Numbers isn't just the title of this biblical book—it's a major symbol in the story. This tale not only contains tons of mind-boggling census figures along with specific details on exactly how many lambs you should sacrifice for Passover—seven—it's got all kinds of other numbers with symbolic meanings.
Forty Is Fabulous
Probably one the most significant numbers in the story is forty. The spies go out to check out the Promised Land and are gone for forty days (13:25). And, when the people decide they're not so sure about this whole going-to-war-for-land thing, God sentences them to forty years in the wilderness. One year for each day the spies were out (14:34). Yikes.
So, does that mean the Israelites had an alarm set to go off at exactly forty years after God's declaration? Probably not. In the Bible, the number forty is usually just shorthand for "a really long time." It also is generally tied to some kind of trial or challenge that God wants to complete:
- It rained forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:12).
- Moses stayed up on Mount Sinai with God for "forty days and forty nights" (Exodus 24:18).
- Jesus fasted "in the wilderness for forty days" (Mark 1:13).
Today, we still use the number forty to mean a lot. Ali Baba came across forty thieves. If you get forty winks, you're doing pretty well for yourself. Free slaves thought they might get forty acres and a mule and be sent on their way. Sadly, it didn't quite happen like that.
Twelve Angry Numbers
This is also a pretty significant number in the story, if only because there are twelve tribes of Israel and their names get repeated constantly so you'll never, ever forget them. God is also fond of appointing twelve people to oversee all major projects—one from each tribe.
- Twelve men help with the census (1:44).
- The altar of the tabernacle gets twelve of every item (7:1-88).
- The men take a test with twelve staffs to see who the real leader is (17:2).
Twelve kind of has the same vibe as forty, in that it usually signifies totality and completeness. Twelve tribes is all the tribes in Israel. Picking one man from each tribe means all the people are represented. Sounds like a good plan to us.
Christianity really runs with the whole twelve-of-something-makes-life-good idea in the New Testament. Jesus has twelve disciples. In Revelation, 144,000 people are brought up into Heaven after Earth is laid to waste (Revelation 7:4). That's 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel. Act now. Spots are going very fast.
So, it's probably no surprise then that a modern jury has twelve members. Who better to judge you than twelve random folks who represent the whole of society? The U.S. also has twelve Federal Reserve districts. And a dozen donuts? Well, that's just completely delicious.
Lucky Number Seven
The number seven is usually all about perfection. Specifically, God's perfection. Or else rituals for becoming more perfect. After all, it took seven days for God to create the whole world. Six would have been lazy. Eight would have been overkill. And, in the end, God saw that it was good and that sounds pretty darn perfect to us.
In Numbers, there are tons of sevens everywhere:
- Aaron puts seven lampstands in the tabernacle (8:2).
- Miriam is shut out of camp for seven days when she comes down with a skin disease (12:14).
- In fact, anyone who touches a dead body can just head out for seven days. See you in a week, because you're obviously unclean (19:11).
Clearly, going through a cycle of seven makes someone more perfect and holy. The seven lampstands also stand for God's perfection and awesomeness. The author of Revelation liked this idea so much that he inserted it into his book, too. When John of Patmos sees his vision of Heaven, there's Jesus standing amidst "seven golden lampstands" (Revelation 1:12). Who'da thunk?
Sevens are no joke in the rest of the world either. There's the Magnificent Seven. Snow White had seven dwarves to help her out. There are seven habits of highly effective people. Highly ineffective people, naturally, have none. At Hogwarts, students go through seven years of wizarding school. In fact, Harry Potter is born in the seventh month, Quidditch has seven players, and Voldemort even makes seven horcruxes, too.
Who would think an odd little number like that could make such a difference. You go, seven.