I am excited to announce the publication of my paper on Hebrew Numerology in the Book of Mormon in the most recent issue of BYU-Studies, 53:2. The thesis of the paper is that the same type of numerology used by Hebrews in the ancient world shows up in the Book of Mormon. The paper focuses on the number seven, resulting in the snazzy title, “A Study in Seven.”
The goal of this post is to set forth in brief some of the findings of that paper and why I conclude that the author or authors of the Book of Mormon were familiar with the symbolic significance of the number seven as used in the ancient world of the Bible and intentionally used it in structuring the text.
In the interests of space and readability, this post will not go into detail nor will it give a lot of footnotes. Detail and footnotes may be found in the paper itself, should the reader wish to pursue the subject further. Like Sammy Davis, Jr. used to say in his live performances, “If you want to hear me sing regular, buy my albums.”
The Magnificent Seven
In many ancient cultures, including that of the Hebrews, numbers were imbued with symbolic significance. Based on frequency of usage in both the Old and New Testaments, seven was the number of greatest importance.
Seven is a combination of 3 and 4. Three represented the heavens. Four represented the earth. Seven represented all things both in heaven and earth, and hence came to be seen as a number of completion, fulfillment and even perfection.
Seven is used many times throughout the Bible in symbolic ways.
- The Creation account is seven days. (Gen. 2:3)
- The Sabbatical year is every seventh year. (Lev. 25:4)
- God commanded Moses to displace seven nations from Canaan. (Deut. 7:1)
- Elisha commanded Naaman to wash seven times in Jordan to be cured. (2 Kgs. 5:10-14)
- Seven baskets of surplus food are left after the multiplication of loaves. (Matt. 15:32-37)
- Peter asks if he should forgive seven times. (Matt. 18:21)
- Seven churches are addressed in Revelation. (Rev. 1:4)
Seven is also used throughout the Book of Mormon in symbolic ways.
- Seven rebellions by Laman and Lemuel are recorded in 1 Nephi.
- Seven churches are noted in the land of Zarahemla. (Mosiah 25:33)
- Seven converted Lamanite cities and lands are listed. (Alma 23:7-13)
- The Nephite monetary system is based on the number seven. (Alma 11)
- Seven are killed by Ammon at the Waters of Sebus. (Alma 18:16)
- Seven “deadly sins” of Nephites are listed by Mormon. (Alma 50:21)
- Seven missionary companions are taken by Alma to the Zoramites. (Alma 31:6-7)
Seven and Multiples of Seven
Why did I make two lists? To illustrate that multiples of seven are used to enhance the symbolism. Doubling seven to fourteen is the numerological equivalent of capitalizing, underscoring and bold-facing the significance.
We also see multiples of seven in the Bible.
- Jacob served Laban seven years for Leah; then another seven years for Rachel. (Gen. 29:18, 30)
- Joseph prophesied seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. (Gen. 41:26-30)
- Israelites circle Jericho seven times on the seventh day. (Josh. 6:1-6)
- Passover is held on the fourteenth day of the first month. (Lev. 23:5)
- Solomon has a feast for “seven days and seven days, even fourteen days.” (1 Kings 8:65)
- God tells Elisha a remnant of seven thousand faithful Israelites remain. (1 Kings 19:18)
- Jesus tells Peter to forgive seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22)
The Symbolic Genealogy of Jesus
Doubling seven for symbolic effect finds its way into the New Testament, where Matthew takes pains to list the genealogy of Jesus in three groups of fourteen generations each. (Matt. 1:1-17) From Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the destruction of Jerusalem are fourteen generations; and from the destruction of Jerusalem to Jesus are fourteen generations.
But Matthew’s genealogy is clearly artificial. In Matthew’s third list of fourteen generations, there are actually only thirteen names. It is Matthew who insists there are fourteen. (Count them yourself.)
Additionally when you compare Matthew’s genealogy with the Old Testament, you will find he skips several generations in order to make the number come out to fourteen.
In other words, it is more important for Matthew to have the number come out at the symbolically significant number of fourteen than it is to accurately count the actual number of generations. Matthew wants to use the number fourteen, and he wants to use it three times, in order to further enhance the symbolic significance of what is going on. Why is this? Because Matthew is not giving a history lesson. Matthew is teaching something.
Matthew is teaching a divine design; he is teaching that God is in control of the history of Israel; he is teaching that every fourteenth generation, something of immense significance happens; and he is teaching that fourteen generations after the Babylonian captivity, something significant was bound to happen; and that something significant was Jesus’s birth.
Matthew is consciously constructing his narrative to teach something much more important than a drily accurate genealogy. He is teaching that Jesus is an important part of God’s plan for Israel. A correct listing of the genealogy pales in comparison. Matthew is teaching a more profound truth than simple accuracy. Matthew is teaching the deep truth of God. And he is using numerology to do it.
Three Sets of Fourteen in the Book of Alma
Something similar happens with the construction of the book of Alma. The first fourteen years cover Alma’s activities among the Nephites. (Alma 1-16) The next section covers the same fourteen years, but in a flash-back relating what the sons of Mosiah were doing during that same period of time. (Alma 17:5-27:16)
We know both periods are fourteen years because the book of Alma begins with the first year of the reign of the judges; Alma has just assumed the offices of both chief judge and high priest (Mosiah 29:42) while the four sons of Mosiah have headed off to preach the gospel to the Lamanites. (Mosiah 28:9)
But when Alma happens to meet the sons of Mosiah in Alma 17, we are expressly told that the sons of Mosiah “had been teaching the word of God for the space of fourteen years among the Lamanites.” (Alma 17:4)
That is the key. It tells us not only that the mission of the sons of Mosiah to the Lamanites lasted fourteen years, but also that the account given of Alma’s activities after the sons of Mosiah left is fourteen years.
So now we have fourteen-years doubled.
We recall that Matthew mentions fourteen generations of Jesus three times for emphasis.
The book of Alma will do something similar. It isn’t done with the number fourteen yet.
The war chapters in the second half of Alma also comprise fourteen years. This period begins in “the commencement of the eighteenth year” of the reign of the judges (Alma 43:4) and continues through to the end of “the thirty and first year of the reign of the judges” (Alma 62:39).
And so we see that the book of Alma is structured around three sets of fourteen years: (1) Alma’s fourteen-year ministry among the Nephites (Alma 1-17:4), (2) the concurrent fourteen-year ministry of the sons of Mosiah among the Lamanites (Alma 17:5-27:16), and (3) the fourteen years of war between the Nephites and the Lamanites (Alma 43:4-62:39).
As with Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, the author of the book of Alma appears to structure the narrative to present three sets of fourteen.
Symbolism Superimposed On Reality
But it doesn’t end there. As suggestive as such examples may be, the crucial test to my mind is those instances in which the author takes real world information and consciously shapes it to create a different number that is symbolically powerful.
This part is critical, because it is one thing to list various items that tally the number seven (or fourteen) in a text. It is another thing entirely to show examples where the author has taken real world information and consciously edited that information to arrive at a number of numerological significance, as Matthew has done.
The Book of Mormon appears to do this very thing in at least three instances.
The Seven Tribes of the Book of Mormon
Early in the Book of Mormon, the Lehite tribes are numbered at seven, consisting of the “Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites.” (Jacob 1:13)
But there were not seven Lehite tribes. There were eight!
What happened to Sam? We know that Sam had descendants, and hence there should have been a “Samite” tribe. (2 Ne. 4:11)
The author has taken eight tribes and consciously reshaped the narrative in order to make the number of tribes tally to the symbolically significant number of seven.
But did the author just forget about Sam when he made the list of seven? No, he did not. This is no mistake. The author recognizes that Sam has descendants and would therefore have a tribe, but instead of counting Sam’s descendants as an eighth tribe, the author provides a reason for not including Sam, writing that Sam’s “seed shall be numbered with [Nephi’s] seed.” (2 Ne. 4:11)
We see something similar in the Old Testament’s insistence that the tribes of Israel be numbered at 12 (3 x 4). Though Jacob had twelve sons, and each son had a tribe, making twelve tribes, the numbering became more difficult when Joseph had two sons (Ephraim and Manasseh), both of whom were given tribal land shares in Canaan, effectively raising the total number of tribes from twelve to thirteen (omitting Joseph from the tally and substituting his two sons). In order to maintain the number of tribes at the symbolically significant tally of twelve, the tribe of Levi was excluded when Ephraim and Manasseh were mentioned as separate tribes. (Num. 1:32-34; Josh. 17:14-17; 1 Chr. 7:20) This modification of 13 tribes back to 12 was justified by the fact that Levi’s descendants did not receive a land inheritance because they served at the temple as the priestly tribe.
It appears the Old Testament modifies the figure of thirteen tribes to twelve in order to maintain this important number, just as the Book of Mormon modifies the figure of eight tribes to seven, omitting the tribe of Sam, which the Book of Mormon goes out of its way to draw special attention to by pointing out that Sam’s seed is being numbered with Nephi’s.
This is precisely the type of superimposition of Hebrew numerology on the “real world” information of a text we would expect to see by an author immersed in a culture similar to that of the ancient Hebrews.
And the Book of Mormon lists these artificial, though numerologically portentous, seven Lehite tribes three times over the course of the Book of Mormon. (Jacob 1:13; 4 Ne. 1:37-38; Morm. 1:8-9).
Something is going on here, and it is not likely coincidence.
But this is not the only time the Book of Mormon molds “real world” information to make it numerologically significant.
The Seven-Year Food Supply in 3 Nephi
When the Gadianton robbers became a dire threat, the Nephites and Lamanites joined forces and gathered themselves in one location to protect themselves, “having reserved for themselves provisions, and horses and cattle, and flocks of every kind, that they might subsist for the space of seven years.” (3 Ne. 4:4)
But the text later informs us the provisions lasted much longer than seven years–because the siege itself lasted between eight and nine years—from the “latter end” of the “seventeenth year” (3 Ne. 3:22) until the Nephites returned to their own lands sometime in “the twenty and sixth year,” and even then they “had not eaten up all their provisions.” (3 Ne. 6:2)
Is this another instance of the author consciously manipulating “real world” information of provisions for an 8 to 9-year siege by reducing the actual time period to the symbolically significant period of “seven years”?
A Wrinkle in Time
A third example occurs in Alma 51:23-26 which lists seven Nephite cities taken by the Lamanites.
The text here is critical so I am going to quote the entire passage. Keep your eye on the city of Nephihah.
And it came to pass that the Nephites were not sufficiently strong in the city of Moroni; therefore Amalickiah did drive them, slaying many. And it came to pass that Amalickiah took possession of (1) the city [of Moroni], yea, possession of all their fortifications. And those who fled out of the city of Moroni came to the city of Nephihah; and also the people of the city of Lehi gathered themselves together, and made preparations and were ready to receive the Lamanites to battle. But it came to pass that Amalickiah would not suffer the Lamanites to go against the city of Nephihah to battle, but kept them down by the seashore, leaving men in every city to maintain and defend it. And thus he went on, taking possession of many cities, (2) the city of Nephihah, and (3) the city of Lehi, and (4) the city of Morianton, and (5) the city of Omner, and (6) the city of Gid, and (7) the city of Mulek, all of which were on the east borders by the seashore. (Alma 51:23-26)
We can immediately see that the number of cities taken is seven. But what on earth is going on with the city of Nephihah? First Amalickiah refuses to “go against” the city of Nephihah, but in the next breath we are told that he took possession of it.
Not only that, the city of Nephihah was not actually captured by the Lamanites until five years later when Ammoron, brother of Amalickiah, sent his armies against it. (Alma 59:5-12)
Here we have a wrinkle in the text. A wrinkle in time.
Why does the author go to such lengths to include the taking of the city of Nephihah in his list when the city is not taken for another five years? And why does the author even make the story somewhat nonsensical in order to do so?
The answer is apparently that the author wanted to have a list of seven cities and not six that were taken by the Lamanites, and that he was willing to sacrifice chronological accuracy and even the textual flow of the story in order to do so.
Here is yet another example of the author consciously shaping “real world” information in order to arrive at the symbolically significant number of seven.
The number seven and its multiples were of symbolic significance in the ancient world, including among the writers of the Old and New Testaments.
The number seven and its multiples are also of symbolic significance in the Book of Mormon, which purports to derive from the same Old World milieu as the Bible.
Most importantly, the Bible contains instances of the author consciously and intentionally manipulating “real world” information in order to arrive at a symbolically significant number. This is more than mere coincidence, and indicates not only an understanding and appreciation for Old World numerology on the part of the authors, but a willingness to superimpose that numerology on historical events to change the tally to the desired symbolic number.
The Book of Mormon does exactly the same thing.
Regardless of one’s opinion as to who wrote the Book of Mormon, the text itself shows sure and unmistakable signs that the author or authors were not only aware of the significance of Old World numerology as it existed among the ancient Hebrews, but intentionally and consciously incorporated that numerology into the warp and woof of the Nephite record.