Numerical symbolism, that is, the use of numbers not merely, if at all, with their literal numerical value, or as round numbers, but with symbolic significance, sacred or otherwise, was widespread in the ancient East, especially in Babylonia and regions more or less influenced by Babylonian culture which, to a certain extent, included Canaan. It must also be remembered that the ancestors of the Israelites are said to have been of Babylonian origin and may therefore have transmitted to their descendants the germs at least of numerical symbolism as developed in Babylonia in the age of Hammurabi. Be that as it may, the presence of this use of numbers in the Bible, and that on a large scale, cannot reasonably be doubted, although some writers have gone too far in their speculations on the subject. The numbers which are unmistakably used with more or less symbolic meaning are 7 and its multiples, and 3, 4, 10 and 12.
By far the most prominent of these is the number 7, which is referred to in one way or another in nearly 600 passages in the Bible, as well as in many passages in the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha, and later Jewish literature. Of course the number has its usual numerical force in many of these places, but even there not seldom with a glance at its symbolic significance. For the determination of the latter we are not assigned to conjecture. There is clear evidence in the cuneiform texts, which are our earliest authorities, that the Babylonians regarded 7 as the number of totality, of completeness. The Sumerians, from whom the Semitic Babylonians seem to have borrowed the idea, equated 7 and “all.” The 7-storied towers of Babylonia represented the universe. Seven was the expression of the highest power, the greatest conceivable fullness of force, and therefore was early pressed into the service of religion. It is found in reference to ritual in the age of Gudea, that is perhaps about the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. “Seven gods” at the end of an enumeration meant “all the gods” (for these facts and the cuneiform evidence compare Hehn, Siebenzahl und Sabbath bei den Babyloniern und im Altes Testament, 4 ff). How 7 came to be used in this way can only be glanced at here. The view connecting it with the gods of the 7 planets, which used to be in great favor and still has its advocates, seems to lack ancient proof. Hehn (op. cit., 44 ff) has shown that the number acquired its symbolic meaning long before the earliest time for which that reference can be demonstrated. As this sacred or symbolic use of 7 was not peculiar to the Babylonians and their teachers and neighbors, but was more or less known also in India and China, in classical lands, and among the Celts and the Germans, it probably originated in some fact of common observation, perhaps in the four lunar phases each of which comprises 7 days and a fraction. Conspicuous groups of stars may have helped to deepen the impression, and the fact that 7 is made up of two significant numbers, each, as will be shown, also suggestive of completeness—3 and 4—may have been early noticed and taken into account. The Biblical use of 7 may be conveniently considered under 4 heads: (1) ritual use; (2) historical use; (3) didactic or literary use; (4) apocalyptic use.
The number 7 plays a conspicuous part in a multitude of passages giving rules for worship or purification, or recording ritual actions. The 7th day of the week was holy (see SABBATH). There were 7 days of unleavened bread (Exodus 34:18, etc.), and 7 days of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:34). The 7th year was the sabbatical year (Exodus 21:2, etc.). The Moabite Balak built Balaam on three occasions 7 altars and provided in each case 7 bullocks and 7 rams (Numbers 23:1, 23:14, 23:29). The Mosaic law prescribed 7 he-lambs for several festal offerings (Numbers 28:11, 28:19, 28:27, etc.). The 7-fold sprinkling of blood is enjoined in the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:14, 19), and elsewhere. Seven-fold sprinkling is also repeatedly mentioned in the rules for the purification of the leper and the leprous house (Leviticus 14:7, 16, 27, 51). The leprous Naaman was ordered to bathe 7 times in the Jordan (2 Kings 5:10). In cases of real or suspected uncleanness through leprosy, or the presence of a corpse, or for other reasons, 7 days’ seclusion was necessary (Leviticus 12:2, etc.). Circumcision took place after 7 days (Leviticus 12:3). An animal must be 7 days old before it could be offered in sacrifice (Exodus 22:30). Three periods of 7 days each are mentioned in the rules for the consecration of priests (Exodus 29:30, 35, 37). An oath seems to have been in the first instance by 7 holy things (Genesis 21:29 ff and the Hebrew word for “swear”). The number 7 also entered into the structure of sacred objects, for instance the candlestick or lamp-stand in the tabernacle and the second temple each of which had 7 lights (Numbers 8:2; Zechariah 4:2). Many other instances of the ritual use of 7 in the Old Testament and many instructive parallels from Babylonian texts could be given.
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Author: International Std. Bible Encyclopedia
Keywords: Significant Numbers Seven, Seven, 7, numbers, number seven, numeric values, Numeric symbolism
Bible reference(s): 1 Kings 18:43, 1 Kings 19:18, 1 Samuel 16:10, 1 Samuel 2:5, 2 Chronicles 29:32, 2 Corinthians 12:2, 2 Kings 10:1, 2 Kings 4:35, 2 Kings 5:10, 2 Peter 1:5, 2 Samuel 21:6, Acts 19:14, Acts 27:27, Acts 6:3, Daniel 4:16, Daniel 7:25, Daniel 8:19, Daniel 9:2, Deuteronomy 10:22, Deuteronomy 28:7, Exodus 12:6, Exodus 15:27, Exodus 2:16, Exodus 21:2, Exodus 22:30, Exodus 24:1, Exodus 29:30, Exodus 34:18, Ezekiel 8:11, Ezra 8:35, Galatians 2:1, Genesis 21:29, Genesis 29:20, Genesis 33:3, Genesis 4:15, Genesis 41:53, Genesis 50:3, Isaiah 11:2, Isaiah 23:15, James 3:17, Jeremiah 25:11, Job 1:2, Job 2:1, Job 42:13, Job 5:19, John 21:2, John 6:35, Joshua 6:8, Judges 1:7, Judges 12:14, Judges 14:12, Judges 16:19, Judges 8:30, Leviticus 12:2, Leviticus 14:7, Leviticus 16:14, Leviticus 23:34, Leviticus 25:8, Luke 10:1, Luke 11:26, Luke 17:4, Luke 2:36, Luke 4:25, Luke 5:17, Luke 8:2, Mark 16:9, Matthew 1:17, Matthew 12:45, Matthew 15:34, Matthew 18:21, Matthew 22:25, Matthew 28:13, Matthew 5:3, Matthew 6:9, Numbers 11:16, Numbers 23:1, Numbers 28:11, Numbers 29:13, Numbers 33:9, Numbers 7:13, Numbers 8:2, Proverbs 26:25, Proverbs 6:16, Psalms 119:164, Psalms 12:6, Psalms 29:1, Psalms 79:12, Psalms 90:10, Revelation 1:4, Revelation 10:3, Revelation 11:2, Revelation 13:3, Revelation 15:1, Revelation 17:3, Revelation 18:1, Revelation 3:1, Revelation 4:5, Revelation 5:12, Revelation 6:15, Revelation 7:12, Revelation 8:2, Romans 11:4, Romans 12:6, Romans 8:35, Ruth 4:15, Zechariah 1:12, Zechariah 4:2
Source: James Orr (editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 5 volume set.
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