There’s got to be a significant reason that Jacob had twelve sons, not thirteen. . . right? For some reason, we have ten commandments, not eight. As Catholics, we celebrate seven sacraments, not five. Is there a connection between our Catholic faith today and the numbers found in Scripture?
If you’ve ever stopped to ponder whether these Biblical numbers mean something, you’re not alone.
Saint Augustine, in a letter replying to Tichonius the Donatist, wrote, “If Tichonius had said that these mystical rules open up some of the hidden recesses of the law, instead of saying that they reveal all the mysteries of the law, he would have spoken truth.”
Here’s a look at some numbers that you will encounter in the pages of the Bible (and why they’re so much more than just random place-holders!). After all, nothing is mere coincidence.
The most obvious place that four appears in Scripture is the fact that there are four Gospel writers. But you’ll encounter the number four in the beginning of the Bible, too.
In Genesis, four rivers flow throughout the Garden of Eden. They’re called Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel and the Euphrates (which mean ‘increase’, ‘bursting forth’, ‘rapid’, and ‘fruitfulness’).
The Garden is a foreshadowing of the New Jerusalem. In the book of Revelations, Saint John describes the City of Heaven as a perfect square with four even sides. Every dimensions described by Saint John is a multiple of four.
The fourth commandment (‘honor thy mother and father’) is the only commandment to come with a promise attached – long life in the land the Lord gives for those who obey it.
The Catholic faith today holds the belief that there are four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.
The number seven is one of the most significant numbers that you’ll find in Scripture. It’s a symbol of completeness on earth (think seven days of creation!) and perfection.
The authors of Scripture mention the number seven almost 500 times. It’s known as a number of the covenant. The Hebrew word for swearing an oath is “sheba.” In Hebrew tradition, if you made a covenant with someone, you would “seven” yourself.
What connection does this have with our Catholic faith today?
“The answer lies in realizing that the Latin word for oath is ‘sacramentum,’ from which we get the word sacrament,” writes Brian Pizzalato. “It also just happens to be the case that Christ instituted seven of these ‘sacramentum.’ So, Christ instituted seven covenant-making, and covenant-renewing, oaths.”
Read more: Where Are the Seven Sacraments in the Bible?
While seven symbolizes completeness here on earth, the number eleven represents incompleteness. It’s no coincidence that the world witness the rebellion of man against God with the building of the tower of Babel in Genesis chapter eleven.
The Gospels reveal the most striking example of the incomplete eleven. After Judas’ betrayal of Christ, the number of Apostles is eleven. After Pentecost, the Apostles select Matthias, who brings their number back up to twelve.
Before choosing Matthias as successor to Judas, the Apostles prayed, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.”
Seven reveals an earthly completeness, but twelve symbolizes maturity and totality.
For instance, there are twelve tribes of Israel. In the Old Testament, twelve loaves of show-bread (a foreshadowing of the Eucharist!) are placed on the table in Beit Hamikdash.
Twelve holds a significant place in Jewish tradition. It’s the age at which young boys celebrate Bat Mitzvah.
In the Gospels, Christ calls twelve men to be His followers. Today as Catholics, twelve still holds a special, symbolic place in our faith lives. We recognize twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit.