The Bible’s Mystical Numbers. Reading time: 6-7 minutes.
I’ve always been intrigued by the numbers the Bible writers used repeatedly. To me, the Bible’s mystical numbers seemed to be code words with hidden meanings. Where they only significant in Jewish-Christian tradition or did those numbers have similar meanings in other cultures? This post is my attempt to answer those questions by tracing the numbers back to what they must have meant to the earliest human writers.
What I discovered
If those numbers were only important to the Jews and Christians, we would understood them as cultural oddities. But I learned that those same numbers popped up significantly in other cultures around the world. That means there’s a good chance the numbers were derived from something all human cultures shared, even if they weren’t in contact with each other. What would that be?
To humans in the earliest civilizations, nature was the guiding light to understanding the world, and astronomical observations played a large part in understanding nature. For example, certain features would have been common to anyone who studied the night sky—sort of a universal language. Humans as far back as 100,000 years ago had brain capacities like ours, so they probably had close to the same level of intelligence. Only in the last ten thousand years did humans transition from hunter-gatherer societies to villagers. It was then that their need for tracking the passage of time would have been increasingly important..
Living in settlements
When humans began to live together in more permanent villages, they had to raise crops. Farmers had to know when to plant, tend, and harvest those crops. Then they had to preserve them until they could be eaten. Those who tended the domesticated animals would have been aware of their various fertility cycles and how long they needed to nurture their offspring. They would have had to know the seasonal weather cycles to know when to move livestock to pasture and back again. Every civilization needed methods of tracking the annual cycles.
The wiser tribal members decided those important dates and they did that by observing and recording astronomical patterns. Seasons depend on the tilt of the Earth’s axis, but even before anyone discovered that there was a tilt and what it meant to their lives, ancient astronomers observed seasonal variations in their sky charts. Different stars were prominent at different times of the year, and they could relate those stars and constellations to the yearly cycle of life.
The ancients recorded the phases of the moon, predicted the flooding of the Nile River, and around 585 BC even predicted a solar eclipse. If they knew about eclipses, they also knew Earth was round. Chinese astronomers were said to have been the first to successfully predict a solar eclipse as early as AD 206. That means that most of us vastly underestimate the accomplishments of those ancient scientists. We’ve also lost their communication with nature and how nature affected their lives in every way. Eventually, Europeans lost that communication with nature and the accomplishments of ancient societies because they didn’t preserve their culture or their writings. Those are subjects I will eventually cover in another post.
Anyone who has read much of the Bible has noticed that the number three was used exhaustively. In fact, it’s found 467 times in the Bible, and that doesn’t include the “Trinity”, which was never mentioned in the Bible and took four centuries to become Church doctrine. (By the way, there were also trinities in many other religions, usually representing some union of three gods.)
Some examples of the number three in the Bible were Jonah in the belly of the sea creature for three days, Jesus and Lazarus in their tombs for three days, the magi bringing three gifts to the newborn Jesus, the Ark of the Covenant containing three objects, the devil tempting Jesus three times during his fasting in the wilderness, Peter denying Jesus three times, Paul being blind for three days following his encounter with the apparition of Jesus, and Jesus dying at the age of thirty-three after three years of ministry.
When researching what that number signified, I found it represents divine wholeness, completeness, or perfection. But why?
Why was 3 so important?
Since many cultures used the number three as a symbol, there must be something about the number that indicates wholeness or perfection. Why is the number whole, or perfect? Those seem to be characteristics assigned to the number for a reason. The number must have had some importance to begin with or people wouldn’t have called it perfect.
Examples of triads throughout the world’s cultures are animal, mineral, vegetable; body, mind, spirit; past, present, future; birth, life, death; and underworld, earth, and heaven. There are three sides to a triangle, and the Egyptian pyramids were large triangles that they built in that shape for a reason. What was the common denominator that made the number three so special?
Like most of the Bible’s mystical numbers, three probably gained significance by studying the cosmos. Three is very meaningful when traced to the Sun, Moon, and Earth. Those were the only known objects that didn’t appear as mere dots of light in the night sky, so they would have been very significant to observers.
I’m just speculating here, because up until now I haven’t been able to find a conclusive reason as to why three was so important. The concept of wholeness that three represents could also come from beginning, middle, and end; or birth, life, and death, which are concepts common to all humans across all cultures. Another option are the three dimensions. Every society would have known that all physical objects have length, width, and height, and that could be considered a form of completeness.
The number four was mentioned 339 times in the Bible. Examples are the four horsemen of the apocalypse; JHVH, the four-letter name for the Jewish God; the four points of the cross; the four rivers of Eden; the four winds of heaven; the four corners of the earth; the dimensions of the Hebrew tabernacle and Solomon’s temple, etc.
People regarded four as a number representing stability, or maybe perfection. It referred to the elements of the physical world—earth, air, water, and fire; the four directions of the compass—north, south, east, and west; and the four humors or liquids in the body—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. The reason four gospels were chosen for the Bible is because of the mystical significance of the number four. Northern Europeans consider a four leaf clover to be lucky, but the Chinese consider it unlucky.
In nature, the importance of four may have come from the four seasons of the year or the four phases of the Moon. In addition, most land animals have four arms and legs. There are four chambers in hearts, not only human hearts, but birds, some reptiles, and the rest of the mammal species. Humans also have four fingers per hand.
In the Christian Bible, the number seven appears over 700 times. The number, like three and four, often represents something being completed, or perfected. It was used most obviously when God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh—defining our seven-day week. Other references to seven were Moses going up and down Mount Siani seven times, the Jews eating unleavened bread for seven days prior to the Passover, the Jews marching around Jericho seven times on the seventh day with seven priests, seven churches of Revelation, seventy times seven being the number of times Jesus said to forgive someone, etc.
The number seven may have become significant because it was the number of heavenly bodies that could be observed with the naked eye. Those brighter planets were distinguishable because of their motions relative to the stars. Early astronomers considered the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn to be special works of God. They are also the heavenly bodies that whose names are given to our days of the week (at least in Romance languages). Those seven didn’t include Earth because the ancients didn’t know the earth was a planet. Astronomers didn’t begin to discover other planets or moons until after Galileo invented the telescope in the seventeenth century,.
The number twelve is found 187 times in the Bible. Like with seven, biblical writers also put twelve to good use. They used it for the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve disciples of Jesus, and the twelve gates and angels in Revelation. The ancient Greeks worshipped twelve gods, and in other cultures various gods and holy men had twelve associates of some kind. It doesn’t end there. There are twelve months in a year, twelve hours in a day, twelve hours in a night, twelve times five minutes in an hour, twelve times five seconds in a minute, twelve segments of thirty degrees in a circle or on a compass, twelve inches in a foot, twelve donuts to a dozen, etc. The Egyptians devised a 365 day calendar that consisted of twelve thirty-day months. They placed the five remaining days at the end of the year.
Like seven, twelve can represent order or perfection, or whatever other importance ancient societies chose to believe. In nature, the numeric significance of twelve seems to point directly to the twelve annual cycles of the Moon. Many ancient peoples kept lunar calendars. Some also recognized twelve primary northern stars and twelve primary southern stars. The Babylonians created the zodiac with its twelve signs. Those applications were all derived from astronomic observations. There are also twelve pairs of ribs in the bodies of both humans and chimpanzees, but that was probably incidental.
The Bible mentioned the number forty 157 times, often representing a period of waiting or testing. In the great flood story, it rained for forty days and forty nights. Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai, then forty years in the wilderness. Goliath taunted the Israelite army for forty days. Satan tested Jesus in the desert for forty days before his ministry, there were also forty days between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
This number is also a tough nut to crack, but I’ve discovered some interesting possibilities. Some ancient societies counted their solar years in units of forty days. That fit almost perfectly with a nine-year solar calendar. There’s evidence that the ancient Jews at one time did adopt that way of tracking time.
I’ve seen one writer speculate that forty refers to the approximate number of days between the equinoxes and solstices before there’s a noticeable change in the weather. That is about right, since June 21 is the summer solstice, and the weather usually reaches its hottest in July and August. Also, there is usually a Christian holiday forty days after each equinox and solstice.
What better example of waiting and testing is there than a pregnancy. A human pregnancy takes about forty weeks. But that timeframe only works if ancient societies used a seven-day week. Well, it turns out that the Babylonians did use a seven-day week, and they passed much in their culture along to the Jews during the seventy years they held them in captivity.
This analysis has helped me better understand the relationship between our ancestors and the natural world. At least it somewhat explains why the biblical writers used those specific numbers. Because they chose to do that, we can appreciate their writings in a more metaphorical way. We don’t have to get hung up on the literalness of those numbers. They really are a sort of code.