The Bible: The Numbers Game

Some people insist on forcing contrived numerical patterns into the biblical text, which lead to spectacular, but unwarranted, conclusions. Such methods should not be used to establish doctrines, personal or church traditions, or to calculate precise dates for the future fulfillment of prophetic events. Nevertheless, the Hebrews did use alphabetical and numerical patterns for structural purposes, and discovering those patterns will help us to appreciate the skill with which they imparted their wisdom.

In several ancient Near Eastern languages, words and letters had numerical value. An inscription of King Sargon II (727-707 B.C.) states that the king built the wall of Khorsabad 16,283 cubits long to correspond with the numerical value of his name. This type of using words as numbers is known as gematria, from the Greek word geo-metria.

Gematria also occurs in Hebrew wisdom literature. For example, there are precisely 375 proverbs in the collection of “The proverbs of Solomon” (Proverbs 10:1–22:16). In Hebrew, the name of Solomon consists of four letters: SH, L, M and H. The numerical value of this name is 300 + 30 + 40 + 5 = 375. According to 1 Kings 4:32, Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs. It would seem that Solomon, or someone else later, deliberately made a collection of 375 of the Solomonic proverbs to correspond to the numerical value of Solomon’s name. In both the wall at Khorsabad and the collection of proverbs, the use of gematria places a “personal stamp” upon the work.

Articles in “Exploring the Word of God: Books of Poetry and Wisdom”

There is a similar phenomenon in the book of Ecclesiastes. The main text of Ecclesiastes, ending at Ecclesiastes 12:8, is 216 verses long (followed by a six-verse epilogue). In the Hebrew Bible, the first word in the book — dibhrei, meaning “the words” — has a numerical value of 216.

Moreover, the opening statement of Ecclesiastes — habhel habhalim hakkol habhel, translated “Meaningless! Meaningless!… Everything is meaningless” in the NIV — also has a numerical value of 216. This statement of purpose is found in Ecclesiastes 1:2 and 12:8, at the beginning and the end of the main text. So the numerical values of both the thesis statement and the first word of Ecclesiastes correspond to the number of verses in the main text.

Addison G. Wright — working with another expert on wisdom literature, Patrick Skehan — elaborated on this material in “The Riddle of the Sphinx Revisited: Numerical Patterns in the Book of Qoheleth,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 42, 1980, pp. 38-51. From these patterns, and from other evidence based on the analysis of key phrases, Dr. Wright suggests that the epilogue was deliberately written six verses long to form a book of two parts, each part being 111 verses long. According to Dr. Wright, the first part of Ecclesiastes ends with the eighth and final occurrence of the phrase “vanity and grasping for the wind” (Ecclesiastes 6:9, NKJV). There are 111 verses from Ecclesiastes 1:1–6:9.

Historically, many interpreters have used gematria irresponsibly to invent fanciful interpretations foreign to the text. But even though we should be skeptical concerning claims of numerical patterns, this does not mean they can be dismissed without examination. But numerical details are usually matters of artistic appreciation, not of secret meanings hidden in the text.

Concerning Dr. Wright’s analysis referred to above, Roland E. Murphy states:

While numerical patterns are usually associated with arbitrary flights of fantasy, it should be noted that the above observations are relatively sober, and deal with key phrases and verses. Second, the likelihood that the verbal and numerical patterns are merely coincidental is minimal, since the observations reinforce each other. Third, the numerical patterns are in a different line of reasoning altogether from the literary analysis indicated by the repetition of key phrases in many instances, and yet they lend confirmation to it. Finally, this formal structural analysis, whatever imperfections it may have, is in general harmony with many logical analyses of the book. (Ecclesiastes, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 23A, p. xxxix).

The Hebrews delighted in using artificial devices, such as acrostics or alphabetizing poems, as a way of imposing additional structure in their wisdom literature. We should not, therefore, be surprised to find that they also used numerical patterns for similar purposes. Unlike the fanciful numerical theories of certain interpreters, the numerical patterns discovered by scholars such as Skehan and Wright do not lead to finding some strange “hidden meaning” in the text. But these patterns should give us a deeper appreciation of how the text was written.

Author: Jim Herst and Tim Finlay

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