The Number of the Beast
© 22 September 2021 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Reflections on connotative numbers in honor of blog post number 666.


I read scriptures from my faith’s canon on a daily basis, and have for more than 30 years. I have not always had the same level of focus in my reading, but twenty minutes a day of reading and pondering is probably the mode and there have been several years when I’ve averaged over two hours a day.

Early on in my reading I also read various commentaries, but I soon noticed that many of the commentaries had only one source: the scriptures themselves. Once I noticed this, in the hubris of youth I decided I was as able as any scholar to interpret what I read and for many years I focused on the text itself alone, striving to create my own commentary.

One of the observations I made early on was that the collection of writings known to my faith as the Old Testament refers often to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, but there are either thirteen or fourteen such tribes. While Israel had twelve sons, Joseph has no tribe; rather, his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh each have one. Arguably Manasseh actually has two tribes, the tribe of Manasseh on the west of Jordan and the half-tribe of Manasseh on the east of Jordan, but those two are always combined when listing the twelve tribes. And it is usually twelve that get listed, not thirteen, so who gets left out?

In Numbers, Levi is omitted because they get a special inheritance with temple duties and no rural land. In each other case, there is no explanation of the omission nor even any in-text acknowledgement that a tribe was omitted; a tribe is simply left out. Why? The only reason I have come up with is “‍to make the count come to 12‍”.

This is not the only hoop-jump to get the number twelve in the old testament. Although not explicit in the text itself, current understanding of old testament time keeping says a new day starts each sunset, a new month starts on the first day boundary after a particular moon phase (i.e. every 29.53 days), and a new year starts on the first month boundary after a particular agricultural event (i.e., every 12.37 months). This means that more than ⅓ of years have thirteen months, but they still said there were only twelve: in the long years, one of the months (Adar) happens twice.

So we have two instances of playing fast and loose with the truth in order to say the whole is composed to twelve parts: Israel is twelve tribes (really more, but we always say it’s twelve) and the year is twelve months (really more, but we always say it’s twelve). But why? My postulate was that 12 had a connotation independent of the number itself. And with that postulate I began looking for the context of this and other numbers.

I recommend this process to any student of scripture. And not just with numbers: body parts, colors, times of day: many things that those of us of raised in a fact-based culture think of as factual have connotation as well as denotation in scripture and may well have been adjusted in the record to tell the more important feeling rather than the less interesting fact. The process of discovering these yourself is very rewarding, so I won’t spoil that by sharing all of what I found, but I will mention three numbers to help show how these can shed additional light on other passages:

It is worth noting that this is about communication, not mysticism. There were 13–14 tribes and when the record’s goal is truth about the tribes themselves, such as when they are settling land and creating government, they are all listed. When we have three separate symbolic meanings of wings, we describe angels with three pairs of wings, or six wings in total, and by describing each of them individually we communicate that six is in this case an incidental fact and not a connotative symbol itself. But when we want to give a vague idea of size and focus on meaning, instead of English’s vague words like “‍lots‍” and “‍bazillion‍” we use a combination of a connotative number like 3, 6, 7, 10, or 12 coupled with a vague size estimate like hundred or thousand.

And thus we come to a strangely-famous verse from the Revelation of John, thirteenth chapter and eighteenth verse, which reads (KJV):

Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.

The beast, Satan, the enemy of the saints in this part of the revelation, can be symbolized by 666. Six, which connotes having failed to achieve wholeness, unity, perfection, or divinity. There’s something missing. And instead of filling that hole, the beast grabs more and more of what it already has, ending up not with perfection or completeness but with a vast excess of not enough.

Is not this the message of wisdom in every religion and philosophy and recommendation of secular elders? Money will never buy you happiness. What’s sweet in the mouth is sour in the belly. The path to joy leads through pain. Indulged appetites do not lead to satisfaction. No quantity of not-quite-right can create right.

This is my six hundred sixty-sixth post on this blog. That is a fact, not a selected number and not intended to connote anything. But I hope you remember the message of 666 the next time you are feeling a 6ish hole in your life and tempted to try to fill it by more of the same. Having been there more times than I like to admit, I add my witness to those of so many others: down that path lies nothing good. But there is a path from six to twelve: it’s the path of unity, not dominance; of altruism, not acquisition; of sacrifice, not self-interest. And thought I have walked that path fewer times than I wish, I have walked it often enough to know that it is the path to joy.

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