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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Number

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NUMBER

1. Notation . The decimal scale of notation was used by the Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and, so far as we know, by the other nations mentioned in the Bible, i.e . they reckoned by units, tens, hundreds, etc.

2. Variety and range of numerical terminology . The Heb. language expressed the integers from one to any amount by words denoting units, tens, a hundred, two hundred, a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand, and by combinations of these words. Thus the highest number expressed by a single word is twenty thousand, the word used meaning double ten thousand. The word ‘millions’ in AV [Note: Authorized Version.] of Genesis 24:60 is a mistranslation; it should be ‘ten thousands’ as in RV [Note: Revised Version.] . The number referred to in this verse,’ thousands of ten thousands,’ for the descendants hoped for from Rebekah, and the number of the angels in Daniel 7:10 , Revelation 5:11 , ‘thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him,’ if taken literally, would be the largest numbers mentioned in the Bible, but they are merely rhetorical phrases for countless, indefinitely large numbers. In Revelation 7:9 the redeemed are ‘a great multitude which no man could number’ (cf. Genesis 13:16 ) the nearest approach which the Bible makes to the mathematical idea of infinity.

The largest literal number in the Bible is the number of Israelites fit for warlike service, ascertained by David’s census as 1,100,000, in addition to the men of Judah 470,000 (1 Chronicles 21:6 ). In 2 Samuel 24:9 , however, the numbers are 800,000 and 500,000 respectively. Close to this comes the army of Zerah ( 2 Chronicles 14:9 ), ‘a thousand thousand,’ i.e . 1,000,000; and in 2 Chronicles 17:12 ff., Jehoshaphat has an army in five divisions, of 300,000, 280,000, 200,000, 200,000, 180,000 respectively. The number of fighting men amongst the Israelites is given in Numbers 2:32 as 603,550; and later on in Numbers 26:51 as 601,730.

Hebrew also possessed a few special forms for the ordinals, first, second, etc., and to denote ‘seven times,’ etc.; in other cases, especially for the higher numbers, the cardinals are used. There are also a few words for fractions, ‘a third,’ ‘a quarter.”

The Biblical Greek calls for no special comment; the writers had at their disposal the ordinary resources of Hellenistic Greek. We may, however, call attention to the disputed rendering in Matthew 18:22 , where RV [Note: Revised Version.] has ‘seventy times seven,’ RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ‘seventy times and seven.’

3. Symbols . In the Heb. text of the OT, and also for the most part in the Gr. text of the NT, numbers are denoted by words. This method is also the only one used in the two ancient Heb. inscriptions the Moabite Stone (rather later than Ahab), and the Siloam inscription (usually ascribed to the time of Hezekiah). As the Assyrians, Egyptians, and Phœnicians used figures as well as words to denote numbers, it is possible that the Israelites also had arithmetical figures; but at present there is no positive evidence of such a usage.

In later times the Jews used consonants as numerical signs; the units from one to nine were denoted by the first nine letters, the tens from ten to ninety by the next nine, and the hundreds from one hundred to four hundred by the remaining four letters. Other numbers were denoted by combinations of letters. A curious feature of this system is that the natural combination for 15, viz. Yod = 10, = Hebrews 5:1-14 , was not used because’ Yod, He ,’ or Yah was a form of the sacred name Yahweh , which might not be pronounced; accordingly Teth = 9 and Waw = 6 were substituted. This system is still commonly used to number the chapters and verses in Heb. Bibles. A similar system was also used by the Greeks, and is occasionally found in the NT; thus the Number of the Beast, 666, in Revelation 13:18 , is written by means of three letters.

4. Arithmetic . There is no evidence of proficiency in arithmetic beyond the simplest operations, but we have examples of addition in connexion with the census in the wilderness, the numbers of the separate tribes being given first and then the total ( Numbers 1:22 ff; Numbers 26:7 ff.); subtraction is referred to in Leviticus 27:18; an instance of multiplication is Leviticus 25:8; Leviticus 25:7 × 7 = 49; and Leviticus 25:50 implies a kind of rule of three sum.

5. Round Numbers . As in other languages, ‘round numbers,’ exact tens, hundreds, thousands, etc., must often have been used by the Israelites, on the understanding that they were only approximately accurate; and in the same way smaller numbers were sometimes used indefinitely for ‘a few’; cf. our ‘half a dozen.’ For Instance, the exact ten thousands of Jehoshaphat’s armies given above are doubtless round numbers. Again, in Leviticus 26:8 , ‘five of you shall chase a hundred,’ merely means, ‘a handful of you shall put to flight many times your own number.’ This indefinite use of a small number is specially common where two consecutive units are given as alternatives, e.g . Isaiah 17:6 , ‘two or three,’ ‘four or five.’ A variety of this idiom is the use of two consecutive units to Introduce emphatically the higher of the two; e.g . Proverbs 30:21 ‘For three things the earth doth tremble, and for four which it cannot bear’; then four things are enumerated. In addition to hundreds and thousands and ten thousands, the most common number used in this approximate way is ‘forty’: people constantly live or reign for ‘forty years’ or multiples of forty years. It is a matter of opinion how far the numerous ‘sevens,’ ‘tens,’ and ‘twelves’ were originally intended as exact numbers. Probably, however, in many cases what were originally round numbers were taken afterwards to be exact. For instance, David’s reign is given as 40 years, 2 Samuel 5:4; in the next verse this period is explained as made up of 7 1 / 2 years at Hebron and 33 at Jerusalem an explanation which implies that, apart from some odd months, the 40 years were the actual length of the reign. There are some indications, too. that the various 40’s and 80’s were added in with other numbers to obtain a continuous chronology. Again, in Numbers 3:39 the census gives 22,000 Levites, which one would naturally understand as a round number; but in Numbers 3:43-51 it is taken as an exact number, inasmuch as it is ordained that because the 22,273 firstborn exceed the Levites by 273, redemption-money shall be paid for the surplus.

In view of the references to captains of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens in Deuteronomy 1:15 , it has been suggested that these terms are sometimes not numerals, but names corresponding to our regiment, company, squad, etc., and denoting bodies of men whose numbers varied. ‘ Thousand ’ especially has been held to be a term denoting ‘tribe’ or ‘clan’ (see Judges 6:15 , 1 Samuel 10:19 ); so that ‘a thousand’ might contain comparatively few men. This view has been applied to make the census in the Bk. of Numbers more credible by reducing the total amounts; but it is clear that the narrative as it stands intends ‘thousand’ to be a numeral, and does not use the word for a ‘clan.’

6. Accuracy of numbers . Without attempting an exhaustive consideration of the accuracy of numbers as given by the original authors, we may point out that we should not expect a large measure of mathematical accuracy even in original numbers. Often, as we have seen, they are apparently given as round numbers. Moreover, in the case of large numbers they would seldom be ascertained by careful enumeration. The numbers of armies especially hostile armies of slain, and so forth, would usually he given on a rough estimate; and such estimates are seldom accurate, but for the most part exaggerated. Moreover, primitive historical criticism revelled in constructing hypothetical statistics on the slightest data, or, to put the matter less prosaically, the Oriental imagination loved to play with figures, the larger the better.

But apart from any question as to the accuracy of the original figures, the transmission of the text by repeated copying for hundreds and thousands of years introduces a large element of uncertainty. If we assume that numbers were denoted by figures in early times, figures are far more easily altered, omitted, or added than words; but, as we have seen, we have at present no strong ground for such an assumption. But even when words are used, the words denoting numbers in Hebrew are easily confused with each other, as in English. Just as ‘eight’ and ‘eighty’ differ only by a single letter; so in Hebrew, especially in the older style of writing, the addition of a single letter would make ‘three’ into ‘thirty, etc. etc. And, again, in copying numerals the scribe is not kept right by the context as he is with other words. It was quite possible, too, for a scribe to have views of his own as to what was probable in the way of numbers, and to correct what he considered erroneous.

A comparison of the various manuscripts, versions, etc., in which our books have been preserved, shows that numbers are specially subject to alteration, and that in very many cases we are quite uncertain as to what numbers were given in the original text, notably where the numbers are large. Even where the number of a body of men, the length of a period, etc., are given twice over or oftener in different passages of the Bible itself, the numbers are often different; those in Chronicles, for instance, sometimes differ from those in Samuel and Kings, as in the case of David’s census mentioned above. Then, as regards manuscripts, etc., we may take one or two striking instances. The chief authorities for the text of the Pentateuch are the Heb. text in Jewish MSS, the Hebrew text in Samaritan MSS, and the Greek translation, the Septuagint. Now the numbers connected with the ages of the patriarchs are largely different in these three authorities; e.g . in the Jewish text Methuselah lives to the age of 969, and is the longest lived of the patriarchs; in the Samaritan he lives only to be 720, and is surpassed by many of the other patriarchs; and the interval from the Creation to the Flood is 2262 years in the Septuagint, 1656 in the Jewish text, 1307 in the Samaritan text. Again, the number of persons on board the ship on which St. Paul was shipwrecked is given in some MSS as 276, and in others as 76 ( Acts 27:37 ); and similarly the number of the Beast is variously given as 666 and as 616 ( Revelation 13:18 ).

The probability that many mistakes in numbers have been introduced into the Bible by copyists in the course of the transmission of the text has long been admitted. For instance, in the fifth edition of Horne’s Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures , published in 1825, a thoroughly old-fashioned apologetic work, we are told that ‘Chronological differences,’ i.e . discrepancies, ‘do undoubtedly exist in the Scriptures.… Differences in chronology do not imply that the sacred historians were mistaken, but they arise from the mistakes of transcribers or expositors’; and again, ‘It is reasonable to make abatements, and not always to insist rigorously on precise numbers, in adjusting the accounts of scriptural chronology’ (i. 550 f.).

7. Favourite numbers and their symbolism . Naturally the units, and after them some of the even tens, hundreds, and thousands, were most frequently in use, and came to have special associations and significance, and a fraction would in some measure share the importance of its corresponding unit, e.g . where ‘four’ occurred often we should also expect to meet with a ‘fourth.’

One , suggesting the idea of uniqueness, self-sufficiency, and indivisibility, is specially emphasized in relation to the Divine Unity: ‘Jahweh our God, Jahweh is one’ ( Deuteronomy 6:4 ); and similarly Ephesians 4:5 f. ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father’; and other Like passages.

Two . There were two great lights; men frequently had two wives (Lamech, Jacob, Elkanah); two sons (Abraham, Isaac, Joseph); two daughters (Lot, Laban, Saul). Or again, where a man had one wife, there was a natural couple; and so with animals; in one account of the Flood they go in ‘two by two.’ Two men often went together, e.g . Joshua’s spies ( Joshua 2:1 ); and the Twelve and the Seventy went out by twos. The fact that men have two eyes, hands, etc., also gave a special currency to the number. Two objects or animals are often required for ritual purposes ( e.g . Leviticus 14:22 ). There were two tables of stone. Similarly, a half would be a familiar fraction; it is most common in ‘the half tribe of Manasseh.’

As sets of two were common in nature and in human society, so in a somewhat less degree were sets of three, and in a continuously lessening degree sets of four, five, etc. etc. In each case we shall refer only to striking examples.

Three . Three is common in periods; e.g . David is offered a choice between three days’ pestilence, three months’ defeat, and three years’ famine ( 1 Chronicles 21:12; 2 Samuel 24:18 has seven years); Christ is ‘three days and three nights’ in the tomb ( Matthew 12:40 , cf. John 2:19 ).

Deities often occur in groups of three, sometimes father, mother, and child; e.g . the Egyptian Osiris, Isis, and Horus. There are also the Babylonian triads, e.g . Bel, Anu, and Ea. Division into three is common; an attacking army is often divided into three parts, e.g . Gideon’s ( Judges 7:16; cf. also Revelation 8:10; Revelation 8:12 ).

Four . The square, as the simplest plane figure, suggests four, and is a common shape for altars, rooms, etc.; hence four corners, pillars, the four winds, the four quarters of the earth, N., S., E., W. Irenæus argues that there must be four canonical Gospels because there are four cherubim, four winds, and four quarters of the earth.

Five, Ten , and multiples obtain their currency through the habit of reckoning in tens, which again is probably derived from counting on the ten fingers. The fraction tenth is conspicuous as the tithe; and fifth and tenth parts of measures occur in the ritual.

Six, Twelve , and multiples are specially frequent in reference to time: 12 months, and its half, six months, 12 hours, sixth hour, etc., partly in connexion with the 12 signs of the Zodiac, and the approximate division of the solar year into 12 lunar months. It is suggested that the number 12 for the tribes of Israel was fixed by the Zodiac; in the lists the number 12 is obtained only by omitting Levi or Dan, or by substituting Joseph for Ephraim and Manasseh. When the number 12 was established for the tribes, its currency and that of its multiples were thus further extended; e.g . the 12 Apostles, the 144,000 of the Apocalypse, etc.

Seven and multiples. A specially sacred character is popularly ascribed to the number seven; and although the Bible does not expressly endorse this idea, yet it is supported by the frequent occurrence of the number in the ritual, the sacred seventh day, the Sabbath; the sacred seventh year, the Sabbatical year; the Jubilee year, the year following seven times seven years; the seven-branched candlestick; sevenfold sprinkling ( Leviticus 4:6 etc.); seven lambs offered ( Numbers 28:11 ff.); forgiveness till 70 times 7 ( Matthew 18:22 ); the seven churches of Asia; seven angels; seven stars, etc.; fourteen generations ( Matthew 1:17 ); 70 descendants of Jacob ( Exodus 1:5 ); 70 years’ captivity, etc. ( Jeremiah 25:11 , Daniel 9:2 , Zechariah 7:5 ); 70 missioners ( Luke 10:1 ). A similar use of ‘seven’ is found in the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Persian religions, and is often derived from astral worship of the seven heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and the five planets known to the ancients. It is also connected with the seven-day week as roughly a quarter of the lunar month, seven being the nearest integer to the quarter of 29 1 /2. The Pleiades also were thought of as seven (cf. Amos 5:8 ).

Eight . There were eight persons in the ark; a boy was circumcised on the eighth day. Ezekiel’s ritual has a certain predilection for the number eight.

Forty . This number apparently owes its vogue to the view that 40 was the approximate or perhaps average length of a generation; at least this is a common view. It is a little difficult to reconcile with the well-known Oriental custom of early marriage. The number might perhaps be obtained by taking the average of the years of a man’s age at which his children were born, though such an explanation does not appear very probable. Or the use of 40 for a generation might be a relic of the period when the youngest born succeeded to the family tent and sacra . At any rate 40 is well established as a moderate round number between ‘a few’ and ‘a very great many.’ Thus, in addition to the numerous reigns, oppressions, and deliverances of 40, 80 years, etc., Isaac and Esau marry at the age of 40; there are 40 years of the wandering; Ezekiel’s 40 years’ captivity ( Ezekiel 29:11 ); 40 days was the period Moses spent in the Mount, Elijah and Christ fasted in the wilderness, etc.

A certain mystical value is attached to numbers in later Jewish and Christian philosophy and superstition, perhaps due partly to the ideas suggested by the relations of numbers to each other, and to the practical power of arithmetic; the symbols which aided men so effectually seemed to have some inherent force of their own. Or, again, if ‘seven’ is sacred, to pronounce a formula seven times must be more effective than to pronounce it six or eight times.

Great importance is attached to numbers in the mediæval Jewish mystical system, the Kabbala . There are ten sephiroth or primary emanations from God, one original sephira , and three derivative triads; there are twelve channels of Divine grace; 613 commandments, etc.

8. Gematria , a Hebraized form of the Greek geometria , used to mean ‘reckoning by numbers,’ was a late development of which there are traces in the OT. It consisted in indicating a word by means of the number which would be obtained by adding together the numerical values of the consonants of the word. Thus in Genesis 14:14 Abraham has 318 ‘trained servants,’ 318 is the sum of the consonants of the name of Abraham’s steward Eliezer in its original Hebrew form. The number is apparently constructed from the name.

The Apocalyptic number of the Beast is often explained by Gematria, and 666 has been discovered to be the sum of the numerical values of the letters of some form or other of a large number of names written either in Hebrew, or Greek, or Latin. Thus the Beast has been identified with hundreds of persons, e.g . Mohammed, Luther, the Pope, Napoleon i., Napoleon iii. etc., each of whom was specially obnoxious to the ingenious identifier. Probably by a little careful manipulation, any name in some form or other, in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin, could be made by Gematria to yield 666. The two favourite explanations are Lateinos = Latinus (the Roman Empire or Emperor), and Nero CÅ“sar . The latter has the special advantage that it accounts not only for 666, but also for the various reading 616 mentioned above; as Neron CÅ“sar it gives 666, and as Nero CÅ“sar , 616.

W. H. Bennett.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Number'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/n/number.html. 1909.

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