The number ‘666’ has become a part of our culture, showing up in horror movies, and horror spoofs alike for generations. There are reports of people refusing to use phone numbers with the sequence in it, or finding significant in financial markets when values of 666 appear. The number comes from The Book of Revelation 13:18 “let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number or a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six”. This just one of many numbers that appears in the bible whose meaning has been distorted, miss applied and misunderstood.
In Matthew 18 21-22 we find another number of unusual value: “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.” If we take this as a real number, then we must forgive someone 490 times, and after that you can do with them as you please but strangely, bible readers readily accept this reference as a symbolic number but when reading the Book of Revelation, which is nothing but saturated with symbolism, they take a similar number quite literally. Is the number 666 really evil? And why are we to forgive 70 times 7?
In order to understand such numbers, we need to first examine a few root numbers that show up an awful lot in the scriptures. These are the number 3, 4, 7, 10, and 12. If you remember that the ancient authors were more concerned about function, it is easier to accept that the many numbers in the bible are metaphoric. By function I mean that ancient writers applied functions to various images and numbers. For example 13 in our day means bad luck to the extent that many buildings do not have a 13th floor. Friday the 13th is a particularly bad day. By using the number 13, we are using them as a function to express an idea in the same way we might use a picture to save us a thousand words of description. Let’s look at what these numbers most likely meant.
In “The Jewish Study Bible” by Adele Berlin, Marc Brettler and Michael Fishbane, they provide the following:
3 – spiritual perfection
4 – temporal perfection
3 + 4 = 7 – a perfect number
3 x 4 = 12 – a very perfect number
10 – complete
7 x 10 = 70 – a complete quorum
10X10X10 (complete times 3, or spiritually complete) = 1000
12 x 12 x 1000 =144,000 – A perfect quorum full of power.
We see these numbers in many combinations throughout the scriptures:
7 days to create the earth
3 members of the godhead
144,000 in The Book of Revelation
7 days in a week
Fasting for 40 days
4 corners of the earth.
Numbers as Functions
When you consider the symbolism, you will see that when they show up in the scriptures, they serve as a function and not as a concrete quantity. Although Jesus did literally fast, He likely did not literally fast for 40 days. 4 is a symbol of temporal and 10 means complete, so the ancient audience would have understood that Jesus experienced a complete temporal or physical experience. Just as the term ‘dozen’ does not always mean 12. Dozen is a function that represents fairly large group but not so much that you need crowd control, and not so small that they could fit into a smart car. Moses likely did not literally walk around in the wilderness for 40 years. After all, it is just a 4 days journey from the Mt. Sinai to Jerusalem on foot. Rather, he and the children of Israel had a perfect and complete temporal experience. It is no coincidence that Moses’ life is conveniently broken up into 40 year increments. Likewise it did not take 7 days to create the earth, but rather it was created according to spiritual and temporal laws.
It might be helpful to consider these numbers as figures of speech. A figure of speech is an expression that conveys real ideas. It is not a matter of literal versus not literal, it is symbols used to convey literal ideas. When we say we are running out of milk, we do not imagine someone in a swimming filled with milk literally running out of it. We understand that their milk is in short supply and soon to be exhausted. When you see numbers in the scriptures, have this in mind
In The Book of Revelation 13:14 we read the story of the mark of the beast being 666. Some are of the view that anything having this number is evil. I recall a story of a man who was fired because he refused to have the number 666 emblazoned on his uniform. The company policy was for workers to have a patch indicating the number of injury free days. As the number 666 approached, this worker became more uneasy and advised his employer of his concern. I find it ridiculous that a man’s religious belief as innocuous as this could not be respected; if only the factory worker had to read my blog he might not have taken so much offence and would still be employed. Oh well. I have seen people link the number to the use of bar codes, and even the 6 points on the Star of David.
There have been many attempts to explain what the number 666 means and I do not intend to review them all here, but let it suffice to provide one example. The 777 is a number of perfection in the time of the early apostles. Some pious Jews would even emblazon it on a band worn over their forehead. What is more, various religious cults would require their members to have a tattoo of their particular sect on their forehead, and slaves were often tattooed on their forehead with the brand of their owner. The mark on the forehead became a function, or symbol, of how we mark our selves inwardly. To have 666 emblazoned on your forehead was to say, I suspect, having the appearance of godliness but lacking the power thereof. 666 being one short of 777. 666 is not a mark of evil, but rather a way of teaching that Satan tries to imitate godliness in order to deceive. We don’t ‘get it’, but Johns audience would have.
12 apostles = 3 x 4. A quorum that is responsible for the temporal and spiritual welfare of their flock. The two numbers are multiplied because they have more power than the quorum of the 70.
The quorum of 70 = (3+4) X 10. A quorum that is subordinate to the 12 (numbers are added rather than multiplied) and are delegated by the 12 to be responsible for the temporal and spiritual welfare of their flock. This same numbering helps us understand the reference on forgiveness. 70 x 7. We must completely forgive people. It is not an amount but a type. We must fully forgive as God forgives.
144000 = in Revelation 7 we learn of the 144,000 and of them we read ‘sealed the servants of our God in their forheads”. A symbolic number with a symbolic reference counter to the 666 reference. I do not know of any Christian religions that tattoo their members above their eyebrows so clearly this is a function of a spiritual act. I know of one religious group who takes this to be a literal and concrete representation of an actual group – that this specific number of people will be resurrected to live with God. The Book of Revelation, however, is so obviously filled with symbolic imagery, that we need to delve a bit more into this number. The math is 12x12x1000. You cannot get more perfect than that. This number represent absolute perfect, a perfect quorum of saints. I find further support for this interpretation when we learn who this group was made up of:
4 And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.
5 Of the tribe of Juda were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand.
6 Of the tribe of Aser were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Nepthalim were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Manasses were sealed twelve thousand.
7 Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand.
8 Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.
If you are familiar with the twelve tribes of Israel, you will know that was also the tribe of Dan who was excluded from this list. Joseph had two sons, Ephraim and Manasses but just one of them are named, along with Joseph. Some argue that Dan was excluded due to wickedness, but that does not explain Ephraim who was the first born. I suspect that, more likely, including all the names would have messed up with the numbering scheme.
I quoted from Carol Hill in a previous blog, and I think her quote bares repeating here “In the Mesopotamian world view, numbers could have both real (numerical) and sacred (numerological or symbolic) meaning……to take numbers figuratively does not mean that the Bible is not to be taken literally. It just means that the biblical writer was trying to impart a spiritual or historical truth to the text – one that that surpasses the meaning of purely rational numbers.” (Carol Hill “Making Sense of the Numbers in Genesis” In Perspectives on Science and the Christian FaithVolume 55, Number 4 December 2008.)
The literary style of the biblical writers is rich in symbolism. It was the way they wrote, and the audience would have understood it well. We stumble because we are accustomed to a more expository style of writing, and we separate out our poetry from our textbooks. This was not always the case and once we understand this difference in literary styles, the bible becomes much easier to understand. So yes, despite the symbolism, we can still count on the bible.