If we are told someone died at the age of 82 or there was a fire on the fifth floor of a building we would all agree on the meaning of the numbers. In contrast, when we are told that Jesus cured a man ill for 38 years (Jn 5:5), or after the multiplication of the bread, there were seven baskets of leftovers (Mk 8:8), things are different. We are not sure to what the numbers refer exactly. The simple fact is that, for us, numbers have a distinct meaning (the quantity of something), while Orientals express not one but three realities, each of them different: quantity, symbolism, and gematric meaning.
Quantity: When we are told the prophet Elijah predicted a three-year drought (1 Kg18:1); that Josiah governed as king for 31 years in Jerusalem (2 Ks 22:1); that Solomon put 12 governors in charge of maintaining the palace monthly (1 Kg 4:7); that Bethany was 15 stadia (3 km) from Jerusalem (Jn 11:18), then we can be fairly sure that these are not symbolic numbers, but are used as we would expect, to give quantity.
Symbolism: A symbolic number does not indicate quantity but expresses an idea, a message different from it, going beyond the number and overflowing in its meaning. Westerners, who adhere to logic, find this difficult, but for the Semites who gave us the Bible, they were second nature to transmit ideas, messages, and codes:
One, Two, and Three:
One symbolises the unique God of exclusivity, primacy, and excellence. ‘There is only one who is good’ (Mt 19:17). Of marriage it is said: ‘So they are no longer two but one’ (Mt 19:6). Two represents human dualism, the interior division because of sin. When Mark says Jesus cured one demoniac (Mk 5:2) or one blind man in Jericho (Mk 10:46), for Matthew, telling the same story, there are two demoniacs (Mt 8:28) and two blind men (Mt 20:30). Instead of asking who was counting rightly, we need to see Mark giving the historical version and Matthew using the symbolic number.
Three expresses totality of time: past, present, and future, eternity. Three sons of Noah (Gen 6:10) represent the totality of all Noah’s descendants. The three denials of Peter (Mt 26:34) manifest total infidelity. The three temptations of Jesus represent all the temptations endured throughout his life. The all holy God is called holy three times (Isa 6:3).
Four and Five:
Four symbolises the cosmos, the world, north, south, east, and west. Paradise with four rivers (Gen 4:10) means a paradise before the sin of Adam and Eve, not a definite place with four rivers. Ezekiel called the Spirit of the four winds to breathe upon the dry bones (Ezek 37:9); there were not really four winds because he was calling all the winds of the earth. The four living creatures of Revelation 4:6 is a way to say that God is over the entire world and all the earth is God’s throne.
Five means ‘some’, an indefinite number or quantity. In the multiplication of the bread, Jesus took five loaves (a number of loaves). In the market, five birds (some birds) are sold for two coins. Elizabeth hid for five (some) months after her pregnancy. The Samaritan woman had five (many) husbands. Jesus often used the number five in his parables with an indefinite sense (five wise virgins; five talents, five yoke of oxen, and five brothers of Dives). Paul says of the gift of tongues: ‘I would rather speak five words (some words) with my mind than ten thousand words in a tongue’ (1 Cor 14:19).
Seven, Ten, and Twelve:
Seven is the most popular symbolism of all, representing perfection. Jesus told Peter to forgive 70 times seven. Perfection of evil is implied when an evil spirit leaves a person, but goes back with seven other spirits. Seven demons are cast out of Mary Magdalene. Note that demonic possession in the Bible always referred to mental and physical illness; it never equated with moral and ethical behaviour.
Revelation uses seven, 54 times to symbolically describe the divine reality: the seven churches in Asia, the seven spirits on the throne of God, seven trumpets, seven candlesticks, seven horns, seven eyes of the lamb, seven thunders, seven plagues, seven spilled cups. Nonsense follows when the number is taken as an exact quantity or exact time. Today we continue this symbolism with seven sacraments, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and seven virtues.
The number 10 has a technical value; from the digits on one’s hands to the 10 Commandments, through the 10 plagues, to 10 ancestors between Adam and Noah and another 10 between Noah and Abraham, even though we know there were many more.
Twelve signifies ‘election’, the 12 tribes of Israel (actually there are more than 12); the Book of the Twelve is the collection of the minor prophets. The 12 apostles of the Gospel can also be found to add up to more than 12; yet they are called the Twelve to indicate that they were chosen by the Lord. Jesus declares that he has 12 legions of angels at his command (Mt 26:53) and Revelation talks about 12 diadems crowning the woman, and 12 doors of Jerusalem, 12 angels and 12 fruits of the tree of life.
Other numbers with special meaning:
Forty represents ‘change’ from one period to another, the years that make up a generation. The Flood lasted 40 days and nights so a change in humanity takes place. Forty years wandering in the desert saw a transition from a sinful and doubting generation. Moses spends 40 days on Mt Sinai and Elijah 40 days on a journey after which his life was changed. Jonah predicted 40 days to Nineveh’s destruction, and that produced a change in life! Jesus fasts for 40 days as his private life gives way to his public one.
One thousand signifies a multitude. In Dan 5:1 the king Belshazzar gives a great feast for 1,000 visitors; in Ps 90 we are told the 1,000 days to us is like one day for God. Solomon offered 1,000 animals in Gibeon (1 Kg 3:4) and had 1,000 wives in his harem (1 Kg 11:3).
Sometimes numbers are used in combination. This is frequent in Revelation with 144,000 being saved. The combination of 12s and 1,000 as applying to the elect of both the Old and New Testament, refers to a great quantity.
Minor symbolism is also important. Luke tells us Jesus sent 70 disciples into every town and place where he was about to come (Lk 10:1). The number is symbolic. According to Gen 10 the total of all towns and nations was 70. Luke has a universal vision and wants to say that the gospel will reach all the nations of the world.
John ends with a catch of 153 fish. Is this just an unimportant detail? In antiquity it was believed that there were 153 different species of fish in the seas. Jesus came to save all the peoples of all nations, races, and places.
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 the paralytic is brought to Jesus on a bed, the number four appears real. So does Paul’s five-day journey from Philippi to Troas. Four and five are not symbolic in such a context.
The third meaning that a number can signify in the Bible is gematria, something common to Hebrew and Greek language. While we separate numbers and letters, those two cultures used letters for numbers: a = 1, b = 2; c = 3, etc. The number obtained from the sum of the letters is gematria. All sorts of word games can be played.
Gen 4 tells of the invasion of Palestine by four powerful kings who took Abraham’s nephew, Lot, prisoner. He gives pursuit with 318 trained men to defeat them and rescue Lot. Can Abraham really defeat four powerful Mesopotamian leaders with only 318 persons? We are told that Abraham had a servant, Eliezar, heir to all his property. If we count the Hebrew letters of his name [E ‘aleph(= 1) + L lamedh(= 30) + I yodh(= 10) + E ‘ayin(= 70) + Z zayin(+7) + R res(= 200) = 318] this becomes a statement that Abraham went to battle with all his descendants, who will always remain superior to their enemies.
The Exodus and the ancestors of Jesus
The Book of Numbers tells us that 603,550 fighting men left Egypt, a figure that omits women, the aged, and children. Such a number (adding wives and children, would exceed three million, a figure never achieved in biblical times, and enough warrior power to take Egypt in those days!) may be reached by substituting the letters of the phrase ‘all the sons of Israel’ (in Hebrew rs kl bny ysr’l) and this gives 603,550.
Matthew’s genealogy uses the same device. The generations are divided into a series of 14 generations, three times, an impossible division as only three names cover the 430 years of enslavement in Egypt and only two descendants fill in the three centuries between Solomon and Jesse. The list is intentional as 14 is the gematric number of David (D = 4; V waw = 6; D = 4 giving 14). We are given triple affirmation that Jesus is son of David, and Messiah. Even fullness is invoked with Jesus beginning the seventh seven.
The most famous gematria is the 666 of the beast of Revelation 13:8. Behind this is the Emperor Nero in Hebrew: N = 50; R = 200; W = 6; N = 50; Q = 100; S = 60; + R = 200 add up to 666.
It is always tempting to impose our concepts and culture on a world that existed two thousand years ago. The Bible was, like Jesus himself, incarnated in such a culture. It is a mistake to interpret the Bible literally with the mental categories we have. When we encounter numbers in the Bible, we must ask ourselves whether these are about quantity, symbol, or are gematria. This will help us understand the Word of God better as well as to keep its message alive in our hearts.