The Bible’s answer
Numbers in the Bible can often be taken literally, but they are sometimes used as symbols. The context usually indicates whether a particular number is used as a symbol. Consider these examples of the symbolic meaning of numbers in the Bible:
2 In a legal setting, two witnesses verify the truth of a matter. (Deuteronomy 17:6) Similarly, the repetition of a vision or a statement confirms the matter as sure and true. For example, when Joseph interpreted a dream given to Pharaoh of Egypt, he said: “The fact that the dream was repeated to Pharaoh twice means that the thing is firmly established on the part of the true God.” (Genesis 41:32) In prophecy, “two horns” can represent dual rulership, as the prophet Daniel was told regarding the Medo-Persian Empire.
—Daniel 8: 20, 21; Revelation 13:11.
6 Being one less than seven, which often represents completeness, six can stand for something incomplete or imperfect or something associated with God’s enemies.
—1 Chronicles 20:6; Daniel 3:1; Revelation 13:18.
7 This number is often used to represent the idea of completeness. For instance, the Israelites were commanded by God to march around Jericho on seven successive days and to march around seven times on the seventh day. (Joshua 6:
15) The Bible contains many similar examples of such a use of the number seven. (Leviticus 4:6; 25:8; 26:18; Psalm 119:164; Revelation 1: 20; 13:1; 17:10) When Jesus told Peter that he should forgive his brother “not, Up to seven times, but, Up to seventy-seven times,” the repetition of “seven” conveyed the thought of “without limit.” —Matthew 18:21, 22.
12 This number seems to represent a complete, divine arrangement. For example, the vision of heaven given to the apostle John included a city with “twelve foundation stones, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles.” (Revelation 21:14; Genesis 49:28) Multiples of 12 can have a similar meaning.
—Revelation 4:4; 7: 4-8.
Numerology and gematria
These symbolic meanings of numbers in the Bible are different from numerology, which involves looking for an occult meaning in numbers, their combinations, and numerical totals. For example, Jewish Cabalists have analyzed the Hebrew Scriptures using a technique called gematria, which looks for a hidden code in the numerical equivalents of letters. Numerology is a form of divination, which God condemns.
When we are reading a Bible verse, how can the context help us understand its meaning?