Symbolic Numbers in the Bible

Perfect Sevens

The Seventh Day

Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, God rested on the seventh day, blessed it, and made it holy.

Exodus 16:11-23, 20:8-11, The sabbath, or day of rest, comes on the 7th day for people, too.

Isaiah 56:1-8, Everyone is welcome to the sabbath.

Amos 8:1-8; Jeremiah 17:19-27, The prophets tell us that God is serious about sabbath-keeping.

Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 1:21-34, Debates about how to keep the Sabbath.


Seven More Sevens

Exodus 25:31-40; Leviticus 4:1-6

Leviticus 16:1-19

Joshua 6:1-19

Acts 6:1-15

Zechariah 3:9 – 4:10; Revelation 1:10-20

Matthew 15:29-39, 14:13-20, The seven fish and baskets probably aren't a coincidence.

Acts 20:1-6, 21:1-6, 28:11-15, Staying seven days has the advantage that you don't have to travel on the Sabbath.


Sometimes "seven" just means 7.

Genesis 29:1-30

Luke 24:13-32

Acts 19:11-20



More Symbolic Numbers

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Jesus Heals the Man with a Withered Hand, by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, around 1684.  Click to enlarge.
Jesus Heals the Man with a Withered Hand [on the Sabbath],
by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib,
around 1684. Click to enlarge.
Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, God rested on the seventh day, blessed it, and made it holy. (07/12/21)

What do you say on May 4? "May the fourth be with you." How about March 14? "Happy pie day!" We have plenty of numbers that aren't just numbers, and so did the biblical writers. In this study, we're going to look at the three most frequent symbolic numbers in the Bible, seven, twelve, and forty.

Seven, when used symbolically, means "a perfect number of." But sometimes it just means "7," and often there are exactly 7 of something because seven is a symbolic number. Sometimes it's difficult to tell whether the number is symbolic or exact. Don't fret about it.

To begin at the beginning, we see four recurrent statements in this passage about creation: The point to this story is to tell us that God created everything, that God's word is full of power, that God's creation is good, and that the seventh day, the sabbath, is special.


Exodus 16:11-23, 20:8-11, The sabbath, or day of rest, comes on the 7th day for people, too. (07/13/21)

Just as the God rested on the seventh day, God commanded that the children of Israel should do the same, that is, that they should do no work one day in seven. The question of what constitutes work, of course, has been the subject of intense discussion for thousands of years. For example, are good works like healing lawful on the Sabbath? Is is okay to work on Sunday if you get Monday off? I once had a manager with a desk job and lots of meetings who said that when he went on vacation, he did "major muscle groups." His family had a farm, and he spent his entire vacation doing physical labor. For him, this was rest. I don't think it pays to be too dogmatic about the details, but we are commanded to rest one day in seven, and it's a good idea to obey the commandments every day.


Isaiah 56:1-8, Everyone is welcome to the sabbath. (07/14/21)

John Wesley says that here the sabbath seems to represent the whole worship of God, and he's probably right. That means that there are two layers of symbolism, one for the relationship between seven and Sabbath, and one for the relationship between worship and Sabbath. The prophets certainly aren't trying to keep any secrets, because they want to deliver a clear message from God; however, many of the prophets are poets, and they repay careful consideration of each word and phrase.


Amos 8:1-8; Jeremiah 17:19-27, The prophets tell us that God is serious about sabbath-keeping. (07/15/21)

Amos preached primarily in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C., and Jeremiah preached in the southern kingdom of Judah, about 150 years later. Both of them criticized the people for ignoring the Sabbath, or seventh day. Work six days, then rest and worship. Amos includes the new moon, or first day of the month, because that was also supposed to be a day of worship and feasting, e.g., Numbers 29:1-6.

Jeremiah's message is straightforward, but Amos's makes us say, "What?" What has a basket of summer fruit got to do with anything? This is an example of Hebrew word play. Qayits/summer-fruit is only one (Hebrew) letter different from qets/end. It's sort of like, "The LORD said to me, go out at night, and tell my people the end is nigh."


Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 1:21-34, Debates about how to keep the Sabbath. (07/16/21)

Jesus normally observed the Sabbath by going to the synagogue (Luke 4:16) and even by reading or teaching there; however, several of his sharpest disagreements with the Pharisees and other religious leaders came about as a result of his healing someone on the Sabbath (e.g, Luke 13:10-17). Jesus came into the middle of an intense three-century-long debate about the legality of healing on the Sabbath, and naturally as a rabbi he took part in the debate. (Debating points of scripture so as to better understand them was a big part of the rabbi's job.) Even though Jesus was willing to heal on the Sabbath, carrying the sick to him was apparently a step too far. Notice Mark 1:32-33. Jesus had healed a man in the synagogue that Sabbath, but other people with sick friends and relatives waited until that evening, when the sun had gone down – that is, when the Sabbath was well and truly over – to bring them to him.


Exodus 25:31-40; Leviticus 4:1-6 (07/19/21)

The most pervasive of the sevens is, of course, the seven-day week and the seventh day, the Sabbath, which we read about last week. I learned just the other day that it is believed that the Jews have managed to keep track of the seventh day for thousands of years, which is quite a feat when you consider that some of us have trouble keeping track of what day it is this week! That's not the only important seven, however. Because seven symbolizes perfection, lots of items and actions – especially liturgical items and actions – come in sevens. The lamps in the Tabernacle, for example, had seven branches, and the priests sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice onto the altar seven times.


Leviticus 16:1-19 (07/20/21)

Have you ever worked with electricity? You need training or an instruction manual, or both, because electricity is powerful and can be dangerous. The priests of Israel needed training and an instruction manual for working in the Most Holy Place (also called the Holy of Holies), because God, and thus the ark of the covenant, is powerful and can be dangerous. Leviticus is their instruction manual. Among the instructions is the directive to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat and on the altar seven times.

As long as we're here, we might as well talk about scapegoats. Notice in vss. 8 and 20-21 that the sins of the people are put onto the scapegoat, and the goat is sent away. Remember this verse the next time you hear that someone has been made the goat or the scapegoat, because we still use this term exactly the same way, and the same thing happens to the person who has been made the scapegoat – he gets the blame and is sent away.


Joshua 6:1-19 (07/21/21)

Seven priests, seven trumpets, seven days, and seven circuits around the city, and the walls came tumbling down. Rahab was the lady, or perhaps the madam, who sheltered Joshua's spies and who sent them on their way safely (Joshua 2; Hebrews 11:31). In return, she and her family were spared, and they married into the tribe of Judah. She married Salmon, the great-great grandfather of David (Matthew 1:5).


Acts 6:1-15 (07/22/21)

We also see sevens in the New Testament. We learned back in Acts 2:24-25 and 4:34-37 that the very early Church operated to a great extent as a commune (in the best, and not the worst, sense of the word). Individuals with property often sold it to provide support for others who were in need. "Widows" typically had nothing: not only no husband, but no children and no property, so when they were in need, they really were in need! When some of the Greek-speaking Christians came to the apostles to point out that their widows were being neglected, the apostles suggested appointing seven men to supervise the distributions. The text doesn't hint at why they chose seven; I suspect that it just seemed like the perfect number, which of course it is.


Zechariah 3:9 – 4:10; Revelation 1:10-20 (07/23/21)

Visions are full of sevens. Zechariah's vision has seven eyes on a stone at the end of Ch. 3, and then a lamp with seven branches, and then seven eyes of the LORD. I have at least one translation that moves Ch. 3:9- 10 before Ch. 4:9-10, so that the stone with seven eyes and the seven eyes of the LORD are together, which is what any high-school English teacher would tell Zechariah to do. It may be that the text actually got switched around at some point; however, visions often seem a little disjointed, and biblical writers often included "brackets," so maybe not. Notice a similar structure in Revelation: we see the seven lamps, we see the seven stars, we learn the meaning of the stars, we learn the meaning of the lamps.


Matthew 15:29-39, 14:13-20, The seven fish and baskets probably aren't a coincidence. (07/26/21)

We aren't going to start reading about the number twelve until next week, but I want to include one occurrence today along with seven. The Feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle reported in all four Gospels, but Matthew also includes the Feeding of the 4000. A lot of people will tell you that these are actually the same incident; I disagree for several reasons, but it's not worth breaking communion over.

After the Feeding of the 4000, the disciples pick up seven baskets of leftovers. After the Feeding of the 5000, the disciples pick up 12 baskets of leftovers. I think this is probably a case of real numbers of items that happen to be symbolic of, respectively, the perfection of the Messianic banquet and children of God. What I'm sure of is that the numbers aren't a coincidence.


Acts 20:1-6, 21:1-6, 28:11-15, Staying seven days has the advantage that you don't have to travel on the Sabbath. (07/27/21)

I had never noticed before how many times Luke says, in describing his travels with Paul, "we stayed seven days." Staying for seven days has the double advantage that you can go with your friends to the synagogue and you don't have to travel on the Sabbath. Notice that all three of these incidents are parts of the "we" passages, in which Luke is recording his personal experiences. The "we" passages are so detailed that Luke seems to be working for a written record, possibly a journal he kept during the trips.


Genesis 29:1-30, Sometimes "seven" just means 7. (07/28/21)

Seven years per bride may seem like a pretty high bride price, but consider that the bride price Jacob's mother, Rachel, was silver and gold jewelry and clothing for Rachel and other expensive gifts for her mother and brother (Genesis 24:53). A bride price is, roughly, the reverse of a dowry, both of which (in my opinion) have been replaced in American society by gifts from the guests at the bridal shower and wedding. All three are primarily aimed at allowing the newlyweds to set up housekeeping.


Luke 24:13-32, Sometimes "seven" just means 7. (07/29/21)

Hmm. Check Luke 24:13 in your paper Bible. Does it have "sixty stadia," "sixty furlongs," or "about seven miles"? The Greek has "sixty stadia," and a stadium is a 1/8 of a Roman mile (4,000 feet/mile). A furlong is also 1/8 of a mile, but it's 1/8 of a statute mile (5,280 feet/mile), not a Roman mile. Unless my math is wrong, sixty stadia is a little more than seven Roman miles or a little less than six statute miles. Biblical weights and measures haven't been used in a long time, so they can be confusing, particularly if the translators don't tell you what unit they have translated from and to. When you see a seven in the Bible, you might want to think about it for a few – or even seven – seconds. Sometimes they are symbolic, sometimes they are 7, and sometimes they aren't in the original text at all!


Acts 19:11-20, Sometimes "seven" just means 7. (07/30/21)

As far as I know, there's nothing special – let alone perfect – about Sceva and his seven sons. Probably this is one of the cases where seven just means 7.


More Symbolic Numbers
Perfect Sevens
Twelve Tribes
A Lot of Forties

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