Holman Bible Dictionary
Number Systems and Number Symbolism
To understand properly the number systems of the biblical world, one must look to the neighbors of Israel. The Egyptians were already using relatively advanced mathematics by 3000 B.C. The construction of such structures as the pyramids required an understanding of complex mathematics. The Egyptian system was decimal. The Sumerians by that same time had developed their own number system. In fact, the Sumerians knew two systems, one based on ten (a decimal system) and one based on six or twelve (usually designated as a duodecimal system). We still make use of remnants of the Sumerian system today in our reckoning of time—12 hours for day and 12 hours for night, 60 minutes and 60 seconds as divisions of time. We also divide a circle into 360 degrees. Our calendar was originally based on the same division with the year having 12 months of 30 days for a total of 360. Even our units of the dozen (12) and gross (144) and inches to the foot may have their origin in the Sumerian mathematical system.
The Hebrews did not develop the symbols to represent numbers until the postexilic period (after 539 B.C.). In all preexilic inscriptions, small numbers are represented by individual strokes (for example, //// for four). Larger numbers were either represented with Egyptian symbols, or the name of the number was written out (“four” for the number 4). The Arad inscriptions regularly used Egyptian symbols for numbers, individual strokes for the units and hieratic numbers for 5,10, and larger numbers. The Samaria ostraca more frequently wrote out the number. Letters of the Hebrew alphabet are first used to represent numbers on coins minted in the Maccabean period (after 167 B.C.).
With the coming of the Hellenistic and Roman periods to Palestine, Greek symbols for numbers and Roman numerals appeared. The Greeks used letters of their alphabet to represent numerals, while the Romans used the familiar symbols I,V,X,L,C,M, and so on
Biblical passages show that the Hebrews were well acquainted with the four basic mathematical operations of addition (Numbers 1:20-46 ), subtraction (Genesis 18:28-33 ), multiplication (Numbers 7:84-86 ), and division (Numbers 31:27 ). The Hebrews also used fractions such as a half (Genesis 24:22 ), a third (Numbers 15:6 ), and a fourth (Exodus 29:40 ).
In addition to their usage to designate specific numbers or quantities, many numbers in the Bible came to have a symbolic meaning. Thus seven came to symbolize completeness and perfection. God's work of creation was both complete and perfect—and it was completed in seven days. All of mankind's existence was related to God's creative activity. The seven-day week reflected God's first creative activity. The sabbath was that day of rest following the work week, reflective of God's rest (Genesis 1:1-2:4 ). Israelites were to remember the land also and give it a sabbath, permitting it to lie fallow in the seventh year (Leviticus 25:2-7 ). Seven was also important in cultic matters beyond the sabbath: major festivals such as Passover and Tabernacles lasted seven days as did wedding festivals (Judges 14:12 ,Judges 14:12,14:17 ). In Pharaoh's dream, the seven good years followed by seven years of famine (Genesis 41:1-36 ) represented a complete cycle of plenty and famine. Jacob worked a complete cycle of years for Rachel; then, when he was given Leah instead, he worked an additional cycle of seven (Genesis 29:15-30 ).
A major Hebrew word for making an oath or swearing, shava' , was closely related to the word seven , sheva' . The original meaning of “swear an oath” may have been “to declare seven times” or “to bind oneself by seven things.”
A similar use of the number seven can be seen in the New Testament. The seven churches (Revelation 2-3 ) perhaps symbolized by their number all the churches. Jesus taught that forgiveness is not to be limited, even to a full number or complete number of instances. We are to forgive, not merely seven times (already a gracious number of forgivenesses), but seventy times seven (limitless forgiveness, beyond keeping count) (Matthew 18:21-22 ).
As the last example shows, multiples of seven frequently had symbolic meaning. The year of Jubilee came after the completion of every forty-nine years. In the year of Jubilee all Jewish bondslaves were released and land which had been sold reverted to its former owner (Leviticus 25:8-55 ). Another multiple of seven used in the Bible is seventy. Seventy elders are mentioned (Exodus 24:1 ,Exodus 24:1,24:9 ). Jesus sent out the seventy (Luke 10:1-17 ). Seventy years is specified as the length of the Exile (Jeremiah 25:12 , Jeremiah 29:10; Daniel 9:1 : 2 ). The messianic kingdom was to be inaugurated after a period of seventy weeks of years had passed (Daniel 9:24 ).
After seven, the most significant number for the Bible is undoubtedly twelve. The Sumerians used twelve as one base for their number system. Both the calendar and and the signs of the Zodiac reflect this twelve base number system. The tribes of Israel and Jesus' disciples numbered twelve. The importance of the number twelve is evident in the effort to maintain that number. When Levi ceased to be counted among the tribes, the Joseph tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, were counted separately to keep the number twelve intact. Similarly, in the New Testament, when Judas Iscariot committed suicide, the eleven moved quickly to add another to keep their number at twelve. Twelve seems to have been especially significant in the Book of Revelation. New Jerusalem had twelve gates; its walls had twelve foundations (Revelation 21:12-14 ). The tree of life yielded twelve kinds of fruit (Revelation 22:2 ).
Multiples of twelve are also important. There were twenty-four divisions of priests (1 Chronicles 24:4 ), and twenty-four elders around the heavenly throne (Revelation 4:4 ). Seventy-two elders, when one includes Eldad and Medad, were given a portion of God's spirit that rested on Moses, and they prophesied (Numbers 11:24-26 ). An apocryphal tradition holds that seventy-two Jewish scholars, six from each of the twelve tribes, translated the Old Testament into Greek, to give us the version we call today the Septuagint. The 144,000 servants of God (Revelation 7:4 ), were made up of 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Three as a symbolic number often indicated completeness. The created cosmos had three elements: heaven, earth, and underworld. Three Persons make up the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Prayer was to be lifted at least three times daily (Daniel 6:10; compare Psalm 55:1 : 17 ). The sanctuary had three main parts: vestibule, nave, inner sanctuary (1 Kings 6:1 ). Three-year-old animals were mature and were, therefore, prized for special sacrifices (1 Samuel 1:24; Genesis 15:9 ). Jesus said He would be in the grave for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40 ), the same time Jonah was in the great fish (Jonah 1:17 ). Paul often used triads in his writings, the most famous being “faith, hope and charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13 ). One must also remember Paul's benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14 ).
Four was often used as a sacred number. Significant biblical references to four include the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:12 ), the four winds (Jeremiah 49:36 ), four rivers which flowed out of Eden to water the world (Genesis 2:10-14 ), and four living creatures surrounding God (Ezekiel 1:1; Revelation 4:6-7 ). God sent forth the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Revelation 6:1-8 ) to bring devastation to the earth.
The most significant multiple of four is forty, which often represented a large number or a long period of time. Rain flooded the earth for forty days (Genesis 7:12 ). For forty days Jesus withstood Satan's temptations (Mark 1:13 ). Forty years represented approximately a generation. Thus all the adults who had rebelled against God at Sinai died during the forty years of the Wilderness Wandering period. By age forty, a person had reached maturity (Exodus 2:11; Acts 7:23 ).
A special system of numerology known as gematria developed in later Judaism. Gematria is based on the idea that one may discover hidden meaning in the biblical text from a study of the numerical equivalence of the Hebrew letters. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph represented one; beth , the second letter represented two, and so on. With gematria one takes the sum of the letters of a Hebrew word and seeks to find some meaning. For example, the Hebrew letters of the name Eliezer, Abraham's servant, have a numerical value of 318. When Gensis Acts 14:14 states that Abraham took 318 trained men to pursue the kings from the east, some Jewish commentaries interpret this to mean that Abraham had but one helper, Eliezer, since Eliezer has the numerical value of 318. Likewise, the number 666 in Revelation is often taken as a reverse gematria for the emperor Nero. The name Nero Caesar, put in Hebrew characters and added up following gematria, total 666. Any interpretation based on gematria must be treated with care; such interpretation always remains speculative.
Joel F. Drinkard, Jr.
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