How Are We to Understand Numbers in the Bible?

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Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS
Kirk Lowery is a semi-retired Bible scholar, with interests in the intersection of interpretation of ancient texts, linguistics, semiotics, and information theory.

The modern reader of the Bible—especially of the Old Testament—often finds its use of numbers strange. The ancient world did not use numbers for every aspect of life. Their technology did not require many places past the decimal point of precision, or even a decimal point at all. The Bible has been closely read and interpreted by many cultures through more than four millennia. So the modern reader reads these ancient texts through the lens of all this history of interpretation. How others in the past have interpreted the numbers of the Bible influences a reader’s understanding. How ought the numbers found in the Bible to be understood? They are to be understood in the same way that any other part of the text is understood: by how they are used and by keeping in mind both the textual context in which numbers occur and also the cultural context of how numbers were used by those ancient societies with which Israel lived and interacted.

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Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome used the decimal system for numbers. That is, numbers were expressed in base 10. (“Number” refers to the mathematical entity of quantity. “Numeral” refers to the symbol used to represent a number.) Sumerians and ancient Babylonians used the sexagesimal system, base 60, which is not unfamiliar to us since we use it every day—our system of timekeeping and navigation uses the sexagesimal system: 60 seconds to one minute, 60 minutes to one hour; 360 degrees to a circle subdivided into 60 minutes/degree and 60 seconds/minute. The ancient Israelites used the decimal system, as did their immediate neighbors in Canaan. For the most part, the major inscriptions of early Israel write out the numbers by words—“ten” rather than “10”—as is also true of the Old Testament itself. There is no instance of symbols being used, but all numbers are written out as words. The earliest (c. 140 b.c.) use of the Hebrew alphabet for numerals is to be found on Maccabean coins.

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How did the biblical writers use numbers? They used them to count things and people. They used them for weights, measures, and time. They were familiar with arithmetic: addition (Gn 5:3–31; Nm 1:20–46), subtraction (Gn 18:26ff), and multiplication (Lv 25:8; Nm 3:46ff). Arithmetic processes are not mentioned in the New Testament. The frequent use of fractions shows a basic understanding of division: half (Ex 24:6); one fourth (Neh 9:3; Rv 6:8); one fifth (Gn 47:24); a tenth (Nm 18:26). Numbers are important in Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. In summary, the biblical writers used numbers literally, rhetorically, and symbolically. They are never used mystically. Each use is addressed in turn below.

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When the Bible uses numbers in the ordinary way, do they mean what they apparently mean? Some interpreters suppose that since the biblical writers were “pre-scientific,” the numbers are not to be taken seriously. This supposition is flawed, however, for many non-scientific cultures record numbers that can be taken perfectly seriously (such as the astronomical observations of the Babylonians or the administrative records of the ancient Egyptians). The use of numbers is very culture-specific: Some languages have only the numbers “one, two, many,” because they do not need greater precision than that. Modern society is permeated with numbers for every conceivable aspect of life. The ancient world was not that way. The ancients did not give a unique number to their citizens, did not number their roads, etc. But regardless of the level of technological development, every society has to deal with numbers in a real way to function. For some, the system may be simple, for others, very complex. Ancient Israel was no exception: Tolls and taxes were recorded, censuses were taken.

The biblical writers often used round numbers, a fact that should be noted in questions of reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical record. For example, we find “a hundred” (and “100”) used as a round number (Gn 26:12; Lv 26:8; 2 Sm 24:3; Ec 8:12; Mt 19:29), as well as “a thousand” (Dt 1:11; 7:9). The word “about” often precedes rounded numbers: “about 3,000 men” (Ex 32:28). On the other hand, numbers which could be interpreted as rounded numbers are often intended as actual amounts: “1,000 pieces of silver” (Gn 20:16). In general, one should assume a number is not rounded, unless there is reason to believe otherwise. Smaller numbers are less likely to be rounded than larger ones.

Much ink has been spilled debating the meaning of large numbers in the Bible. There are the large, indefinite numbers, and these do not present an interpretive problem. The highest recorded numbers are one million (2 Ch 14:9), ten thousand times ten thousand (Dn 7:10), thousands of thousands (Rv 5:11), and 200 million (Rv 9:16), the highest number recorded.

The long life spans of the pre-flood patriarchs have been compared to the Sumerian king list, whose life spans are recorded in the tens of thousands of years. The Sumerian kings’ life spans have been called “mythical,” so why not the biblical patriarchs’ ages? After all, everyone knows humans rarely live beyond 100 years, never mind 500 or 1,000. The actual fact is that we don’t know. The Sumerian king list records life spans on an order of magnitude greater than the biblical names. If both reflect a tradition about antediluvian times, what they may both be saying is that those ancient people lived an extraordinarily long time. Some have suggested that environmental conditions could explain it; others suggest mankind’s closer proximity to its original sinless estate explains it. We just don’t know how to explain the apparently impossible life spans. What we have is a witness (the Bible) that has proved trustworthy too often to dismiss.

The Bible records the number of men capable of bearing arms at the time of the exodus to be 603,550 (Nm 1:46). From this, it has been calculated that the entire population leaving Egypt would be about two million. Could such a number survive in the wilderness? The answer is no. Neither could a hundredth of that many survive on their own. It required God’s provision because that part of the world would have been simply unable to support large numbers of nomads, especially without modern farming methods and technology. It required God to actively intervene in Israel’s physical history in order for them to leave Egypt and subsequently survive. That is the point of the Exodus narrative.

There have been various attempts to reduce the real numbers of the exodus by understanding the Hebrew term for “thousand” (eleph) as “captain” or “family, clan.” There is evidence for this use of the term in Nm 1:16; Jdg 6:15; 1 Sm 10:19; and Mc 5:2. But in the census lists of the book of Numbers, the numbers of the tribes is calculated in terms of thousands, hundreds, and fifties. Gad, for example, numbered 45,650 (Nm 1:25). And the total given to Israel’s army (Nm 1:46) can only be arrived at if we calculate using eleph as meaning “thousand.” Difficult to explain or not, the text is clear as to its intended meaning.

Numbers are also used in the Bible for rhetorical effect. They are used for contrast in poetic parallelism: “As they celebrated, the women sang: Saul has killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands” (1 Sm 18:7). Perhaps the most common is to use the formula x … x + 1 to express progression, intensification, completion, or some sort of climax: “The Lord says: I will not relent from punishing Israel for three crimes, even four …” (Am 2:6). Amos used the phrase in a string of condemnations of the sins of the surrounding lands. By using the same phrase for Israel and Judah, he was saying “you are no better than they,” and so had a stronger impact upon his audience. The x … x + 1 formula is also used in the NT (e.g., Mt 18:20). Perhaps the most popular interpretation of numbers in the Bible is their symbolic meaning. The numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, and 40 among others have been assigned various meanings such as “unity,” “perfection,” “completion,” and “generation.” Where do these interpretations come from? The surprising fact is that only one number in the entire Bible is explicitly said to be symbolic: “Here is wisdom: The one who has understanding must calculate the number of the beast, because it is the number of a man. His number is 666” (Rv 13:18). Nowhere else are we told that numbers are used symbolically in any way. Any other symbolism for a number must be inferred from the biblical text itself by demonstrating a frequent association of a particular number with a particular concept. The only candidate for such an association is the number 7. And its usage is so diverse (seven days of creation; Jacob’s seven years of service for Rachel; seven-fold curse of Cain; praising God seven times a day as in Ps 119:164) that it is hard to pin down a consistent meaning, but “completeness” or “perfection” appear to be the intended symbolism most of the time.

Where do all the other traditionally associated meanings and instances of symbolism come from? Modern lists of symbolic meanings of the biblical use of numbers most closely follow the system of meanings proposed by the sixth century b.c. Greek mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras. Famous for his “Pythagorean Theorem,” he also founded a religious cult with the belief that the “real” world was the realm of numbers and that those numbers explain why the physical world is the way it is. He speculated on the mystic and symbolic properties of numbers, which are the early origins of number theory. His ideas were picked up by the Gnostics in the apostolic and post-apostolic eras. Even the early church fathers were influenced by this approach to biblical interpretation, although not universally. Irenaeus (c. a.d. 140–200) classified it with other heresies: “Nor should they seek to prosecute inquiries respecting God by means of numbers, syllables, and letters … For system does not spring out of numbers, but numbers from a system; nor does God derive His being from things made, but things made from God. For all things originate from one and the same God” (Against Heresies, Bk II:25:1). This is a direct refutation of Pythagorean metaphysics.

It is a small step from looking for symbolic meaning in numbers to seeking hidden meaning in numbers. After Alexander the Great conquered Palestine, Greek philosophies influenced Jewish thinking. From Pythagorean influence sprang Jewish Gematria, the system of interpretation that says there is hidden, intended meaning in the numeric values of a word. Since the Greeks had no separate writing system to express numerals, the ancients used Greek letters instead. Words could be broken up into letters, and mathematical operations could be done on the numeric values of those letters. Those numeric values were given mystical meanings, loosely based upon Pythagorean numeric metaphysics described above. The Jews applied these procedures to the words of the Hebrew Bible using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet for numbers, and claimed to discover hidden meaning and messages from God intended for the faithful. The church fathers were attracted to this form of interpretation of the Bible because of its apparent value in proving the inspiration and truth of the scriptures. In this way, Gematria passed into Christian circles and is still practiced today by many.

There is no historical or archaeological evidence of any culture using letters for numerals before the Greeks. The human authors of the Old Testament would have had no cultural model or literary form to suggest to them that they write a message in code. There is no hint in the Bible that there is any message encoded in the letters of the text. There is no procedure or mathematical operation common to the time of the writers of the Bible that the writers could conceivably expect a reader to know to use to discover the encoded meaning. We must conclude that the only way intelligible results can be obtained this way is by starting with the message one wishes to find! Then, using mathematical deduction, one proceeds to create the steps needed to get to that message from the numeric values of the biblical text, just like one would attempt to prove a theorem in number theory.

God’s message of salvation for mankind was intended to be intelligible to everyone, of all ages and from all cultures. Certainly, numbers in the Bible are sometimes difficult to understand, and there are “mysteries” about the future that are deliberately couched in ambiguous or symbolic wording. But at no time—with the one exception in Revelation noted above—is the reader exhorted to resort to mathematics. God does not speak to us in “code.”

The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), xxxiii–xxxv.

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