Seven, the Biblical Number
Numbers can carry significance beyond their arithmetic value. Examples in contemporary English are how “a million” can express abundance, “a ten” can mean excellence, or “a hundred times” can mean frequently. So too, several numbers in the Bible have symbolic value. The most popular of these is the number seven.
Seven in Narrative
The number 7 comes up explicitly in many narratives:
Creation—God creates for six days, and on the seventh day God rests, blessing and sanctifying the seventh day.
Noah’s Animals—Noah must bring seven pairs of clean animals on the ark.
Days—Narratives often mark the passing of a short time with seven days. For example, God warns Noah that the flood will come in 7 days, seven days separate the blood and frogs plague, etc.
Years—Narratives that wish to mark the passing of a long time sometimes use seven years. For example, Jacob works for Rachel and Leah for seven years each, the good and bad years in Egypt each last seven years, etc.
Progeny—Job (twice) has seven sons as does the barren woman in Channah’s poem. Reuel has seven daughters.
Punishment—Cain is given a seven-fold punishment, as are the Israelites if they sin. Lamech even suggests that seventy-seven-fold is sometimes appropriate.
Testimony—Abraham gives Abimelech seven sheep as a sign that Abraham is to maintain possession of Beersheba (“Well of Oath/Well of Seven” a play on words).
Consecration—When Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons for priesthood, they must remain in the Tabernacle area for seven days.
Seven in Laws and Rituals
The dominance of 7 is perhaps even clearer in laws and rituals:
Festivals—Shabbat is every seven days; Shavuot is seven weeks after the Matzot Festival; the 1st, 10th, 15th, and 22nd of the seventh month are festive or sacred days. Also, the festivals of Matzot and Sukkot are seven days long.
Shemitah—Every seven years, debts are canceled, and the land must lie fallow. After seven cycles of seven years pass, the jubilee year is declared.
Slaves—Hebrew slaves are to be freed on the seventh year.
Newborns—Animals are ready for sacrifice after seven days have passed. Boys are circumcised after seven days have passed.
Impurity— A mother of a male is impure for seven days, and twice that for a female. The period for testing skin disease (tzaraʾat) is seven days.
Purification—Rituals of purification make use of seven sprinklings or immersions, and seven-day periods.
Sacrifices—Many sacrificial rituals involve seven animals.
Menorah—The lampstand in the Tabernacle has seven lamps.
The seven-fold occurrence of a word in a biblical passage may also have significance, perhaps indicating a deliberate attempt by the author to highlight a “keyword” or “theme” in the text.
Cain and Abel—Genesis 4 uses the name Abel seven times, as well as the word אח “brother” seven times. Moreover, Cain’s line lasts seven generations.
Abraham and Abimelech—Genesis 21:22–34 employs the names of its two protagonists, Abraham and Abimelech, seven times each in the chapter about their oath in Beersheba.
Finding Rebecca—Genesis 24 contains seven uses of the verb ה.ל.כ, “to go,” in connection with Rebecca, highlighting the importance of the action, because the fate of Abraham’s line of descent hinges on whether Rebecca will “go” with his servant back to the land of Canaan.
Jacob works for Laban—Genesis 29 finds its keyword in the root ע.ב.ד, “work,” “labor,” which occurs seven times in the narrative.
Jacob’s Pact with Laban—Genesis 31:44–54 repeats the word גַּל, “heap of (memorial) stones,” seven times.
Judah’s Plea to Joseph—Genesis 44:18–34 uses the word “father,” אָב, fourteen times. Sarna notes in his commentary on Gen 45:3 that this element ultimately causes Joseph to lose his composure in the narrative.
Moses’ Birth and Youth—Exodus 2 features the word יֶלֶד, “child,” seven times in vv. 1–10, and אִישׁ, “man,” seven times in vv. 11–22. Both terms refer to Moses, first as an endangered Hebrew child, and then as an aggressive, seemingly-Egyptian “man.”
Splitting the Sea—Exodus 14 uses the word יָד, “hand,” seven times as the keyword in Israel’s last encounter with Pharaoh at the Reed Sea. יָד in the Exodus narrative symbolizes God’s wondrous might.
Mount Sinai—Exodus 19 and 24, the literary frame for the legal material in chapters 20–23, each have seven instances of the root ד.ב.ר (“speak” as a verb and “word” as a noun). Further, the verb י.ר.ד, “descend,” occurs seven times in chapter 19, while its antonym ע.ל.ה/י, “ascend,” appears seven times in chapter 24.
Curses—Leviticus 26:14–45 warns Israel that it will be punished seven-fold for “walking with hostility towards God,” a loose translation of ה.ל.כ קֶרִי. The noun קֶרִי is used seven times in the section.
Red Heifer—Numbers 19 has 7-fold use of 7 different subjects:
- The cow and/or its ashes;
- Burnt items;
- Persons who wash;
- Contaminated items;
- Those that are purified;
- Priests. 
Transjordanian Tribes—Numbers 32 presents the seven-fold recurrence of five key terms:
- “Gad and Reuben,” in this order;
- אֲחֻזָּה and נַחֲלָה, “land-holding” and “inheritance”;
- ע.ב.ר, “to cross,” the Jordan River;
- ח.ל.ץ, “be equipped” or “vanguard”;
- לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה, “before YHWH.”
These five terms can summarize the chapter: If Gad and Reuben cross the Jordan as the vanguard before YHWH (the Ark), they will receive the land-holdings that they desire.
Repentance—Deut 30:1–10, about circumcision of the heart, includes the seven-fold use of the verbal forms of שׁ.ו.ב. In chapter 30, the word לֵב, “heart,” appears seven times.
Elements Occurring in Sevens
In addition, seven may serve as a structural or organizational principle that governs the number of elements included in a passage.
The ancestors of Israel—Israel has seven ancestors: three patriarchs and four matriarchs.
Seventy Nations—Genesis 10 includes seventy peoples in its “Table of Nations.”
YHWH’s Call to Abram—God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12:2–3 includes seven elements:
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל
I will make you a great nation,
I will bless you,
I will make your name great,
You will be a blessing,
I will bless those who bless you,
He who curses you I will curse,
וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
All of the families of the earth will bless themselves by you.
The number 7 in this context conveys the comprehensiveness of God’s endowments to Abraham.
Melchizedek blesses Abraham—Genesis 14:19–20 contains two seven-word blessings.
YHWH’s Revelation in Egypt—Exodus 6:6–8 employs seven first-person verbs as YHWH emphatically declares to Moses an intention to redeem Israel and bring them to the land promised to the patriarchs.
The Creation Story: Seven Examples of Seven
Genesis 1:1–2:4 abounds with examples of both words and elements that recur seven times or in multiples of seven.
- Genesis 1:1 contains seven words and twenty-eight letters.
- Verse 2, the description of primal chaos, is described in fourteen words.
- The word אֱלֹהִים “God” is found thirty-five times in Gen 1:1–2:3.
- The term אֶרֶץ, “land,” appears twenty-one times in the passage, and so (together) do the terms רָקִיעַ “firmament” and שָׁמַיִם “heavens” in Gen 1:1–2:4a.
- The root ח.י.ה, “animal” or “living,” is used seven times on days five and six of creation. So are the verbal and nominal forms of the roots ע.ו.ף, “bird” and “flying,” as well as ר.מ.שׂ, “creeping things,” or “creep.”
- The seventh day, the focus of Gen 2:1–3, has thirty-five words. Verses 1–3a have three clauses, each with seven words, and the words “seventh day” are in the center of each clause.
- The word טוב, “good,” also occurs seven times—the last occurrence in v. 31.
This is the strongest example of implicit 7s. According to Cassuto, “It is impossible to suppose that all of this is coincidental.”
Are Seven-Fold Keywords or Elements Always Intentional?
The examples listed above, which are not meant to be exhaustive, offer evidence that the biblical authors used the seven-fold repetition of a word or element as a device to emphasize keywords or themes. At the same time, Meir Bar Ilan, professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University, cautions against counting elements in a text in order to arrive at an exegetically significant number, because this number is not intrinsic to the text and is rather “imported” by the reader. The count of words or elements may be coincidental and therefore not attributable to the intent of the author.
In addition, scholars sometimes err in their counting. For example, Sarna claims that in Melchizedek’s blessings (Gen 14:19–20), the name “Abram” occurs precisely seven times in the chapter, but it actually occurs eight times in seven verses.
Finally, sometimes whether any given element should be considered the same element or not for the purposes of counting to seven is subjective. For example, Sarna states that in the story of Leah’s bartering her mandrakes to Rachel in return for sex with Jacob (Gen 30:14–24), God is referred to seven times. Sarna argues that the text is saying that despite their best efforts to maximize their fertility, it is God who is in control. Thus, Sarna comments: “It can hardly be coincidental that God is mentioned seven times in all.” In this case, the name Elohim appears six times in vv. 17–23, while the Tetragrammaton is used in v. 24, making the argument that the name serves as a keyword less convincing.
Nevertheless, the overall trend seems to be clear. The biblical authors made extensive use of the number seven, both explicitly and implicitly, in narratives as well as in laws.
Ancient Near Eastern Background
Various factors may have contributed to the importance of the number 7. For example, Mesopotamian astronomers knew of seven heavenly bodies: Sun, Moon, Saturn, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury. Because of the deification of astral bodies, 7 became identified with holiness and perfection. Francine Klagsbrun writes, “As a symbol of the heavens, the number seven came to stand for wholeness and harmony, even perfection.”
In addition, the appeal of 7 as a significant number may relate to its unique status among the digits from 1–10. Seven is a prime number. According to the standards of Babylonian mathematics, 7 is also the first “non-regular” number, because it is not divisible by 2, 3, or 5. In addition, 7 is unallied with any other number. The numbers 2, 4, 6, and 8—and indeed all even numbers—are “brothers,” as are 3, 6, and 9. The number 7, however, stands alone and can receive a distinctive meaning by virtue of its irregularity.
The Most Important Symbolic Number in the Bible
Although the numbers 1, 2, and 3 occur more frequently, the number 7 is the most important symbolic number in the Hebrew Bible. In many contexts, it conveys not just the number 7, but the idea of wholeness and perfection. As a result of the identification of the Israelite God with perfection, the number 7 has also come to represent holiness.
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March 17, 2021
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Dr. Elaine Goodfriend is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and the Jewish Studies Program at California State University, Northridge. She has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from U.C. Berkeley. Among her publications are “Food in the Hebrew Bible,” in Food and Jewish Traditions (forthcoming) and “Leviticus 22:24: A Prohibition of Gelding for the Land of Israel?”
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