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The modern reader of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament, often finds its use of numbers to be strange. The ancient world did not use numbers for every aspect of life, as their technology did not require many places past the decimal point of precision or even a decimal point at all. Therefore, the modern reader must understand these ancient texts by keeping in mind both the textual context in which the numbers occur and the cultural context of how numbers were used by ancient societies with which Israel lived and interacted.
The Ancient World and Numbers
- Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome used the decimal system (base 10) for numbers.
- Sumerians and ancient Babylonians used the sexagesimal system (base 60), which is still used today in our system of timekeeping and navigation.
- The ancient Israelites used the decimal system, as did their neighbors in Canaan.
- The major inscriptions of early Israel write out numbers as words (e.g., “ten” instead of “10”), as is also true of the Old Testament. There is no instance of symbols being used.
- The earliest use of the Hebrew alphabet for numerals was found on Maccabean coins, dating around 140 BC.
The Biblical Use of Numbers
The biblical writers used numbers in the following ways:
- To count things and people
- For weights, measures, and time
- Familiar with arithmetic (addition, subtraction, and multiplication)
- Frequent use of fractions shows a basic understanding of division
- Numbers are important in books like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation
- The biblical writers used numbers literally, rhetorically, and symbolically, but never mystically.
Literal Use of Numbers
- The Bible uses numbers in an ordinary way, but some interpreters believe that since the biblical writers were “pre-scientific,” the numbers are not to be taken seriously.
- This assumption is flawed as many non-scientific cultures recorded numbers that can be taken seriously (such as the astronomical observations of the Babylonians or the administrative records of the ancient Egyptians).
- The use of numbers is culture-specific, and every society has to deal with numbers in a real way to function.
- Ancient Israel recorded tolls and taxes, took censuses, and used round numbers in the Bible, but smaller numbers are less likely to be rounded than larger ones.
Symbolic Use of Numbers
- The number 666 in Revelation is the only number explicitly said to be symbolic in the Bible.
- Other symbolic meanings of numbers in the Bible have been influenced by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who believed that the real world was the realm of numbers and that those numbers explain why the physical world is the way it is.
- The early church fathers were influenced by this approach to biblical interpretation, although not universally. Irenaeus, for example, classified it as a heresy.
- Jewish Gematria is a system of interpretation that says there is hidden, intended meaning in the numeric values of a word, but there is no historical or archaeological evidence of any culture using letters for numerals before the Greeks.
- There is no hint in the Bible that there is any message encoded in the letters of the text, and God does not speak to us in “code.”
Numbers play a significant role in the Bible, and some of them are used symbolically to convey specific messages or ideas. It’s important to note that the symbolic meaning of numbers in the Bible must be understood in the context of the passages in which they appear.
Symbolic Meanings of Numbers in the Bible
- Four: Denotes allness or universalness, conveying the idea of the four extremities of the earth and the four winds of the heavens. (Isaiah 11:12; Daniel 8:8)
- Six: Represents imperfection. The number 666 given to Satan’s earthly political organization in the book of Revelation underscores the imperfection of that organization. (Revelation 13:18)
- Seven: Represents completeness. (Leviticus 4:6; Hebrews 9:24-26)
It’s important to keep in mind that the symbolic meaning of numbers in the Bible is based on the prophetic context of the passages in which they appear. The Bible does not endorse the idea of linking letters of words to numbers to uncover mystical truths. The primary purpose of the Bible is to convey God’s message of salvation to all mankind, regardless of culture or age, in an intelligible and straightforward manner.
Conservative Christian Bible scholars would view the use of numbers in the Bible as having both literal and symbolic meanings. They might believe that numbers in the Bible are not merely random or arbitrary but serve to convey important messages and truths about God and His plan for humanity. They might argue that the symbolic meaning of numbers in the Bible is rooted in the biblical narrative and that these numbers are used to reinforce or emphasize certain teachings and beliefs. They might also point to the repetition of certain numbers, such as seven or twelve, as evidence of the divine inspiration of the Bible.
In terms of the use of numerology, Conservative Christian Bible scholars would reject the idea of using numbers to uncover hidden or mystical truths, as they would view this as a departure from the straightforward and literal interpretation of the Bible. They would view this practice as a form of divination or superstition and emphasize that the Bible itself does not encourage its readers to use numerology in this way. Instead, they would emphasize the importance of understanding the biblical context and narrative in which numbers are used in order to gain a deeper understanding of their symbolic meanings.
There are several verses in the Bible that address the use of numbers to uncover mystical truths and warn against such practices. Here are a few examples:
Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”
1 Timothy 1:4: “nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith.”
2 Timothy 4:4: “and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
1 John 4:1: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
These verses show that the Bible emphasizes the importance of focusing on the teachings of Christ and the truth of God’s Word rather than seeking mystical truths through the use of numbers or other means.
There is no specific Old Testament Bible verse that explicitly states that the Bible is against the use of numbers to uncover mystical truths. However, the Bible does emphasize the importance of understanding its message in its proper context and not relying on symbolic interpretations or adding personal interpretations to its meaning. Some verses that emphasize this point include:
Deuteronomy 4:2 states: “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.”
Proverbs 30:5-6, which says: “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.”
Revelation 22:18-19 warns: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.”
These verses and others like them emphasize the importance of understanding and interpreting the Bible in its proper context and not adding personal interpretations or relying on mystical or symbolic interpretations of its message.
There are several Old Testament verses that condemn the use of omens, witchcraft, and similar practices, which such persons would use numbers mystically. Some examples include:
Deuteronomy 18:10-12: “There shall not be found among you anyone who… practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord.”
Leviticus 19:26: “You shall not practice divination or soothsaying.”
Leviticus 20:6: “And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people.”
Isaiah 8:19: “And when they say to you, ‘Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,’ should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?”
These verses show that the Old Testament views the use of omens, witchcraft, and similar practices as contrary to the worship of the Lord and unacceptable for God’s people.
God’s message of salvation for mankind was intended to be intelligible to everyone of all ages and from all cultures. Numbers in the Bible are sometimes difficult to understand, but at no time is the reader exhorted to resort to mathematics. The modern reader of the Bible must understand the biblical use of numbers by keeping in mind both the textual context in which they occur and the cultural context of how numbers were used by the ancient societies with which Israel lived and interacted. This includes considering the use of decimal and sexagesimal systems, the way numbers were recorded (by words or symbols), and the use of numbers for counting, measuring, and keeping records. The Bible also uses numbers for rhetorical and symbolic purposes, such as to express progression, intensification, or completion or to convey a particular meaning. However, it is important to note that the only instance of a numerical symbol in the Bible is the number 666 in Revelation, and it is the only number that is explicitly said to be symbolic. Other symbolic meanings of numbers in the Bible must be inferred from the text itself, and many of these interpretations are based on the ideas of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras and the practice of Jewish Gematria. It is important to understand that God’s message in the Bible is intended to be clear and understood by all, and there is no evidence of a hidden message encoded in the numbers of the text.