There are some strange things going on with numbers in the Bible – especially in the Old Testament.
How do we make sense of them?
The biblical use of numbers should be understood in the same sorts of ways that we should understand other parts of God’s ancient revelation: in its historical and cultural context. It is unreasonable to expect number to be used with anything like the degree of precision that we expect nowadays.
Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome used a decimal system. Sumerians and ancient Babylonians used the sexagesimal system (which persists in our measure of time – 60 seconds and 60 minutes – and of the 360 degrees of a circle).
The ancient Israelites, along with the Canaanite neighbours, used the decimal system. They usually used words to express numbers (‘ten’, rather than ’10’).
Numbers were used for addition (Gn 5:3–31; Nm 1:20–46), subtraction (Gn 18:26ff), and multiplication (Lv 25:8; Nm 3:46ff). The OT writers were familiar with fractions – half (Ex 24:6); one fourth (Neh 9:3; Rv 6:8); one fifth (Gn 47:24); a tenth (Nm 18:26).
The biblical writers used numbers literally, rhetorically and symbolically, but never mystically.
We should not assume that the ancient Israelites had no interest in the literal use of numbers. Pre-scientific the ancient cultures may have been, but the Babylonians had their astronomical records, and the Egyptians their administrative records. The Israelites themselves needed to keep accounts of tolls and taxed, buying and selling.
Rounded numbers were often used (Gn 26:12; Lv 26:8; 2 Sm 24:3; Ec 8:12; Mt 19:29; Dt 1:11; 7:9; Ex 32:28.
What are we to make of the long life spans of the pre-flood patriarchs? These have been compared to those of the Sumerian kings, whose life spans are recorded in the tens of thousands of years. If the latter are mythical, why not the former? Conservative Christians sometimes seek to defend the literalism of the biblical account by invoking environmental factors, or by linking the long life spans with proximity to man’s original sinless state. Others conclude that we simply cannot know how to account for these very large numbers.
Another area in which we find very large numbers is in relation to battles and wars. According to Num 1:46, the number of men leaving Egypt who were capable of bearing arms was 603,550. This would make the total population of Israelites at the time of the Exodus around 2 million. Faced with such numbers, the standard conservative response is to appeal (as does the biblical account itself) to the supernatural provision of God in sustaining the people through their time of wandering. Some scholars have noted that the number translated ‘thousand’ can also mean ‘clan’, but this explanation too has its difficulties.
A couple of examples:
“Saul has killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands” (1 Sm 18:7)
“The LORD says: I will not relent from punishing Israel for three crimes, even four …” (Am 2:6)
The numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, and 40 have often been ascribed symbolic meaning by readers of the Bible (1=unity, 3=perfection, 7=completion, and so on). However the biblical text itself gives only hints, not clear direction, in most cases. The symbolic meaning of numbers owes more to Pythagoras than to Scripture.
From this same Pythagorean influence comes the tendency of some Bible readers to find hidden meanings in biblical numbers. Since the ancients used Greek letters to represent numbers, it was easy to find certain numbers ‘coded’ in certain words. Such ‘Gematria’ was taken up by the Jewish people and passed into Christian usage.
Matthew’s genealogy appears to be an instance of gematria, used for a mnemonic as well as a theological, purpose. The genealogy is presented as a list of 14 x 3 names (Mt 1:17). The name of David is emphasised, and itself represents the number 14 (dwd = 4 + 6 + 4).
According to 1 Kings 7:23 and 2 Chronicles 4:2–5, the diameter and circumferences of the great bronze sea of Solomon’s temple were 10 cubits and 30 cubits respectively. This would suggest a value of Pi of exactly 3 (whereas Pi is actually 3.14159…). Both critics and would-be defenders of the Bible have struggled with this. One Talmudic scholar argued that the text contained a ‘gematria’, which, being interpreted, would yield a value of 3.141509. It is probably best to say that the biblical data at this point is a simple approximation.
Kirk Lowery, art. ‘Numbers in the Bible’ in Apologetics Study Bible.
Samuel E. Matteson, art. ‘Pi’ in Dictionary of Christianity and Science.