According to the Hebrew Bible, Methuselah lived 969 years (Gen. 5:27) and Noah 950 years (Gen.9:29). These numbers are highly exaggerated, and humanly impossible. Furthermore, in the Bible, numbers are often used as literary devises in parallel to each other. Such as, “Three things are beyond me; Four I cannot fathom” (JPS, Prov.30: 18). This type of parallelism is especially favored in Ugaritic poems, such as “Seven years, let Baal fail; eight, the Cloud Rider” (Inter. Dict. of the Bible, 3/564). The question for us is this: how do we deal with numerology in the Bible?
A critical analysis of the biblical numbers shows that they are not always reliable. For example, two different kinds of time reckoning is used in the Flood story. (See, analysis by Sarna, in JPS, Genesis, 376). Also, the Jewish historian Josephus (1st cent.) expressed some reservations regarding the veracity of the biblical numbers. On the one hand, he stated that some biblical personalities could have lived much longer than us, because “their food was then fitter for the prolongation of life; and besides God afforded them a longer life on account of their virtue.” Furthermore, he reminded his readers that in Greek literature a number of heroes lived a thousand years. But he still concluded by saying, “as to these matters, let everyone look upon them as he thinks fit” (Ant. III/9). Others, in our time, point out that “Numbers in the biblical world have more sophisticated vocations than counting” (Joseph A. Callaway in Ancient Israel, ed. by Hershel Shanks, p.89). In other words, they are not to be taken literally. Presently, except for the most fundamentalists who take the Bible literally, most critics say that these numbers only have symbolic value.
In the ancient Near Eastern literature, which includes the Hebrew Bible, one of the most popular numbers is 7. Examples: the world is created in 7 days (Gen 1). In Joseph’s dream, we have 7 good years and 7 lean years (Gen. 41: 25-30). The Israelites were commanded to march around the city of Jericho 7 times (Jos.6:15). The righteous individual falls and gets up 7 times (Prov. 24: 16). This is a popular number in many ancient texts as well. For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, 7 sages brought civilization to 7 of the oldest cities in the land (Tablet 1; ANE Texts, Pritchard, 73). Similarly, ancient Egyptians spoke of 7 lean years in their land (ANE Texts, 31-32). Scholars point out that the etymology of the Semitic word for 7 is unclear (Anchor Bible, IV/1143). One suggests that the number 7 has the symbolic meaning of “innumerable.” Others argue that it stands for “completeness.”
Another popular number is 40: In ancient Sumer, the number 40 appears as an ideogram for the gods. In the Hebrew Bible, Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mt. Sinai (Ex.34: 27-28). Similarly, the Israelite spies explored the land of Canaan for 40 days (Num. 13:25). Elijah went 40 days without food or water at Mt. Horeb (I K 19:18). Eli judged the people of Israel for 40 years (I Sam. 18). David (2 Sam. 5:4) and Solomon (1K 11:42), each reigned for 40 years. In the Bible, the number 40 represents a generation, or a long period of time.
In Jewish mysticism, especially in the Lurianic Kabbalah, there is a tendency to see in numbers hidden meanings. This is called Gematria. A good example is the popular view today that the number 18, which is represented in Hebrew by the word HAI (the letter YUD is 10, and HET is 8), means “life.” So, it is customary to make donations to charities in the multiples of $18.
So, when we read the various numbers in the Hebrew Bible, we need to take these figures as representing certain ideas or values. We cannot rely on them as if they were mathematically accurate.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.