Numbers in the Bible

As within many other religious and cultural contexts, certain numbers carry symbolic significance in the Bible. Their recurrence helps draw attention to common themes and parallel events. They are especially prevalent in apocalyptic literature, such as parts of Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament
The book of Numbers, which records the culmination of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt and settlement in the Promised Land, begins with a detailed census in which each tribe is ‘numbered’, hence the title.

‘Complete’ or ‘perfect’ numbers

One, three, seven, ten and twelve all have connotations of completeness and/or perfection, with different specific associations.


The number one naturally represents perfect unity. Deuteronomy 6:4 forms the opening words of the important Hebrew prayer known as the Shema, emphasising the essential oneness of God.


The common Christian belief in a three-person Godhead (the Trinity) finds basis in such passages as Matthew 28:18-20. Other significant instances of the number three include:


The Holy of Holies illustration from the 1890 Holman BibleSeven is established as a complete and (divinely) perfect number in the opening chapters of the Bible, which describe God creating the earth in six days and resting on the seventh Genesis 2:1-3. The pattern is reflected in the command to observe the last day of each week as a day of sabbath rest Deuteronomy 5:12-14
Throughout the Bible, many other objects, events and commands appear in sets of seven:
In Revelation there are over fifty occurrences of the number seven, including:


Ten forms a common base for numeral systems, probably arising from the human tendency to use one’s fingers as a counting aid. It therefore has a natural sense of completeness (it is a ‘nice round number’) which is borne out in its recurrence in the Bible, as elsewhere. It is held to have particular legal significance via the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai Exodus 20:1-17. Other instances include:


The number twelve has special associations with authority and governance. There were twelve tribes of Israel, descended from Jacob’s twelve sons Genesis 49:1-28. In the New Testament, Jesus appointed twelve disciple3 who later become the apostles Matthew 10:2-4
Representing the twelve tribes of Israel:

Other significant numbers 


  • The two Testaments of the Bible relate to two (Old and New) covenants between God and humankind
  • Sometimes pairing indicates union, as in marriage Genesis 2:23-24 and the marriage-like relationship between Jesus and the church Ephesians 5:22-29. The animals entered Noah’s Ark in male/female couples (Genesis 6:19-20)
  • Elsewhere pairs are used for contrast, for example between the ‘first man’ Adam and the ‘second man’ Jesus 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 and in the parable of the two builders (Matthew 7:24-27


Because humans are created on day six Genesis 1:26-27; Genesis 1:31, that number is sometimes associated with humankind. The fact that six ‘falls short’ of the perfection of seven (see above) is used as a reminder that humans fall short of God’s perfection.


Forty is a number associated with testing and trial. It is also a generic way of expressing ‘a long time’. It first appears in Genesis 7:4, when God warned Noah of forty days of rain to come, and a subsequent flood. It features heavily in the Exodus story:

Other instances include:

The number 666 (or 616 in some manuscripts) appears only once in the Bible Revelation 13:16-18 but has assumed significance because of its frightening association with ‘the beast’ – the opponent of Jesus and of his people on the earth.


  • Biblically significant numbers play an important role throughout Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1308-1320): it comprises three canticas, each of thirty-three cantos, with lines arranged in tercets. The narrator journeys through three realms of the dead; hell has nine circles, purgatory nine rings, paradise nine celestial bodies of paradise. Each one is associated with a ‘moral scheme’ comprising seven elements
  • The ‘three trees on the low sky’ in [3T.S. Eliot3]’s Journey of the Magi are a reference to the three crosses at Jesus’ crucifixion; ‘six hands’ dicing for silver is a reference to Judas’ betrayal, six being associated with imperfect humankind
  • Umberto Eco’s postmodern medieval murder mystery The Name of the Rose (1980) is peppered throughout with biblically significant numbers, especially drawn from Revelation
  • The chapters of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (2003) are numbered by consecutive primes, to reflect the protagonist’s preoccupancy with mathematics.

Other cultural references

  • The nursery rhyme ‘One, two, buckle my shoe’ (c.1805) is an example of a counting-out rhyme used in children’s games to select a person to be ‘it’.

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