Could you tell me if there is a good reference book about the meaning behind God's repetition of numbers in the Bible? (3, 7, and 40 come immediately to mind.) I've heard comments from you and others about the rich symmetry of these numbers and would like to know more, but am always cautious when it comes to reading the various opinions of Bible teachers. --Penny Bennett
Response from Joey Harris (Augusta, Georgia):
While a few books do exist, I am personally just as cautious as you are when it comes to all the ideas about the usage of numbers in the Bible. It is often difficult to tell whether a number is being used symbolically, literally/factually, literarily, or as some combination of those usages.
The basic numbers mentioned have fairly (though not always) standard symbolic meanings (though, one should not assume that they are being used that way whenever they appear). 3 in the New Testament is often related to the Trinity. 7 is the number of perfection and completion (same idea linguistically) in both OT and NT and probably comes from the 7 days of creation with the Sabbath being the day of perfection and rest (all is good/perfect/complete/done). 12 in the Bible is often linked directly to the 12 tribes of Israel. In the NT, 12 very frequently links the Church to Israel. In Revelation, the 144,000 shows that all Israel will be saved (selectively, the full number of those chosen from Israel will be saved). 40 appears very frequently to be associated in both Old and New Testaments with God's redemptive acts of salvation. One frequently hears the idea of 40 being an ideal generation as well. In the NT 40 is often explicitly linked to the 40 years of Israel's wandering in the desert and paralleled in some way to the Church. There are also multiples of these (and other) numbers used such as 70, 77, 144, 80, etc. 1000 and its multiples often means something like "a really, really, big number!"
I would be careful of thinking that numbers always have a symbolic meaning. I would also be very hesitant about thinking that we really know what meaning the biblical writers intended for a specific usage of a particular number, unless they themselves make the meaning clear to us. I would also recommend, as always, the use of principles of biblical exegesis such as taking note of the various contexts of the passage, its genre, the particular author's general approach to numbers, etc.. Much of the time, exegesis leads us to take most numbers in the Bible at face value, that is... just a number. Sometimes, even when it is very clear that a number is being used symbolically, the precise meaning is not always made clear to us.
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