What is the significance of some of the sacred numbers such as 3, 7, 12, and 40? A new believer asked me what the significance of the number 40 meant. I could only think of Moses' life was in segments of 40 years and the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. It rained for 40 days and forty nights. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. Jesus was with the people for forty days after His resurrection. Are there any other examples and what is the significance? Is it like the number 7 which is a number of completion? Or about a season in one's life, or testing?
Biblical numerology is not a science. Biblical numerology is the study of numbers in the Bible using a literal, historical, and grammatical exegesis in the interpretation of the Bible. The purpose of this article is to discuss the meaning of numbers in the Bible. Also, we will discover what is the biblical meaning of the numbers 3, 7, 12, and 40?
Numbers in the Bible
Many different types of numbers appear in the Bible such as whole numbers. In Genesis 1 we find the counting of numbers as the different days of creation are numbered (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 2:1-3). We also find fractions such as 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/10, 2/10, 3/10, and 1/100 (Genesis 47:24; Exodus 16:36; 25:10, 17; Leviticus 23:13; 14:10; 1 Samuel 9:8; 2 Samuel 18:2; Nehemiah 5:11; Ezekiel 46:14).
Numbers are also added, such as in the genealogy in Genesis 5:3-31 where an individual’s age is given when they gave birth to their first son, the remaining years of the individual’s life, and then those two numbers are added to give their total length of life. Subtraction can be found in Genesis 18:28-32. Multiplication occurs in Leviticus 25:8. Division occurs in Numbers 31:27-46.
We also find numbers being rounded off such as the prophecy of Israel’s future captivity in Egypt in Genesis 15:13. But then in Exodus 12:40-41 we are given the exact number of years Israel was in captivity as 430 years. Then in Acts 7:6 the 430 years are rounded off to 400 years.
One Number With Symbolic Meaning
There is only one number in the Bible that is explained for us in the Bible. It is the number 666 in Revelation 13:18.
Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six. Revelation 13:18 (NASB)
The verse gives us the symbolic meaning of the number 666. It is the number of the beast or the Antichrist. It also stands for the number of man. Once again, this is the only number in the Bible whose symbolic meaning is given to us.
Numbers With Possible Symbolic Meanings
Other numbers appear throughout the Bible and are used for many different purposes. But God repeatedly uses some numbers. We can see patterns in Scripture. Some of the these numbers are 3, 7, 12, and 40.
The number 3 occurs hundreds of times in the Bible. Therefore, with over four hundred occurrences of the number 3, it is difficult to determine a pattern and as a result any symbolic meaning. But if we focus on major uses of the number three, we discover a pattern.
The number 3 is associated with God since it indicates how many persons are in the Godhead (Isaiah 48:16; Matthew 28:19-20; 2 Corinthians 13:14). When God created man in His image, He gave humans a body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). There are three patriarchs called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matthew 22:32). On the Mount of Transfiguration there were three people—Jesus, Elijah, and Moses (Matthew 17:1-4; Mark 9:1-6; Luke 9:33). Peter denied Christ three times (Matthew 26:34). The body of Jesus was in the grave for three days (Matthew 12:40). This would suggest the number appears to be symbolize significance and not completeness but perfection.
The number seven appears over three hundred times in Scripture. It is used in multiplication such as 7 times 7 equals 49 and 7 times 100 equals 700. It is first used in Genesis 2:1-2 to describe the last day of the creation week. We are told that after Noah entered the ark, the flood waters came upon the earth (Genesis 7:10) after 7 days. Then after the rain stopped and the flood water decreased, Noah waited 7 days to send out a raven and a dove (Genesis 8:6-10). Some sacrifices required 7 animals (Genesis 21:28; 1 Chronicles 15:26). Jacob served Laban 7 years for Leah and 7 years for Rachel (Genesis 29:20). John Davis quotes L. A. Muirhead’s observation about the number 7.
In regard to 7, the ritual arrangements found in the Pentateuch would alone warrant the conclusion that this number was regarded as in some sense sacred. If we read that God blessed the 7th day and sanctified it (Gen. 2:3), and find that peculiar religious observances or customs with a religious basis attached, not only to the 7th day, but to the 7th month, the 7th year, and the 7 x 7th year, we seem warranted in saying that, among the people of the Bible, 7 represents a mystic cycle of work and rest, within which God both accomplishes His purpose in the universe and cooperates with sanctified men.
In addition, the Sabbath occured on the 7th day. Seven was a common number associated with Israel’s feasts. For example, both the Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement occurred in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. Seven was also used in Daniel’s 70 weeks. The number 7 occurs more times in Genesis (52) and Revelation (55) than any other book of the Bible. It occurs most in the first and last books of the Bible. It is like bookends on a bookshelf. The number 7 is considered to be the number of completion or perfection.
The number twelve occurs about 150 times throughout the Scriptures. Jacob had 12 sons who became the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 35:22). Ishmael was the father of the 12 princess of the Arabs. In the tabernacle there were 12 cakes baked with flour (Leviticus 24:5), 12 silver dishes, 12 silver bowls, and 12 pans (Numbers 7:84). There were 12 men who spied out the Promised Land (Number 13).
Jesus selected 12 disciples (Matthew 10:1). The number 12 appears numerous times in the book of Revelation. For example, the new city of Jerusalem in the new heaven and new earth will have 12 foundation stones (Revelation 21:14), and twelve gates (Revelation 21:12-13) and 12 angels (Revelation 21:12). The Tree of Life will produce twelve different kinds of fruit (Revelation 22:1-2).
There are many other examples, but these examples help us understand this number appears to be used in relation to the nation of Israel and the church that began at Pentecost. It may be symbolic of God’s people.
The number 40 appears close to 100 times in the Bible. The first time it occurs is in Genesis 7:4 when we are told rain fell upon the earth for 40 days and 40 nights. We are told in Genesis 25:20 that Issac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah. In Genesis 26:34 Esau was 40 years old when he married Judith. Israel wandered in the wilderness and ate manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35) and Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 34:28). We should remember that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and fasted for 40 days (Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). The number is associated with both the saints and Jesus Christ in both the Old and New Testaments. But we do not know the symbolic meaning of 40 since Scripture does not define it for us. It may be symbolic of God’s people.
These numbers were used by God repeatedly. Yet, we are only confident of a symbolic meaning for the number 666.
1. John J Davis. Biblical Numerology. Bake Book House. 1971., p. 103.
2. Ibid. p. 51.
3. Numbers,” Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, ed., James Hastings ( New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1918 ), p. 92. cited by John J Davis. Biblical Numerology. Bake Book House. 1971., p. 116.
1. John J Davis. Biblical Numerology. Bake Book House. 1971.