Numbers in the Bible
Categories: The Bible
What is the significance of the various numbers that repeatedly appear in the Bible, i.e. 7, 40, 3, etc.? It came up in my Sunday school; class and although I think 7 is completion, I wasn't sure about 40 -- and would appreciate hearing from you on this subject.
Biblical numerology is the study of numbers in the Bible. It is a fascinating study with no one right answer. Two of the most commonly repeated numbers in the Bible are 7 and 40.
The number 7 does signify completion or perfection (Genesis 7:2-4; Revelation 1:20). It can refer to the end of a cycle or when something is finished. It is often called "God's number" since He is the only One who is perfect and complete (Revelation 4:5; 5:1, 5-6). The word in Hebrew is Sheb'-bah. It is from a root word meaning "to be complete" or "full." Hence, God rested on the seventh day because His work was done – complete and perfect. In resting, God had placed His seal of approval on creation. Seven represents this sense of perfection and rest. The word for Sabbath is also derived from this same root. Seven is also the hallmark of the Holy Spirit's work. He is the Author of God's Word, and seven is stamped on it much like a watermark is seen in the manufacture of paper. Some scholars see this seal as the sign of God's approval of His authentic Word. It applies to both scripture as well as the believer.
Forty, on the other hand, is often understood as the "number of probation or trial." For example: it rained for forty days in the time of Noah (Gen 7:12); Moses was on the mount for 40 days (Exodus 24:18); the Israelites wandered for 40 years (Num 32:13); 40 days were involved in the story of Jonah and Nineveh (Jonah 3:4); Jesus was tempted for 40 days (Matthew 4:2); there were 40 days between Jesus' resurrection and ascension (Acts 1:3). However, the number can really have two meanings. One is this completion of a trial, or test; the other is the completion of maturity. The context will determine which meaning is most appropriate. Looking closely, these two meanings could be seen as interdependent. Sometimes it is the trial itself that brings people to maturity. According to Jewish tradition, maturity is obtained at the age of 40. So, isn't it interesting that Moses' life was characterized by three periods of forty years each? After the flood, man's life expectancy was 120 years, which is 3 times 40, thereby representing the perfect maturity.
Another significant number is "one." It generally means unity, oneness, sovereignty, light. Typically, it is used to represent God as the beginning and the end, the source of everything that is, the prime impulse. You could say, "One" means first, the best, the only. "One" stands alone, without divisions, factors, or components. It is universal, whole and complete, and completely independent of all other numbers. There is only one God, one sovereign rule, His omnipotence and unique nature. There is simply no other number that is comparable. One excludes all differences for there is no counterpart with which it can either harmonize or conflict. Because of this, "One" can also represent harmony, unity or peace; and in relation to God, it also means harmony, unity, or peace with God.
Another number of interest is "three." With this number, we find the first geometric figure. Two straight lines cannot enclose any space or form a planar figure. A triangle is the simplest planar figure and a cube is the simplest three-dimensional solid. "Three" therefore represents that which is solid, real, substantial, complete, and entire. It oftentimes is used to signify divine perfection, the Godhead. It can also be used in simple ways. For example, "time" is represented by references to the past, present and future. Dimensions are described in terms of length, width, and depth. Most things have a beginning, middle, and an end.
"Three" is followed by "four," which generally refers to the creative works, generally the material creation, pertaining to all things "under the sun." The number four represents the earth; there are four points on the compass, four winds, and four seasons.
The last number we will examine is the number "Twelve." Typically, this one represents perfect government, as in the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles. How did people come up with that? Twelve is the sum of three times four. Three is the number of divine perfection (usually denoting things from or of God), and four is the number involving material creation. So perfect government exists when God is acknowledged as ruler over all, and it is connected to that which is governed. It is the things of this world, the nature of this world that needs to be governed.