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THE USE OF NUMBERS IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST

(4) The Seven Days of Creation

Background to Genesis

The background to the early chapters of Genesis was quite probably Sumer, for it was from that territory (Ur of the Chaldees from which Abraham came was a principal Sumerian city before it was assimilated by the Old Babylonians) that the patriarchal ancestors originally came (Genesis 11.28, 31). Thus they may well have been aware of some of the background I have described, at least as regards the ‘popular’ myths and lists. Whether Terah and Abram lived in Ur or were encamped on the outskirts we do not, of course, know, although there seems to be the suggestion of some sort of permanence.

Genesis 1

Genesis 1 is clearly distinctive when compared with the so called creation accounts of the other nations, for it had none of the mythical and extreme content of the myths of surrounding peoples. The original author would be aware of those religious accounts, and the accounts may well have affected the religious content of the ceremonies of his own people, but he was inspired to write an account of creation in which creation was a central theme, rather than a kind of spin off from the doubtful activities of numerous gods and goddesses, which was what other ‘creation’ stories were.

Whereas the accounts of other nations were filled with quarrelling, fighting gods, to him his God was the creator of all things, and had created the world for the benefit of man, making a covenant with man which included the responsibility to people the earth, and to observe one day in seven as a day of rest. Of other gods there is no hint. This idea was totally unique as far as we know, and so unlike the accounts of other nations as to make comparison irrelevant. (The cited comparisons with, for example, Enuma Elish, are in fact mainly with Genesis 2).

The Colophon

The subscript “this is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created” appears to be a colophon (a title placed either at the top or bottom of a clay or stone table to indicate content), which puts it right into the times of which we are speaking. Later on , through their Egyptian connections, papyrus was available. If it was so, then the fact of its being recorded in writing shows the importance placed on it. In those days only treaties and covenants, and the historical circumstances in which the treaty or covenant was made, were considered important enough to be put in down in writing, especially when they had to be carried about.

Is This Primitive Science?

The author is not trying to explain creation from a scientific point of view. He is not expounding a primitive ‘scientific account’. He is demonstrating that all the things they had which were essential to their lives were provided by their Creator God. Unlike the Babylonian priest he does not seek to build up a world picture.

While the accounts of other nations were overlaid with struggles between gods,and even the use of the god’s body for the making of the world, the author of Genesis 1 shows an all-powerful Creator who has only to speak and His will is done. While in the other accounts creation is almost incidental to the battle between the gods, in his account it is central. His people can be sure that they worship the Creator, Who has provided for their good.

Yet he does depict a process. It is significant that there are only three acts of ‘creation’, the creation of the primeval stuff, of conscious life and of man himself. Otherwise what is, is “brought forth” from something else, through whatever method God chose. He makes no attempt , however, to define this, except to say that it was at His word. He considers any more detail unimportant.

The Creation Account

The Creator first provides control out of chaos. Without Him all is formless and empty. If this has connections with other accounts it is because men were aware in general that things tended to unruliness and chaos unless they were controlled. Then the Creator is depicted as bringing the sea under control so that man can have somewhere to live, and follows this by providing what is necessary, light for man’s activities, trees and vegetation for man’s sustenance, animals as in some sense companions to man. Man is to rule over them all. But in all this there is no sense that anything apart from the animals and man is other than inanimate and under His control.

He also provides for the times and seasons, and days and years, by establishing the sun and moon to control night and day, so that man can have confidence in the stability of life. We are not told when they were made, only when they began their work. (Hebrew verb tenses are not strict in usage. The same word could mean “made” or “had made”. Chronology was not considered as particularly important). Sun and moon are shown to be inanimate, and the stars almost dismissed as an afterthought. This is in complete contrast with neighbouring accounts where sun, moon and stars are all gods and goddesses, and the important part of the narrative. To suggest that Genesis 1 is somehow merely a copy of these is puerile.

Then finally he creates man and woman to be in some way like himself. It is not right to press the word ‘image’. The author is trying to show that man is distinct from all else. He has that “something extra” which brings him into communication with God. Thus the work is done and it is seen to be very good.

The account is in poetic form, the form of Hebrew parallellism, easy to remember and grand in its simplicity. It was almost certainly intended to be recited at religious feasts in honour of God, and as a covenant renewal. As has been said, it is so distinctive that any attempt to liken it to other accounts can be discounted, although there are possibly elements which show it has its background in Near Eastern thought forms. ,p.Two Sets of Three

It is interesting to note that the story divides into two sections of three. First the bringing into being of light, the forming of the atmosphere and sea, and then the forming of dry land and vegetation and trees. This is followed by the establishing of the inanimate controllers of light for man, the creation of fish and birds to utilise the atmosphere and sea, and the bringing forth of animals and creation of man who require the trees and vegetation.

When it was put into writing we cannot say, but that it was early is suggested by the colophon which has been integrated into the final narrative, and would hardly have been inserted by a later editor. Furthermore it is in covenant form, building up to vv.28-30. This is exactly the kind of covenant which would have been put into writing as a physical evidence of the people’s link with God. It may well be that the author considered he had had a theophany, a ‘revelation’ of God, and would therefore have committed it to writing immediately as a seal of the importance of the covenant. This was a general practise for covenants of such importance.

The Oral Background

The account would have had a background. The people the author was connected with would already have had oral accounts of creation to be utilised in festivals, and these would have been of long standing. Had his account been in too much contrast it would probably not have been accepted (although if it was accompanied by a theophany this could have had some effect). This might suggest that the general pattern he used was already contained in the accounts passed down through the previous centuries, for long periods by word of mouth.

It is as certain as it can be that the Sumerians invented and developed writing between c.3300 BC and 2000 BC, as a result of the need for commercial records, and we have no grounds for assuming that any of the early patriarchs prior to the flood could read or write. This also applies to numbering (we will look at certain questions that might arise shortly). Thus these earlier accounts of creation would have established a pattern without a specific numerical content.

They may, of course, already have contained the idea of evening and morning resulting in a ‘day’. They lived their lives reckoning rest and working periods from sunset to sunset, and what more natural than to divide God’s activities in the same way? (The Hebrews reckoned their days in this way). Unlike us they would not have a rigid view of a ‘day’. To them a ‘day’ was the period between sunset and sunset, however long, and in view of the fact that we can speak of long periods of light in the Arctic as an ‘Arctic day’, it is even more likely that they would accept a day of God as being of different size to their own. They did not have a fixation with exactness. In the words of the psalmist, “a day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as but a day”. Associating something with God (or the gods) was an ancient way of stressing its greatness or size. Compare how Nimrod was “a mighty hunter (or warrior) before the Lord” meaning that even God saw him as a great hunter, while towering mountains are called “mountains of God”. What Sort of Days Were They?

It is quite clear that whoever introduced the idea of ‘days’ into the narrative would be aware that days as we know them could not occur until days and nights had been established on God’s fourth day, for he makes this point specifically. Strict ideas of time are a nicety of the scientific age. Thus the days of judgment to come could elsewhere be described as ‘the day of the Lord’, and while to us that is a mere metaphor, we have no real reason to read back our grammatical distinctions to the ancients. They saw it as beginning on a certain day and continuing on, and had no difficulty in applying the term ‘day’ to the period.

Compare how the Genesis author can himself say, “this is the history of the heavens in the day (not days) that they were created”, suggesting he is seeing ‘day’ as ‘time period’. It must be remembered that a language as ancient as his would have a restriction on how many ‘time’ words it had. This was long before the times when their tribal language became affected by ‘scholars’. (It is ironical that clinging strictly to scientific definitions has caused so many of the problems caused by science to those who reject scientific theories).

The Pattern of Seven

Once the pattern of seven was discerned in the ancient accounts by someone with a knowledge of Near Eastern thought forms, it would be the obvious thing to do to stress the pattern as a way of depicting divine perfection and completion. This is the idea behind the framework. He is not speculating how long God took, but indicating that He took the perfect time for His perfect work. This is certainly the impression that the number seven would have on listeners. It is, of course, possible that it was he who impressed the pattern of seven on the creation account. Either way its lesson was the same.

The Sabbath

The Sabbath was established as a week by week reminder of the Creator God and His covenant, and the fact that it is on the ‘seventh’ day speaks volumes to the author. It is God’s perfect plan to seal His complete and perfect work. It is probable that it had come down through the ages, and in its parallelling with the days of creation he sees, through inspiration, the purpose of God. There is nothing ‘unscientific’ about the narrative, unless we call diaries ‘unscientific’ when they tell us the time the sun ‘rises’, when we all know it does not. Like the diaries it is not dealing with scientific questions.

(5)The Use of Numbers in Genesis 1 - 11

The Plain of Eden

When God established the place for man to live in it was well-watered, and we are told that the river which watered the plain divided into four (Genesis 2.10) and spread out like the tentacles of an octopus. The idea behind the description suggests that it is seen as watering the known world. The blessing of abundant water looks back to God’s provision for man while he was yet free from rebellion, and He has not fully withdrawn that blessing.

It is possible therefore that this represented north, south, east and west, or possibly we should say, behind, before and left and right. The only other mention of ‘four’ in the book of Genesis is when ‘four kings’ meet in battle ‘with five’ (14.9). In the latter case it arises from the historical facts, and there is no basis on which we can decide whether the number has any particular significance. It is possible, however, that there is the suggestion of ‘the world beyond’, and that four foreign kings are depicted for that reason. Later the number four does come to be applied to the nations of the world (e.g. the four beasts in Daniel).

Cain and Lamech

The next use of numbers in Genesis, is when Cain is promised protection by God. Anyone who kills him will suffer “sevenfold” (Genesis 4.15). No one can doubt that this is not intended to be taken literally. It means that the punishment will be divinely complete. When Lamech claims similar protection from God he intensifies it by making it “seventy and sevenfold” (4.24). Notice that in extending the number, the idea of seven is retained, no other number would have done.

It may now be asked, does this not show that numbers were known to Cain? The answer in fact is, not necessarily. The words we have are in the hebrew, but the original account comes from a time long before hebrew was invented. The use of sevenfold and seventy and sevenfold could be an interpretive translation of some word which powerfully stressed the certainty of vengeance. It is significant that the translator sees number words as adjectives which best depict this emphasis, but it is not necessary to assume number words underlying the original.

So here ‘seven’ depicts the certainty of divine action, the vengeance will be divinely complete. It is interesting, in contrast with the later use of numbers, that the intensifying of seven is by adding seventy and not by multiplying (seventy times seven). This indicates a very early date for the translation.

The Ages of the Patriarchs

The next use of numbers is in Genesis 5 where the ages of the early patriarchs are given. Like similar lists elsewhere (compare the various Sumerian lists) the patriarchs before the flood number ten. This is surely an imposed pattern, possibly almost looked on as a necessity for such a list. A complete list was not considered to be a necessity, even if it could have been compiled.

We know without any doubt that the Egyptians, for example, certainly compiled king lists leaving out generations quite happily. In view of the parallels with the same pattern elsewhere, we must see the idea of ten as indicating something specific, even if we are not sure what it is. We would insist on a complete list. We like mathematical accuracy. They saw it as more important that the names should number ten. They looked at things differently. (We can compare how in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew “begat” does not mean that the person named was next in line, only that he was ‘descended’ in some way. Matthew is seeking to maintain a pattern of 14 generations - doing this ‘artificially’ by including the name Jechonias at the end of one list and at the beginning of another - possibly because fourteen is twice seven, or possibly in view of the fact that the letters of David have a value of fourteen in the Hebrew number system of his time).

The ages given are interesting. Like the Sumerian lists we have the clear emphasis on longevity. However, it is doubtful if the ages are to be taken literally. Let us tabulate them.

Patriarchs Begets atRemainderDies at
Adam 130 800 930
Seth 105 807 912
Enos 90 815 905
Cainan 70 840 910
Mahaleel 65 830 895
Jared 162 800 962
Enoch 65 300 365
Methuselah 187 782 969
Lamech 182 595 777
Noah 500 450 950

There were a hundred years from the birth of Noah’s sons to the Flood.

The Ages of the Later Patriarchs

We can compare these with ages in the remainder of Genesis.

. .

Are The Number Intended To Be Taken Literally?

Notice how many of the numbers end in nought or five, which were probably both seen as ‘round numbers’, and how many of the remainder end in seven. This is hardly likely on genuine ages (even if, in the days before numbers were invented or prominent, men could have kept such records, or even wanted to). The account has all the signs of being an ancient record, and while God could no doubt have revealed the ages, (although this would be unlike His usual method of inspiration), the above fact tends to nullify the idea that He did so.

In the first list only three in the first list, two in the second and four in the third do not end in nought or five. Thirteen of the thirty end in nought and eight end in five, that is over two thirds. Of the nine that end in another number, three end in seven and another three arise because of the seven endings. Two of the three remaining arise in Jared’s age, and therefore count as one (the one causes the other), the other is in the age of Methuselah. This would appear conclusive.

What Significance Could They Have?

Let us, however consider another fact. Adam is depicted as dying at 930, seventy short of one thousand. Certainly in later times a thousand years depicts the perfect time span. Thus Adam is shown to die seventy years (a divine period) short of the perfect life span. This can be seen as demonstrating that his death is God’s punishment for his sin. Enoch is ‘taken’ at 365. This was at that time the recognised number of days in a year, and the year was connected with the heavenly bodies. 365 was thus the heavenly number, and his age thus reveals him as the heavenly man. He is the seventh in the list, the ‘perfect’ man. Significantly in other nations lists the seventh man is also seen as especially connected with the heavens. Lamech dies at 777. If seventy and seven previously intensified the figure seven for the Lamech of the line of Cain, how much more seven hundred and seventy and seven demonstrates the godliness of the Lamech of the line of Seth. The two are clearly seen in contrast. One uses the divine number for his own benefit, the other is benefitted by God to an even greater extent. He is of the chosen line.

With regard to the remaining names there is uniformity as regards the ages after begetting. Following Adam’s 800 the next five are 800 or 800 plus a number which is significant elsewhere, - seven, fifteen, forty and thirty.

I will not pretend to be able to solve the riddle of the numbers. Suffice to say that they are lost in the mists of time, (and the Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint have different numbers) but certainly the high numbers, signifying longevity, may have been intended to get over the message that the line of Seth was blessed. When we consider the mystical value put on numbers in those days, it is not surprising that they should be utilised to give divine messages. What is interesting, however, is the fact that the message was put over by adding and taking away, and not by multiplying. This again is an indication of the age of the narrative. The Later Patriarchs

There were ten patriarchs after the flood. Once again we have the number ten occurring for a list. This is surely a deliberate pattern, seen as spanning an important period (from the flood to the ‘chosen man’). With regard to ages most of them continue to reveal the same phenomenon as mentioned above. Is it a coincidence that Terah begets Abram at the age of seventy, and that fives or noughts are still prominent? The list of ten means that this is an ordained length of time and is probably seen as representing a total picture. First the ten leading downwards to the flood and the ‘perfect man’, and then the ten rising to the Abram, the ‘man of promise’. Events are under control, and God’s man comes after the right time span.

When we look at the dates relating to the later patriarchs, all marriages, births and deaths are in round numbers (counting five as a round number), apart from Sarah, Ishmael and Jacob, and they end in seven. This must surely be conclusive.

Man’s Life shall be 120 Years

Genesis 6.3 is interesting as suggesting that from that time on man’s life span was to be 120 years, (later, in the Psalms, it is 70 years), which should also warn us against taking the higher ages after the flood too literally. God will limit man’s life to a hundred and twenty years. The higher numbers may again have been intended to depict the blessing of Noah’s line until genuine numbers were reached, showing that they lived to a good old age beyond the allotted time span, while the gradual reduction is probably intended to indicate their deteriorating position before God.

Noah

Noah begets three sons (6.10). The perfect man (v.9) begets the perfect family. He possibly had other sons and daughters, but these are not mentioned (in contrast with earlier patriarchs). This is the perfectly complete entity, and other sons would have spoiled the picture. Furthermore, it is clear that if he had other children they were not ‘numbered with the righteous’. From these three sons come the great nations (chapter 10). They completely represent mankind.As mentioned already, Kramer makes a good case for seeing Sumer as a variation of Shem (otherwise it is difficult to understand why that greatest of nations Sumer is not mentioned).

The Flood Account

The account of the flood reveals the probability that by this time the number five has also attained significance, which would tie in with what we have seen about the patriarchal ages. Certainly later on five is the covenant number. The ark is 300 x 30 x 50, two at least of the numbers being indications of completeness (of safety for man?). It is to have three storeys, again significant.

Of clean beasts, the beasts acceptable for sacrifice to God, he has to take in seven, the divinely complete number. He is given seven days preparation time when he is called at last to enter the ark. God stays His hand for seven days, a divinely perfect length of time, and then the rain comes for forty days and forty nights. This length of time becomes later on a stereotype for times of testing, not to be taken literally, although symbolising quite a considerable period, and there is no reason why this idea should not already have begun.

The water prevailed for fifteen cubits (above the mountains?) and prevailed over the earth for 150 days. After another 150 days the waters abated, until the ark rests on the mountains of Urartu on the seventh month. It is noticeable that the flood commences on the seventeenth day of the month, and the landing is on the seventeenth day of the month (in hebrew this is ten and seven). The tops of the mountains are seen on the first day of the tenth month.

The Birds Sent Out

After forty days (a trial of waiting?) Noah opens the ‘window’ to send out the raven, and after that he sends out the dove who returns, but empty beaked. After seven days he sends out the dove again who turns out to be God’s messenger, returning with the sign that the time of trial is coming to an end.. After another seven days the dove is sent out not to return.This is also good news. The land is now becoming fit for habitation.

It is difficult not to see in this account a particular use of numbers with specific meanings. The preponderance of three, five, seven and multiples of these, together with the use of forty (which is certainly symbolic later), are emphatic. The periods of forty days and one hundred and fifty days are parallelled ( 40 - 150 - 150 - 40) , as if we rise to a climax and then return. As five is the complete handful, multiples of it may have by this time also gathered their own suggestion of completeness, which would also help to explain why multiples of five are found in the ages of the patriarchs. It was a significant number to the Egyptians, and there is good reason later on for seeing it as the number of covenant (e.g.commandments in two sets of five). basing everything on the base of ten probably came later, but this is to some extent speculation.What does seem certain is that they are ‘round numbers’, having significance.

Certainly five and its multiples are later significant in making the Tabernacle and its furniture. The numbers are therefore probably intended to give symbolic meanings, rather than being taken literally, although they are cleverly worked into a pattern to fit the time span. This is the normal way with such symbolic numbers. This completely does away with any suggestion that the narrative is a composite one, and as Gordon has demonstrated, the mixed style is typical of such accounts at the time.

Again we have numbers, in the mouth of God, in a context before numbers were invented, assuming that the flood took place before 3500 BC. However, once again we must recognise that this is translated from another language. Compare how we might translate ‘a ‘span’ as four inches. God may well have ‘spoken’ to Noah as He does to us, either through some medium such as a dream in which the measurements were shown rather than in number words, or through forcibly impressing ideas on the mind. The numbers indicated the significance of what was said.

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Isaac is born when Abraham is one hundred
Abraham dies at one hundred and seventy five
The promise of Isaac comes when he is ninety nine, but this is
clearly due to being one year before the birth at 100
Abraham is eighty six when Hagar bears Ishmael
Sara dies at one hundred and twenty seven
Ishmael dies at one hundred and thirty seven
Isaac marries at forty and has his first child at sixty
Isaac dies at one hundred and eighty
Esau marries at forty
Jacob meets Pharaoh when one hundred and thirty
Jacob is seventeen years in Egypt
Jacob dies at one hundred and forty seven
Joseph is seventeen when sold into captivity
Joseph is thirty when released from prison
Joseph dies at one hundred and ten