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Bible Dictionaries

Smith's Bible Dictionary


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Number. Like most Oriental nations, it is probable that the Hebrews, in their written calculations, made use of the letters of the alphabet. That they did so in post-Babylonian times, we have conclusive evidence in the Maccabaean coins, and it is highly probable, that this was the case also in earlier times. But though, on the one hand, it is certain that in all existing manuscripts of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the numerical expressions are written at length, yet, on the other, the variations in the several versions, between themselves, and from the Hebrew text, added to the evident inconsistencies in numerical statement, between certain passages of that text itself, seems to prove that some shorter mode of writing was originally in vogue, liable to be misunderstood, and, in fact, misunderstood by copyists and translators. These variations appear to have proceeded from the alphabetic method of writing numbers.

There can be little doubt, however, that some at least of the numbers mentioned in Scripture are intended to be representative, rather than determinative. Certain numbers, such as 7, 10, 40, 100, were regarded as giving the idea of completeness. Without entering into St. Augustine's theory of this usage, we may remark that, the notion of representative numbers, in certain cases, is one extremely common among eastern nations, who have a prejudice against counting their possessions accurately; that it enters largely, into many ancient systems of chronology, and that it is found in the philosophical and metaphysical speculations, not only of the Pythagorean and other ancient schools of philosophy, both Greek and Roman, but also in those of the later Jewish writers, of the Gnostics, and also of such Christian writers as St. Augustine himself.

We will proceed to give some instances of numbers used,

(a) representatively, and thus probably by design indefinitely, or,

(b) definitely, but, as we may say, preferentially, that is, because some meaning, (which we do not, in all cases, understand), was attached to them.

Seven as denoting either plurality or completeness, perhaps because seven days completed the week is so frequent, as to make a selection only, of instances necessary, for example, seven fold, Genesis 4:24; seven times, that is, completely, Leviticus 26:24; Psalms 12:6; seven, (that is, many), ways, (28:25).

Ten as a preferential number is exemplified, in the Ten Commandments, and the law of tithe.

Seventy, as compounded of 7 X 10, appears frequently, for example, seventy fold, Genesis 4:24; Matthew 18:22. Its definite use appears in the offerings of 70 shekels, Numbers 7:13; Numbers 7:19; ff,; the 70 elders, Numbers 11:16; 70 Years of captivity, Jeremiah 25:11.

Five appears in the table of punishments, of legal requirements, Exodus 22:1; Leviticus 5:16; Leviticus 22:14; Leviticus 27:15; Numbers 5:7; Numbers 18:16, and in the five empires of Daniel. Daniel 2:1.

Four is used in reference to the 4 winds, Daniel 7:2, and the so-called 4 corners of the earth; the creatures, each with 4 wings and 4 faces, of Ezekiel, Ezekiel 1:5; ff.; 4 Rivers of Paradise, Genesis 2:10; 4 Beasts, Daniel 7:1 and Revelation 4:6; the 4 equal-sided temple-chamber, Ezekiel 40:47.

Three was regarded, by both the Jews, and other nations, as a specially complete and mystic number.

Twelve (3X4) appears in the 12 tribes, the 12 stones in the high priest's breastplate, the 12 apostles, the 12 foundation stones, and the 12 gates. Revelation 21:19-21.

Lastly, the mystic number 666. Revelation 13:18.

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These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Smith, William, Dr. Entry for 'Number'. Smith's Bible Dictionary. 1901.

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