Friday, October 26, 2007

I've been reading the book of Revelation again for the first time. (Since my conversion I've been reading all the standard works again for the "first time." It has been an amazing experience.)

I had forgotten how totally the imagery of Revelation has entered into American popular culture. In fact, there's probably no symbolism in this text that hasn't been hashed and rehashed in popular media -- from apocalyptic/satanic movies like The Omen or The Seventh Seal to future histories like The Late, Great Planet Earth or Tim LaHaye's popular comic book series, Left Behind. The two prophets of Revelation 11 made an appearance in the popular TV series The X Files, and the list goes on. Americans love the book of Revelation. So it's hard to read this text without getting caught up in the pop cultural hype. I found myself having to take a deep breath and just put that all out of my head, and try to read this text again, through the lens of Christ, with the help of the Spirit.

I love Revelation because of the fundamental message of hopefulness underlying it. Much of the imagery that has caught everyone's attention -- the Dragon, the various "beasts," the Whore, etc. -- is really about the totalitarian, idolatrous nature of life in a world ruled by evil Powers. We who claim Christ owe our allegiance to a much higher power, and so long as we give that allegiance unreservedly, our place in the world is tenuous at best. The Powers have the power of life and death over us. They may decide who eats and who starves, who dies in their murderous wars, who is exalted and who is martyred. But the book of Revelation promises that their reign is limited. In the end, this reign of blood and idolatry will be swept away and in its place will come everlasting peace and universal love. This is probably all we need to know to truly understand this text.

Nevertheless, I still find myself fascinated by the details of the imagery. On this reading, I've been paying particular attention to the odd numerology in the text. Everyone knows the numbers 666 (the number of the Beast) and 144,000 (the number of "servants of God" -- 12,000 from each tribe of Israel). On this reading I've caught something I'd never noticed before, the prominence of the number 3½.

It's sort of hidden in the text... You have to pay attention to catch it. It always refers to a span of time. In a couple of places (in 11:3 and 12:6), we have reference to a span of 1,260 days. In ancient reckoning, a year was considered to have 360 days. So 1,260 days comes to exactly 3½ years. In 11:2 and in 13:5, we have reference to 42 months. Again, with 12 months in a year, exactly 3½ years. In Revelation 12:14 we have reference to "a time, and times, and half a time," a rather mysterious indication of time, but for those who've been doing their math all along, an obvious reference to 3½ (1 time + 2 times + ½ a time = 3½). While most of these 3½ references appear to refer to the length of time that absolute rule is granted to the Evil Powers, there is one other 3½ reference referring to a span, not of years, but of days: Revelation 11:9, the number of days that the bodies of the two prophets will lie dead and unburied in the streets of Jerusalem.

Anybody have any ideas about the significance of 3½? I have my own theories (hint: 7 divided by 2 = 3½), but I'm curious to see if there are any other numerologists out there with ideas about this number and what it has to do with faith in Christ.

4 comments:

Beck said...

I'm no numerologist, but I find your findings fascinating (not seen before as clearly as you've tied them together).

I remember a teacher once saying that the Hebrews used numbers for meaning verses an actual measurement of time. For example: 40 days and 40 nights for the flood or 40 days for fasting really don't mean 40 days as they mean "a really long period of time".

Anyway - it's still interesting... I'd love someone to expound.

J G-W said...

Beck - Yes, I'd heard about this meaning of the number "40" in Hebrew usage. In French, there's a similar expression in which one says that there's "36" of something to mean there's "a lot" of something. Unwary foreigners might think that when a Frenchman says, "En France on a trente-six espèces de fromage," he means there are only 36 kinds of cheese in France when what he means is, There are tons of different kinds of cheese in France!

I'm similarly inclined not to take "3½ years" literally here. Again, I have my own theory about what is meant here, but I'm curious to see if anyone else has any takes on this before I share my thoughts...

Sheldon said...

You would think the 3&1/2 days the 2 prophets lay dead in the streets of Jerusalem is accounting on the same lines as that found in the book of Ezekiel. Where he layed on his side 1 day for each day of iniquity of the people of Israel and Judah. The 3&1/2 days relating to 3&1/2yrs that the saints are trampled by the power of the enemy.

Ezekiel 4:5-7 (King James Version)
King James Version (KJV)
Public Domain

5For I have laid upon thee the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days: so shalt thou bear the iniquity of the house of Israel. 6And when thou hast accomplished them, lie again on thy right side, and thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: I have appointed thee each day for a year. 7Therefore thou shalt set thy face toward the siege of Jerusalem, and thine arm shall be uncovered, and thou shalt prophesy against it.

J G-W said...

Sheldon - Thanks for pointing out the Ezekiel reference. I've been reading the book of Ezekiel lately, but somehow completely missed that numerological reference. It's an interesting parallel.