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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words

Number, Count

A. Verb.

Sâphar (סָפַר, Strong's #5608), “to number, count, proclaim, declare.” The relationship of this verb to similar verbs in other languages is greatly debated, but it does occur in Ugaritic, Ethiopic, and Old South Arabic. Attested in all periods of biblical Hebrew, it appears about 110 times.

In the basic verbal form this verb signifies “to number or count.” This meaning is in its first biblical appearance, Gen. 15:5: “Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them.…” Here the counting is a process which has no completion in view. In Lev. 15:13 the emphasis is on a completed task: “And when [the man with the discharge becomes cleansed]; then he shall number to himself seven days for his cleansing, and wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh.…” Another nuance of this usage is “to count up” or “to take a census”: “And David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people” (2 Sam. 24:10). The verb is also used of assigning persons to particular jobs: “And Solomon told out threescore and ten thousand men to bear burdens …” (2 Chron. 2:2). Another special use appears in Ezra 1:8, where sâphar means “to count out according to a list” as the recipient listens: “Even those [the temple furnishings] did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.” In Ps. 56:8 the word signifies “taking account of,” or being aware and concerned about each detail of: “Thou tellest my wanderings.…” This verb can also mean “to measure,” in the sense of what one does with grain: “And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number” (Gen. 41:49). Finally, the verb sâphar can represent recording something in writing, or enumerating. So, “the Lord shall count, when he writeth up the people, that this man was born there” (Ps. 87:6).

In about 90 instances this verb appears in an intensive form. For the most part the verb in this form means “to recount,” to orally list in detail. The one exception to this significance is Job 38:37: “Who can number the clouds in wisdom? Or who can stay the bottles of heaven …?” In every other instance the verb signifies a vocal statement (listing or enumeration) of a series of given facts. In Gen. 24:66 Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, “told Isaac all things that he had done”; he gave him a summarized but complete account of his activities. Thus Isaac knew who Rebekah was, and why she was there, so he took her to be his wife. In a similar but somewhat different sense Jacob “told Laban” who he was, that he was from the same family (Gen. 29:13). In this case the word represents something other than a report; it represents an account of Jacob’s genealogy and perhaps of the events of his parents’ lives. This emphasis on accurate recounting is especially prominent in Num. 13:27, where the spies report back to Moses concerning what they saw in Palestine. Even more emphatic is Exod. 24:3, where one word represents a detailed repetition of what Moses heard from God: “And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments.…” Again, in Isa. 43:26 a detailed and accurate recounting is clearly in view. In this case the prophet has in mind the presentation of a law case: “Put me in remembrance: let us plead together: declare thou, that thou mayest be justified.” Because of the predominant meaning presented above, Ps. 40:5 could be translated: “If I would declare and speak of them, they would be too numerous to recount” (instead of “to count”).

In at least one case the verb in the intensive stem means “to exhibit,” “to recount or list in detail by being a living example.” This meaning first appears in Exod. 9:16, where God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh: “And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to show in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.”

B. Nouns.

Mispâr (מִסְפָּר, Strong's #4557), “measure; (a certain) number; account.” This noun occurs about 132 times. Mispâr can mean “measure” (quantity) as in Gen. 41:49. In Gen. 34:30, the first biblical occurrence, the word refers to “a certain number” in the sense of the sum total of individuals that are counted: “… and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me.…” The word means “account” (what is set forth in a detailed report) in Judg. 7:15.

Sêpher (סִפְרָה, Strong's #5612), “book; tablet.” This noun occurs in Akkadian, Phoenician, and Aramaic (including biblical Aramaic), and in all periods of biblical Hebrew. It occurs 187 times in the Old Testament. Basically this word represents something one writes upon. So in Exod. 17:14 “the Lord said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book.” In Isa. 30:8 sêpher represents a tablet. In Gen. 5:1 (the first biblical occurrence of this word) it signifies something that has been written upon, or a written record: “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” Such a written document may be a summary of God’s law (Exod. 24:7). During the monarchy sêpher came to represent a letter (2 Sam. 11:14). Even later it means a king’s written decree sent throughout his empire (Esth. 1:22). Usually the word means “book” (Exod. 32:32)—a complete record of whatever one wants to preserve accurately. Often this word can signify the way a people writes, the written language or script (Isa. 29:11).

Sâphar (סָפַר, Strong's #5608), “scribe.” Sâphar, which occurs about 50 times in biblical Hebrew, appears also in Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Aramaic. In the early monarchy the chief “scribe” was the highest court official next to the king (2 Sam. 8:17). His job was to receive and evaluate all royal correspondence—to answer the unimportant and give the rest to the proper officer or to the king himself. He also wrote and/or composed royal communications to those within the kingdom. There was probably an entire corps of lesser scribes under his direction. As a highly trusted official he was sometimes involved in counting and managing great influxes of royal revenue (2 Kings 12:10) and in certain diplomatic jobs (2 Kings 19:2). Later sâphar represented the Jewish official in the Persian court who was responsible for Jewish belongings (Ezra 7:11). In the post-exilic community this word came to mean someone who was learned in the Old Testament Scripture and especially the Mosaic Law (the Pentateuch; Ezra 7:6). The word first occurs in Judg. 5:14, where its meaning is debated. The NASB translates it “office”; some scholars translate it “scribe” (KJV, “they that handle the pen of the writer”).

Some other nouns are related to the verb capar. Three of them occur only once: cepar, “numbering or census” (2 Chron. 2:17); ciprah, “book” (Ps. 56:8); ceperah, “number or sum” (Ps. 71:15).

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Number, Count'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. 1940.

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