One of the challenges in reading the Book of Revelation is that it is very theologically dense in the way it presents its ideas. There are several reasons for this:
- Its dense metaphorical language (commonly called its ‘symbolism’) carries theological weight. For example, the compressed phrase ‘a lamb, looking as though it had been slain, standing…’ (Rev 5.6) is only four words in Greek ἀρνίον ἑστηκὸς ὡς ἐσφαγμένον yet it encapsulates the idea of Jesus as crucified and risen, conquering not through the violent oppression of imperial power but through self sacrifice as a faithful witness to God, in turn offering an example for his disciples to follow.
- Its use of a dense network of allusions to the Old Testament, interweaved with cultural ideas from its first century context, both of which would have been well known to John as writer and many of his readers. We can see this in the combination of imagery in Rev 4–5 in depicting the ‘worship of heaven’ using language of OT worship integrated with language from the imperial cult. In a similar way, Rev 12 uses the plot of the Leto myth but populates it with characters from the biblical story.
- John uses numbers and their symbolic significance to do a lot of theological ‘heavy lifting’. So the New Jerusalem is described as a cube of 12,000 stadia, a giant, global replica of the Holy of Holies in the first temple (1 Kings 6.20), implying that the people of God dwell in intimacy in the presence of the holiness of God, and thus serve as high priests, something confirmed by having the name of God and of the lamb on their foreheads (Rev 22.4). In a similar vein, the enumerated Israel of God in Rev 7.4–8 (who are also the uncountable people of God from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ in Rev 7.9) are 144,000, a square times a cube, signifying that, in the overlap of the ages as we await the full consummation of the kingdom of God, they function as the temple presence of God in the world (compare 1 Cor 3.16 and 1 Peter 2.5; in the latter, we are both the holy place and the priesthood serving within it).
These three things often overlap and interact, so that (for example) the meaning of numerical symbolism itself depends on understanding the Old Testament background. A particularly important example is John’s use of the triple time reference ‘time, times and half a time’ = 42 months = 1,260 days in Rev 11–12. Even before we consider the symbolic significance of these numbers, separately and together, we can see their importance in the structure of the narrative. On the one hand, every commentator notes that radical shift in register of language between the end of chapter 11 and the beginning of chapter 12; as a result, most comment that the disjuncture here is the most obvious break within the text. On the other, the threefold time reference only occurs in these two chapters, and serves to tie them very closely to one another in a modified chiastic pattern:
11.2 The nations will trample the holy city for forty-two months
11.3 my two witnesses will prophesy for 1,260 days
12.6 the woman is nourished for 1,260 days
12.14 the woman is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time
13.5 the beast exercises authority for forty-two months.
As I note in my IVP Tyndale Commentary on Rev 11.2, John describes the trampling of the (spiritual) temple as the ‘time of the Gentiles’, which Matthew 24 connects with Daniel’s time of desolation, as 42 months, which in a calendar of 12 months per year equates to three and a half years, or a ‘half week’ of years (as in Dan. 7:25; 9:27; 12:7). The significance of 42 within the biblical canon is that it is the number of ‘stations’ or places where God’s people camped during the journey through the wilderness according to the listing in Numbers 33. (Although the number 42 is not mentioned in the listing of ‘stations’ in Num 33, the number has been important in both Jewish and Christian traditions. The Italian mediaeval writer Dante modeled his poetic work La Vita Nuova on the stations in its 42 chapters.)
John is therefore further identifying the ‘time of the Gentiles’ and their trampling not only with the suffering of the half-week of Daniel but also with the time of the wilderness wanderings which followed the ten plagues of Egypt and deliverance of the Passover.
John has previously used square and cubed numbers (144, 1,000) to signify the people of God, and will do so again in the vision of the New Jerusalem. He will use a ‘triangular’ number – one that can be represented by objects arranged in a triangle of equal sides, like the 15 red balls as the start of a frame of snooker – to signify the arch enemy of God’s people in the number of the beast (666, the 36th triangular number). At the start of this apocalyptic, prophetic letter, he described himself as a subject both of the ‘kingdom’ and of the ‘suffering’ that comes from hostility to God’s people, being in exile on Patmos (1:9). If the priestly kingdom of God and his people (1:6) is signified by square numbers, and the suffering arising from opposition by the forces of evil is signified by triangular numbers, it would fit if John is using rectangular numbers to signify the overlap of the two – numbers formed by multiplying not the same number by itself, but a number by its successor. Both 42 (= 6 x 7) and 1,260 (= 35 x 36) are rectangles; rectangles look very much like squares, but are also closely related to triangles since each rectangle is double the corresponding triangle (42 is twice the sixth triangle 21, and 1,260 is twice the 35th triangle 630).
The number 42 is therefore doing a large amount of theological work:
- by its allusion to the period of wilderness wanderings in the Exodus;
- by its identification numerically with the time of tribulation in Daniel;
- by its mathematical significance as a rectangular number, standing between the squares numbers of holiness and the triangular numbers of evil and opposition to God.
John is therefore telling his readers about the time they are living in, a time which theologically (between Jesus ascension and his return) we are living in too.
First, this is the ‘time of the nations’ or ‘gentiles’, in that it appears as though God’s people (as his temple, his dwelling place on earth) are being trampled just as the Jerusalem temple was trampled by the power of Rome. Yet it is also a time of preservation and protection, since the inner part of the temple – the spiritual heart of God’s people – enjoys his presence and assurance.
Secondly, this is a transitional time of journeying, since God’s people are travelling from one station to another, having been set free from slavery (enslaved not by Egypt but by sin, Rev. 1:5) but having not yet entered the promised land of dwelling in the full presence of God which is the constant hope on the horizon in every section of Revelation.
Thirdly, by a clever numerical identification, this journeying of 42 ‘stages’ is also the time of tribulation anticipated in the visions of Daniel.
This is a time for God’s people of maintaining the true worship of God by refusing to compromise their allegiance and instead fulfilling their calling to be a kingdom of priests. It is a time to offer prophetic testimony to God, just as the prophets before them had done so even though they too had suffered oppression. It is a time in which the nations gloat over their failure and even death, and yet a time when they experience God’s resurrection power. Although they are a small, vulnerable group, in their faithfulness they follow the example of their Lord and so experience both crucifixion and resurrection as he did.
But this number might be doing even more work, because of another significance in the Old Testament which I had not previously noticed. James Bejon, who is a researcher at Tyndale House in Cambridge, just published this exploration of the number 42 in relation to the year of Jubilee.
Ezra 2’s list of clans deserves serious attention. Consider, for a start, some of its numerical properties.
- It begins with the classic introduction to Biblical lists of people, viz. ‘Now these…’ (וְאֵלֶּה), which has a gematrial value of 42.
- Its historical purpose is to detail the community membership of a total of 42,000 individuals (to the nearest thousand) (Ezra 2.64).
- Its main body consists of 42 head-counts.
- Its list of Temple staff consists of 42 clans (35 clans of Temple servants, 6 clans of gatekeepers, and one clan of singers).
- And its lowest number happens to be 42—that is to say, its smallest clan consists of 42 individuals. (Note: My calculations exclude the clans listed in Ezra 2.59–62, since they are explicitly said to have been unable to document their ancestry, given which their priests were excluded from the priesthood. For details, see the Appendix.)
That Ezra 2 is built around the number 42 is significant, since the number 42 is connected with the climax of a Jubilee cycle, which is precisely what Ezra 2 describes.
Consider a few notable properties of the number 42:
- Scripture views half a week of years as ‘42 months’ (e.g., Rev. 11.2, 13.5), which anticipates the completion of a full week (and ultimately of a week of weeks). Note how the 42 months of Revelation 11 lead up to the moment when the seventh angel blows his trumpet (shofar?) and declares God’s ownership of the earth (‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord!’), which is of course the foundational principle of the Jubilee, viz. ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine!’ (Lev. 25.23). Like the Israelites, we are mere tenants.
- The number 42 is made up of six groups of seven (6 x 7), in which respect it anticipates a seventh week, i.e., the climax of a Jubilee cycle.
- The Gospels depict the arrival of the Messiah as the culmination of both a 42-generation genealogy and a 84-year wait (42 x 2 years) (hence Jesus’ announcement of ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’: Luke 4.19).
- And 42 happens to be the gematrial value of the word ‘Jubilee’ (יֹבֵל).
The number 42 is thus a distinctly Jubilee-esque number. Meanwhile, the text of Ezra is (canonically) intended to signal a second Jubilee moment in Israel’s history. Consider, by way of illustration, the shape of the book of Chronicles and the way it flows into the book of Ezra: in chs. 1–9, the Chronicler settles the twelve tribes in their respective territories; then, in the main body of the book, the Chronicler describes the disintegration of the Israelites’ unity; and, at the climax of the book, the Chronicler describes the rise of Jehoiachin and his generation, which represents the 49th generation from Adam—or, counted inclusively (like the Jubilee), the 50th (cp. Lev. 25.8ff.).
Appropriately, then, in the book of Chronicles’ final paragraph, Jehoachin’s generation is returned to their homeland (2 Chr. 36), in the aftermath of which each man is said to ‘settle in his own town’ (Ezra 2.1) in true Jubilee fashion.
The text of Ezra thus depicts a fresh start for Israel—the inauguration of a second Jubilee cycle in the nation’s history. And these notions are embodied in the numerical properties of Ezra’s clan list:
- Ezra’s clans are headed up by twelve leaders (1.11–2.2), which serves to portray them as a new Israel.
- Ezra’s list consists of 98 clans, i.e., a double-Jubilees’ worth (7 x 7 x 2; Ezra 2.3–57).
- And the total head-count of Ezra’s assembly amounts to 42,360, which is noteworthy since 42 is the gematrial value of ‘Jubilee’ (as we have seen) and 360 is the value of ‘second’ (שֵׁנִי).
That point is underlined by the numerical properties of John’s Gospel:
- John is built around a Jubilee-esque chronological framework, as I’ve sought to show here.
- John has a particular interest in Jesus’ selection and preservation of ‘the twelve’ (cp. John 6.67ff. with 6.39, 18.9), which resonates with Ezra’s twelve leaders.
- John refers to Jesus’ disciples by name exactly 98 times (cp. below), which resonates with Ezra’s 98 named clans.
- And the numbers associated with Ezra’s list of clans are spelt out by means of exactly 153 Hebrew words, which resonates with John’s count of 153 fish at the end of his Gospel. (Note: In my calculations, I’ve excluded surnames—e.g., I’ve only counted ‘Judas Iscariot’ as a single name occurrence; similarly, in the case of Ezra’s clan names, I’ve excluded higher level clans—e.g., I’ve only counted ‘the sons of Pahath-Moab, namely of Jeshua and Joab’ as two clan names [‘Jeshua’ and ‘Joab’] rather than three.)
Viewed against the backdrop of Ezra, then, John’s epilogue anticipates the formation of a new covenant community (the Church), which it sees as the culmination of a long, Jubilee-shaped sweep of history. And that community, John tells us, will ‘gather into one’ (cp. John 11.52’s εἰς ἕν with Ezra 2.64’s כְּאֶחָד) ‘all the children of God’—a phrase which seems particularly apt in light of the gematrial value of the Hebrew for ‘children of God’ (בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים), viz. 153.
In his full article, James includes all the tables of his calculations, so that (for instance in his claims about the number of times names are mentioned in John) anyone can test his working and see whether his claim is true—which is a vital part of the argument.
There are some important things to note out of all this; I will start with the most general, and move to the more specific.
First, for most ordinary readers (and not a few specialists) the temptation will be to throw one’s hands up in the air at all this speculative stuff! But there are two important issues to note. For one thing, in a culture where copying of texts is done by hand, and where great attention is paid to the actual words on the page (or parchment, or papyrus), noticing numbers of terms and frequency of their occurrence is actually a quite natural approach to reading and writing. And in a world where there is no separate number system, so every letter has a number and thus every word has a value, noticing the numbers associated with letters and words is also a natural part of reading and writing.
Related to that, the reason why it is important that James includes his actual calculations is so that we can see whether this is indeed part of the text, and not just some imagined system in the mind of the modern reader.
Secondly, the importance of this kind of numerical composition is not that it provides some secret, magical code, but that the numbers, alongside the semantic content of the language, are bearers of meaning. The readers of Ezra are intended to understand that the return to the land and the restoration of both temple worship and Torah obedience are a new Jubilee. There is a theological issue at stake. Similarly, John intends his readers (including us) to understand the time we live in, the ‘inaugurated eschatology’ of the now and not yet of the kingdom of God, to be a time of tribulation, of provision by God, of wilderness journeying from slavery to the promised land—and, as it now turns out, as an anticipation of the Jubilee when Jesus returns, some of which we are already experiencing.
Thirdly, there is a sense in which James’ observations about Ezra and the meaning of 42 add a further dimension to our reading of Revelation in the way I have just suggested. But perhaps it therefore also points to a connection between the OT texts themselves. Is the language of Jubilee itself connected with the desert wanderings in Exodus by means of the number 42? Is the rationale for Jubilee, with its affirmation of the land as God’s own, and the need for rest, not an integral part of the theology of the Exodus? Is Daniel’s language of abomination and tribulation perhaps also pointing to Jubilee as the final resolution of the situation of testing in exile?
Finally, given the theological significance, the cultural function, and the evident presence of numerical composition of the biblical texts, isn’t it time for this kind of approach, done in a coherent and disciplined way, to come in from the cold and take its place in mainstream biblical studies?