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Numbers in the Bible—Their Significance and Use

Numbers in Ancient Hebrew


In ancient Hebrew, numbers were written out in words rather than symbols. After the Jews were exiled to Babylon, they began using alphabetic letters as numbers, but this practice doesn't show up in postexilic Hebrew Bible manuscripts. One of the oldest examples of Hebrew writing, from the Siloam water tunnel during Hezekiah's reign (715-686 B.C.E.), uses full words for measurements. Writing out numbers in words made the texts more reliable, as copying words is less prone to mistakes than copying numerals.


Spelling Out Numbers


In Hebrew, numbers greater than ten are combinations of words. For instance, twelve is written as "two and ten" (Genesis 14:4). Numbers like twenty are the plural of ten, thirty comes from the plural of three, and forty from the plural of four, and so forth. One hundred has its own word, and two hundred uses a dual form. Larger hundreds combine words, such as three hundred. The largest number expressed by a single Hebrew word is 20,000, the dual form of 10,000, or "myriad."


For example, 1 Chronicles 5:18 uses "forty and four thousand and seven of hundreds and sixty" for 44,760. A million is "a thousand thousands" in 2 Chronicles 14:9. When Rebekah’s family blessed her in Genesis 24:60, they said, "O you, our sister, may you become thousands times ten thousand," meaning her descendants would be many millions. In Daniel’s vision, Jehovah has "ten thousand times ten thousand" standing before Him (Daniel 7:10).


Approximate Numbers


Sometimes, numbers in the Bible are approximate or used as round figures. Psalm 90:10 mentions a lifespan of seventy to eighty years, which isn't an exact limit but a general range. In 1 Kings 19:18, the 7,000 who hadn't bowed to Baal symbolize a faithful remnant rather than an exact count. Similarly, the "million Ethiopians" defeated by Asa in 2 Chronicles 14:9 likely represent a vast, overwhelming force.


Numerals in the Greek New Testament


In the Greek New Testament, numbers are generally written out as words. Revelation 13:18, which gives the number of the beast as 666, spells out the number in the Sinaitic and Alexandrine manuscripts, continuing the tradition of clarity and preventing misinterpretation.


Literal and Symbolic Numbers in Scripture


The Bible uses numbers both literally and symbolically. Context usually clarifies their meaning. For instance, forty often represents testing or judgment, like the forty days of rain during the Flood (Genesis 7:12), Israel's forty years in the wilderness (Numbers 14:33-34), and Jesus' forty days of fasting (Matthew 4:2).


One: Singularity and Unity


The number one in the Bible often signifies unity and singularity. In Deuteronomy 6:4, Moses declares, "Jehovah our God is one Jehovah." This emphasizes the unique sovereignty of Jehovah, setting Him apart from polytheistic gods. Jesus reinforces this unity with God when He says, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). This unity is also a model for believers, as seen in John 17:21, where Jesus prays for His disciples to be united as He is with the Father. This unity is further illustrated in the marital bond, as described in Genesis 2:24 and reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 19:6, showing that marriage should reflect the oneness of God's purpose.


Two: Testimony and Witness


The number two often appears in legal contexts, emphasizing the validity and strength of testimony. Deuteronomy 19:15 states, "One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established." Jesus refers to this principle in John 8:17-18, underscoring the dual witness of Himself and the Father. This principle is evident in other instances, such as the repeated dream of Pharaoh in Genesis 41:32, which confirms the certainty of God's revelation. Daniel's vision of the beast with two horns symbolizes the Medo-Persian dual rulership (Daniel 8:20-21).


Three: Emphasis and Completeness


The number three in Scripture often denotes completeness and emphasis. Ecclesiastes 4:12 states, "A threefold cord is not quickly broken," illustrating strength in unity. Jesus' thrice-repeated question to Peter in John 21:15-17 highlights the restoration and reaffirmation of Peter's mission. The thrice-declared holiness of God in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8—"Holy, holy, holy, is Jehovah God"—emphasizes His supreme holiness. The repeated woes in Revelation 8:13—“Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth”—underscore the severity of the impending judgments.


Four: Universality and Completeness


The number four often represents universality and completeness. Revelation 7:1 speaks of "four angels standing at the four corners of the earth," indicating a global scope. The "four winds" mentioned in this passage symbolize comprehensive judgment affecting the entire earth. The New Jerusalem's "foursquare" shape in Revelation 21:16 signifies its perfect and complete symmetry. Zechariah's visions of four chariots and four horns (Zechariah 1:18-21; 6:1-3) also use this number to indicate completeness in God’s plans.


Six: Imperfection


The number six, often representing imperfection, is most notably seen in Revelation 13:18, where the number of the beast is 666. This symbolizes human imperfection in contrast to divine perfection. The recurrence of the number six emphasizes the profound imperfection and fallenness of humanity.


Seven: Perfection and Completion


Seven frequently signifies completeness and divine perfection. God completed His creation in six days and rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:2-3), establishing the Sabbath. The pattern of seven is evident in the cycles of Israel's festivals, such as the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Booths (Leviticus 23:34). The seven churches in Revelation (Revelation 1:20-3:22) represent the complete body of Christ’s followers. The seven-fold refinement of silver in Psalm 12:6 symbolizes the perfect purity of God's words. Seven is also used symbolically in God's judgments and plans, as seen in the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls in Revelation (Revelation 6-16).


Ten: Fullness and Order


The number ten denotes fullness and completeness in a series or order. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) encompass the full moral code given to Israel. Jesus uses ten in parables to denote completeness, such as the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1 and the ten servants in Luke 19:13-17. The ten horns in Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:7, 20, 24) and Revelation (Revelation 12:3; 13:1) symbolize the complete array of earthly powers.


Twelve: Divine Government and Authority


Twelve represents divine authority and government. Jacob’s twelve sons formed the tribes of Israel (Genesis 35:22; 49:28). Jesus chose twelve apostles to signify the foundation of the new covenant people (Matthew 10:2-4). The New Jerusalem's foundations and gates, described in Revelation, also feature the number twelve, symbolizing the totality and perfection of God's redemptive work (Revelation 21:12-14).


Forty: Trials and Testing


Forty often signifies periods of testing, trial, or judgment. The flood in Genesis lasted forty days and nights (Genesis 7:4). Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai receiving the Law (Exodus 24:18), and Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness (Numbers 14:33-34). Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness, paralleling Moses' experience and signifying a period of preparation and testing before His public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2).


Conclusion


The use of numbers in the Bible is multifaceted, often carrying significant symbolic meaning beyond their literal value. These numbers enhance our understanding of God's actions, His attributes, and His relationship with humanity. Whether denoting unity, completeness, imperfection, or divine authority, the numbers in Scripture serve as a profound testament to the intricate and purposeful nature of God's Word.


About the Author

EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 220+ books. In addition, Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).


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