International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
gold'-'-n num'-ber: Used in the regulation of the ecclesiastical calendar, in the "Metonic cycle" of 19 years, which almost exactly reconciles the natural month and the solar year.
See ASTRONOMY, sec. I, 5.
I. NUMBER AND ARITHMETIC
II. NOTATION OF NUMBERS
1. By Words
2. By Signs
3. By Letters
III. NUMBERS IN OLD TESTAMENT HISTORY
IV. ROUND NUMBERS
V. SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS
1. Seven and Its Multiples
(1) Ritual Use of Seven
(2) Historical Use of Seven
(3) Didactic or Literary Use of Seven
(4) Apocalyptic Use of Seven
2. The Number Three
3. The Number Four
4. The Number Ten
5. The Number Twelve
6. Other Significant Numbers
I. Number and Arithmetic.
The system of counting followed by the Hebrews and the Semites generally was the decimal system, which seems to have been suggested by the use of the ten fingers. Hebrew had separate words only for the first nine units and for ten and its multiples. Of the sexagesimal system, which seems to have been introduced into Babylonia by the Sumerians and which, through its development there, has influenced the measurement of time and space in the western civilized world even to the present day; there is no direct trace in the Bible, although, as will be shown later, there are some possible echoes. The highest number in the Bible described by a single word is 10,000 (ribbo or ribbo', murias). The Egyptians, on the other hand, had separate words for 100,000, 1,000,000, 10,000,000. The highest numbers referred to in any way in the Bible are: "a thousand thousand" (1 Chronicles 22:14 2 Chronicles 14:9); "thousands of thousands" (Daniel 7:10 Revelation 5:11); "thousands of ten thousands" (Genesis 24:60); "ten thousand times ten thousand" (Daniel 7:10 Revelation 5:11); and twice that figure (Revelation 9:16). The excessively high numbers met with in some oriental systems (compare Lubbock, The Decimal System, 17;) have no parallels in Hebrew. Fractions were not unknown. We find 1/3 (2 Samuel 18:2, etc.); 1/2 (Exodus 25:10, 17, etc.); 1/4 (1 Samuel 9:8); 1/5 (Genesis 47:24); 1/6 (Ezekiel 46:14); 1/10 (Exodus 16:36); 2/10 (Leviticus 23:13); 3/10 (Leviticus 14:10), and 1/100 (Nehemiah 5:11). Three other fractions are less definitely expressed: 2/3 by "a double portion," literally, "a double mouthful" by (Deuteronomy 21:17 2 Kings 2:9 Zechariah 13:8); 4/5 by "four parts" (Genesis 47:24), and 9/10 by "nine parts" (Nehemiah 11:1). Only the simplest rules of arithmetic can be illustrated from the Old Testament. There are examples of addition (Genesis 5:3-31 Numbers 1:20-46); subtraction (Genesis 18:28); multiplication (Leviticus 25:8 Numbers 3:46), and division (Numbers 31:27). In Leviticus 25:50; is what has been said to imply a kind of rule-of-three sum. The old Babylonians had tables of squares and cubes intended no doubt to facilitate the measurement of land (Sayce, Assyria, Its Princes, Priests, and People, 118; Bezold, Ninive und Babylon, 90, 92); and it can scarcely be doubted that the same need led to similar results among the Israelites, but at present there is no evidence. Old Hebrew arithmetic and mathematics as known to us are of the most elementary kind (Nowack, HA, I, 298).
II. Notation of Numbers.
1. By Words:
No special signs for the expression of numbers in writing can be proved to have been in use among the Hebrews before the exile. The Siloam Inscription, which is probably the oldest specimen of Hebrew writing extant (with the exception of the ostraca of Samaria, and perhaps a seal or two and the obscure Gezer tablet), has the numbers written in full. The words used there for 3,200, 1,000 are written as words without any abbreviation. The earlier text of the Moabite Stone which practically illustrates Hebrew usage has the numbers 30, 40, 50, 100, 200, 7,000 written out in the same way.
2. By Signs:
After the exile some of the Jews at any rate employed signs such as were current among the Egyptians, the Arameans, and the Phoenicians-an upright line for 1, two such lines for 2, three for 3, and so on, and special signs for 10, 20, 100. It had been conjectured that these or similar signs were known to the Jews, but actual proof was not forthcoming until the discovery of Jewish papyri at Assuan and Elephantine in 1904 and 1907. In these texts, ranging from 494 to circa 400 B.C., the dates are stated, not in words, but in figures of the kind described. We have therefore clear evidence that numerical signs were used by members of a Jewish colony in Upper Egypt in the 5th century B.C. Now, as the existence of this colony can be traced before 525 B.C., it is probable that they used this method of notation also in the preceding century. Conjecture indeed may go as far as its beginning, for it is known that there were Jews in Pathros, that is Upper Egypt, in the last days of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 44:1, 15). Some of the first Jewish settlers in Elephantine may have known the prophet and some of them may have come from Jerusalem, bringing these signs with them. At present, however, that is pure hypothesis.
3. By Letters:
In the notation of the chapters and verses of the Hebrew Bible and in the expression of dates in Hebrew books the consonants of the Hebrew alphabet are employed for figures, i.e. the first ten for 1-10, combinations of these for 11-19, the following eight for 20-90, and the remainder for 100, 200, 300, 400. The letters of the Greek alphabet were used in the same way. The antiquity of this kind of numerical notation cannot at present be ascertained. It is found on Jewish coins which have been dated in the reign of the Maccabean Simon (143-135 B.C.), but some scholars refer them to a much later period. All students of the Talmud are familiar with this way of numbering the pages, or rather the leaves, but its use there is no proof of early date. The numerical use of the Greek letters can be abundantly illustrated. It is met with in many Greek papyri, some of them from the 3rd century B.C. (Hibeh Papyri, numbers 40-43, etc.); on several coins of Herod the Great, and in some manuscripts of the New Testament, for instance, a papyrus fragment of Matthew (Oxyrhynchus Pap., 2) where 14 is three times represented by iota-delta (I-D) with a line above the letters, and some codices of Revelation 13:18 where 666 is given by the three letters "chi" "xi" "vau" (or digaroma). It is possible that two of these methods may have been employed side by side in some cases, as in the Punic Sacrificial Tablet of Marseilles, where (l. 6) 150 is expressed first in words, and then by figures.
III. Numbers in Old Testament History.
Students of the historical books of the Old Testament have long been perplexed by the high numbers which are met with in many passages, for example, the number ascribed to the Israelites at the exodus (Exodus 12:37 Numbers 11:21), and on two occasions during the sojourn in the wilderness (Numbers 1; Numbers 26)-more than 600,000 adult males, which means a total of two or three millions; the result of David's census 1,300,000 men (2 Samuel 24:9) or 1,570,000 (1 Chronicles 21:5), and the slaughter of half a million in a battle between Judah and Israel (2 Chronicles 13:17). There are many other illustrations in the Books of Chronicles and elsewhere. That some of these high figures are incorrect is beyond reasonable doubt, and is not in the least surprising, for there is ample evidence that the numbers in ancient documents were exceptionally liable to corruption. One of the best known instances is the variation of 1,466 years between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint (text of Codex Vaticanus) as to the interval from the creation of Adam to the birth of Abram. Other striking cases are 1 Samuel 6:19, where 50,070 ought probably to be 70 (Josephus, Ant., VI, i, 4); 2 Samuel 15:7, where 40 years ought to be 4 years; the confusion of 76 and 276 in the manuscripts of Acts 27:37, and of 616 and 666 in those of Revelation 13:18. Hebrew manuscripts furnish some instructive variations. One of them, number 109 of Kennicott, reads (Numbers 1:23) 1,050 for 50,000; 50 for 50,000 (Numbers 2:6), and 100 for 100,000 (Numbers 2:16). It is easy to see how mistakes may have originated in many cases. The Hebrew numerals for 30, etc., are the plurals of the units, so that the former, as written, differ from the latter only by the addition of the two Hebrew letters yodh ("y") and mem ("m") composing the syllable -im. Now as the mem was often omitted, 3 and 30, 4 and 40, etc., could readily be confused. If signs or letters of the alphabet were made use of, instead of abbreviated words, there would be quite as much room for misunderstanding and error on the part of copyists. The high numbers above referred to as found in Exodus and Numbers have been ingeniously accounted for by Professor Flinders Petrie (Researches in Sinai) in a wholly different way. By understanding 'eleph not as "thousand," but as "family" or "tent," he reduces the number to 5,550 for the first census, and 5,730 for the second. This figure, however, seems too low, and the method of interpretation, though not impossible, is open to criticism. It is generally admitted that the number as usually read is too high, but the original number has not yet been certainly discovered. When, however, full allowance has been made for the intrusion of numerical errors into the Hebrew text, it is difficult to resist the belief that, in the Books of Chronicles, at any rate, there is a marked tendency to exaggeration in this respect. The huge armies again and again ascribed to the little kingdoms of Judah and Israel cannot be reconciled with some of the facts revealed by recent research; with the following, for instance: The army which met the Assyrians at Karkar in 854 B.C. and which represented 11 states and tribes inclusive of Israel and the kingdom of Damascus, cannot have numbered at the most more than about 75,000 or 80,000 men (HDB, 1909, 65b), and the Assyrian king who reports the battle reckons the whole levy of his country at only 102,000 (Der alte Orient, XI, i, 14, note). In view of these figures it is not conceivable that the armies of Israel or Judah could number a million, or even half a million. The contingent from the larger kingdom contributed on the occasion mentioned above consisted of only 10,000 men and 2,000 chariots (HDB, ib). The safest conclusion, therefore, seems to be that, while many of the questionable numbers in the present text of the Old Testament are due to copyists, there is a residuum which cannot be so accounted for.
IV. Round Numbers.
The use of definite numerical expressions in an indefinite sense, that is, as round numbers, which is met with in many languages, seems to have been very prevalent in Western Asia from early times to the present day. Sir W. Ramsay (Thousand and One Churches, 6) remarks that the modern Turks have 4 typical numbers which are often used in proper names with little or no reference to their exact numerical force-3, 7, 40, 1,001. The Lycaonian district which gives the book its name is called Bin Bir Kilisse, "The Thousand and One Churches," although the actual number in the valley is only 28. The modern Persians use 40 in just the same way. "Forty years" with them often means "many years" (Brugsch, cited by Konig, Stilistik, 55). This lax use of numbers, as we think, was probably very frequent among the Israelites and their neighbors. The inscription on the Moabite Stone supplies a very instructive example. The Israelite occupation of Medeba by Omri and his son for half the reign of the latter is there reckoned (II.7) at 40 years. As, according to 1 Kings 16:23, 29, the period extended to only 23 years at the most, the number 40 must have been used very freely by Mesha's scribe as a round number. It is probably often used in that way in the Bible where it is remarkably frequent, especially in reference to periods of days or years. The 40 days of the Flood (Genesis 7:4, 17), the arrangement of the life of Moses in three periods of 40 years each (Acts 7:23 Exodus 7:7 Deuteronomy 34:7), the 40 years' rule or reign of Eli (1 Samuel 4:18), of Saul (Acts 13:21; compare Josephus, Ant, VI, xiv, 9), of David (1 Kings 2:11), of Solomon (1 Kings 11:42) and of Jehoash (2 Kings 12:1), the 40 or 80 years of rest (Judges 3:11, 30; Judges 5:31; Judges 8:28), the 40 years of Philistine oppression (Judges 13:1), the 40 days' challenge of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:16), the 40 days' fast of Moses (Exodus 34:28), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), and Jesus (Matthew 4:2 and parallel), the 40 days before the destruction of Nineveh (Jonah 3:4), and the 40 days before the Ascension (Acts 1:3), all suggest conventional use, or the influence of that use, for it can hardly be supposed that the number in each of these cases, and in others which might be mentioned, was exactly 40. How it came to be so used is not quite certain, but it may have originated, partly at any rate, in the idea that 40 years constituted a generation or the period at the end of which a man attains maturity, an idea common, it would seem, to the Greeks, the Israelites, and the Arabs. The period of 40 years in the wilderness in the course of which the old Israel died out and a new Israel took its place was a generation (Numbers 32:13, etc.). The rabbis long afterward regarded 40 years as the age of understanding, the age when a man reaches his intellectual prime (Ab, v, addendum). In the Koran (Sura 46) a man is said to attain his strength when he attains to 40 years, and it was at that age, according to tradition, that Muhammad came forward as a prophet. In this way perhaps 40 came to be used as a round number for an indefinite period with a suggestion of completeness, and then was extended in course of time to things as well as Seasons.
Other round numbers are:
(1) some of the higher numbers;
(2) several numerical phrases.
Under (1) come the following numbers. One hundred, often of course to be understood literally, but evidently a round number in Genesis 26:12 Leviticus 26:8 2 Samuel 24:3; Ecclesiastes 8:12 Matthew 19:29 and parallel. A thousand (thousands), very often a literal number, but in not a few cases indefinite, e.g. Exodus 20:6 parallel Deuteronomy 5:10; Deuteronomy 7:9 1 Samuel 18:7; Psalm 50:10; Psalm 90:4; Psalm 105:8 Isaiah 60:22, etc. Ten thousand (Hebrew ribbo, ribboth, rebhabhah; Greek murids, murioi) is also used as a round number as in Leviticus 26:8 Deuteronomy 32:30 Songs 5:10 Micah 6:7. The yet higher figures, thousands of thousands, etc., are, in almost all cases, distinctly hyperbolical round numbers, the most remarkable examples occurring in the apocalyptic books (Daniel 7:10 Revelation 5:11; Revelation 9:16; Ethiopic Enoch 40:1).
(2) The second group, numerical phrases, consists of a number of expressions in which numbers are used roundly, in some cases to express the idea of fewness. One or two, etc.: "a day or two" (Exodus 21:21), "a heap, two heaps" (Judges 15:16 the Revised Version margin), "one of a city, and two of a family" (Jeremiah 3:14), "not once, nor twice," that is "several times" (2 Kings 6:10). Two or three: "Two or three berries in the (topmost) bough" (Isaiah 17:6; compare Hosea 6:2), "Where two or three are gathered together in my name," etc. (Matthew 18:20). Konig refers to Assyrian, Syrian, and Arabic parallels. Three or four: the most noteworthy example is the formula which occurs 8 times in Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; Amos 2:1, 4, 6, "for three transgressions.... yea for four." That the numbers here are round numbers is evident from the fact that the sins enumerated are in most cases neither 3 nor 4. In Proverbs 30:15, 18, 21, 29, on the other hand, where we have the same rhetorical device, climax ad majus, 4 is followed by four statements and is therefore to be taken literally. Again, Konig (same place) points to classical and Arabic parallels. Four or five: "Four or five in the outmost branches of a fruitful tree" (Isaiah 17:6). Five or six: "Thou shouldest have smitten (Syria) five or six times" (2 Kings 13:19), an idiom met with also in Tell el-Amarna Letters (Konig, ib). Six and seven: "He will deliver thee in six troubles; yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee" (Job 5:19). Seven and eight: "Seven shepherds, and eight principal men" (Micah 5:5), that is, "enough and more than enough" (Cheyne); "Give a portion to seven, yea, even unto eight" (Ecclesiastes 11:2). In one remarkable phrase which occurs (with slight variations of form) 24 times in the Old Testament, two Hebrew words, meaning respectively "yesterday" and "third," are mostly used so as together to express the idea of vague reference to the past. the Revised Version (British and American) renders in a variety of ways: "beforetime" (Genesis 31:2, etc.), "aforetime" (Joshua 4:18), "heretofore" (Exodus 4:10, etc.), "in time (or "times") past" (Deuteronomy 19:4, 6 2 Samuel 3:17, etc.).
V. Significant Numbers.
Numerical symbolism, that is, the use of numbers not merely, if at all, with their literal numerical value, or as round numbers, but with symbolic significance, sacred or otherwise, was widespread in the ancient East, especially in Babylonia and regions more or less influenced by Babylonian culture which, to a certain extent, included Canaan. It must also be remembered that the ancestors of the Israelites are said to have been of Babylonian origin and may therefore have transmitted to their descendants the germs at least of numerical symbolism as developed in Babylonia in the age of Hammurabi. Be that as it may, the presence of this use of numbers in the Bible, and that on a large scale, cannot reasonably be doubted, although some writers have gone too far in their speculations on the subject. The numbers which are unmistakably used with more or less symbolic meaning are 7 and its multiples, and 3, 4, 10 and 12.
1. Seven and Its Multiples:
By far the most prominent of these is the number 7, which is referred to in one way or another in nearly 600 passages in the Bible, as well as in many passages in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha, and later Jewish literature. Of course the number has its usual numerical force in many of these places, but even there not seldom with a glance at its symbolic significance. For the determination of the latter we are not assigned to conjecture. There is clear evidence in the cuneiform texts, which are our earliest authorities, that the Babylonians regarded 7 as the number of totality, of completeness. The Sumerians, from whom the Semitic Babylonians seem to have borrowed the idea, equated 7 and "all." The 7-storied towers of Babylonia represented the universe. Seven was the expression of the highest power, the greatest conceivable fullness of force, and therefore was early pressed into the service of religion. It is found in reference to ritual in the age of Gudea, that is perhaps about the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. "Seven gods" at the end of an enumeration meant "all the gods" (for these facts and the cuneiform evidence compare Hehn, Siebenzahl und Sabbath bei den Babyloniern und im Altes Testament, 4;). How 7 came to be used in this way can only be glanced at here. The view connecting it with the gods of the 7 planets, which used to be in great favor and still has its advocates, seems to lack ancient proof. Hehn (op. cit., 44;) has shown that the number acquired its symbolic meaning long before the earliest time for which that reference can be demonstrated. As this sacred or symbolic use of 7 was not peculiar to the Babylonians and their teachers and neighbors, but was more or less known also in India and China, in classical lands, and among the Celts and the Germans, it probably originated in some fact of common observation, perhaps in the four lunar phases each of which comprises 7 days and a fraction. Conspicuous groups of stars may have helped to deepen the impression, and the fact that 7 is made up of two significant numbers, each, as will be shown, also suggestive of completeness-3 and 4-may have been early noticed and taken into account. The Biblical use of 7 may be conveniently considered under 4 heads:
(1) ritual use;
(2) historical use;
(3) didactic or literary use;
(4) apocalyptic use.
(1) Ritual Use of Seven.
The number 7 plays a conspicuous part in a multitude of passages giving rules for worship or purification, or recording ritual actions. The 7th day of the week was holy (see SABBATH). There were 7 days of unleavened bread (Exodus 34:18, etc.), and 7 days of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:34). The 7th year was the sabbatical year (Exodus 21:2, etc.). The Moabite Balak built Balaam on three occasions 7 altars and provided in each case 7 bullocks and 7 rams (Numbers 23:1, 14, 29). The Mosaic law prescribed 7 he-lambs for several festal offerings (Numbers 28:11, 19, 27, etc.). The 7-fold sprinkling of blood is enjoined in the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:14, 19), and elsewhere. Seven-fold sprinkling is also repeatedly mentioned in the rules for the purification of the leper and the leprous house (Leviticus 14:7, 16, 27, 51). The leprous Naaman was ordered to bathe 7 times in the Jordan (2 Kings 5:10). In cases of real or suspected uncleanness through leprosy, or the presence of a corpse, or for other reasons, 7 days' seclusion was necessary (Leviticus 12:2, etc.). Circumcision took place after 7 days (Leviticus 12:3). An animal must be 7 days old before it could be offered in sacrifice (Exodus 22:30). Three periods of 7 days each are mentioned in the rules for the consecration of priests (Exodus 29:30, 35, 37). An oath seems to have been in the first instance by 7 holy things (Genesis 21:29 and the Hebrew word for "swear"). The number 7 also entered into the structure of sacred objects, for instance the candlestick or lamp-stand in the tabernacle and the second temple each of which had 7 lights (Numbers 8:2 Zechariah 4:2). Many other instances of the ritual use of 7 in the Old Testament and many instructive parallels from Babylonian texts could be given.
(2) Historical Use of Seven.
The number 7 also figures prominently in a large number of passages which occur in historical narrative, in a way which reminds us of its symbolic significance. The following are some of the most remarkable: Jacob's 7 years' service for Rachel (Genesis 29:20; compare Genesis 29:27 f), and his bowing down 7 times to Esau (Genesis 33:3); the 7 years of plenty, and the 7 years of famine (Genesis 41:53 f); Samson's 7 days' marriage feast (Judges 14:12; compare Genesis 29:27), 7 locks of hair (Judges 16:19), and the 7 withes with which he was bound (Judges 16:7 f); the 7 daughters of Jethro (Exodus 2:16), the 7 sons of Jesse (1 Samuel 16:10), the 7 sons of Saul (2 Samuel 21:6), and the 7 sons of Job (Job 1:2; compare Job 42:13); the 7 days' march of the 7 priests blowing 7 trumpets round the walls of Jericho, and the 7-fold march on the 7th day (Joshua 6:8); the 7 ascents of Elijah's servant to the top of Carmel (1 Kings 18:43 f); the 7 sneezes of the Shunammitish woman's son (2 Kings 4:35); the heating of Nebuchadnezzar's furnace 7 times more than it was wont to be heated (Daniel 8:19), and the king's madness for 7 times or years (Daniel 4:16, 23, 25, 32); Anna's 7 years of wedded life (Luke 2:36); the 7 loaves of the 4,000 (Matthew 15:34-36 parallel) and the 7 baskets full of fragments (Matthew 15:37 parallel); the 7 brothers in the conundrum of the Sadducees (Matthew 22:25 parallel); the 7 demons cast out of Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9 parallel Luke 8:2); the 7 ministers in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:3), and the 7 sons of Sceva (Acts 19:14, but the Western text represents them as only 2). The number must no doubt be understood literally in many of these passages, but even then its symbolic meaning is probably hinted at by the historian. When a man was said to have had 7 sons or daughters, or an action was reported as done or to be done 7 times, whether by design or accident, the number was noted, and its symbolic force remembered. It cannot indeed be regarded in all these cases as a sacred number, but its association with sacred matters which was kept alive among the Jews by the institution of the Sabbath, was seldom, if ever, entirely overlooked.
(3) Didactic or Literary Use of Seven.
The symbolic use of 7 naturally led to its employment by poets and teachers for the vivid expression of multitude or intensity. This use is sometimes evident, and sometimes latent. (a) Evident examples are the 7-fold curse predicted for the murderer of Cain (Genesis 4:15); fleeing 7 ways (Deuteronomy 28:7, 25); deliverance from 7 troubles (Job 5:19); praise of God 7 times a day (Psalm 119:164); 7 abominations (Proverbs 26:25; compare Proverbs 6:16); silver purified 7 times, that is, thoroughly purified (Psalm 12:6); 7-fold sin; 7-fold repentance, and 7-fold forgiveness (Luke 17:4;
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See GOLDEN NUMBER.