THE RHETORICAL USE OF NUMBERS
IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
JOHN J. DAVIS
Instructor, Hebrew and Old Testament
Grace Theological Seminary
A very important use of numbers in the aid Testament is that for rhetorical
or poetic effect. Whenever numbers are so used they are not to be understood
literally nor symbolically. Much effort has been expended attempting to ascertain
some hidden or mysterious meaning of rhetorical phrases using numbers. The
intention of the writer in this usage is not to emphasize the mathematical value of
the number primarily, but to express either in concepts such as "few, " "many,"
There are, therefore, two basic applications of numbers in poetic structure.
THE CLIMACTIC USE OF NUMBERS
The arrangement of a numeral with its sequel within a clause, either
syndetically or asyndetically, in Scripture is a common poetic device with
numerous parallels in contemporary literature. The intention of such a device is to
express the concept of intensification and/or progression. The actual value of the
numbers in such cases is not significant.
This phenomenon is perhaps best expressed in the formula x/x+ 1. It occurs
principally in poetic passages but not exclusively. Syntactically x/x+ 1 may appear
in the same sentence or in two different sentences. In most instances in the Old
Testament it appears in poetical passages employing synonymous, synthetic and
antithetical parallelisms. The following is a list of the occurrences of the x/x+ 1
sequences in the Old Testament:
Sequence 1/2 -Judges 5:30; Deut. 32:30; II Kings ; Jer. ; Psa.
62:11; Job 33:14, 40:5; Ezra 10: 13; Neh.13:20.
Sequence 2/3 -Deut. 17:6; II Kings 9:32; Isa. 17:6; Hos. 6:2; Amos 4:8; Job
Sequence 3/4 -Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Num. 14:8; Deut. 5:9; Jer. 36:23; Amos 1:3,
6, 9, 11, 13, 2:1, 4, 6; Prov. 30:15, 18, 21, 29.
The above article is taken from the author's doctoral dissertation presented to the
faculty of Grace Theological Seminary in 1967.
THE RHETORICAL USE OF NUMBERS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT 41
Sequence 4/5 -Isa. 17:6. I
Sequence 5/6 -II Kings .
Sequence 6/7 -Job ; Prov. .
Sequence 7/8 -Micah 5:4.
Sequence 8/9 -none.
Sequence 9/10 -none.
Sequence 1000/10,000 -Deut. 32:30; I Sam. 18:7, 21, 29:5; Psa. 91:7.
The above list includes occurrences of this type of expression in both prose
and poetic passages and it does not distinguish between the two fundamental types
X/X+ 1 As A Poetic Device
The most striking use of this device is found in poetic portions of the Old
Testament. It is frequently employed in synonymous, synthetic and antithetic
parallelisms and when it is thus employed, the numbers should generally be
regarded as parallel. Roth explains this point in the following manner:
Since there is no other expression for a given numeral than the
numeral itself, the numeral one unit lower serves as a parallel term; a
phenomenon as strange to us as it is characteristic of Semitic poetic parallelism.2
In this usage of x/x+ 1 formula there is little or no regard for the actual
mathematical value of the numbers employed. For example Amos speaks of the
anger of Yahweh in the following manner:
. . . for three transgressions of
the punishment thereof. . .3
is evident that the writer is not attempting to total the sins of
purpose is to show climax and finality by means of numbers in progression. In
fact, the fundamental function of this idiom is to strengthen and intensify the
parallelism in such a manner that the reader cannot escape its impact. This
observation is clearly illustrated in the following examples where the
wrath or the end of patience is the theme:
For God speaketh once, yea twice, though man regardeth it not (Job 33:14
Once have I spoken, and I will not answer; Yea, twice but I will proceed no
of further. (Job 40:5 ASV).
42 GRACE JOURNAL
Micah also illustrates this Phenomenon:
. . . then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, and eight principal
men (Micah 5:5 ASV).
In each one of the above examples other numbers could have been substituted and
the meaning or impact would not have been violated. The precise literary value of
the formula x/x+ 1 was not recognized until recent years when contemporary
inscriptions were made to bear on Hebrew grammar and syntax. Older
grammarians concluded that numbers in this arrangement merely expressed "a
number not exactly specified or an indefinite total."4 This analysis is not incorrect
but merely incomplete. There are cases when juxtaposition of two numbers in
progression do indicate an indefinite total, but these do not constitute the majority
of cases. With the appearance of Ugaritic poetry the student of Biblical studies had
at his disposal a rich supply cognate parallels for this numerical phenomenon. This
device was used freely by the scribes at
effectiveness. In the Baal Epic x/x+1 sequence of numbers is used to create
literary climax with regard to Baal's view of sacrifice:
For two (kinds of) banquets Baal hates,
Three the rider of the clouds:
A banquet (banquet) of baseness,
And a banquet of handmaids' lewdness.
(Baal II, iii, 16-21)5
After Baal was furnished with a temple, he made al journey to claim the domains
which were rightly his. The description of the journey employs climatic numbers:
Sixty-six towns he took,
Eighty (took) Baal of (Zaphon's) s(ummit),
Ninety Baal of the sum(mit).
(Baal II, vii, 9-12).6
It appears that the scribes utilized this device to intensify the emotion of a given
event or act, for in the majority of occurrences of this phenomenon strong
emotions are expressed (e. g. anger, love, etc.) or violent actions are expressed. In
the Baal and Anat epics there is a good, example of this practice. Baal apparently
meets with a tragic death and the weeping, mourning, etc. of the other gods is
described in vivid language. In this portion of the text which is wrath
fragmented there are no less than five occurrences of climactic numbers.7 Note the
intense sadness and frustrations of this occasion:
Wine of is [ryt]
number [ ]
Like the seven cries of his mouth
Yea his eight shrieks.
She goes to seek [ ]
THE RHETORICAL USE OF NUMBERS IN 1H OLD TESTAMENT 43
The Sun after him [ ]
One place, two places [ ]
One place, two places [ ]
The foundation(s) of the sea [ ]
Weeping, fills [ ]
Tears of [ ]8
The Legend of Krt,9 and the Legend of Aqht,10 also contain numerous examples of
climactic numbers. Aramaean literature also gives evidence of this practice. In an
Aramaean Magical text dating from the seventh century B.C. the following
[wives of Hauron, whose utterance is true and his seven concubines and the
eight wives of Baal.11
Examples of this literary device are not common in Akkadian literature. When
numerical climaxes do occur, they are more subtle and not as redundant as is the
case with Ugaritic epics. The more common form of this sequence is used in
relation with days and nights.12 In Die Assyrische Beschworungssammlung
Maglu there are two passages dealing with incantations against witches which
employ numerical climax:
He, meine Zauberin oder meine Spukmacherin,
die auf eine Meile ein Feuer anziindet, /
auf zwei Meilen ihren Boten geschickt hat. . . 13
Zwei sind die Tochter des Himmelsgottes Anu, /
Drei sind die Tochter des Himmelsgottes Anu.14
When an ancient scribe wished to express magnitude along with intensity of
expression in a parallelism he would, in most cases, employ large numbers for his
x/x+l sequence. A favorite combination of the
In a banquet scene recorded in the Baal and Anat cycles the following passage
attempts to show the great amount of the wine presented to Baal:
He stands, serves liquor, and gives him drink.
He places a cup in his hand,
A flagon in the grasp of his hand;
A vessel large and conspicuous.
A jar to dumbfound a mortal;
A holy cup of woman ne'er seen,
Only Asherah beholds such a flagon.
He takes a thousand pots of wine,
Mixes ten thousand in his mixture.15
44 GRACE JOURNAL
Later in the epic we read:
[O'er] thousand ['fields' in the] sea,
Ten thousand [acres] in the floods.
[Tra]verse Gabal, traverse Qa 'al,
Traverse lhat-nop-shamem. . .
From a thousand fields, ten thousand acres,
At Kotha[r]s feet bow and fall down,
Prostrate thee and do him honor.16
This literary device was also known to the Old Testament scribes and was used by
them numerous occasions. The question raised in Deut. 32:30 is an example of this
How should one chase a thousand,
and two put ten thousand to flight,
except their rock had sold them,
and the Lord had shut them up?17
Again in Psa. 91:7 we read:
A thousand shall fall at thy side,
and ten thousand at they right hand;
but it shall not come nigh thee.18
The other occurrences of this expression are found in antithetic parallelisms. The
song dedicated to David employs these two numbers and their effectiveness is
illustrated by Saul's immediate response.19
And the women answered one another
as they played, and said,
Saul hath slain his thousands and20
David his ten thousands (I Sam. 18:7 KJV).
"It is obvious that in this verse the two numbers are contrasted with each other in
accordance with the intention of the verse, that is, the exaltation of David over
Saul."21 The interpretation of numbers which occur in the numerical sequence
x/x+l in synonymous, synthetic and antithetic parallelisms, therefore, must be
interpreted in the light of the literary idiom and context, not necessarily the actual
value of the number. This does not mean that the numbers employed the x/x+1
sequence in parallelism never have mathematical value, for they quite commonly
do. Their literary and/or mathematical values must be determined by the context
X/X+ 1 As A Mathematical Expression
As observed above, there are instances when the climactic formula x/x+l
does have actual numerical value. When this formula takes on numerical
value, it will usually be found
THE RHETORICAL USE OF NUMBERS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT 45
opening lines of a text, and the value usually referred to will be the second number
n (i.e. x+1). Prov. 30:18 reads:
There be three things which are too wonderful for me,
yea, four which I know not.22
In the verses that follow four things are actually listed. Ugaritic literature also
employs the x/x+ 1 sequence in the same manner. In the Baal Epic, to which we
have already alluded, there is an excellent example of this phenomenon:
Baal hates two sacrifices,
Three, the Rider of Clouds:
The sacrifice of shame
And the sacrifice of baseness'
And the sacrifice of the murmur of handmaids.23
Examples of numerical sayings of this type are also found in Aramaic. In the
following has been preserved:
Two things are an ornament (to a man),
of three there is pleasure to Samas:
One who drinks (?) wine
and also gives it (to others) to drink,
one who restrains (his) wisdom. . . (?)
and (one who) hears a thing and does not
reveal (it to others).24
In the above examples the literary force of the numerical phrase is the same as the
examples cited in synonymous parallelisms, but with the additional factor of the
numbers having actual mathematical values. In all cases examined, in both the
Bible and extra-biblical literature, the only number receiving literal values was the
second (x+1) which was always the higher number.
THE IDIOMATIC USE OF NUMBERS
In the Old Testament and in extra-biblical literature there is a large group of
numerical sayings that are, in meaning, different from the above, but at the same
time share in some fundamental structural similarities. In both poetical and prose
portions of the Old Testament there are numerous times when the sequence x/x+ 1
is found as one phrase in one sentence. The numbers either appear asyndetically
one beside the other or are joined by the waw have conjunction especially when a
preposition or negation stands between the two numbers.25 The following Old
Testament passages belong to this group:
46 GRACE JOURNAL
. . . a maiden or two for every man (Judges )
. . . who is on my side? Who? Two or three eunuchs looked out at him
(II Kings 9:32)
. . .we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a work for one day or for two. . .
On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses he that is to die shall
be put to death. . . (Deut. 17:6).
Gleanings will be left in it, as when an olive tree is beaten
two or three berries in the top of the highest bough, four or five on the
branches of a fruit tree. . . (Isa. 17:6).
So two or three cities wandered to one city . . . (Amos 4:8).26
The same sequence is employed in the New Testament:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the
midst of them (Matt. ).
Now there were six waterpots of stone set there after the Jews' manner of
purifying, containing two or three firkins apiece (John 2:6).27
In all these instances the addition of the second number calls attention to the fact
that the first number is not meant to be an exact sum. When, therefore, the
sequence x/x+l appears in juxtaposition in a single phrase, the reference is always
to a somewhat indefinite numerical value. Perhaps it is intended to express the
concept of a "few" or "a small number."
There are abundant parallels to this phenomenon in extra-biblical texts. In
the Gilgamesh Epic (Old Babylonian Version), Tablet II, col. II, lines 6, 7 the
following sequence occurs:
For six days and seven nights Enkidu came forth
Mating with the l[ass].28
The Middle Assyrian Laws also provide a parallel: I
If a seignior's wife, having deserted her husband, has entered the house of
an Assyrian, whether it was in the same city or in some neighboring city,
where he set her up in a house, (and) she stayed with the mistress of the
house (and) spent the night (there) three (or) four times, without the master
of the house knowing that the seignior's wife was staying in his house. . .29
Evidence for the use of this literary device in Egyptian and Hittite cultures is
in the version of the "Treaty Between the Hittites and
. . . if a man or two men--no matter who flee. . . (Egyptian version).
THE RHETORICAL USE OF NUMBERS IN TH OLD TESTAMENT 47
If one man flees from
In all instances the sequence x/x+ 1 has the idea of a "few."
In the Old Testament and in contemporary Semitic and non -Semitic
inscriptions the numerical sequence x/x+l can be utilized in two ways: (1) It may
be employed in a synonymous, synthetic or antithetic parallelism and when it is so
employed, it functions to climax or intensify the sense. The numbers mayor may
not have mathematical values. The determination of possible numerical values in
this usage must be derived from the context in which the expression occurs. (2) It
could be used merely to indicate a concept such as a "few. " In most instances of
this type the sequence occurs in the same phrase and it mayor may not take the
1. One type is when the expression x/x+l occurs in on~ sentence and the other is
when it occurs in two separate sentences.
2. W. M. W. Roth, "The Numerical Sequence x/x+l in the Old Testament, " Vetus
Testamentum, Vol. 12 (July, 1962), p. 304.
3. Amos 1:3 cf. 1:6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6.
4. Kautzsch, ed., Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, I 2nd. ed. rev. by A. E. Cowley
(Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1910), p. 437.
J. B. Pritchard, ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton:
Press, 1955), p. 132.
6 . Ibid., p. 134.
7. Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugaritic
1949), pp. 55, 56. c
8 Ibid., p. 56.
9. Ibid., Text 128:, p. 75. Cf. ANET, p. 143.
10. Ibi., Text 3:30ff, p. 93.
11. W. F. Albright, "An Aramaean Magical Text in Hebrew From the Seventh
Century B. C." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research,
No. 76 (Dec., 1939), p. 9.
12. Cf. "The Epic of Gilgamesh," Tablet VII:iv: ANET, p. 87.
13. Gerhard Meier, ed. Die assyrische
1937), p. 45 quoted by Roth, op. cit., p. 305, (Underlining mine).
14. Ibid., (Underline mine).
15. "Poems about Baal and Anath" (VAB, A,) ANET, p. 136.
16. Ibid., (VAB, F,) ANET, p. 138. Cf. also Baal II, viii, 24, p. 135.
48 GRACE JOURNAL
19. I Sam. 18:8. This song gained such wide popularity that even the Philistines
knew (cf. I Sam. 29:5).
20. The translation of the conjunction here is better I "but" than "and" since the
poetry antithetic parallelism. Cf. also I Sam. 21: 11.
21. Roth, op. cit., p. 303.
22. KJV ct. Psa. 62:11 Job 5:19, 33:14, 40:5; Prov. :16, 30:15, 21, 29.
23. Cyrus H. Gordon, op. cit., p. 30.
24. A. Cowley, ed., Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B. C.,
(Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1923), p. 215 (col. IV, 92-93a).
25. Cf. Roth, op. cit., p. 308.
26. All verses from RSV. Cf. also Jer. 3: 14; Job 33:29; Ex. 20:5; II Kings 13:9;
Eccl. 11:2; and Jer. 36:23.
27. ASV. Also cf. I Cor. 14:29 (Underlining mine).
28. Translated by E. A. Speiser, ANET, p. 77.
29. Law #24, Translator Theophile J. Meek, ANET, p. 182 (Underlining mine).
30. Egyptian version translated by John A. Wilson, ANET, p. 200.
Hittite version translated by Albrecht Goetze, ANET, p. 203.
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