = 50, resh (r) = 200, waw (w) = 6, nun (n) = 50, qoph (q) = 100, camekh (c) = 60, resh (r) = 200: total = 666, seems to be the best solution. Perhaps the idea suggested by Dr. Milligan that the 3-fold use of 6 which just falls short of 7, the number of sacred completeness, and is therefore a note of imperfection, may have been also in the writer's mind. Some modern scholars find a second instance in Gen 14:14 and 15:2. As the numerical value of the consonants which compose Eliezer in Hebrew add up to 318, it has been maintained that the number is not historical, but has been fancifully constructed by means of gematria out of the name. This strange idea is not new, for it is found in the Midrash on Gen 43 in the name of a rabbi who lived circa 200 AD, but its antiquity is its greatest merit.
In addition to other books referred to in the course of the article: Hehn, Siebenzahl und Sabbath bei den Babyloniern und im Altes Testament; Konig, Stilistik, Rhetorik, Poetik, etc., 51-57, and the same writer's article "Number" in HDB; Sir J. Hawkins,. Horae Synopticae2, 163-67; Wiener, Essays in Pentateuchal Criticism, 155-69; "Number" in HDB (1-vol); EB; Jewish Encyclopedia;Smith, DB; "Numbers" in DCG; "Zahlen" in the Dicts. of Wiener, Riehm2, Guthe; "Zahlen" and "Sieben" in RE3.
William Taylor Smith
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'number'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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