Biblical Numbers or Numerology
Does the Bible contain a secret code using numbers? If we count up numbers of words in a sentence, or add together the numerical values of a word or sentence, is there a hidden message contained in it? No doubt you have heard a pastor or Bible teacher say that the number 7 represents completion or perfection, or perhaps that the number 40 represents judgment (e.g., the Flood, the Wilderness wanderings). Where do such interpretations come from? Do biblical numbers such as 7, 10, 12, and 40, as well as others, have symbolic meaning or should they always be understood literally? What about the large numbers in the Old Testament? Some archaeologists and Bible scholars say that some of the numbers in the Old Testament are impossibly large. For example, are we to take the census numbers in the Book of Numbers literally? If so, is it realistic to believe that the Israelites who left Egypt and wandered in the Wilderness for forty years numbered between 2-3 million? These are some of the interesting questions dealt with by John J. Davis in his book entitled Biblical Numerology. Because this topic has so many interesting facets to it, I will spend several posts dealing with the various issues raised in the use of biblical numbers. In this post (utilizing Davis’s insights), I will look at the various ways in which numbers were written in the ancient world and how an understanding of that impacts the use and understanding of biblical numbers.
How Numbers Were Written in the Ancient World and in the Bible
To be honest, I had never given any thought as to how ancient peoples wrote numbers. I assumed that they used numerical symbols like we do. “Why does it matter?”, you might ask. Good question, read on! Davis points out that there were three different ways that numbers were written in the ancient world.
- The number could be spelled out (as in “seven”).
- Numerical symbols might be used like our number “56,” however the use of numerical symbols was much more complicated in the ancient world. For example, the number 4 might be written with 4 straight lines like this: ||||. Writing larger numbers could become very complex (see the photo on the right).
- A third way was to assign a value to various letters of the alphabet. We are most familiar with this system through the use of Roman numerals (e.g., IV = 4, L = 50).
What about biblical numbers? Does the Bible use all three ways of writing numbers? Interestingly, the answer is “no.” The only method employed by the Bible is to write the number by spelling it out. Davis believes that ancient Israelite scribes probably “would also have used symbols since their neighbors did” (p. 34). However, not only does the Bible never use such symbols, we have yet to discover any Israelite document or inscription that uses numeric symbols! Even such discoveries as the inscription in Hezekiah’s tunnel known as the “Siloam Inscription,” or the Mesha/Moabite Stone, which employ the use of numbers, do not use numeric symbols, but instead spell out the numbers.
What about the alphabetic system of writing numbers? The earliest evidence for the Jewish use of this system (employing Hebrew letters to represent numbers) dates from the Maccabean period, to the reign of Simon where it has been found on coins dating to 143-135 B.C. (p. 38). Davis notes that, “the idea of alphabetic numbering was probably a fifth or fourth century B.C. development,” which originated with the Greeks (p. 44). It was Greek influence, following Alexander the Great’s conquests, which brought this system to the Jewish people (p. 45). Therefore, while this system could possibly have been employed by writers of the New Testament (e.g., Rev. 13:18–“666”!), it is much too late to have been used by Old Testament writers.
This means those who try to demonstrate some type of hidden code by totalling up the value of Hebrew letters (known as “gematria”) have a lot of explaining to do. If such a system was developed by the Greeks and only borrowed by the Jews sometime after Alexander (4th century), then it is difficult to sustain the theory of the use of gematria in the Old Testament. Having said that, Davis does acknowledge that the ancient Babylonians (not the “Neo-Babylonians”), as well as Greeks from the time of Homer (900 B.C.), seem to have some knowledge of gematria. This admission leaves the door slightly ajar, although Davis affirms that it was really with Pythagoras (6th-5th century B.C.) that “the real organization and development of the system of mystical numbers” began (p. 126). In a future post we will explore the origins and use of mystical numbers in more depth.
In our next installment of biblical numbers, we will look at some of the large numbers in the Old Testament and ask whether they are reliable.