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Numbers, Symbolic Meaning of

Numbers, Symbolic Meaning of

The Old Testament. The ancient Babylonians and Egyptians had a developed numerology based on astrological divination, which is forbidden in the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Chaldeans sectioned the stars into twelve regions. Numerology is also consequential in Hinduism, Buddhism, Magic texts, and other occultic, pagan religions.

In contrast to the numerical speculation of Gentile religions, the Hebrew Scriptures use numbers in their conspicuous, literal sense, although occasionally numbers may have a representative meaning (cf. the more symbolic numerical use in Gen 4:24 ; and the literal use Gen 14:14 ). For example, the large numbers of the ages of the progenitors in Genesis 5 is to be taken literally, not figuratively. The symbolic use of numbers in the Hebrew Scriptures is quite different from the speculation of pagan religions. The symbolic, even poetic use of numbers in the Bible is not inordinate speculation concerning the universe. Even in the later, more apocalyptic texts of Daniel and Isaiah, prophetic symbolism is rooted in historical data. The association of numbers and polytheism in pagan religions is absent in the monotheism of Israel.

The creation of the world was completed in six days. The earliest use of "seven" (the Hebrew word is spelled out, as are all numbers in the Bible) is likely less symbolic than the later, more symbolic use. In fact, the world's completion in six days and the subsequent day of rest to complete the week is a key reason why "seven" symbolized completion and goodness in later apocalyptic texts. The Sabbath was implemented in terms of set days, weeks, and years (e.g., Dan 9:24 ).

"Ten" was the number of the Decalogue. Its significance is to be taken literally and there does not seem to be any further meaning intended. "Twelve" is the number of the tribes of Israel, and it, too, should be regarded as literal. Even though there are twelve months in the year, this symbology is unsatisfactory, and there is probably no connection. The lack of chimerical uses of numbers attests to the functional and responsible nature of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially when compared to other religious texts in the ancient world.

Second Temple Jewish Literature. Second temple Jewish literature should be discussed briefly, as it influenced the New Testament use of numbers greatly, especially the Book of Revelation. One can see a trend in late Old Testament apocalyptic literature toward a cryptic use of numbers. For example, in Daniel 4:16 it is predicted in a vision that Nebuchadnezzar will have the mind of an animal until "seven times pass over him." Daniel 8:8 mentions the "four winds of heaven." This tendency toward a clandestine use of numbers is developed in Jewish pseudepigraphical texts.

The New Testament. "Number" comes from the Greek noun arithmos [ajriqmov"] or the Greek verb arithmeo [ajriqmevw], which means "to reckon, " "to number, " or "to count." As in the Old Testament, numbers almost always carry a literal connotation (e.g., Matt 16:21 ; Mark 9:2 ; Acts 11:10 ; 1 Cor 15:5 ; 2 Peter 2:5 ; Rev 1:4 ). Sometimes numbers are rounded off (e.g., John 6:10 John 6:19 ); at other times hyperbole is used (e.g., Matthew 18:12 Matthew 18:22 ) to heighten a specific point.

Paul, borrowing from commonplace Jewish apocalyptic beliefs, says that he was "caught up to the third heaven" ( 2 Cor 12:2 ). The third heaven was the place of revelation in the sevenfold schema of second temple apocalyptic literature. It is unclear whether Paul actually believed in multiple heavens, although he probably did as evidenced by his plural use of "heavens" in Colossians regarding the resurrection of Christ.

The most enigmatic use of numbers in the New Testament is found in Revelation. It should not be surprising that many idiosyncratic theories have developed concerning the meaning of the use of numbers in Revelation, most notably, the designation of "666" (spelled out in the Greek text) in 13:18. No other verse in the New Testament designates, in a cryptogrammatic fashion, the hidden nature of the number.

Some ancient manuscripts designate the number as "616, " but "666" has the incontrovertible support of all the oldest and best manuscripts. Irenaeus points out that scribes changed the number to "616" to align with the Roman emperor Caligula.

The designation of a modern "antichrist" presumes a futuristic interpretation that has been widely criticized. Gematria, the practice of assigning numerical values to the letters in a word or phrase, is found in classical and Hellenistic Greek, early Hebrew, and rabbinic literature. The practice of gematria was used as early as the second century a.d. in an attempt to discover the identity of the person intended in 13:18, which reveals that there was no set tradition concerning the number's identification.

Even though it is impossible to know for certain the identity of "666, " a conspicuous designation is "Caesar Nero" because the title/name equaled 666 in Hebrew numerical value. Irenaeus suggested Titus or the Roman Empire, both of which point to a nonfuturistic interpretation.

Regardless of the meaning of the number, the passage makes it clear that the number is being used as a symbolic reference to a person. The text reads "a number of a human" (Greek anthropos, not andros, the Greek word for "man"). The language presumes that the readers understood the number's designation. In keeping with the historical nature of Daniel's symbolic use of numbers, it is likely that Revelation, which borrows heavily from the imagery of Daniel, roots the symbolism of "666" in historical data, not the imaginative guesswork of later rabbinics.

The biblical method of using numbers is not common to the haphazard conjecture of some modern interpreters, who claim that a sort of allegory lies behind the true meaning of the numbers of Revelation. Apocalyptic numerology should not be confused with eccentric interpretation. Apocalyptic literature is highly developed in its symbolism. When one is familiar with this genre of literature, a more historical, less arbitrary interpretation prevails.

"Seven" figures prominently in Revelation. The seven plagues represent judgment in its completion. The "seven churches in Asia" are to be taken literally, not figuratively, although the number may have been rounded out to fit the number seven. The meaning of "seven golden lampstands, " and "seven stars" in 1:12, 16 are given in 1:20. The seven-branched menorah is apparently used as a symbol of the seven churches of Asia Minor, possibly as the representative light of Torah as incarnated through Jesus Christ.

It is debated what the meaning of the "twenty-four thrones" and "twenty-four elders" in 4:4 signifies besides the manifest description given concerning a scene in heaven. The "four living creatures" are four angels in the celestial scene. "Seven flaming torches" are said to refer to the "seven spirits of God." The "seven spirits" is probably a reference to the Holy Spirit. In Isaiah 11:2 the Spirit functions in seven ways. Revelation 1:4 may have Isaiah 11:2 in mind.

Twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel equal 144, 000 people from Israel ( 7:4-8 ), all with God's seal on their forehead. The meaning of this number has been debated and it is difficult to ascertain its meaning, but one thing is clear: Israel, as God's remnant, is marked out in God's program through the apocalyptic tumult.

The "four corners of the earth" and the "four winds of the earth" is keeping with second temple use of the numeral four as representing the earth.

The meaning of the beast with seven heads, ten horns, and seven diadems ( 12:3 ) is given in 17:9, 12: "The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated. Also they are seven kings"; "The ten horns that you saw are ten kings." It may be that Rome, the "city of seven hills, " was thought of as the amalgamation of the Gentile nations. In any case, the number seven here represents Gentile, pagan nations perhaps in their consummation. The numbers are representative with a historical undercurrent with literal significance, not simply allegorical and capricious in nature.

There are many other numbers in Revelation that cannot be deciphered. But in general, Revelation is more panoramic than allowed by some, and deals with Jews and Gentiles in a sweeping fashion. Attempts to immoderately particularize events and numbers trivializes the nature of this Jewish apocalypse.

Eric W. Adams

Bibliography. J. J. Davis, Biblical Numerology; L. E. Dickson, History of the Theory of Numbers; W. M. W. Roth, Numerical Sayings in the Old Testament: A Form Critical Study; E. D. Schmitz, C. J. Hemer, M. J. Harris, and C. Brown, NIDNTT, 2:683-704.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Numbers, Symbolic Meaning of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.