The Rhetorical Use of Numbers in the Old Testament -- By: John J. Davis

Journal: Grace Journal
Volume: GJ 08:2 (Spring 1967)
Article: The Rhetorical Use of Numbers in the Old Testament
Author: John J. Davis


The Rhetorical Use of Numbers in the Old Testament

John J. Davis

Instructor, Hebrew and Old Testament
Grace Theological Seminary

[The above article is taken from the author’s doctoral dissertation presented to the faculty of Grace Theological Seminary in 1967.]

A very important use of numbers in the Old Testament is that for rhetorical or poetic effect. Whenever numbers are so used they are not to be understood literally nor symbolically. Much effort has been expended attempting to ascertain some hidden or mysterious meaning of rhetorical phrases using numbers. The intention of the writer in this usage is not to emphasize the mathematical value of the number primarily, but to express either intensity or other concepts such as “few,” “many,” etc.

There are, therefore, two basic applications of numbers in poetic structure.

The Climactic Use of Numbers

The arrangement of a numeral with its sequel within a clause, either syndetically or asyndetically, in Scripture is a common poetic device with numerous parallels in contemporary literature. The intention of such a device is to express the concept of intensification and/or progression. The actual value of the numbers in such cases is not significant.

This phenomenon is perhaps best expressed in the formula x/x+l. It occurs principally in poetic passages but not exclusively. Syntactically x/x+l may appear in the same sentence or in two different sentences. In most instances in the Old Testament it appears in poetical passages employing synonomous, synthetic and antithetical parallelisms. The following is a list of the occurrences of the x/x+l sequences in the Old Testament:

Sequence 1/2—Judges 5:30; Deut 32:30; 2 Kings 6:10; Jer 3:14; Ps 62:11; Job 33:14, 40:5; Ezra 10:13; Neh 13:20.

Sequence 2/3—Deut 17:6; 2 Kings 9:32; Isa 17:6; Hos 6:2; Amos 4:8; Job 33:29.

Sequence 3/4—Exod 20:5; 34:7

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