Numbers were figures, symbols, or characters which were used for counting and enumerating for mathematical purposes. The people of the ancient Near East used numbers differently that we do. They used them in a practical way rather than as a part of a mathematical theory. They applied numbers to their day-to-day problems.
Numbers in the Old Testament are spelled phonetically. During the Intertestamental Period an alphabetic system of writing was used.
Archaeological discovery has provided some evidence about the way in which Hebrew people wrote their numbers. There were marks for the numbers 1-3, while the rest of their numbers were spelled out.
Not very much is known about the arithmetic of the ancient Hebrew people. Scripture has some examples of simple mathematics: addition (Num. 1.26), subtraction (Lev. 27.18), multiplication (Lev. 27.25), and division (Num. 31.27). They had a knowledge of fractions (Gen. 47.24).
While numbers indicated quantity, they were not exact and official as in the Western world. They were estimates of the total which were rounded off. As an example, the ages of people in Scripture are either a multiple of five or a multiple of five plus seven. Scholarship is not sure of why this exists and they do not know what it means, only that it does exist.
Bible students of all ages have devised intricate systems of foretelling the future which revolve around the symbolic usages of numbers. There are some numbers in Scripture which have a symbolic characteristic. The number seven is one of them. It often expresses the idea of completeness or perfection. Some interpreters use a system which attempts to find hidden meaning in the Bible by using elaborate codes based on the numerical values of the individual letters. Some have tried to establish the correctness of the text of Scripture by a mystical numerical pattern. Here are some of the common numbers and their usual symbolic meanings.
- One: Conveys the concept of the unity and uniqueness of God.
- Three: A complete or ordered whole like morning, noon, and night.
- Four: Completeness like four sides to a square.
- Five: Often used as a small round number.
- Six: Represents something that is less than perfect.
- Seven: Associated with fulfillment and perfection.
- Ten: Denotes a round or complete number.
- Twelve: This number is a representative of the elect purpose of God.