The Bible contains a lot of strange numbers. Why are they there? Are they part of a code? Do they serve a theological purpose? Are they simply random? This article looks at some of these seemingly strange and weird numbers and offers a way of thinking about them which may actually help us to grow in faith.
Originally published in the magazine of St. Columba's Church of Scotland (London, UK). Click "Read More".
When I run Bible studies one of the most common questions I get is about some of the bizarre numbers that are found in the Bible.
Take, for example, lifespans. Adam is reputed to have lived to be 930 years old (Gen. 5:5), Noah is said to have died at 950 (Gen. 9:29), Methuselah to 969 (Gen. 5:27), and Seth to 912 (Gen. 5:8). Scripture presents Abraham as living to 175 (Gen 25:7), and Moses to 120 (Deut. 34:7).
Beyond ages, we are presented with what seem to be very exact counts: 14,700 people died from God’s plague in the wilderness (Num 16:49), and for the sins of sexual immorality and idol worship God kills 24,000 through disease (Num 25:9).
Or consider periods of time. Daniel receives a 70 week prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27). The waters of the great flood were upon the earth for 150 days (Gen 7:24). Revelation speaks of prophesies lasting 1,260 days (Rev. 11:3 & 12:6). A “beast” is given authority to utter blasphemies for 42 months (Rev. 13:5). Satan is imprisoned for 1,000 years (Rev. 20:7).
These numbers feel “weird” for a couple of reason. First, in terms of lifespans, they are blatantly inconsistent with observable human lifespans today. How could it be that an individual living thousands of years ago could live to nearly 1,000 while in today’s world the average lifespan in the developed world is only around 80 years?
And, in terms of the counts and time periods, the numbers feel almost out of place in terms of how exact they are. What benefit is there to us to know that something will last for 1,260 days or that 14,700 people died in a plague?
Christians have handled these “weird numbers” in a number of ways. Some have just disregarded them. Others have concocted elaborate formulas to explain their interconnectedness, as if they are part of some larger Biblical code. Some suggest that they disguise hidden messages.
As for me, I think the answers are probably a little more mundane and boil down to the need to impart emphasis within a narrative. In a world where people really did not live past a few decades (most people did not live past 30-35), and where people were quickly struck down by disease and injury, to suggest that someone lived exponentially longer would be to place emphasis on the importance of that individual. Thus, to say “Noah lived to be 950” is akin to saying “Noah is important, take notice of his life.”
And, likewise, in a world where even the biggest communities were small in number by today’s standards, to suggest that 24,000 people were killed by God’s wrath would be akin to saying “God’s power is greater than you can even fathom.”
In short, numbers seemed to be used in Biblical narratives to place emphasis, much in the same way as we might use an exclamation point to end a sentence.
This is not surprising. Whereas modern history is something of a science, emphasizing exact expressions of what truly happened, ancient histories were less dependent on exactness. Rather, ancient histories tended to focus on the development of ideas and showed less interest in capturing the events of the past in exact detail. For instance, when Plato writes about his teacher Socrates he does so through imagined narratives which aim to help readers understand the concepts of Socratic thought. He was less concerned with providing an exact biography of Socrates’ life and more concerned with relaying ideas.
This is the approach to history that would have been normal for the writers of Scripture. Thus, it might be suggested that the writers of Scripture were less concerned with presenting exact, measurable lifespans, periods of time or counts of people and were, instead, more concerned with relaying underlying ideas and concepts about humankind’s relationship with God.
This reality is at once comforting and disconcerting. While, on one hand, it helps us to make sense of otherwise bewildering claims it also, on the other hand, adds urgency to underlying messages being conveyed.
With this said, I’d like to turn to another bewildering number: 144,000.
According to Revelation, chapter 7, Christ will “seal” 144,000 individuals who will be saved. When considering the totality of all people who have ever lived and are yet to live, the salvation of 144,000 feels shockingly low.
Just as with the other numbers we have discussed in this article, Christians have taken this in different ways. Some have said it is meant to symbolically represent the whole church, others have said it is a token number of Jews who will be saved, and still others have suggested that it is meant to be understood as an exact count of how many people will go to heaven.
However, if we apply the same logic as we did to our other numbers here we see that, in reality, the number is meant to convey a deeper meaning about God’s working in the economy of salvation. By any measure – even to the ancients – an exact count of 144,000 saved souls would have seemed disturbingly low. To them, this would have raised something of an obvious question: “how do I get myself amongst that elite crowd of saved souls?”
I think this is still the right question to ask. Rather than trying to be precise, Scripture is reminding us that salvation comes through an authentic faith in Jesus Christ. It does not come through false faith, token faith, or, simply “tradition”. It doesn’t come simply through following the rules or going to church. On the contrary, salvation belongs to those who are truly disciples of Christ…and that number is not as big as we might expect it to be.
You see, we – like the ancients – live in a world where professing faith and actually living it are often two different things. We are all eager to call ourselves “Christian”, but few of us are actually willing to truly be Christian. On the contrary, most of us are like the rich young man that Jesus sent away in Matthew 19:16-30. We, like that young man, are eager to “get eternal life”; however, we’re unwilling to devote our whole selves to Christ and to truly follow His radical message for our lives and world.
144,000 is one of those “weird numbers”. But like all the “weird numbers” in Scripture, this one is designed to convey a very emphatic message to us. In this case that message is this: salvation comes to those who are truly disciples of Christ; those who have faith and allow that faith to motivate them towards service, sacrifice, repentance, and even suffering for others. That, unfortunately, is a rarity…even within our churches.