The Numerical World of Zechariah
Woodcut engraving by an unknown artist of an angel handing Zechariah a measuring line (Zechariah 2:1); after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794 - 1872), published in 1877.
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson December 5-11: Haggai; Zechariah 1-3, 7-14
We are told in Zechariah 1:1: “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, came the word of the Lord unto Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo the prophet…” Darius the Great was king of Persia from 522 BC until his death in 486 BC.1 Therefore, this revelation was received around 520 BC. According to Bible Hub,2 this verse is seen as: “In the eighth (הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י; haš·šə·mî·nî; an ordinal number – indicating a position in a series of numbers) month (בַּחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙; ba·ḥō·ḏeš; the new moon, a month) of the second (שְׁתַּ֖יִם; šə·ta·yim; a cardinal number – indicating an amount – how many of something)year (בִּשְׁנַ֥ת; biš·naṯ; a year)…”
Then we read in Zechariah 1:7, “Upon the four and twentieth day of the eleventh month, which is the month Sebat, in the second year of Darius, came the word of the Lord unto Zechariah…” Again we can read this passage in Bible Hub:3 “On the twenty-fourth (עֶשְׂרִ֨ים; ‘eś·rîm; twenty; for some reason רִבֵּעִ֖ים; rib·bê·‘îm, meaning fourth, was left out here in the Bible Hub translation; twenty is listed as a common pleural number) day (בְּיוֹם֩; bə·yō·wm; day) of the eleventh (לְעַשְׁתֵּֽי־; lə·‘aš·tê- eleventh; a common singular number) month (חֹ֙דֶשׁ֙; ḥō·ḏeš; the new moon, a month), the month (חֹ֣דֶשׁ; ḥō·ḏeš; the new moon, a month) of Shebat (שְׁבָ֔ט; šə·ḇāṭ; eleventh month in the Jewish calendar), in the second (שְׁתַּ֖יִם; šə·ta·yim; two, a cardinal number) year (בִּשְׁנַ֥ת; biš·naṯ; year) of Darius (לְדָרְיָ֑וֶשׁ; lə·ḏā·rə·yā·weš; Darius), the word (דְבַר־; ḏə·ḇar-; word) of the Lord (יְהוָ֗ה; Yah·weh; the proper name of the God of Israel)came (הָיָ֣ה; hā·yāh; to fall out, come to pass, become, be) to (אֶל־; ’el-; near, with, among, to) the prophet (הַנָּבִ֖יא; han·nā·ḇî; a spokesman, speaker, prophet) Zechariah (זְכַרְיָה֙; zə·ḵar·yāh; Zachariah)…”
What we learn from these two verses is a little about the Hebrew numerical system, presumably around the fifth and sixth centuries BC, as well as the name of one of the Hebrew lunar months.
We still use ordinal numbers and cardinal numbers in our modern language. An ordinal number (first, second, third, etc.) is an adjective and denotes the position of something (a noun) in a series. For example, a person’s position in a group is designated as first person, second person, third person, etc. Ordinal numbers cannot be manipulated mathematically. For example, adding the first person and the second person does not equal the third person in a group of people. A cardinal number, on the other hand, is a noun denoting a quantity (one, two, three, etc.). Cardinal numbers can be manipulated mathematically, such as one plus two equals three.
The Hebrews, of course, had their own names for the cardinal numbers: א (alef; one), ב (bet; two), ג (gimel; three), etc. However, the Biblical Hebrews, and everyone else in the world for that matter, did not use symbols for their numerical system (1, 2, 3, etc.), making the expression of very large numbers difficult and mathematical manipulation of large numbers nearly impossible. The Hebrew numeric system operated on an additive principle in which the numeric values of the letters were added together to form the total. For example, one hundred twenty three is represented as גבא, or three plus twenty plus one hundred equals one hundred twenty three.
Our modern numerical symbols (1, 2, 3, etc.) were not invented until around the first to fourth centuries AD, by mathematicians in India. They are referred to in Europe and the Americas as Arabic numerals, because they came to Europe around the tenth century from Arabic mathematicians, who started using this Indo-Arabic numeral system in the ninth century.4 Our concept of numerical symbols is based on the idea that each symbol stands for a certain number of items, such as straight lines; thus 1 = l, 2 = ll, 3 = lll, etc. Roman numerals used the lines directly and then began adding symbols for groups, such as V = IIIII. Again, this system is very difficult to manipulate mathematically.
The Hebrew numerical system was not a base ten system as we use with Arabic numerals, but, rather was a base nine system – zero was not invented until the Indo-Arabic numeral system came along. Therefore, the number ten would be expressed as nine plus one (9+1), eleven would be expressed as nine plus two (9+2), and 12 would be nine plus three (9+3).
Furthermore, the Hebrew, and even Greek, numerical systems only went as far as thousands. There was no word in early Hebrew or Greek for “million,” let alone a “billion.”5 Therefore, extremely large numbers were simply, and literally, not part of their vocabulary. The word “million” only appears once in the King James Version of the Old Testament, in Genesis 24:60: “And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.” According to Bible Hub, the Hebrew phrase is: לְאַלְפֵ֣י (lə·’al·p̄ê; a thousand) רְבָבָ֑ה (rə·ḇā·ḇāh; multitude, myriad, ten thousand). According to Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers: this phrase should be “thousands of ten thousands.” “A million was a number which at this early period the Hebrews had no means of expressing.”6 So the authors of the King James Bible, in 1611, mistranslated “a multitude, a myriad, or ten thousand” into “a million.”
I will come back to this concept later, but first let’s look at the Hebrew system of measure. We read in Zechariah 2:1-2, “I lifted up mine eyes again, and looked, and behold a man with a measuring line in his hand. Then said I, Whither goest thou? And he said unto me, To measure Jerusalem, to see what is the breadth thereof, and what is the length thereof.” Hebrew measurements were based upon the width of a hand (one palm). One span (the distance covered by the abducted digits) was three palms, and one ell, or cubit (the distance from the elbow to the tip of the extended fingers), was two spans. One mil was two thousand cubits and one parasang was four mils. Measuring lines were used to measure those longer distances. Obviously, because hand widths and forearm lengths varied from person to person, the absolute distances measured also varied.
We can next examine the Hebrew calendar. We were told in Zechariah 1:7 that the eleventh month was called “Sebat,” and, according to Bible Hub, the term “month” referred to the new moon, meaning that the Hebrew calendar was a lunar calendar. From the time of the captivity (597 - 538 BC), the Hebrews, and most everyone around them, used the Babylonian lunar calendar, including using modified Babylonian/Chaldean names. The twelve Hebrew months were: Nissan, Iyar, Siwan, Tamuz, Ab, Elul, Tishrei, Marcheshvan, Kislev, Tebeth, Sebat, and Adar. Before the captivity, the first month of the year was called Aviv, which means “spring” and “barley ripening.” After the captivity, the name was changed to Nissan, for the Babylonian Nisanu, but the time of year was the same. A lunar year is eleven days shorter than the solar year of 365 days. In order to keep the lunar calendar in line with the seasons, Hebrew scholars would examine the ripeness of the barley – winter barley which is planted in the fall, to take advantage of maximum moisture, and ripens in the spring. If the barley was not yet ripe at the beginning of Adar and the equinox had not yet occurred, then an extra month, called Adar I was added to the calendar year, and Adar became known as Adar II that year – the leap year. As can be seen in Zechariah 1:1, years were counted from significant dates, such as the reigns of kings, as in “the second year of Darius.”7
Because the Biblical Hebrews had no concept of extremely large numbers, it was difficult, if not impossible, for them to consider how long the earth had existed before their time on it, for example, “the second year of Darius.” The Bible never explicitly dates the creation of the earth, and with the Biblical Hebrews thinking only in terms of thousands, it was impossible for them to think much beyond the life of the most remote ancestors they could imagine – Adam and Eve. It is certain that the Hebrew scholars had no real idea of the length of time between Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” and Genesis 2:15, “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” The account of the creation in Genesis 1 is given in “days,” but those could not have been actual 24-hour days because, according to Genesis 1:14-19, the sun wasn’t even created until the fourth day. Furthermore, Adam was told in Genesis 2:17, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The word for day here is the same as the “day” in Genesis 1: י֔וֹם (yō·wm); therefore, if we believe the Genesis “day” was only 24 hours, then Adam died 24 hours after eating the fruit.
Some people have suggested that the “days” in Genesis were one thousand year periods, but, again, this notion is limited by the inability of Biblical people – or even people up until only a couple hundred years ago – to think much beyond a thousand. It is now just as easy for us to think of those creative “days” as periods of a million years or even a billion or more years. Why should we allow the fact that the Biblical Hebrews had no concept of millions or billions to keep us, in our modern era, from combining the Biblical narrative with the scientific narrative of the earth’s creation and age? I have addressed this and other issues in my book, The Infinite Creation – a perfect Christmas gift for those who think in both science and theology.
1. Dāḡestān (ancient Albania) In, Encyclopaedia Iranica, iranicaonline.org/articles/Dagestan, retrieved 30 November 2022
2. biblehub.com/zechariah/1-1.htm, retrieved 30 November 2022
3. biblehub.com/zechariah/1-7.htm, retrieved 30 November 2022
4. Brezina, Corona, Al-Khwarizmi: The Inventor of Algebra, Rosen Publishing, New York, pp. 39–40, 2006
5. Just, Felix, The Symbolism of Numbers in the Bible; catholic-resources.org/Bible/Numbers.htm; retrieved 30 November 2022
6. biblehub.com/genesis/24-60.htm; retrieved 1 December 2022
7. Richards, E. G., Mapping time: the calendar and its history, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998