What was the significance of the numerology of 12 and 40 for the Hebrew narrative?

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Reading through Deuteronomy this week I noticed several numbers being repeated. What was the significance of certain numbers being repeated? Was this a coincidence or did they have a symbolic significance to the Hebrew people? Numerology is something that has always been interesting to me so I decided to base this week’s blog around it. Specifically I want to look at the significance of the numbers twelve (Deut 1:23) and forty (Deut 10:10) to the Hebrew culture and how do they advance the narrative?

First, let’s consider the number 12. The most significant and widely known occurrence of this number in the Old Testament is the institution of the twelve tribes of Israel. The question is why twelve? Why not another biblically important number like 7 or 4? The simplest answer to the significance of the number of tribes is that there were twelve sons of Israel. Is there any other reason hidden below the surface? I believe that there most definitely is a deeper meaning.

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According to numerology, certain numbers represent or symbolism ideas. Listverse.com explains that the number twelve represents, “a kind of totality(listverse.com) . This idea correlates perfectly with the Hebrew narrative. Since each tribe was given a specific function with the collective whole of the Israelite people, it gives way to the image of puzzle pieces working together to make a picture. Mary Fairchild of Christianity.about.com, has a related, but different opinion. She infers that it, “relates to divine government” (christianity.about.com).  This theory is also very applicable as well. Each tribe has its own heads and miniature forms of government to make sure each group was doing their part. I believe Fairchild’s opinion is the most accurate, however, I also believe it’s important to put both interpretations together in order to establish the most accurate portrayal of the significance of the number twelve. When combined we gain a better understanding of why there were twelve tribes of Israel. The combination suggests a divine perfection or totality of government established through this group of men. This number will also further the narrative later when the twelve apostles are established. Since a lot of the newly converted christians were former Jews, they will understand the correlation of the apostles to the twelve tribes and will therefore attach with these men the divine authority that was also associated with the twelve tribes.


My next question is in regards to the significance behind the number forty. This number is much more repetitive throughout the Old Testament than twelve. For instance, during the great flood, it rained for forty days and forty nights, the Israelites wondered in the wilderness for forty years, and Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days waiting on instruction from the protagonist. All of these instances lead to huge peaks in the narrative and therefore must be significant. So why forty? What does this numeral represent? According to biblestudy.org, the number forty represents, ” a period of testing, trial or probation“(biblestudy.org). This assessment fits the majority of the scenes above, but what about the flood?

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According to Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of myjewishlearning.com, forty is, “designating a time of radical transition or transformation” (myjewishlearning.com). Authors, at ridingthebeast.com, go on to state that it generally represents, “a new chapter of the history of the salvation” (ridingthebeast.com). These ideas go hand-in-hand and are seen in all scenes showing the significance of the numeral forty. During the “great flood”, it rained for forty days and nights. The use of forty here shows that there was not only a radical transition, in that the majority of the world was killed by the protagonist, but also that there was a new chapter for the Hebrews, in which God gave humanity another chance to start fresh with a small generation of believers. Later in the narrative, Moses stays on Mount Sinai preparing for the ten commandments for forty days. Again we see a radical transformation and a new chapter, because for the first time there are official, “set in stone” laws for the people to abide by. We read again how the people wandered the desert for forty years only for the majority of them to die and never see the promised land. This episode is similar to the “great flood”. Again, the majority of the people (here just the hebrews, not worldwide) die so that a new, more obedient generation can start over. This number will also advance the narrative in the New Testament. These ideas based on the numerology of forty will add a greater meaning for the Christ to be tempted for forty days. Not only do we see this as an obvious period of testing but shortly after this episode, he is crucified. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ marked the beginning of a huge chapter in the narrative with regards to salvation.

In conclusion, it is important to consider the symbolism behind the prominent numbers throughout the Old Testament. By studying the numerology, the reader will gain a deeper understanding of the text as well as the Hebrew culture. Through this method, we see a possible meaning behind there being twelve tribes as opposed to seven or ten. Twelve may have been chosen to represent that the protagonist had made a perfect, complete government through these men. We can also conclude that the number forty also has great meaning. It can represent not only a period of tribulation or of faith being testing, but also of a radical change that would bring about a new development in the Hebrew narrative with concern for the salvation of mankind. These two numbers also have a huge significance in the New Testament and give way to a better understanding of things to come.

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