Monday, September 25, 2023

Anonymous Asks (268)

“Is numerology an important area of study?”

I recently had an extended conversation over coffee with an old friend who is away from the Lord and experiencing all kinds of family troubles as a result. Being male, he has difficulty admitting he needs help, so during our chat he constantly deflected by talking about everything else in the world other than the current state of his relationship with Christ. Donald Trump. The LGBTQ lobby. The deterioration of the school system. You name it, he talked about it.

Needless to say, we did not get to the bottom of his problems at home. The conversation was extended, but it was not of infinite duration. Eventually he had to leave to pick up his daughter from school, and that was that.

Numbers in scripture are freighted with intentional meaning; nobody can reasonably dispute that. Jacob had twelve sons, the Lord chose twelve apostles, Jerusalem had twelve gates, the New Jerusalem has twelve gates and twelve foundations, and the tree of life bears twelve kinds of fruit. That all adds up to something. The word “twelve” occurs 189 times in the Bible, and in more than a few of these references that total may bear some significance. Thus, many suggest the writers of scripture (and therefore the Holy Spirit) intended the number twelve to convey the idea of perfection and authority. That’s just one number among many that were probably intended to say something to the Bible’s original audience, and perhaps to us as well.

Silliness and Distraction

If pattern recognition is as far as we take it, well and good. But we should be wary of how easily a preoccupation with the possible meanings of numbers can degenerate into silliness and distraction. How do we reasonably distinguish between an occurrence of the number twelve that has significance we should not miss and an occurrence that doesn’t? In searching the scripture for connections that may have been placed there intentionally, are we discovering anything spiritually useful or are we just burning brain cells on idle speculations?

Consider Luke 8:42 and 43. In two verses, we are introduced to the dying twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus and a woman who had a discharge of blood for twelve years and had been unable to find a cure. Those twelves are probably there for a reason (not least that they reflect the facts of the two cases), but any connection to the ideas of perfection or authority requires a bit of a mental stretch, and when we have done it, I’m not sure we have really gotten anywhere useful. Are we supposed to start back-reading the alleged significance the number twelve into all such situations, and if not, into which situations should we read it? If the numbers are important, should we suppose the Lord would have ignored the needs of a dying girl of eleven or a woman who had been sick for fifteen years? More importantly, what is the main message Luke is trying to convey with these side-by-side accounts? If we miss that while trying to make the passage’s twelves fit into our little numerological schema, I would estimate we have lost the plot.

Counting the Baskets Instead of Learning the Lesson

Likewise, what are we to make of the story in Mark 8? The Lord warns his disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. The disciples immediately start nattering about the fact that they don’t have enough bread. The Lord reminds them of two times they were in situations where they did not have adequate bread. Each time, the Lord miraculously provided. Then he asks them twice, “How many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” In the first instance, the answer is our friend twelve, in the second instance seven, another number assigned consistent spiritual significance. The point is, perhaps, that when the Lord is with them, they never need to worry about packing lunch. With the Lord there is perpetual abundance.

Still, isn’t it tempting to ask why twelve or seven baskets? Don’t. Just … don’t. Or if you do, at least don’t get your brain in a knot over it. I would argue that if we get caught up in trying to read hidden meanings into the number of baskets in either case, we are doing almost exactly what the disciples were doing, missing the Lord’s main point. He wanted his followers to be on their guard against the way the Pharisees and Herod lived out and exemplified their professed religious beliefs. The foreign substance these worthies introduced into their observance of the law was toxic hypocrisy, burdening others with arcane rules and endless traditional extrapolations while never applying the practical lessons of the OT to themselves, where they were most urgently needed. They cluttered the scriptures with nonessentials and in doing so, missed their most obvious teaching. The Lord did not want his disciples to follow their bad example or make use of spiritually-dead methods of interpreting scripture. Instead, the disciples spent far too much time searching for hidden meanings in the plain words of their Master.

He who has ears, let him hear, as someone once said.

Gematria and Other Esoterica

This gets even sillier when we read about “hidden messages” in the word of God. Gematria is a system that assigns numbers to letters, words and phrases in the Hebrew to find what its proponents say are coded messages hidden in the text. But Hebrew is not my language. Even if such things genuinely exist and the Holy Spirit put them there, they were surely intended to speak to the hearts of ancient Hebrew scholars familiar with the practice, not to yours and mine. For English readers, the value of investigating such trivia is minimal and any real significance in the alleged hidden messages pales in comparison with the plain meaning of the scriptures from which they are derived.

All esoterica is like that. Take Psalm 119 as an example. Is my spiritual experience of the psalm vastly enhanced by the knowledge that its writer constructed it as an acrostic made up of 22 sections of eight statements each, each section beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet? To some minor degree, perhaps, but if I am honest, my interest in such things is primarily intellectual rather than spiritual. So now we know Psalm 119 was elaborately constructed along the lines of other ancient literary works. Does this factoid change anything about the meaning of the psalm? Not at all. It’s an interesting but inessential bit of knowledge that isn’t obvious to an English reader, and that I would not miss if I had never discovered it.

Study as Stewardship

When we talk about the importance of investing time in study, the question we must ask ourselves is “What else could I be studying with this block of time the Lord has made available to me?” Study time is not infinite, and therefore just like money, possessions and good health, it is a stewardship from God. Bible students who merely look things up to satisfy their curiosity may invest their time as they please, but most Bible teachers spend a few minutes a day of our study time on areas of personal interest and the rest of it on our next sermon, Bible study or blog post. But whether we are studying for others or for ourselves, necessity dictates that we spend the majority of our time working away at subjects that will meet the most urgent perceived needs and be of maximum benefit to the body of Christ. For me, that means not wasting a lot of time duplicating what others are already doing as well or better than I am.

But despite the fact that I often wind up in some of the more obscure places in scripture, numerology is one of those subjects I will never get to. Why? Because there are not enough hours in my life to justify spending significant chunks of rapidly disappearing time on something that provides such trivial spiritual value. I have always been good with math, and I know enough about it to realize that numbers can be made to say almost anything. When we can freely speculate about them, we can make them hop, skip and jump to our own preconceptions. What a useless exercise!

Whenever I have heard others preach on the meanings of Bible numbers and get lost in multiplying three by four or twelve by twelve, they sound almost as profound as men trying to interpret the chirpings of fruit bats. I can only imagine how they might sound to the unsaved, who would rightly be forgiven for mistaking them for fruit bats!

Quarreling About Words … or Whatever

Paul was not talking about numerology when he advised Timothy to charge those he was discipling “not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers”. Nor was numerology what he had in mind when he told Titus to rebuke the Cretans under his care so they would not devote themselves to “Jewish myths”, which are the opposite of sound doctrine. However, Jewish myths and debating semantics have this is common: like numerology, they are contentious, speculative and require “inside baseball” sort of knowledge. Paul’s point is that such matters are not fit for serious discussion among the people of God. They are a distraction from things that really matter. Even if we correctly interpret them, they will never tell us anything needful we don’t already know from the plain statements of God’s word.

Numbers can occasionally be affirming in small ways. A while back, for example, my study of the Lord’s “Sabbath breaking” turned up the fact that he did it precisely seven times. I’m not sure what to read into that, but there’s no way on earth four gospel writers over a period of almost fifty years collaborated to make that happen. I commented on that discovery here, but my primary interest in that post was to investigate what the Lord was doing on those Sabbaths, why he did it, and how he defended it to his detractors. Rightly so, I think. Making a major issue out of a tenuous connection with the number seven would be almost as useful as talking about Donald Trump for hours to a man whose marriage is falling apart.

We have better things to do with our time.

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