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The significance of biblical numbers

 

 

 

 

 

 

Numbers used in the Torah frequently have significance beyond their numerical value.  Many of these number associations, such as for 6, 7 and 40, were probably well-known in the ancient Near East, but took on layers of new meaning when used in the Torah. 

 

Numbers used in the Torah frequently have significance beyond their numerical value.  Many of these number associations, such as for 6, 7 and 40, were probably well-known in the ancient Near East, but took on layers of new meaning when used in the Torah.

 

In ancient Mesopotamia, the natural world was conceptualized in terms of the numbers 6 and 60.1  This is why there are 24 hours in a day (6 x 4) and the year is comprised of 12 months (6 x 2).  A sexagesimal system, i.e. a number system based on 60, was also used in the ancient world.  We have vestiges of this even today in our 60-minute hour, 360-degree circle (60 x 6), and 180-degree triangle (60 x 3).  

Number 7 is one level above the natural world and describes homage.  This is why Jacob bowed down 7 times on approaching Esau as they began their rapprochement (Genesis 33:3).2  Number 7 also expresses acknowledgement of G-d’s sovereignty by mankind and all facets of nature. 

Thus it was that Elokim created the universe in 6 days and sanctified His seventh day of rest as the Sabbath.3  The Jewish people were given a 7-day week infused with spirituality.  For 6 days we fulfill G-d’s mandate to rule over the world according to the dictates of the Torah and on the 7th day we recognize His dominion.

The concept of 7 is found throughout the first chapter of Genesis.  This chapter contains seven paragraphs, each of which ends with the words “and it was evening and it was morning the … day.”  

The final paragraph of Genesis I, which is also part of the Friday night Kiddush, has a sentence structure based on the number 7:4


א   וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ וְכָל-צְבָאָם  Line 1
      : ב   וַיְכַל אֱלֹקֵים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִיLine 2
מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָֹהLine 3
וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִיLine 4
  מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָֹה: Line 5
ג   וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹקֵים אֶת-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי Line 6
וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹLine 7
כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָא אֱלֹקֵים לַעֲשֹוֹתLine 8

 

1. Thus the heaven and the earth were finished, and all their hosts.
2. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made.
3. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because on it He rested from all his work which God had created and made.

The sentence formed by lines 2 and 3 contains 7 words.  The same is true for the sentences formed by lines 4 and 5 and lines 6 and 7.  In addition, each of lines 2, 4 and 6 end with the words יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי (the seventh day).  It is this structure based on number 7 that gives the Kiddush recitation its lyric flow.  

    Line 8, which is the final sentence of this section, ends with the words “had created and made”, and thus takes us back to the very first sentence of the creation account which introduces G-d’s dominion over the physical world:

א   בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹקֵים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ:

 

In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth

 

This sentence contains 7 words and 28 letters (7 x 4), while the next sentence, verse 2, contains 14 words (2 x 7).  

ב   וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחשֶׁךְ עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹקֵים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם:

2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

    

The first chapter of Genesis is not only a cosmology but is a poem based on number 7.  

    

From this section onwards, number 7 in the Torah becomes a leit motif for the acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God by all He created.  This is very manifest in the Noah story.  Noah enters the ark after being told that the flood will begin in 7 days. (Gen 7:4).  He is asked to bring 7 pairs of pure animals and birds into the ark that can be later used for sacrifice and food (Gen 7:2-3), and he sends out a dove from the ark at 7-day intervals to ascertain whether the waters of the Flood have subsided. (Gen 8:10 and 12)

 

Number 7 is also found within the text of the Noah story in ways that are not so apparent.  The theme of the following paragraph is the “covenant” that Elokim makes with Noah.  The word “covenant” is repeated 7 times, since the rainbow is the reminder of G-d’s promise to preserve the earth for humanity.5

 

And Elokim spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying: And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; And with every living creature that is with you, of the bird, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; nor shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; nor shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.  And Elokim said, This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for everlasting generations;  I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud; And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.  And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between Elokim and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.  And Elokim said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth. (Gen 9:8-17)

The significance of number 7 was well known to the patriarchs and to Joseph.  Abraham and the Philistine king Abimelech swore a non-aggression pact over 7 ewes, thereby consummating Abraham’s first territorial claim in the Land of Israel (Gen 21:28-33)6  Jacob worked for Laban for two 7 year periods for his two wives Leah and Rachel. (Gen 31:41).  He also bowed down in submission to Esau 7 times. (Gen 33:3)   Through the medium of Pharaoh’s dreams and the significance of code number 7, Joseph divined that his leadership role in the forthcoming crisis would be acknowledged and that he would have a critical role in the furthering of G-d’s plans for the Jewish people.   The 7 healthy cows and 7 good ears of grain represented 7 years of plenty, and the 7 gaunt cows and 7 thin ears of wheat represented 7 years of famine. 

 

Not surprisingly, the number 7 is found in the temple service in acts of dedication to G-d.  The leper is cleansed with 7 sprinklings of blood from a sacrificial bird, (Lev 14:7), and undergoes a purification process on the 7th day. (Lev 14:9)  The red heifer’s blood is also spread out towards the Tabernacle 7 times. (Num 19:4)    

 

If number 7 is the domain of the holy, then one above 7, i.e. number 8, represents an even stronger bond of dedication to the Almighty.  The significance of number 8 is first revealed in parshat Lech Lecha when Abram is told to circumcise his son on the 8th day from birth as a demonstration of his commitment to the covenant. (Genesis 17:12)  At this time, his name and that of his wife are changed from Avram (father of Aram) to Avraham (father of a multitude) and Sarei (my princess) to Sarah (princess to all nations of the world). (Gen17:5 and 15)  

 

Circumcision has never been an exclusively Jewish practice.  Scenes have been recovered from ancient Egypt of individual and group circumcision.  The Islamic world practices circumcision following in the footsteps of its spiritual forefather Ishmael (Genesis 17:25), and this is often done in the newborn period.  However, it is only the Jewish people who circumcise their sons in a blood ceremony on the 8th day of life and thereby engrave their dedication to the covenant in the flesh of their offspring. 

Number 8 is also found in the laws of the sacrificial offerings. An animal cannot be sacrificed until it is at least 8 days of age. (Lev 22:26).  Many animal sacrifices function as a vicarious substitute for the person making the offering, and this is a function that is one step above the holy.7  

An eight day period was also important in the consecration of the Tabernacle.   During the first seven days of this ceremony the daily sacrifices were brought by Moses, and on the 8th day these functions were handed over to Aaron and his sons.  An eight day sanctification period became the model for the Hasmoneans when they re-dedicated the Temple following its defilement by the Greeks, and this is the reason that the remaining oil in the Temple and the festival of Chanukah last for 8 days.  Some find it confusing that the menorah in the sanctuary and Temple (and also the menorah brought by Titus to Rome) had 7 branches, whereas the Chanukah menorah has 8.  The reason for this is clear.  YKVK dwelt among the Jewish people in the Holy of Holies, and it was appropriate that He have a table and a light.8  This light was dedicated to G-d and its menorah had 7 branches, while the sanctification of the Tabernacle, and later the Second Temple, was one step above the holy and was represented by a menorah with 8 branches. 

There are two Jewish festivals that follow the pattern of 7 days followed by an additional day, or seven 7-day periods followed by an additional day.  Shemini Atzeret follows directly on the heels of the 7-day Succot festival, while Shavuot is celebrated the day after a 49-day period (i.e. 7 x 7) of harvesting the barley crop, the first day of this 7-week period being counted from the second day of Pesach. There is discussion in our oral tradition as to whether Shemini Atzeres is as an extension of Succot or a separate festival.9  From consideration of the significance of number 8 it can be appreciated why our tradition concluded that Shemini Atzeres is in the main a separate festival unto itself.   It is also worth noting that these two yomim tovim also have no specific ritual.10  This also follows directly from the meaning of number 8, since intensifying one’s attachment to G-d has no need of anything external.  To the contrary, it would be a distraction. 

The shmitta year also follows a cycle of 6 + 1.  The Jewish people are G-d’s tenants in the land of Israel. For 6 years the Jewish people have unrestricted use of the agricultural produce from the land, save for tithes and obligatory gifts to the poor such as the forgotten sheath and gleanings.  However, on the 7th year the land is left fallow, thereby acknowledging that it is G-d who is the true landlord.  In the Jubilee year, the 50th year, which is one year following seven 7-year cycles, in the ultimate demonstration of G-d’s ownership, all land is returned to its original tribal owners:

You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants; it shall be the Jubilee Year for you, you shall return each man to his ancestral heritage and you shall return each man to his family…. The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; for you are sojourners and residents with Me. (Lev 25:10 and 23).  

 

The number 40 signifies regeneration and new possibilities.  Hence Jacob is embalmed in Egypt for 40 days in preparation for the world-to-come:

 

And forty days were fulfilled for him; for such is the period of the embalmed: and the Egyptians mourned him for seventy days. (Gen 50:3) 

 

When number 40 relates to a project initiated by G-d, this proceeds in a manner above the natural.  The concept of 40 is introduced by the Torah in parshat Noach:

 

Thus all that came, came male and female of all flesh, as Elokim had commanded him, and YKVK shut him in.  And the flood was on the earth forty days ……(Genesis 7:16-17)

 

It is unusual for the two names of G-d Elokim and YKVK to be present within a single sentence, as found in the last sentence of this quotation.  Elokim is the transcendent aspect of G-d who will arrange for all animals to come of their own accord in pairs to the ark so that animal life can continue after the Flood.  

 

YKVK is the immanent aspect of G-d who in an embracing manner shuts Noah and his family into the ark and protects them as the primordial aspects of creation, the deep waters from below the earth and the waters above it, submerge the land.  In so doing, He projects Noah into a new beginning for the world.  

Number 40 is found again in the Torah when Moses ascends Mount Sinai and a new relationship between G-d and the Jewish people is initiated based on revelation of the Torah.  During this time Moses is suspended in a state beyond the natural.

 

……  and I remained on the mountain for forty days and forty nights; bread I did not eat and water I did not drink. (Deut 9:9)

 

Spies were sent out by Moses to survey the Land of Israel and they did so for forty days and nights.  This was the beginning of the conquest and marked a new stage in the development of the Jewish nation.  It take place under God’s protection and at a level beyond the natural.  However, the Jewish people were unable to raise themselves to this level.  The spies issued an adverse report, and they would now need to start anew and elevate their faith by spending 40 years in the wilderness.  During this time the Torah tells us: 

You shall remember the entire road on which Hashem your G-d  led you these forty years in the wilderness so as to afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would observe His commandments or not. He afflicted you and let you hunger, then He fed you the manna that you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, in order to make you know that not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of G-d does man live.  Your garment did not wear out upon you and your feet did not swell these forty years.  You shall know that just as a father will chastise his son, so Hashem your G-d chastises you. (Deut 8:2-5)

 

In chapter 10 of Genesis we are introduced to number 70.  This chapter contains the 70 names of the nations of the world descended from Shem, Ham and Yaphet, the three sons of Noah.11  The people from Jacob’s household who went down with him from Canaan to Egypt were also 70.

 

All of the people of Jacob’s household who came to Egypt – seventy” (Gen 45:27)12

 

This might seem a coincidence were it not for the fact that Moses tells us otherwise.  In the song he wrote before his death he states:

 

“When the Supreme One gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of man, He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the Children of Israel.” (Deut 32:8)

 

The significance of number 70 becomes clear when one recalls that Moses appointed 70 elders. (Num 11:16)  The number 70 represents completeness by virtue of differences.13  The 70 elders were a perfect representative body for the 12 tribes of Israel.  In the future, the Great Sanhedrin would also comprise 70 judges.  The 70 individuals belonging to Jacob’s household had all the attributes that would be needed to form the nation Israel.  The 70 nations of the world (which included the descendents of Shem) possessed all the national characteristics needed to make up global mankind.  Each elder, each of Jacob’s offspring, and each nation was unique, but the sum total of these differences was completeness.

 

The meaning of Moses’ words now becomes clear.  The dispersion of the nations of the world and their borders were set by God in anticipation of the formation of the Jewish nation.  The household of Jacob possessed all the individual attributes necessary to become a nation of priests.  As for all the other nations of the world, the nation Israel would require territory with borders.14  

 

In our times we are familiar with the concept that the physical world can be described in mathematical terms.  Whether that of Newton, Einstein, or other physicist, their formulas possess beauty and simplicity.  Less well known is that the spiritual world can also be expressed in numerical terms. We are told by our Sages that there are “shivim ponim laTorah” – seventy facets of Torah interpretation.15  Why 70?  The answer is that the Torah is like a diamond that flashes 70 different reflections of the truth.  The number associations in the Torah are one aspect of this truth.

 

Dr. Arnold Slyper is the webmaster for a new biblical website bible-pedia.org.  This website attempts to reconcile Jewish tradition and Divine authorship of the Torah with aspects of modern biblical scholarship.

 

References
1.   Ancient Mesopotamia was the first culture to involve itself in systematic mathematics.  Why was number 6 considered representative of the physical world?  Perhaps they realized that 6 is a special number. It is the only number, for example, that is both the sum and product of the three consecutive numbers 1, 2 and 3. 

2.   Many of the number associations in this essay are not based on Rabbinic interpretation, but from hints within the Torah and ancient non-Jewish sources.  The Amarna letters, for example, were diplomatic letters written by the administration of the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt and their representatives in Canaan and Amurra.  One of the vassal sovereigns begins his letter with the sentence “I bow to my lord 7 times…..”

3.   The ancient Mesopotamian week was 7 days.  How is it possible for a religious Jew to accept that the Jewish week is based on an ancient Mesopotamian convention?  I suggest a few answers: (i). The Sumerians may have learnt this system from the monotheists named in the early chapters of Genesis; (ii). They may have come up with this system by Divine inspiration; (iii). The Bible took a system already in popular usage and infused it with religious meaning.  The first phase of the moon lasts 7 days and this may have been considered a natural period of time. See, for example, The Epic of Creation myth tablet 5.

4.      Umberto Cassuto is a Biblical scholar (1883-1951) who was very involved in the polemic against Biblical criticism.  He was able to demonstrate uniformity within the Torah that made  multiple authorship most unlikely.  These ideas are taken from A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part One, From Adam to Noah by Umberto Cassuto, Seventh paragraph, The Seventh Day; End of Section, p61, The Magnes Press, Jerusalem, reprinted 1998

5.   A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two, From Noah to Abraham by Umberto Cassuto, Twelfth paragraph, The Sign of the Covenant, p134, The Magnes Press, Jerusalem, reprinted 1998. It could be mentioned that number 7 is found several times in tablet XI of the Gilgamesh myth, which contains the well-known Mesopotamian flood story. This particular flood lasted 7 days, there were 7 days between the boat coming to rest on a mountain and a dove being released, and a pair of 7 jars was offered for a sacrifice. It is possible that the first two 7’s may have no more significance than being the period of a week, but the pair of jars indicates that number 7 may already have had religious significance. The ziggurat in Babylon, for example, had 7 stories.  

6.    The name Beersheba could mean the “well of seven” or the “well of swearing”.  The Biblical commentator Sforno explains that this gift was a symbolic act testifying to the agreement of the parties, but he does not explain why 7 ewes.  The commentator Rabbi Hirsch finds within the word “shavua” or “oath” the meaning of “giving oneself up to the seven” i.e. to G-d, in this case if the parties abrogate their oaths.(see Hirsch to 21:23)

7.   See Nachmanides, Commentary to Leviticus 1:9, and also Chapter 6, Making Sense of Sacrifices in The Temple. Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now by Joshua Berman, Jason Aranson Inc, New Jersey and London.

8.   Sforno to Exodus 25:23

9.   TB Succhah 47a and b, and Succah 55b.

10.  The linking of Simchat Torah with Shemini Atzeret is a Rabbinic innovation from the Medieval period.

11.    There are actually 74 names in this chapter.  Shem, Ham and Yaphet are the progenitors of all these races, and would not therefore be considered among the 70.  The Philistines could be considered a mixed race. (Pesikta Zutresa; Torah Sheleimah 9:110).  Alternatively, Nimrod could be considered an individual and not a nation.     

12.  See also Deuteronomy 10:22

13.  TB Sanhedrin 2a.  The Artscroll Stone Edition of the Chumash published by Mesorah Publications Ltd, p 791 writes “In a general way, the number seventy represents all the different aspects of human mentality, just as the entire human race is composed of the seventy primary nations enumerated in Genesis 10. Thus a body of seventy sages can be expected to consider all possibilities and render just decisions.” (Ramban, R’ Bachya)

14.  The Stone edition of the Chumash published by Mesorah Publications Ltd presents a slightly different angle on this rather difficult verse, p1103: “The connotation is that when the nations at large forfeited their opportunity to be the bearers of G-d’s mission for humanity, He substituted Israel for them and made the number of Jewish families parallel to the number of primary national groups.”

15.  Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15 

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