(6) The Use of Numbers in Genesis 12 Onwards


Abram’s name meant ‘Ram is my father’, possibly an indication that Terah worshipped other gods (cf Joshuah 24.2). This may well be why Abram is told to leave his father’s house, and later has to change his name to something more suitable. Note that he is one of three sons.

Surprising as it may seem to some it must be questioned whether Abram could use numbers or write. For these tasks tribes would have a specialist, if they had anyone, whose responsibility it was, especially in matters of rare trade outside the tribe. Abraham was not primarily a trader or businessman but something of a tribal leader (a kind of family tribe, with a multiplicity of servants and slaves), and owner of herds and flocks.

The Rescue of Lot

However that may be, the first use of number in the life of Abram is when he calls on his three hundred and eighteen men to enable him to help his relative Lot in Genesis 14. Three hundred and eighteen is probably intended to be literal, as this is a strictly historical account, (although whether the number words at that time meant that number must be held in abeyance. We just do not know). Abram might well have wished to arrange a head count of his men by the tribal scholar or steward, to ensure that all had responded to the call, or the count may have been required when assessing the food required from, and the tithes paid to, Melchizedech.

The emphasis on historicity is borne out by the fact that the number of the kings on both sides of the battle are given (v9), ‘four kings with five’. The writer of this particular episode is keen to establish the facts of the case, (consider the opening description where he names the kings in detail). .

By calling this account historical I do not intend to suggest that other accounts were not historical, but the earlier accounts came from pre-history, and were almost definitely used in religious festivals, for they all refer to covenants. Certainly in other nations very similar accounts were part of their temple ritual. Thus the flood account may well have been constructed under God for a similar purpose for the line of Noah, with all the symbolism that they included. It would be a celebration or guarantee of harvest in accordance with God’s covenant to Noah.

The whole account is shown as leading up to the promise of good harvests (8.22), and the account is headed by a colophon (6.9), “The History of Noah”(6.9), and results in a covenant, all indications of a vitally important covenant treaty document usable in covenant ceremonies.

Abram Again Meets God

In Genesis 15 Abram has a deep religious experience of God combined with a covenant promise, It should be noted that a careful study of these chapters will show that we do not have a life of Abraham, but rather a record of the covenants that God makes with Abraham, with the occasional other covenant. This is even true of chapter 14, for it ends with the blessing from the priest of the Most High God, and a probable covenant treaty. This is why these accounts were recorded in writing. As we have mentioned before, studies in the ancient Near East show that such covenants were considered important enough to be put in writing, together with the historical circumstances under which they were made. They were the specific, visible guarantee of the covenant.

Had these accounts been written by a later age more stress would surely have been laid on the life of Abraham, who was by then honoured as the father of the nation.

The covenant in chapter 15 is sealed with the sacrifice of three year old beasts (v.9). They had reached the ‘perfect’ age. (Later the emphasis is on being ‘without blemish’). Abram is promised that, although his descendants will have to undergo a period of affliction for four hundred years (forty intensified, a period of trial), they will then return in prosperity, and he has a vivid experience of the holiness of God, sealing the covenant. The four hundred years is thus symbolic, although like many symbolic numbers it is near to the factual figure. It signifies a period of divine trial like the two periods of forty days in the flood narrative, and is a guarantee that the trial will end in God’s time.

Sarai Desires A Child by her Handmaid In 16.3 the ten years that Sarai is said to have waited is probably a round number signifying that Sarah had fulfilled a sufficient period of waiting. She was now called on to use a method recognised at the time for producing an heir. This parallels the use in the ten generations of the patriarchs, which also possibly indicates the fulness of time.

Abram becomes Abraham

In chapter 17 Abram’s name is changed to Abraham, and the rite of circumcision, practised by the majority of peoples round about, is given a special covenant significance. The rite is to take place on the eighth day of a child’s life, that is once he has passed the first seven days, and is thus ready. Abraham and all his ‘household’ (remember he could call on 318 fighting men) are then circumcised.

The Judgment of Sodom

In chapter 18 Abraham is approached by three men. Their purpose is to test out Sodom for judgment. The number of the heavenly judges is seen as complete. An interesting sidelight is that Abraham now tells Sarah to prepare three measures of wheat. This is surely a use of three to mean sufficient (or perfect food for God?). Abraham would hardly intrude into the particulars of cooking recipes. He merely wishes to ensure full hospitality.

When the Lord reveals His purpose towards Sodom Abraham pleads that if there be fifty people worthy, Sodom might not be destroyed. This is a round number related to ten and five, and suggests that such a number was seen as a complete company, sufficient to deserve mercy. Remember he came from a place where he would have had some familiarity, if he had then had any smattering of number knowledge, with the sexagessimal system. So fifty (five times ten) was not the same to him as to us. It is thus of more significance. Once he receives a positive answer he descends in fives and tens, as we would naturally expect.They are all round numbers. This does demonstrate a certain familiarity with number words and ideas, but does not require full numeracy.

In chapter 19 only two ‘angels’ enter Sodom. This is not a task for the Lord, even in human form, the two must therefore be seen as an inevitable consequence of the Lord being one of the three ministers of judgment and may not be significant in itself. It is possible that even by this time the witness of two men was seen as necessary for certainty.

Sarah’s Gift

The thousand pieces of silver given to Sarah (20.16) could be literal, for it is given as a treaty payment, but it may well simply mean ‘a goodly sum’. Later ten appears to be significant as a bridal gift.

The Birth of Isaac

Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born (21.5). Again it is significant that we have a round number and it may just signify a full age. This then explains why he was 99 years old in 17.1, this being dated back from the 100. However the fact that he was stated to be 86 when Hagar bore Ishmael to him (16.16) might have indicated that a careful record was kept of his age as the leader of the tribe, as a means of dating events, but the other round numbers militate against the idea. There may have been a deliberate intention of keeping the birth of Ishmael out of the normal pattern. He is not the child of promise.

When Abraham digs a well he chooses as the price to pay for securing it seven ewe lambs, because it is a covenant with Abimelech before God (see vv.22-23). It is a divine seal on the transaction.

The Death of Sarah

In Genesis 23.1 we learn that Sarah is 127 when she dies. This would at first appear to be an actual number but we shall see that seven, as part of an age, recurs. The age of Abraham at death (25.7) is 175, another round number. This may be a round number as accurate as the group could make it. The long life shows he was blessed by God.

Ishmael dies at 137 (25.17). Once more an age ending in seven. The price of 400 shekels of silver (23.16) is a recorded business transaction (this narrative is probably putting the transaction into writing as a deed of title) and will therefore possibly be the exact number.

A Wife for Isaac

When Abraham’s servant goes to find a wife for Isaac he takes ten camels (24.10). This, when compared with the bracelet’s weighing ten shekels (v.22), suggests a connection with the bride price. This may well be an accurate count, as part of an intended covenant, but it may only mean ‘sufficient’. It is significant that the number of camels is mentioned. Numbers are rarely mentioned with regard to animals up to this point, and always significantly, so we may rightly see that the number is quoted because it was considered important. (Would another number have made the right impression?). The bridal price has to be satisfactory.

Isaac takes Rebekah to wife at forty years of age (25.20), and his wife bore his first children when he was sixty (25.26). It is difficult not to see these as round numbers, signifying an appropriate time.

In 26.12 his crops produce a ‘hundredfold’, certainly a generality. In 26.34 Esau takes a wife, again at forty years old. All this would appear to be a using of numbers to convey an idea rather than actual figures.

Jacob Seeks His Fortune

In 28.22 Jacob, having left home to seek a wife among relatives (fellow Arameans), enjoys an experience of the presence of God and guarantees a tenth of all he will possess in the future if God is faithful to His promises to him (a bargainer to the end!). This is the first mention of a tenth as God’s portion, although Abraham had given ‘a tenth’ to Melchizedek (14.20). It again stresses the sufficiency seen in ‘ten’ and may be the origin of the ‘tenth’ among the people of Israel.

On arriving among his relatives he offers to serve seven years for Rachel, the younger daughter of Laban. We know from contemporary records that this method of paying for a wife by a length of service was a normal custom of the time. When he finds he has been deceived he serves another seven years for her. On bearing him children Leah is possibly able to reckon up to six (30.20). It may be that she is stressing that rather than three she has provided three plus three. She may have been told the number by the tribal ‘scholar’, with that idea in mind. It is of course a factual number.

Deceit and Counter Deceit

When Laban, almost as crafty as Jacob, has come to an agreement with him which necessitates keeping the flocks separate, he removes himself by ‘three days’ journey, which could well be a phrase meaning a certain distance rather than the length of time it took to travel it at that particular time with all his flocks. In 31.7 Jacob grumbles to his wives that Laban has changed his wages ‘ten times’, undoubtedly descriptive rather than numerical, meaning ‘lots of times’. So he steals away to return home with his wives and possessions and Laban only learns on ‘the third day’. He then pursues him on a ‘seven day’ journey. Are all their journeys three or seven days long? Surely these must be stereotyped expressions for certain distances, and lengths of time..

Laban fails in his attempt to discredit Jacob because his daughter is as crafty as he is, so Jacob grumbles that he has served him for ‘twenty’ years, fourteen for the daughters and six for the cattle. The six is the difference between the fourteen (the contract period) and the twenty, and may not be exact, just as the twenty is probably a round number. It does however demonstrate that Jacob is able to deduct fourteen from twenty, or is at least aware of the difference. This is the first certain example we have of a patriarch having such an awareness of numbers and possibly being able to calculate. It would go well with Jacob’s scheming nature.

The Covenant with Esau

As Jacob approaches home he learns that his brother is coming to meet him with ‘four hundred’ men (32.6). This is clearly a round number, giving an indication of a large group.

So he gathers a gift to send to his brother of two hundred she-goats, twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes, twenty rams, thirty camels, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty she-asses and ten foals. These may well be exact numbers, (they are specifically selected out and part of a business contract from Jacob’s point of view), and number 550 in all, but they would fit into the pattern of earlier number usage. In 32.19 he sends them in groups, the first, the second, the third ‘and all that followed’. Having shown a complete number - three groups - a generality is all that is required, although there may be the hint of the inability to go beyond three of whoever was involved..

On reaching his brother he bows to him ‘seven times’(33.3). This may well be a recognised phrase for ‘a number of times’. In other words he paid proper respect to his brother. It is not likely that the rugged Esau, or anyone else, would be counting, unless it was a recognised number for honouring someone.

Revenge for a Sister

When Jacob’s sons wish to obtain vengeance for the dishonouring of their sister they insist that the men who had done it be circumcised, and then wait until the ‘third day’ before they take their vengeance. It is difficult to believe that everything always happens on the third day literally, unless of course this was looked on as somehow a necessary period to wait before acting, so this could well mean ‘until sufficient time’.

The Death of Isaac

In 35.28 Isaac dies at one hundred and eighty. It must have been a comfort to patriarchs to know that they could only die every fifth year.

A Summary

This rather laborious journey through Genesis appears to me to be very revealing. The numbers ‘three’ and ‘seven’ recur constantly, in all kinds of ways. In some cases they are literal, almost certainly bcause their significance has affected the choice, (three year old beasts for sacrifice, the three ‘men’ to test out Sodom, the seven days (implied) before circumcision, the seven ewe lambs to secure the well, the seven years of service for a wife), in others there is a good case for arguing they are not exact but descriptive of an idea (the three measures of wheat, the three days and seven days journeys, action on ‘the third day’, bowing to a brother seven times).

A similar thing may be said about ‘ten’. The tithe of the tenth by Jacob is surely chosen in its relation to ten, the ‘ten’ years of waiting by Sarah is surely a round number and probably symbolic, the ten camels selected out and the ten shekel weight of the bracelets for the bride may be exact as a normal bridal price, or may just be indicative of sufficiency, either way they are not random and indicate the latter, and the fact that Jacob’s wages are changed ‘ten times’ is almost certainly a stereotyped phrase.

We can compare with these the use of ‘four hundred years’, certainly a round number and possibly meaning ‘four generations’ or ‘a long time’ and symbolic of trial, ‘a thousand pieces of silver’ (the word originally meant a family or clan, and it may have been some time before it came to mean a thousand) which probably means a large amount, and the ‘twenty’ years of service by Jacob which means ‘a long time’ and had to be over fourteen years.

The 318 men of Abraham and the four hundred shekels for the land may well be exact and calculated by a ‘steward’, and the same may be true of Jacob’s present to his brother.

It should be noted that the numbers four, six, eight and nine are relatively ignored. Four is used of the rivers outside Eden, possibly denoting ‘the whole world’, and of the four ‘foreign’ kings of Genesis 14, both might therefore be symbolic, eight is only mentioned as the day following a seven, and six is used of the actual number of Leahs’s children, and necessarily in calculating the difference between fourteen and the round number twenty. Otherwise none of them occur. This is surely significant.

The ages of the patriarchs at various times are almost always round numbers, which must surely be approximate, giving a general indication, and probably indicating fullness of time. I suppose it is possible that patriarchs always married when they were forty, but it seems more likely to see it as an indication of reaching the necessary maturity. In contrast are the ages of Sarah and Ishmael on their deathbeds. The latter may be giving exact ages, but alternately there may be a deliberate intent to show that they did not end in five or nought, showing they lived goodly lives but not quite ‘complete’. It has been suggested that ages are shown as ending in seven when persons died outside the ‘land of promise’.

It appears to me that we have ample evidence that numbers in Genesis 12 onwards continued to contain a significant meaning other than just quantity, and are only quoted because of this significance, and that they were sometimes used solely as a general indication of quantity with their significance being central, rather than being exact numbers. When other numbers are involved they are just ignored and not introduced.

(7) Jacob and Joseph

In Genesis 37.2 we have the last indication of a colophon in the narratives. “This is the history of Jacob”. How far this last document extends is difficult to judge, but it is surely significant that the indications of documents in Genesis cease when the Egyptian episodes commence. Contact with Egypt means that papyrus is available for the writing of histories. No ancient writer would have contrived this situation, (it would have been beyond the knowledge of later writers), and it confirms that from Genesis 12 onwards we are dealing with actual historical records that were recorded at the time, although they have been joined in continuous narrative at a later date.

In 37.2 Joseph is “seventeen years old”. This may represent ten plus seven (the number would have to fit in with his mature adolescence, and it may be significant that seven is the perfect number to the Israelites, while five is similar for the Egyptians. Thus twice five would be an intensification of five. In hebrew the number is ‘ten and seven’) as indicating his uniqueness before God, or it may be an exact dating, although exact dating has not been a feature of the narratives. It is the date from which the events that lead to Joseph’s exaltation begin. The mention of eleven in v.9 is required by the number of brothers he has. There was no alternative.

There is a side incident in which Judah misbehaves and this results in his making his daughter pregnant. It is interesting in that we have the first example of a stated approximation. Judah is unaware of what he has done, and ‘about three months later’ learns that his daughter is pregnant. This passage was clearly not a part of the main Joseph story and separate original authorship may help to explain this unusual occurrence. Even so it is suggestive that the number three is again involved.

Meanwhile Joseph ends up in prison and in chapter 40 we learn of the dreams that two imprisoned servants of the king of Egypt have. In the first case the dream refers to three branches to a vine, and in the second to three baskets. Both mean that something will happen ‘within three days’. Later, when Pharaoh dreams, the fortunate servant remembers what Joseph did and he is called before Pharaoh. The dream relates to seeing first seven well fed cattle and then seven flourishing ears of corn, in each case followed by seven which are ill-favoured. The interpretation is that seven good years of production will be followed by seven bad. Divine blessing is followed by divine judgment. Once again the use of threes and sevens is significant. In these cases the numbers are specific, but would almost certainly have been seen by the participators as meaningful in the circumstances.

One interesting feature is that the double dreams are interpreted as meaning the thing is certain, it is ‘established by God’. This might confirm that by this time the doubling of a number was seen in the same way. All this happened when Joseph was ‘thirty years old’. Once again we have a round number associated with a patriarch. The multiple of three would be seen as significant as it is the completion of the first period of his life and the beginning of a new one as a ruler in Egypt. We know from inscriptions that it was fairly common practise for foreigners to achieve high positions in the Egyptian ‘government’. In v.34 Joseph suggests to Pharaoh that one fifth of the country be set aside to provide food for the bad years to come. As has been mentioned already, five was a significant number to the Egyptians.

Joseph is given the task and set over the granaries. We know from inscriptions that “Superintendent of the Granaries” was one of the two top posts in the Egyptian government. It would, in fact, appear that, in view of the extreme emergency, Joseph is given both posts, for he is made second only to Pharaoh (v. 43).

He makes good use of the seven good years, so that when the years of famine start there is plenty of corn in Egypt. The seven years would indicate a period of divine providence. Then the seven bad years start and his brothers, hearing that there is food in Egypt, make their way there to buy grain for their tribe. On their arrival Joseph pretends to be suspicious of them and imprisons them for three days (42.17). Then he lets them return on condition they bring their other brother to Egypt, and he keeps Simeon as a hostage.

On their return they tell Jacob what has happened. Their words are interesting. They refer constantly to Joseph as ‘the man’. We know from Egyptian inscriptions that in Egypt the Pharaoh was called ‘the god’ (he was looked on as divine) and his first minister was called ‘the man’. This demonstrates the authenticity of the account. When they return to Egypt for more food they are invited to eat with Joseph, although strict Egyptian etiquette is observed. But in supplying them with food to eat he arranges that Benjamin be given ‘five times’ as much as his brothers (43.34). When finally he reveals himself to his brothers he gives Benjamin three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothes (45.22). He sends to his father ten asses laden with luxuries and ten she asses laden with corn. As earlier ten signifies fullness of provision.

Once again we are aware that there is a minimal use of number and when this occurs it is as ‘three’, ‘five’, ‘seven’and ‘ten’, or multiples thereof. It would certainly appear that they are mentioned because they are seen as significant. ‘Five’ has probably appeared more frequently because it was a significant number in Egypt, another indication of authenticity. It would appear that in most cases the numbers are exact in usage as the circumstances require, but it is because of their significance that they are mentioned rather than as on the generality of occasions when numbers are ignored.

The final result is that Jacob and the whole ‘household’ (the family tribe - see 49.28 and Exodus 1.1) move to Egypt. They would almost certainly number a few thousand. (Abraham had had three hundred and eighteen fighting men. Jacob would have inherited these as well as what he had obtained by his own labours). Chapter 46 specifically splits up the close family into three and thirty and three and thirty (intensifications of three, two complete groups) and with Jacob and Joseph, and his two sons, this makes seventy “who came into Egypt”. It is not strictly correct as Joseph’s sons were born in Egypt, but it was clearly considered important to make the number up to seventy to denote divine completeness. There is no pretence, it is stated quite blatantly. As always it is the meaning of the number that is significant rather than the quantity.

When Joseph takes his brothers to see Pharaoh he takes five of them, which would be a good omen to Pharaoh (47.2), who is then introduced to Jacob and learns that he is one hundred and thirty (47.9), another round number.

Later when Joseph makes a contract on Pharaoh’s behalf, Pharaoh is to receive one fifth of the produce, the recognised Egyptian portion (vv. 24, 26). Jacob lives on in Egypt seventeen years (does this contrast with Joseph’s seventeen years in Canaan?) and dies at one hundred and forty seven (twice seventy plus seven). We note that we have another age of death ending in seven. His embalming takes forty days, apparently the usual time, and he is mourned for seventy days by the Egyptians (50.3). With slight differences the same numbers are seen as important by both groups. The numbers are mentioned because of their significance. Later Joseph is said to die at one hundred and ten. We know from inscriptions that that was looked on by the Egyptians as the ideal age. Finally in Exodus 1.1 the fact of seventy who came into Egypt is stressed again. This brings out how important it was considered to be, and emphasises how it is the significance of the number that matters, not the quantity itself.

Our final conclusions for Genesis 12 onwards must be as follows:

1) Numbers are mentioned when they are significant in what they indicate rather than as expressing quantity.

2) Some numbers have clearly been round numbers, or generalised.

3) It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that patriarchal ages at various stages in their careers are round numbers and therefore approximate, and even the ones which appear more exact have certain coincidences applicable to them.

4) Numbers appear to be ignored when they do not fit the pattern.

5) Circumstances can be openly ‘manipulated’ if this provides a number which is considered significant, for it not the number that matters but its significance.

It is always therefore the significance of the number that is important. Quantity is irrelevant except in business transactions.

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