The Numbers Game
In his last two challenging sermons on the strange New Testament book called Revelation , Gary mentioned the coded language and symbolic numbers which make that book so obscure for modern readers. The number 7, which he singled out for special mention, occurs an astonishing 52 times in that book as the mystical number of perfection — in itself a bit of trivia, but a matter of some interest to both of us as an example of what one needs to know to read the Bible as it was read by its first audience. There are plenty of reasons for not being an inflexible literalist in reading Scripture, but its use of number symbolism alone should be enough to wake people up to the danger of failing to approach the Bible with the kind of imagination and human creativity that went into the writing of it.
We still play our own games with numbers, of course, investing some with the power to bring us good luck, and others with the power to cause us harm. I once met a man who picked a combination of numbers made from his wedding day and the ages of his children, made a $2 bet at a race track, and won $1800. No one will ever convince him that there may not be magic in numbers, no matter how much pure science may scoff. And in all honesty I have to wonder how much popular culture influences my life on some non-rational level. Was I only being playful, or did I secretly hope for a little magic, when for years I had a decorative number 7 on my home office door? I would answer lightly that I was simply having fun with the day of my birth and with that Biblical number of perfection, but there’s no way to be sure there was not a tiny touch of superstition involved.
The idea that certain numbers may influence human events or be in some mysterious way “sacred” is as old as recorded history and it shows up hundreds of times in that very culturally influenced book we call the Bible. Nearly everyone knows that Revelation’s number for the anti-Christ — 666 —has been applied over centuries to all sorts of people, including a recent American President when a few nutcases noticed that his three names all had six letters: Ronald Wilson Reagan. If that’s bad magic in numerology, then all those 7’s found in Revelation are a kind of good magic, and if it’s surprising to find how important that number is in the last book of the Bible it’s astonishing to see how intricately the author of the first book of the Bible worked the numbers game in his opening chapter.
But that is no more than my say-so unless you have some acquaintance with the evidence, so I’d like to share what a legendary Professor of Hebrew at the University of Jerusalem has to say about how the number 7 was worked into the first chapter of Genesis. So please activate your patience button for a moment, keep in mind that we are talking about the original Hebrew text not the English translation, and let’s listen to some of Professor Cassuto’s proof. I’m hoping that as you listen you will wonder why, if God dictated the Bible word for word as many believe, he would sacrifice precious time and space to play such elaborate numerical games. My personal convictiion is that the excessive fondness for number symbolism in the Bible is due not to the Eternal but to the many different people who wrote about his work.
So how artificial are the number arrangements in that first chaper of Genesis ? Well, according to the great Jewish scholar, there are 7 words in the first verse of the Hebrew text, and they are doubled to make 14 in the second verse. The Hebrew words for light and day appear 7 times in the first paragraph, while in the 4th paragraph there are 7 references to light . Water is mentioned 7 times in paragraphs 2 and 3. The comment about God’s looking at his work and calling it “good” appears 7 times. And if you are still tuned in, he will tell you that in the 7th paragraph, which deals with the 7th day, there are 3 consecutive sentences, each of which contains 7 words, and that as a final touch the total number of words in that seventh paragraph is 35 — five times 7. If all that’s too artificial to be mere coincidence, as our famous scholar says, then either God liked to work such tricks or they have to be seen as the work of a man who was thoroughly enjoying his own artistic ingenuity as he recorded the legend of how things began.
In other words his numbers are the stuff of magic, not history — of poetry rather than journalism — and instead of getting hung up on a literal seven days of creation we are meant to read it as faith’s way of saying God performed perfectly when he set about to create the world. There is a difference, by the way, between the Bible’s use of “sacred” numbers, of which 7 is only one, and its frequent use of what we call “round numbers” and use ourselves in a loose and non-literal way all the time. When your mother said, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, stay out of the street,” you knew even as a child that she didn’t literally mean 999 times plus 1, and you had the good sense to interpret her exaggeration to mean, “I’ve told you this several times already and I don’t want to have to tell you again!” So the report of a million and a half fighting men in David’s time is surely patriotic exaggeration (1 Chron. 21:5), the millions of angels mentioned in Revelation (5:11) and Paul’s comment that he’d rather say five words with his understanding than “ten thousand words in an ecstasy” were never meant to be read as if they were part of a divine mathematical history.
But even though they suggest so strongly the touch of human hands on the Bible, it’s not these lightly used round numbers that should remind us how much the Bible was shaped by the delight its authors had in the so-called sacred numbers — numbers thought to have a special mystique and magic of their own, numbers which profoundly shaped both Jewish and Christian religion. One of these odd numbers became sacred so early in human culture that their gods were often grouped in three’s. In Babylon, which Abraham left to become the founding father of the Jewish nation, there was the divine trinity of Anu, Bel and Ea who ruled heaven, earth and the abyss. In Egypt it was Isis, Osirus and Horus. In India it was Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. In Greece it was Athena, Zeus and Apollo. And the Christian church followed suit with its doctrine of the Trinity and its baptismal formula of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The frequent grouping of qualities or people or events by threes certainly seem to reflect the widespread use of this particular number. To name just a few: There is Paul’s triple benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor.13:14) There are 3 disciples in the inner circle that witnessed the Transfiguration (Mk.9:2), 3 crosses on Calvary, 3 days in the tomb, 3 cardinal virtues in 1 Cor. 13, 3 gates on each side of heaven in the book of Revelation, 3 questions addressed to Peter by Jesus, 3 visions given to Peter so he can learn not to be prejudiced — the literary device of symbolism is at work.
But it became so entrenched in our own religious history that 13 centuries later the great Christian poet, Dante, divided his epic poem into 3 sections of 33 cantos each, with each canto written in groups of 3 lines. Dante uses 3 times 3 to get his 9 circles of hell, his nine levels of purgatory, and his nine spheres of heaven. Shakespeare is echoing such traditions when he has a character say about birth, luck and death that “There is divinity in odd numbers” (Merry Wives, 5/1/2). And just last week as I was doing some research into numerology I came across a more recent Irish poem that makes playful romantic use of the old superstition. In the poem a girl speaks first, saying, “That’s 8 times today that you’ve kissed me,” to which her lover says, “Then here goes another, just to make sure….. For there’s luck in odd numbers,”
Three times three — 9 worked for him — but those who wrote the Bible were nothing if not inclusive, so their symbolic games are not restricted to odd numbers like 3 and 7. According to the Greek philosopher-mathematican Pythagoras, six centuries before Christ, the first four numbers (1,2,3,4) add up to 10 and symbolize the roots of all existence. So 4 and 10 became special and are picked up in Biblical literature: 4 rivers of Paradise, 4 guardians of God’s throne (Ezek.1), 4 world kingdoms in Daniel, 4 gospels, 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse. The number 10, which also conveniently happens to be a total of the two sacred numbers 3 and 7, is woven into the Bible in the same artificial ways: 10 commandments, 10 patriarchs listed before the Flood, 10 after it, 10 different times in desert when Israel put God to the test, 10 talents and 10 virgins and 10 lepers in stories told by Jesus . And 4 times 10 provided the indeterminate number 40 which shows up throughout the Bible: the Flood waters fall for 40 days and nights, the life of Moses is split artificially into 3 periods of 40 years each, Goliath taunted the Hebrew army for 40 days, Elijah was fed by ravens for 40 days, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert and appeared 40 days after his death.
If you are still awake, some of you will have thought of another example of number symbolism used extensively in the Bible. I have to skip the theories as to why, but number 12 was also sacred. So we get 12 tribes of Jacob and 12 tribes of Ishmael, and 12 spies sent into Canaan, and 12 apostles in the early church, and 12 gates in Heaven. And to show how seriously this elaborate game was played, twice 12 made the 24 classes of priests and the 24 elders around the throne in Revelation , and 4 times 12 made the 48 Levitical cities, and in perhaps the most famous of all examples 12 times 12 is 144, and 10 times 10 times 10 is 1,000 — and when you multiply those two totals you get 144,000 which is the number of people populating Heaven in the book of Revelation (7). Reading this quite literally, some modern Christians claim that out of all the billions and billions born on earth the number of those who will make it to Heaven will be less than one half of the present population of Wichita, Kansas. They seem unaware that such literalistic math makes a mockery of the saving work of Christ.
One final word about the fabled number 7 , because it so truly obsessed Biblical authors. Why it came to symbolize perfection or completeness has been debated for centuries. The best guess may be that it became sacred among those early Babylonian astronomers who tracked the seven visible objects which moved around the sky on a regular basis: the sun, the moon and the five planets they could see. The Babylonian story of creation, by the way, was recorded on 7 tablets, and clearly influenced the opening chapters of Genesis , so it’s no wonder the authors of the Old Testament seem unable to get enough of it in their scripture, or that Jews who later became Christians filled their own scripture with it: So, 7 years to build Solomon’s temple, 7 fat and 7 lean cattle in the Joseph story, 7 sons in Job’s perfect household, 7 days of marching around Jericho, 7 dips in the Jordan river to heal the leper Naaman, 7 demons cast out of a woman, 7 words from the cross, 7 woes in Matthew 23, 7 virtues in 2 Peter, 7 deadly sins….the number permeates not only the Bible but our whole culture.
Rome, for so long the center of the world, had to be the city of 7 hills even if that had to be stretched a little. Any crossword puzzle fan can name the 7 wonders of the world and the 7 seas. The famous Congregational minister Henry Ward Beecher first came to national prominence because of his Seven Lectures to Young Men preached in Indianapolis. The Seven Champions of Christendom was the name given in medieval stories to the 7 national saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, France, Spain and Italy. You may have had to read in college a Greek play called Seven Against Thebes or an American novel called The House of Seven Gables .
I was warned by the choir member I know best that talking about all those number games in the Bible would bore you to death, so I kept saying, “All right, I’ll do something else,” but I kept coming back to it because it’s one of many pieces of evidence that the Bible is everywhere influenced by the culture in which its authors lived, and because it is so essential to know that. People who believe that God dictated every single word have killed elderly women as witches, amputated their own body parts, died from drinking poison and handling rattlesnakes, and killed their neighbors in holy war — all because since the Bible approved such things that meant God had sanctioned them. One has to separate eternally true statements in the Bible from its cultural contexts, and what I have tried to do this morning is use numerology as one example of Biblical acculturation.
But the choir members warning still weighs heavily on my mind, so let’s close, after this overload of numerical symbolism, on a lighter note. I realized as I put this sermon together how easy it is to find number magic in all sorts of odd places, especially when it occurred to me that you chose to have serving you at present a Senior Minister named Gary and a Minister Emeritus named Bob — count the letters! And if the ancient supersitition about the number 7 is still not enough to give you hope for our ministry, you could take it one step further to consider this: that the combined letters in the last names of those two servants add up to 9, which is the square of that other sacred number, 3. I’m teasing, of course, about this accident of numbers, but not in my promise that the two of us will keep trying with all our might to make it a happy accident.
Make it useful to us, gracious God, to learn the ways of that world
in which our sacred book was written, and keep us from being blind
to its context, its color, and its complexity when we read it. Amen.