Counting with God
What Do Numbers in the Bible Really Mean?
ABSTRACT: The meaning of biblical numbers is often unclear after the first reading of a passage — and even after many readings. And yet biblical numbers often tell us more than just the facts. Instead of assigning abstract significance to specific numbers regardless of the passage in which they appear, responsible readers pay careful attention to the context. The details of a passage illuminate the meaning of its numbers, and in return, the meaning of its numbers sheds further light on the details of the passage, all of which leads us deeper into the intention of the biblical author.
Have you ever wanted to know more about the numbers contained in the Bible and yet keep a healthy distance from Bible codes, Kabbalah, and names that add up to 666 (as long as you spell them right)? If so, please read on.
The text of Scripture contains a significant quantity of numbers. Or to be more precise, the text of Scripture contains a significant quantity of words that designate numbers. The Old Testament alone contains over 7,000 such words (appropriately, the book of Numbers contains the most1), while the New Testament contains over 1,200. And God has chosen to inspire each and every one of them.
As Christians, we therefore seem obliged to affirm one of two claims. Either:
(a) the God of glory has chosen to inspire thousands of words that have little or no relevance to us, not to mention whole passages that are mostly irrelevant to us since most of their words designate numbers (for example, Ezra 2:1–41), or
(b) the numbers contained in Scripture are relevant to our interpretation of Scripture and, by extension, to our lives as Christians.
Suffice it to say, I incline toward the latter view, and I hope to persuade you to do so as well.
“The text of Scripture contains a significant quantity of numbers. And God has chosen to inspire each and every one of them.”
Of course, to say a number is significant isn’t to say its significance will become immediately clear to us if we simply sit down and think about it for a while. But a couple of truths at least are clear. First, if we don’t devote sustained attention to the numbers contained in Scripture, then we certainly won’t discover what God wants to teach us through them. And second, if responsible exegetes don’t devote attention to the numbers contained in Scripture, then irresponsible eisegetes will, which won’t be good news for anyone.
All well and good, one might say. But how exactly are we supposed to find out what a given number signifies? In a word, context. The Bible is an organic text. It doesn’t present us with isolated lists of numbers and leave us to unravel their many mysteries. Rather, it presents us with numbers in the context of narratives, poetry, legal texts, and a host of other genres, which is how God wants us to analyze numbers.
Below, therefore, I’ll seek to do just that. As a case study, I’ll consider how numbers function in the book of Judges. Afterward, I’ll seek to distill some general principles from our discussion.
Numbers in the Book of Judges
Over 250 of the words in the book of Judges designate numbers, some of which crop up too frequently (and in circumstances too similar) for it to be a coincidence. For instance, both Gideon and Samson are accompanied by exactly 300 torchbearers. (Samson’s happen to be foxes, Judges 7:22; 15:4.) Three different groups of exactly 600 men are mentioned. (We have 600 slain Philistines in Judges 3:31, 600 warlike Danites in Judges 18:11, and 600 defeated Benjaminites in Judges 20:47.) And six different sums of exactly 1,100 shekels of silver are mentioned (Judges 16:5; 17:2).
None of these numbers needs to be mentioned. As far as the story line of Judges is concerned, our author simply could have referred to “foxes,” “many men,” “silver,” and so on. Our author clearly, therefore, wants us to infer something from the numbers in his text. But what? Let’s take a step back and see.
One Tribe Short of Twelve
When we consider the numbers in the book of Judges as a whole, we first notice the book’s predilection for the number eleven (and multiples thereof). The book actually turns out to be based around eleven distinct occurrences of eleven-fold numbers.
- Joshua lives for 110 years (11 x 10) (Judges 2:8).
- Gideon’s first army consists of eleven men — Gideon and his ten servants, Judges 6:27).
- Gideon later dismisses 22,000 men (11 x 2,000) from a much bigger army (Judges 7:3).
- Gideon brutalizes 77 elders (11 x 7) in Succoth (Judges 8:14).
- Jair judges Israel for 22 years (11 x 2) (Judges 10:3).
- Samson is outfoxed on (what appears to be) the 11th day of his challenge to the Philistines (Judges 14:14–18).2
- Delilah is bribed with (five lots of) 1,100 pieces of silver (11 x 100) (Judges 16:5).
- Micah’s Levite puts 1,100 pieces of silver to a bad use (Judges 17:2).
- Micah is visited by 605 Danites (11 x 11 x 5) (Judges 18:17).
- Eleven tribes gather at Shiloh in the book’s gruesome climax. (A body part is sent out to summon each of the twelve tribes, but only eleven respond, Judges 19:29; 20:13–14.)
- And 22,000 Israelites (11 x 2,000) are slain in Israel’s first battle against Benjamin (Judges 20:21).
“The Bible doesn’t present us with isolated lists of numbers and leave us to unravel their many mysteries.”
Why might the number eleven be significant in the context of Judges? Well, something seems deeply inappropriate about the association of Israel with the number eleven. The proper number of Israel is not eleven but twelve, just as the proper number of the apostles is not eleven but twelve (which is part of the reason why Peter proposes that another apostle replace Judas). As such, the numbers employed in the book of Judges are intended to reflect a situation where life in Israel is not as it should be. Something is deeply and fundamentally wrong.
Of course, this claim does not require numerical analysis to discern. But our author’s preference for the number eleven tells us other things as well. Suppose, per our suggestion, Israel is indeed a tribe short. Which tribe is it short? As we read through the text, the answer soon becomes apparent.
The book of Judges consists of three sections: a prologue (Judges 1:1–3:6), a main body, where the judgeships of twelve distinct judges are set out (Judges 3:7–16:31), and an epilogue (Judges 17:1–21:25). In the main body of the book, we are informed about the exploits of each of Israel’s tribes, with one exception: the tribe of Levi. Not a single Levite is mentioned, even incidentally. Therefore, one thing wrong with Israel is clear: the absence/silence of the Levites.
The book’s epilogue brings that fact out very clearly. In chapters 17–21, three important changes take place in the book’s narrative. First, the text rewinds to the days of Moses’s and Aaron’s grandsons (Judges 18:30; 20:28; cf. Numbers 25:7; Joshua 22:13). Second, for the first time in the book, some Levites are mentioned. And third, a previously unknown refrain is taken up by our author — namely, “There was no king in Israel” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).
What are these changes meant to tell us? My suggestion is as follows. In terms of Israel’s time in Canaan, things began to go wrong from the very outset. In the absence of a king, God’s commands should have been upheld by the Levites. But the Levites (spectacularly) failed in their duties. Rather than lead the Israelites in the ways of God, they led the Israelites into gross acts of idolatry (chs. 17–18) and violence (chs. 19–21).
Darkness in Gibeah
The latter narrative (chs. 19–21) is a particularly grievous example of the Levites’ failure, which we’ll now consider in some detail, since numbers play an important role in it.
In chapter 19, a certain Levite and his concubine set out from Bethlehem for their home in Ephraim. As the narrative progresses, the (cardinal) numbers involved in it slowly decrease, which gives the narrative an ominous feel. We read of a “four-month” stay in Bethlehem (v. 2), a “three-day” stay at the concubine’s house (v. 4), “two men” who eat and drink together (to the exclusion of the concubine, v. 6), and finally, a choice between “one” of two cities in which to spend the night: Gibeah or Ramah (v. 13).
The same (downward) spiral/sequence of numbers occurs in chapter 9. First, Abimelech divides his men into “four companies” (v. 34); then, as he approaches Shechem, he divides them into “three companies” (v. 43); next, with “two” of these companies, he launches an attack on Shechem (v. 44); and finally, he is (mercifully) slain by “one woman” (v. 53). Just like chapter 9, chapter 19 too will end in death.
On their way back to Ephraim, the aforementioned Levite and his concubine stop off at Gibeah, where they spend the night. As darkness descends, however, a mob of wicked and worthless men surround their host’s house. The men’s intention is reprehensible. They want the Levite to be brought out so they can “know” him. (Suffice it to say, they do not want to get to know the Levite as a person; they want to “know” him in the worst possible way.)
Yet in an act of horrific cowardice and betrayal, the Levite sends his concubine out to the men of Gibeah (on his behalf), who abuse her throughout the night. Thankfully, our narrator spares us the details of what takes place. But the concubine is not spared. The next day, when the Levite arises to continue his journey, he finds her prostrate on the doorstep, motionless. It is one of the bleakest scenes in all of Scripture.
In chapter 20, the Levite reports the men of Gibeah’s behavior to Israel’s public assembly. His version of events is at best incomplete and at worst thoroughly deceptive. The Levite says nothing at all about his horrific betrayal and abandonment of his concubine. He instead lays the blame for her death entirely at the feet of the Gibeahites. As a result, civil war ensues. The Israelites set out to repay the Gibeahites for their crimes, the Benjaminites come to their kinsmen’s aid, and the battle commences.
Missing Men of Benjamin
To our surprise, however, the Israelites (the eleven tribes) do not fare very well. In their first two battles, they incur heavy losses. Only in the third battle do they gain the upper hand over the Benjaminites. Why? Isn’t their war against Benjamin justified? The numbers employed in chapter 20’s battle scenes may be able to help us answer such questions.
Note first of all how many Israelites fall in the first two days’ battles. The Benjaminites slay 40,000 out of the Israelites’ 400,000 men (Judges 20:17–26), which seems significant. The Levites’ presence in Israel is supposed to cost Israel a tenth of their produce (Numbers 18:21–24), not a tenth of their men. Something is very wrong in terms of the Levites’ effect on Israel.3 Indeed, the Israelites’ experiences in chapter 20 bring to mind their ancestors’ battle at Ai in Joshua 7–8 (cf. the initial defeat, the feigned retreat, the ambush, the column of smoke), which creates a (literary) connection between the Levite and, of all people, Achan.
“If responsible exegetes don’t devote attention to the numbers contained in Scripture, then irresponsible eisegetes will.”
In Joshua’s day, despite their huge numerical advantage, the Israelites were defeated at Ai, and they later returned to the ark of the Lord, distraught. Here in Judges 20, the Israelites return to the same place in a very similar state (and for a very similar reason). Do they have another Achan in their midst — a man with undisclosed sin?
The number of Benjaminites who fall is also instructive. The Benjaminites’ army is said to consist of 26,000 swordsmen, whom I’ll refer to as “standard soldiers,” together with 700 more select warriors (lit. “chosen ones”) from Gibeah, whom I’ll refer to as “elite soldiers” (Judges 20:15).
In the third day’s battle, when the Israelites turn the tables on the Benjaminites, 25,100 Benjaminite soldiers are slain (Judges 20:26–35), which leaves 900 soldiers unaccounted for. What has happened to them? (Or if they are still alive, what will happen to them?) We’re not told. Instead, our narrator rewinds and describes the Benjaminites’ defeat in greater detail (Judges 20:36–48). More specifically, our narrator breaks the Benjaminites’ defeat down into three stages.
When the Benjaminites go forth to battle, the Israelites slay 18,000 of their standard soldiers; as the Benjaminites flee, the Israelites slay a further 5,000 “in the highways”; and in a place called “Gidom,” the Israelites slay 2,000 more. By the end of these events, only 600 Benjaminites remain.
We can, therefore, supplement the question raised above (“Why does the text of Judges 20:26–35 leave 900 soldiers unaccounted for?”) with two further questions. First, why are 25,100 men slain in Judges 20:26–35 when only 25,000 are slain in Judges 20:36–48? And second, why are only 600 Benjaminites left at the end of Judges 20:36–48? The Benjaminites’ full army consists of 26,700 men. And 25,000 of them are said to be slain in Judges 20:36–48, yet only 600 are said to be left, which leaves the fate of 1,100 soldiers unaccounted for. Why?
Approximations and Incompletions
Well, first, let’s see if we can address the historical aspect of these questions. The difference between the 25,100 Benjaminites mentioned in Judges 20:26–35 and the 25,000 mentioned in Judges 20:36–48 doesn’t seem too hard to explain. For instance, it may simply be the result of successive approximation.
Suppose the exact numbers of Benjaminites who fell in the three slaughters were 18,020, 5,020, and 2,020. These figures could have been treated consistently, yet could nevertheless have yielded 25,100 in Judges 20:26–35, where a single number is quoted (i.e., 18,020 + 5,020 + 2,020, to the nearest hundred), and 25,000 in Judges 20:36–48, where subtotals are supplied (i.e., 18,020 to the nearest hundred + 5,020 to the nearest hundred + 2,020 to the nearest hundred).
As for the unaccounted-for 1,100 Benjaminites (inclusive of 200 elite soldiers), the Benjaminites presumably sustained losses in the first two days’ battles, in which case the relevant 1,100 men could have fallen before the events of Judges 20:26–35 and 20:36–48 began to unfold.
Consider, then, a possible scenario. On the first two days, 880 standard soldiers and 180 elite soldiers fell (i.e., 1,100 men to the nearest hundred), and, on the third day, 25,060 standard soldiers fell (i.e., 25,100 men to the nearest hundred, per our illustration above), which left 60 standard soldiers and 520 elite soldiers (i.e., 600 men to the nearest hundred), as required by the text. (If our scenario is along the right lines, then the elite soldiers had a much higher survival rate than the standard soldiers, which would make sense.)
We can, therefore, reconcile the numbers in our text without too much trouble and can infer useful historical information from them. But we still need to consider the question, Why did our author choose to include them in his text in the first place? Couldn’t he have told the story without them?
He could have, yes. But an important point then would have gone unnoticed. Recall what we’ve seen in our consideration of chapter 20’s numbers.
We’ve seen two death tolls that don’t (neatly) match up with one another because their details are only approximations. We’ve seen an account of a battle that leaves 900 individuals unaccounted for. And we’ve seen a different account (of the same battle) that leaves 1,100 individuals unaccounted for.
Do any of these details ring a bell? They should, since they find a remarkable parallel in our text’s wider narratival context. Consider, by way of illustration, the rather abrupt introduction to the book’s epilogue (chapters 17–21). In the last verse of chapter 16, we read about the death of Samson, at which point chapter 17’s narrative opens as follows:
There was a man of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Micah. And he said to his mother, “The 1,100 pieces of silver that were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse, and also spoke it in my ears, behold, the silver is with me; I took it.” And his mother said, “Blessed be my son by the Lord.” And he restored the 1,100 pieces of silver to his mother.
And his mother said, “I dedicate the silver to the Lord . . . to make a carved image and a metal image. Now therefore I will restore it to you.” So when he restored the money to his mother, his mother took 200 pieces of silver and gave it to the silversmith, who made it into a carved image and a metal image. And it was [put] in the house of Micah. (Judges 17:1–4)4
Note the similarities between these numbers and the numbers involved in chapters 19–20:
- Just as (in Judges 20:36–48) 1,100 Benjaminites disappear without a trace, so, before chapter 17’s narrative begins, 1,100 pieces of silver (implicitly) disappear without a trace.5
- Just as the text of Judges 20:36–48 is inherently incomplete insofar as it doesn’t tell us what happens to 1,100 Benjaminites, so chapter 17’s narrative doesn’t tell us how its Levite’s family came to acquire 1,100 pieces of silver. (In other words, events are presupposed that we’re not made aware of.)
- Just as Judges 20:26–35 closes with 900 soldiers unaccounted for, so chapter 17 closes with 900 pieces of silver unaccounted for: the Levite’s mother promises to give him the 1,100 pieces of silver, but she spends 200 of them, and the 900 left over are not mentioned.
As such, our author has sandwiched the Levite’s testimony (Judges 20:4–7) between texts that employ numbers in a very deliberate fashion. More specifically, our author has sandwiched the Levite’s testimony between texts that highlight the problems caused by approximate and/or incomplete information. Why? Because the Levite’s testimony involves precisely the same kind of approximate and incomplete information, which our author wants us to consider carefully.
Achan in Their Midst
Note in particular three ways in which Judges 20:4–7’s numerical backdrop sheds light on and helps us interpret the Levite’s testimony.
First, just as the Benjaminites’ death toll in Judges 20:26–35 and 20:36–48 fails to add up, so the Levite’s story fails to add up. If the men of Gibeah had come to kill him (per his claim), then why didn’t they kill him (Judges 20:5)? And why would they have raped (rather than murdered) his concubine? Did they simply come to do something hideous to someone, and not care who or how? The Levite’s story is incoherent. It is at best a very rough approximation of the truth, which leaves key questions unanswered. (The real story makes much more sense.6)
“Particular numbers are embedded in particular narratives and have — or at least can have — a context-specific significance.”
Second, just as the narratives of chapters 17 and 20 are incomplete at certain key points, so too is the Levite’s testimony. The Levite fails to mention his horrific betrayal of his concubine, and is deliberately vague about the issue of when she died. Was his concubine dead when he found her? Or did she die only later, when he failed to attend to her injuries? (If not, why break from the third person plural? The natural continuation of the Levite’s statement, “They meant to kill me, and they violated my concubine” would be, “and they killed her.” But instead the Levite concludes with the rather vague “and she is dead,” Judges 20:5.7)
Had the Levite told the Israelites the whole story, the narrative in chapters 19–21 might have ended very differently. For a start, the Israelites would not have been able to lay the blame for the concubine’s death solely at the men of Gibeah’s door. Furthermore, had the Levite been held accountable for his sin, who knows what effects that might have had? The Benjaminites might not have felt the need to come to the defense of the Gibeahites. The Levites might have been convicted of their fallen state (and reformed their ways). Thousands of warriors’ lives might have been spared on the battlefield. And hundreds of women might have been spared from abuse in Shiloh’s vineyards (Judges 21:19–23).8 Yet instead, in a cruel travesty of the cross, violence triumphed over justice.
Tragically, the Israelites had another Achan in their midst (the Levite), which they should have realized,9 especially when the battle inexplicably turned against them. (“How could one have chased a thousand, and two have put ten thousand to flight, unless . . . the Lord had given them up?” Deuteronomy 32:30.)
Third, like the numbers in the narrative of chapters 19–20, the Levite’s story could have provided the Israelites with important information had they subjected it to critical scrutiny. Since we have multiple accounts of chapter 20’s final battle, we are able to corroborate its details, which is what the Israelites should have done (or at least sought to do) in the case of the Levite’s testimony (Deuteronomy 19:15). Where was the old man from Gibeah? And where was the Levite’s servant, who would have been able to confirm (or disconfirm) the Levite’s testimony, yet is inexplicably absent from chapter 20’s events? In other words, where were the “two or three witnesses” necessary to indict the Gibeahites? (Curiously, Judges is the first book in the Bible in which the word witness does not occur.10)
Such are the questions the Israelites should have considered, and such are the questions our author wants us to consider. Unless we do so, we will not appreciate our author’s view of the events of chapters 19–21, which is, by extension, God’s view of them. As far as our author is concerned, no one emerges well from the events of chapters 19–20 — not the Benjaminites (who chose to side with their kinsmen), not the Levite, not the Israelites as a whole — all of which is brought out by our author’s use of numbers.
Some Reflections and Derived Principles
In the discussion above, I’ve tried to show how the book of Judges uses numbers. It does so, I submit, in two main ways. First, it uses numbers to emphasize key aspects of its narrative. For instance, the book’s eleven eleven-fold numbers emphasize the fact something is very wrong in the fabric of Israel’s society. Second, it uses numbers to connect particular texts together, and hence to encourage us to read/interpret those texts in light of one another. For instance, the book connects the numerical gaps in chapters 17–20 with the holes in the Levite’s testimony, which allows us to come to a deeper and more authorially informed view of the text.
Of course, my suggestions as to what the author of Judges wants us to infer from his employment of particular numbers are not the clear statements of Scripture, but merely suggestions. Perhaps you find some of them debatable, or perhaps you have better ideas. Either way, I hope I have done enough to persuade you of my initial claim. The numbers contained in Scripture are not random. They are relevant to our interpretation of the text and, by extension, to our lives as Christians.
Equally important to note is how the book of Judges doesn’t use numbers. The book doesn’t have a hidden numerical code, where, say, five has to do with the Pentateuch and is hence a good number while thirteen is a bad number. Rather, particular numbers are embedded in particular narratives and have — or at least can have — a context-specific significance. To correctly interpret the numbers contained in the book of Judges (or any other book of the Bible), we therefore need to know the book well, to think about how each number relates to its context and to other numbers in the book, and, with these things in mind, to work out why the book’s author might have included it.
As such, we have our work cut out for us as students of Scripture. I have no plan to work my way through the Bible and determine the significance of every number it contains (unless I am afforded a reasonable amount of time to do so in the new heavens and new earth). But of course, the Bible is a book that is to be read in community. And while no one person is likely to uncover the significance of every number in Scripture, the sustained efforts of many students of Scripture who learn from one another and share their insights with one another may indeed be able to do so and hence to uncover more of the riches of God’s word.
Thanks to Cody Kingham for both the Old Testament calculation and the observation, and to Allen Hutchinson for the New Testament calculation. ↩
The text, however, is difficult, and I have followed Greek translations in Judges 14:15. ↩
Note also how the number 40,000 is associated with negative events in Judges 5: Israel elects “new gods,” “war” breaks out in the land, and 40,000 Israelites are left defenseless (Judges 5:8). ↩
The priest’s actions do not represent the first time a curse has come upon Israel as a result of 200 pieces of silver (cf. Achan’s actions in Joshua 7:22). As such, the text of chapter 17 establishes a further connection between the epilogue of Judges and the battle at Ai. ↩
Note, by way of analogy, the text of Judges 9:1–5, where we have another correspondence between men and pieces of silver. Abimelech hires a band of mercenaries with 70 pieces of silver to slay Gideon’s 70 sons. ↩
Meanwhile, the Levite’s insertion of details that suggest his life was in danger causes his statement to read rather awkwardly. The men “surrounded the house against me,” he says, which is an odd way to speak (Judges 20:5). How exactly do you “surround a house against someone”? ↩
For more details, see the excellent thread by Peter Williams here: https://twitter.com/DrPJWilliams/status/1273009653677527040. ↩
That we find the Levites Hophni and Phinehas involved in the abuse of women at Shiloh at the outset of 1 Samuel is surely no coincidence (1 Samuel 2:13–14, 22). ↩
The stories of Achan and the Levite resonate with one another linguistically. In both cases, the Israelites realize that an outrageous act (nəḇālāh) has been committed (‘āśāh) by someone in Israel, and Israel’s army suffers as a result of it. What the Israelites do not know (in either case) is who is responsible for the outrageous act. ↩
That the Israelites are said to act “as one man” (Judges 20:1, 8) may be a pejorative description of them. When they should have sought two or three witnesses, they acted “as one.” ↩