The Problem with Literal Numbers

by David Fincher, President of Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri

Another wrong approach to interpreting prophetic texts is to say that numbers are always literal. Prophetic texts in Daniel, Revelation, and other books oftentimes use numbers like 3, 7, and 10. For instance, Daniel 7:24 says, “As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings will arise; and another will arise after them, and he will be different from the previous ones and will subdue three kings.” In a passage like that, we would be well served to see if a literal interpretation is possible. And there are several reasonable interpretations that involve ten actual kings either in historic Rome, post Rome, continuing Rome, or revived Rome (Smith, J. E. (1992). The Major Prophets. Joplin, MO: College Press.) And that is reasonable in a passage speaking of specific kings. But there are other passages, even in the same book or genre of literature, using numbers that might be difficult to interpret literally. 

For instance, Daniel 9:27 says, “He will make a firm covenant with the many for one week” (NASB). Now this is complicated by the fact that the Hebrew literally has two numbers back to back: “one ‘seven’” (as translated by NIV). Some believe this means there is a seven-year period of time intended here, although the word “seven” by itself typically refers to a period of 7 days, not 7 years. But since there are two numbers back to back, they can’t both be literal. There is a simpler way in Hebrew to say 7 years or 7 days. Saying “one seven” means at least one of those numbers is better understood figuratively, whether it means 7 years, 7 days, or one short period of time.

It is clear in Jesus’ teaching that he used numbers both literally and symbolically. Matthew 13:33 says a woman placed leaven in 3 pecks of meal (NASB), which is often described as a large amount of flour, even though 3 is a small number. The point of that passage is clear: an item with a small size (leaven) can influence something large (NIV “about 60 pounds”). Notice how an accurate transition requires changing the number 3 to the number 60 in order to reflect the details of the passage regarding a peck.

This is an important point to remember when Jesus uses other numbers. For instance, He teaches His followers to forgive someone seven times in a day. It is probably less important to count to 7 when forgiving than it is to have a strong commitment to forgiveness, even if there are 6 or 8 sins. There are many examples of Jesus using the number 10 to describe a group of people or things (Virgins – Matt 25:1; Talents – Matt 25:28; Coins – Luke 15:8; Lepers – Luke 17:12; etc.). The literal meaning of ten is less important than the relationship or ratio of categories inside the group. 

The point is that we must always have an open mind to non-literal interpretations. Jesus used numbers to give a general impression. Prophetic literature has the same practice. Whether it is a thousand years (Revelation 20:6), forty-two months (Revelation 11:2), 144,000 with the Lamb (Revelation 14:1), or twenty-four elders (Revelation 4:4). Some numbers represent literal items with a literal meaning today (“An Egyptian led 4,000 men of the assassins into the wilderness” – Acts 21:38).  Some numbers represent literal items with a figurative meaning today (“twenty-three thousand fell in one day” – 1 Cor 10:8). Sometimes the numbers represent a figurative item with a literal meaning (“ten thousand words in a tongue” – 1 Cor 14:19). And sometimes they represent a figurative item with a figurative meaning today (“everything is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills” – Psalm 50:10). But the wrong way to approach a number is to assume that it has to be literal.