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On Biblical Numerology

There is a legitimate, as well as an illegitimate, approach to a biblical theology of numbers in Scripture. The  majority of those who have approached this subject have, by and large, delved into the realm of the speculative and imaginative,--perplexing or leading astray their readers. O.T. Allis, first Professor of Old Testament History and Exegesis at Westminster Theological Seminary  in Philadelphia (1929-1930), wrote a small booklet on the subject of numerology in which he noted the commonly occurring abuses in some of the more well known attempts to make sense of numbers in the Bible. You can read his work here. An abuse, however, ought not necessitate an abandonment of the subject. In fact, it must be argued that a large portion of our Bibles (specifically the ceremonial portions of the OT, and the symbolic books of the Old and New Testaments) can only be understood accurately by employing principles of biblical numerology. The purpose of this post is to help give several principles to help guide the interpreter of Scripture in this regard.

The starting point, in seeking a biblical theology of numbers, is to consider the  very first place numbers are found in Scripture. This is, of course, Genesis 1--the first chapter of the first book of the Bible.  In "six days" the Lord "created the Heavens and the Earth and all that is in them." It is there that we learn that God rested on the "seventh day " and "blessed and sanctified it." The pattern of a seven day week, in which work is done on six and rest is obtained on one, is  established at creation and is reiterated in the promulgation of the Decalogue (Ex. 20; Duet. 5). The number seven stands out at once for its obvious uniqueness in the creation account. It is the day of completion or perfection. The Living God completed His eternal plan for creation, and then pronounced a blessing on the following day. There is an eschatological purpose to the Sabbath day as well. The idea of rest intimates fulfillment and completion. Adam was to enter into the Sabbath rest that lay before him, by his obedience to the commandment of God. He would have entered that rest by fulfilling his labors--even as God entered His rest by completing His work. The number seven appears throughout the Torah with regard to the ceremonial feasts and festivals in Israel's typical redemptive system. Festivals often lasted seven days, and, in some cases, an eighth day of celebration came on the heels of the fulfillment of the seven day observance. The seventh was, of course, the day of consummation. The eighth day, received its significance in relationship to the seven that preceded it.

In the Torah, the eighth day is first mentioned at the institution of the covenant sign of circumcision. The LORD commanded Abraham to circumcise all the males of his house, from the youngest to the oldest. If a new born child came into the family, he was to be circumcised on the eighth day. Some have sought to explain the significance of this by saying that clotting was the highest on the eighth day, therefore, God chose that day for the act of circumcision. That sort of argument is less than satisfactory. It presupposes that God's actions are according to the course of nature and not according to theological significance. God does not act arbitrarily, now does He act with determination because of the laws of nature which He set. When God acts in redemptive history, there is theological precision and meaning to His decrees. The eighth day, on a seven day week, is the first day. The first day denoted beginning or creation. The eighth day denotes a new beginning or a new creation. In the New Covenant, the Sabbath is changed from the seventh to the first. Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. The apostle John tells us that He appeared to His disciples "eight days later." Resurrection day was the first (or the eighth) day. When God commanded circumcision on the eighth day He was promising to bring about a new creation--to cleanse the heart of man--through the cutting away of the filth of the flesh, through the circumcision of Christ. The cross was a bloody circumcision. Our sins were washed away by His blood. Far from being a scientific or a arbitrary, the command to circumcise on the eighth day pointed forward to the redemptive work of God.

The book of Revelation, for instance, cannot be understood without a biblical numerology. The express employment of the number 7 (i.e. 7 Spirits, lamps, stars, trumpets, bowls, seals, etc.), multiples of 10 (i.e. ten horns, 1000 years, etc.), multiples of 12 (i.e. 12 tribes and 12 apostles = 144[000] etc.) must be understood as having spiritual significance (for a detailed treatment of these numbers see G.K. Beale's the Book of Revelation and William Hendriksen's More than Conquerors).

While so much more could be said about the theological significance of numbers in Scripture, what has been said ought to suffice as proof that this is no mere fanciful speculation. Abuse of a numerology must be jealously guarded against, but not the exclusion of a legitimate approach.

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