THREE WAYS OF READING NUMBERS
If we read in the papers that somebody died at age of 38, or that the 7th floor of a building had been on fire, nobody will ever doubt the meaning of these numbers. They express precisely the age of that person and the exact floor level in that particular building. In contrast, if we read in the Gospel that Jesus cured a man who had been sick for 38 years (Jn 5:5), and after the multiplication of bread, there were 7 baskets of leftovers (Mk 8:8), then things are different. We are no longer sure if these numbers really refer to the number of years the man was sick or the quantity of baskets of leftovers that were gathered.
This is due to the fact that, for us, numbers have a distinct meaning from that of the ancient Orientals. While we usually use numbers to indicate the quantity of something, the biblical mentality expresses not just one but three realities, each of them different: quantity, symbolism and gematric meaning.
The first thing that a number in the Bible expresses is quantity. This is similar to our own daily use.
When we are told that the prophet Elijah predicted a 3-year drought in Israel (1 K 18:1) or that king Josiah governed for 31 years in Jerusalem (2K 22:1), that Solomon put 12 governors in charge of maintaining the palace monthly (1 K 4:7), that Bethany, the village where Jesus restored Lazarus back to life, was 15 stadia (3 km) away from Jerusalem (Jn 11:18), it is evident that these are not symbolic numbers. These do not tell us any hidden message at all. They just simply and mainly refer to the number of years, persons or distance.
It is possible to identify many other numbers in the Bible that offer us information and concrete historical data, expressing only quantity. There is no place for confusion in these sentences: what the number says is what the author wants to convey.
Biblical numbers have a second meaning: the symbolic one. A symbolic number does not indicate a quantity but expresses an idea, a message different from it, going beyond the “number” and overflowing in its meaning.
It is not always feasible to know why “that” number signifies “that” thing. The association between these two realities is often unknown. One cannot reason out these with numbers and westerners, who adhere to logic, find it difficult to understand them. But the Semites used them as their “second nature” to transmit ideas, messages or codes.
Even if the Bible does not explain the symbol of each number, scholars have been able to find out some of these symbolisms and have cleared up a lot of biblical episodes, making them more comprehensible for us.
THE NUMBERS 1, 2 AND 3
The number 1 symbolizes God, who is unique. This indicates exclusivity, primacy, and excellence. When Jesus told the rich young man: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” (Mt 19:17). And concerning marriage: “So they are no longer two but one; therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” (Mt 19:6). He also said, “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30). The same is true when Paul expressed “For you are all one in Christ Jesus” Gal 3:28). “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God” (Eph 4:5). In all these cases, the number 1 symbolizes the divine.
In contrast, the number 2 represents the human dualism, the interior division because of sin. This clarifies some enigmas in the Bible. According to Mark, Jesus cured one Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:2); but according to Matthew, they were two (Mt 8:28). According to Mark, Jesus healed one blind man, in Jericho, called Bartimaeus (Mk 10:46); but for Matthew there were two blind men (Mt 20:30). According to Mark “some” false witnesses against Jesus were brought during the trial (Mk 14:57) while Matthew clearly shows that there were two (Mt 26:60). Who was counting rightly? Both. Mark was giving us the historical version while Matthew was using the symbolic number.
The number 3 expresses totality. This is due to the three dimensions of time: past, present, and future. Number 3 speaks about “totality” or “eternity.” Hence, the three sons of Noah (Gen 6:10) represent the totality of all his descendants. The three instances of Peter’s denial of Jesus manifest his infidelity (Mt 26:34). The three temptations that Jesus suffered from the devil represent all the temptations of his life. And in the Old Testament God is called holy three times, to indicate the one who is all holy (Is 6:3).
NUMBERS 4 AND 5
The number 4 in the Bible symbolizes the cosmos, the world because of the four cardinal points. Describing Paradise with four rivers (Gen 4:10), means that the universe was a paradise before Adam and Eve sinned. It does not really talk about a definite place but others keep trying to find where these rivers are, some place in the Orient. When Ezekiel called the Spirit of the four winds to breathe upon the dry bones (Ezk 37:9), there were not really four winds because he was calling on all winds of the earth. And when the book of Revelation tells us that the throne of God is surrounded by four living creatures (Rev 4:6), it only wants to impress that God is over the entire world, that the whole Earth is the throne of God.
The number 5 means “some,” “a number,” an indefinite quantity. In the multiplication of the bread, Jesus took five loaves (a number of loaves). The same is true when it is said that in the market, five birds (some birds) are sold for two coins. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, hid for five months (some months) after her pregnancy. It is equally said of the Samaritan woman who had five husbands (many husbands). Jesus frequently employed the number five in his parables with an indefinite sense: five prudent virgins and five foolish ones, five talents, five yokes of oxen bought by one of those invited to the banquet and the five brothers of Dives. And Paul, talking about the gift of tongues said: “I would rather speak five words (some words) with my mind than ten thousands words in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:19).
NUMBERS 7, 10 AND 12
The number 7 is the most popular symbolism of all. It represents perfection. That is why Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother seventy times seven times. It can also express the perfection of evil, utmost evil, as Jesus said: if a repulsive spirit leaves a person, it can go back with 7 other spirits, a much worse situation than before. It is within the same purview that the Gospel tells about the 7 devils that the Lord exorcised from [Mary] Magdalene.
Because of its connotation with perfection, this number is frequently cited with regard to the things of God. Revelation uses it most often: 54 times to symbolically describe divine reality, the 7 Churches in Asia, 7 spirits on the throne of God, 7 trumpets, 7 candlesticks, 7 horns, 7 eyes of the Lamb, 7 thunders, 7 plagues, 7 cups that were spilled. Many are mistaken when they take this number as an exact quantity or exact time.
The Christian tradition continues this symbolism of 7:7 sacraments, 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit and 7 virtues.
The number 10 has a technical value. Being the number of fingers in one’s hands, this number is easy to remember. That is why there were Ten Commandments given by Yahweh to Moses (there could have been more), and there were 10 plagues that whipped Egypt. This is the same reason why there were ten ancestors between Adam and Noah and another 10 between Noah and Abraham when we know that there were many.
Another symbolic number is 12. It signifies “election.” That is why we talk about the twelve tribes of Israel, when in reality the Old Testament mentions more than 12 tribes. It means that they were the elected tribes. For the same reason the writers grouped the minor prophets of Israel into twelve. In the same vein, the Gospel mentions 12 apostles of Jesus but when one counts them, the result is more than that number. Yet they are called the Twelve to indicate that they were chosen by the Lord. Jesus declared that he had 12 legions of angels at his command (Mt 26:53). Revelation talks about 12 diadems that will crown the Lady, 12 doors of Jerusalem, 12 angels and 12 fruits of the tree of life.
OTHER NUMBERS WITH SPECIAL MEANING
The number 40 is also symbolic. It represents “changes” from one period to another, the years that make up one generation. That is why the Deluge lasted for 40 days and 40 nights (it refers to a change towards a new humanity). The Israelites stayed 40 years in the desert (until the unfaithful generation is changed for a new one). Moses remained 40 days on Mount Sinai and Elijah journeyed for 40 days after his life was changed. The prophet Jonas predicted the destruction of Nineveh in 40 days (to give them time to amend their lives). Jesus fasted for 40 days (it signified the change from his private to public life).
The number 1000 signifies multitude, great quantity. In the book of Daniel it is said that the king Belshazzar gave a great feast with a thousand visitors (Dn 5:1). Psalm 90 maintains that a thousand days for us is just a day for God. Solomon offered 1000 animal sacrifices in Gibeon (1 K 3:4) and he had 1000 wives in his harem (1 K 11:3).
Sometimes, this number can be in combination with others. Along these lines, Revelation symbolically says that when the world ends, 1444,000 will be saved. It is a combination of 12 x 12 x 1000, which signifies the elect of the Old Testament (12), the elect of the New Testament (12) in such great quantity (x 1000).
Finally, there are minor symbolisms. Luke says that Jesus sent 70 disciples “into every town and place where he himself was about to come” (Lk 10:1). He was not giving a real number but a symbolic one. According to Genesis 10, the total of all towns and nations was 70. Luke , a man of universal mentality, said that Jesus sent these 70 missionaries, wanting to say that he sent them so that the gospel may reach all the nations of the world.
St John was communicating another meaning when he said that in the miraculous catch of fish there were 153 (Jn 21:11). Was there a need to register such an unimportant detail? It is because of a belief in antiquity that says that among fishermen there were 153 fishes that existed in the seas. The message is very clear to the readers: Jesus came to save all the peoples of all nations, races and places in the whole world.
A CASE-TO-CASE DIFFERENCE
Not all numbers in the Bible are symbolic. One can ask: does this number indicate a quantity or a message?
When 4 persons brought a paralytic on a bed to Jesus it is evident that the number 4 was not symbolic but a real number quantity. A bed has four ends and it was the most practical way of bringing in such a person. And when we read in Paul that he embarked from Philippi to Troas and arrived there after 5 days, one must not think about the symbolism of five. It was simply the time needed to make that trip.
The third meaning that a number can signify in the Bible is the gematria. What does this mean? It is something particular to the Hebrew and Greek language.
We write number with certain signs (1,2,3) and the letter are written differently (a, b, c); in Hebrew and Greek, the very letter of the alphabet is used for the numbers. Hence, 1 is the letter “a”; 2 is the letter “b,” etc. If we count the letters of the word in this fashion, we will always obtain a sum. The number obtained from this is what we call “gematria.”
This possibility, offered by biblical language, gives way to ingenuous games and original entertainment since each figure can conceal any word. The Bible presents various examples of these games.
Genesis 14 tells about the Palestinian invasion by four powerful leaders from the Orient who took Lot, Abraham’s nephew, as prisoner. When the patriarch learned about this he gathered 318 of his trained men to pursue and defeat them and rescue Lot. Can Abraham really defeat the four powerful leaders of Mesopotamia with only 318 persons? We are naïve to believe this unless these numbers mean something else. In fact, we all know that Abraham had a servant, Eliezar, who was the heir to his properties, (Gen 15:2). If we count the numbers that correspond to the Hebrew letters of this name, we shall have: E (=1) + L (30) + I (10) + E (70) + Z (=7) + R (=200) =318. (The assigned values correspond to the Hebrew alphabet. Hence a letter can have different values). What is being communicated here is that Abraham went to battle with all his descendants. His descendants will always be superior to their enemies.
THE EXODUS AND THE ANCESTORS OF JESUS
In the Book of Numbers we find another example. It tells us that during the exodus from Egypt those who went out were 603, 550 men, not counting women, the aged and the youth. If this was true, based on this number, one can calculate that around three million people participated in it, an aggregate which may never be reached by the people of Israel in all its history. But if we substitute the letter of the phrase of Israel in all its history. But if we substitute the letter of the phrase “all the sons of Israel” (in Hebrew: rs kl bny ysr’l) with its corresponding numeric values, it precisely gives the sum of 603, 550. Hence, in saying that 603, 550 people left Egypt, the author would like to affirm that those who left Egypt were all sons of Israel.
St. Matthew also uses one of these games. He divides the ancestors of Jesus in a series of 14 generations and adds in the end: “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon to the Christ, fourteen generations” (1:17). But this is impossible. Matthew only puts three names to cover the 430 years of enslavement in Egypt and only two descendants to fill in the three centuries between Solomon and Jesse.
The list was intentionally tailored that way so that it gives only 14 generations, since 14 is the gematric number of David: D (=4) + V (=6) + D (=4) = 14. And since they were waiting for a future Messiah from the descendants of David, the evangelist wanted to say that Jesus was the “triple David,” that the Messiah is totally, and truthfully of Davidic descent.
The most famous biblical game of gematria is found in Revelation with the number 666 of the beasts (Rev 13:18). The very same book makes it clear that it is the number of a specific man. And the one who is behind this is Emperor Nero. If we numerically equate “Nero Caesar” in Hebrew, we can obtain the following: N (=50) + R (=200) + W (=6) + N (=50) + Q (=100) + S (=60) + R (=200)= 666.
AND THE VERB WAS MADE “WRITTEN”
No Christian finds it strange that Jesus, the Word of God was made flesh. Few believe that he lived as a man of his time. On the contrary, it is but normal to imagine him clothed in a first century tunic, feeding himself with their food and utilizing their technical means and travel resources of that time.
But many people find it difficult to understand that the Bible is the Word of God, incarnated in the culture and language of those times. They think that the Bible speaks the way we do, with out expressions and our mentality. This is not the case. Christ was incarnated as a man, 2000 years ago, and the Bible is written in the same culture as practiced by the people of 2, 000 years ago. Just as it is ridiculous to imagine Jesus in a coat and tie going around Jerusalem in a taxi and transmitting his sermons via the radio, it is just as preposterous to interpret the Bible literally with the mental categories that we have, as all people do. We must situate ourselves in the mentality and culture of the Jews of that particular epoch to understand the message.
So when we encounter numbers or figures in the Bible, we must ask ourselves whether these are about quantity, symbol or are gematric. This will aid us in understanding the meaning of the Word of God better and consequently, to keep alive the message of the Bible in our own lives.