Biblical Interpretation, Doing it Right: Understanding Symbolism and Non-Literal Numbers

In a previous post, I discussed several different methods of biblical interpretation and gave examples, from Scripture, how these were used. Another related issue in interpretation of the text is the issue of symbols and symbolic numbers in the text. 

One of the issues that makes meaningful biblical interpretation so difficult and seem so subjective to modern readers is that we are essentially disconnected from a culture that was dependent upon symbols to carry meaning is that we are a culture that communicates through words. We use words, an arrangement of letters that are dependent upon a particular semantic and contextual arrangement, that are themselves symbols. We have mentally disconnected the immaterial reality that is conveyed by material representation, something I touched on here. 

Modern readers expect numbers to reflect represent a literal counting. The first book of our modern Bibles begins with a counting of days in the act of creation. There’s an entire debate about whether or not these should be taken as literal, 24-hour days or symbolic days. The problem with making such a distinction is that we think of a “day” as a 24-hour period, and the ancient Hebrew author might look at us debating the question and call us a bunch of nuts. The answer to the question of whether the days of creation are literal or symbolic would seem to be an emphatic, “yes!” And at that point both groups would burn the author as a heretic, and go back to arguing. Let’s be clear who this is a problem for: the biblical literalist. 

Such people argue that for certain biblical claims to be literally true (ie the resurrection, Jesus as the divine incarnate one, etc) all claims have to be literally true (seven 24-hour days of creation, global flood, etc). Well—and I hate to break this to them—but that logic simply doesn’t follow.

So, if we are going to interpret the Bible correctly, that is understand it and articulate it’s message in a meaningful and coherent manner, exactly how are we to understand the numbers as they are used in the text?

I believe that the first step should be to look at some examples.

Examples of symbolic numbers

Eric W. Adams, in his entry in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, notes,

“The ancient Babylonians and Egyptians had a developed numerology based on astrological divination, which is forbidden in the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Chaldeans sectioned the stars into twelve regions. Numerology is also consequential in Hinduism, Buddhism, Magic texts, and other occultic, pagan religions. 

“In contrast to the numerical speculation of Gentile religions, the Hebrew Scriptures use numbers in their conspicuous, literal sense, although occasionally numbers may have a representative meaning….The symbolic, even poetic use of numbers in the Bible is not inordinate speculation concerning the universe. Even in the later, more apocalyptic texts of Daniel and Isaiah, prophetic symbolism is rooted in historical data. 

He goes on to note that numbers, as do other commentators, that the numbers in the Bible do not have scripted representation (ie Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3, etc) but are written out (ie one, two, three, etc). The literalness of numbers, the days of creation fr example, are the reason for them becoming symbolic at a later time, as he notes,

“[The] world’s completion in six days and the subsequent day of rest to complete the week is a key reason why “seven” symbolized completion and goodness in later apocalyptic texts.

The fact that Israel (Jacob) literally had 12 sons, thus establishing what would later become the 12 tribes of Israel. As such, this number becomes associated with God’s power and authority. It is why there are twelve disciples (later apostles). Multiples of numbers can also have meaning, as seen in the book of Revelation, where there are 24 thrones established. So, a number’s symbolic use must be grounded in something literal for it to be meaningful.

What about incredible ages?

While numbers can indeed have later symbolic meaning attached to them, we have to be careful in handling numbers. For instance, do we take the ages of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 to be literal ages? The writer(s) of Genesis clearly meant for these to be understood literally. The question is, if we consider that the author(s) were composing their text from an earlier source, and given the clear Babylonian flavor of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, should we consider such ages to be representative of a decimal counting system (base-10) as moderns use, or a sexagesimal counting system (base-60) as the Babylonians used. If the former is the case, then we cannot take the ages seriously. However, if the latter is the case, then the literalness of the ages can be reconciled. 

See also: An Interesting Essay on the Long Ages

Michael Heiser Discussing the Relationship Between the Genesis 5 Geneaologies and the Sumerian King List

https://youtu.be/LGKtqfgd1nM

What about those census numbers?

As one author notes about those incredible numbers,

“For some scholars the use of large numbers in the [Old Testament] is an interpretive issue. For others it involves the theological issues of inerrancy and the historical veracity of Scripture. 

The prime example of this is found in the book of Exodus,

“And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. (Exodus 12:37, esv, emphasis added)

Such a number represents clear problems both demographically and logistically. That is to say, it’s not an impossible number to consider, it is something of an impossible number to provide for, before God begins providing them manna some 45 days after leaving Egypt. 

Michael Heiser, in an excursus on the issue in the Faithlife Study Bible, proposes a few solutions:

The first is matter of understanding terms,

“According to the most frequently cited proposal, the Hebrew word for “thousand” (eleph) may also mean “tribe” or “clan”. If so, the numbers may simply refer to military units, which corresponds to the aim of the censuses to determine the number of males eligible for Israel’s army. The chapters in Numbers that record the censuses, then, use eleph as both a number and a term for a military unit.

A second proposal is one of a common literary device,

“Another proposal claims that the author of Numbers deliberately exaggerated the numbers associated with the exodus and the wilderness wanderings; in other words, they represent literary hyperbole. Comparisons with other ancient Semitic texts of similar genres validate this suggestion. Ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, and Assyrian literature, particularly royal inscriptional and historical annals, deliberately employed hyperbole regarding large numbers. The annals aimed to glorify the god of the king by exaggerating the king’s victories. In fact, the biblical accounts of the exodus and conquest bear striking similarities to contemporary annals in many ways.

The conclusion of the second proposal should give us pause,

Given this, the hyperbolic use of numbers in the Old Testament anchors the biblical text to the writing conventions of the timean argument that favors their authenticity as truly ancient documents. The writer of these accounts thus could have used a known literary device to draw attention to the might of Yahweh—the King of all kings, earthly or divine—in delivering His people, Israel. (emphasis added)

Heiser details these discussion more here on his podcast, but let the emphasized part sink in. If  that is the case, then what we are dealing with is something very old that has been preserved intentionally in its original form.

Back to the question

So, when it comes to interpreting texts where there are numbers, just how should we interpret them?

First, we need to recognize that the Bible contains ancient texts and uses their writing and messaging conventions. If we have a coherent and consistent doctrine of inspiration, we must recognize that what was written had to have meaning for the original audience, and we have to be ready to admit that it wasn’t us. We benefit from it, we can learn form it, but it wasn’t written to us, it was written for us. 

Second, we must let the author(s) tell us how they expect the numbers to be understood. This has to do with reflecting on issues of genre. Is a particular number being used literally or figuratively? If there isn’t a clear reason to assume that a number is being used figuratively or literally, one should assume that the number is literal. 

Last, be skeptical. Do not assume that you, or the interpretation that you are looking at are correct. If someone makes a particular numerical interpretation a matter of faith and morals then you should probably assume that they are making too much of it. Don’t be afraid to question it.

Conclusion

Biblical interpretation is not an exact science. It should be engaged in carefully, thoughtfully, and—above all—prayerfully. If we are going to do it correctly, we must be prepared to follow our logic to its obvious conclusions, else we be proved to be fools. Texts involving numbers are no different that other texts: they have a context, a genre, and an authorial intent behind them, and we have to be willing, with a heart and mind receptive to the Spirit of God to be willing to hear what is being said, as well as a willing to not go beyond what is written.

Post Script and Update:

I also wanted to update my readers on the Deuteronomy series. I have not abandoned it, I am working on the final chapters and hope to have it finished up this month. Thank you for your patience, it is a difficult section to work through.

 

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