May 20, 2011 | 8 comments

So apparently some people think the world is ending tomorrow, based on an analysis of some numbers used in the Bible.

Here’s the tricky thing: numbers can be used with a more-than-literal meaning in the Bible. For example, Matthew 18:21-22:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

It would be wonderfully cathertic if you had permission to let your enemy have it on the 491st offense, but, alas, it appears as if the numbers in this passage are not strictly literal.

(Digression on the topic of forgiveness: I heard this this morning and it made me cry.)

Seven seems to be a symbol for completeness, and that makes sense in this passage: Jesus is advocating really, really, really complete forgiveness. Other numbers that seem to have symbolic value are four (=the earth), twelve (=Israel), forty (=a period of trial, learning), and multiples of ten mean “a lot.” There may be others as well. A useful part of scripture study would be this: when you encounter a number, ask yourself how that number is used in other scriptures, and see if any patterns emerge.

The thing to note, though, is that these numbers are used symbolically, not predictively. That is, they refer to some other concept (seven = completeness), not to future events (May 21st, 2011 = end of the world). They do imply that sometimes the most literal reading of the Bible is not the one the author intended. But if you still have two eyes and two hands, you probably already knew that.

8 Responses to Numbers

  1. Alison Moore Smith on May 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Darn. And I was set to have a full day of chocolate tomorrow.

    In spite if my disappointment, the further numerical meaning is interesting. I didn’t know about the other numbers you mention.

  2. Jacob M on May 20, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Alison, you can still have a full day of chocolate, but now you have to feel guilty about it afterwords. :)

    “They do imply that sometimes the most literal reading of the Bible is not the one the author intended.”

    Amen, and I bet poor Origen wished he would have thought of that. (For those who don’t know what I’m referring to, accordign to wikepedia – “Eusebius reported that Origen, following Matthew 19:12 literally, castrated himself.”)

    I was familiar with some of the significant #s, but until now I didn’t know about the 40 being a trial or learning #. It’s obvious once you think about it, but I never did.

  3. Crownbrown on May 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    A friend on Facebook recently said we aren’t required to forgive Osama bin Laden because he killed more than 490 people. I’ll forward this post.

  4. Dane Laverty on May 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    I heard that NPR story on my drive into work this morning and was going to post something on it myself. Glad to see you beat me to the punch. What an amazing story.

  5. Ellis on May 21, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Great post. It is possible to make the Bible say anything we want it to say. People have been predicting the end of the earth since the day of Pentecost. When times are hard people start to yearn for something better than they perceive this life to be.

  6. Ben S on May 21, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Jonathon Kirsch’s “A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization” is a fun read on the general topic of end-of-the-world predicting, based on the Bible.

  7. Don on May 22, 2011 at 5:39 am

    If the rapture is supposed to be some kind of pre-return event, one has to wonder. Matt. 24:36 tells us that not even the angels in heaven know when Jesus will return. How then would any man know when the rapture is coming?

  8. Jader3rd on May 22, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Kind of reminds me of a comic that a fellow missionary of mine created while we were both serving. The line from the comic is “While it is true that no man knows the day nor the hour when Christ shall come again, I have narrowed it down to the month and the year”.
    I’m still waiting for an opportunity to use that in a Sunday School class.


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