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The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that superstition is not supposed to be practiced and it is a violation of the 1st Commandment to honor God about all else.

However, there's always something going on like a 9 day novena or a 40 day fast or a request to return to a particular grotto on the 11th of each month. Then there's other significant numbers like 3 and 7 and 12 which are supposed to mean something and spooky numbers like 6 and 666.

So, where is the line between superstition and awe at the way God orders things mightily?

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because numbers are awesome. 42. –  Thomas Shields Apr 12 '12 at 18:36
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indeed, 42 is roughly the number of weeks in an average year minus the number of toes on an average human is born with. –  Peter Turner Apr 12 '12 at 18:40
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So that's the ultimate question... –  Thomas Shields Apr 12 '12 at 18:43
    
Yeah, having never read those books I thought it was pretty obvious. My brother told me about the weeks part when I was 4 years old and I figured out the toes part from trolling Yahoo Answers. –  Peter Turner Apr 12 '12 at 18:46
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Numerology is an important part of the vocabulary of apocalyptic literature. I asked an obliquely related question on 666 specifically for those who are interested. –  Jon Ericson Apr 12 '12 at 20:15
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4 Answers 4

As you indicated, there certainly is a difference between being superstitious about numbers and recognizing beauty in the way God has ordered things.

Analogously, there is a great difference between astronomy and astrology. One is the laws of the stars (asto nomos), while the other is the word or message of the starts (astro logos). We can appreciate the order of the stars and study them, but many Christians believe it is wrong to think that the stars have a message for us.

The study of numbers in the Bible is often referred to as Numerology. This is fine as lone as it refers to the study of numbers and not the message of numbers.

We can appreciate the significance the order of creation and how it reflects the image of its Creator. The earth began unformed and unfilled, then there were 3 days of forming and 3 days of filling, followed by a day of rest.

We can appreciate that the physical universe consists of time, space, and matter--three distinct things that form one whole. Time is divided into past, present, and future. Matter is divided into solid, liquid, and gas. Space is divided into length, width, and height.

We definitely can declare with the psalmist, "The Heavens declare the glory of God...". However, we must avoid superstitions in numbers. I was personally born on June 6. That's 6/6. Yet, there is nothing evil in that. We shouldn't expect the antichrist to be born on 6/6/66, nor should we be afraid when a child turns 666 days old. The third or seventh slot machine is not more inclined to be a winner than the sixth. Lottery numbers that have prominent Bible verse numbers in them aren't more likely to win: 1_14__3_16__28_6__53_5 (although I haven't tried that).

So, we can appreciate the order, but to think that we can use numerology to manipulate things or to use the hidden knowledge about them for profit is probably crossing the line (and probably won't work).

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I think some numbers are symbolic. For example, the number 666. If you think about the number 7, it's typically, in the Bible, the number representing completion or perfection. God rested on the 7th day. Jesus tells us to forgive someone 70*7 times. On and on it goes.

If 7 is the number of perfection, then three sevens would be a trinity of perfection: 777. Which would make falling just short of that perfection 666.

Other people believed it was Henry Kissinger, because if you made the letter "A" equal 6, then add up Henry Kissinger's name, it came out to 666.

Dispensationalists (Pre and Post-millenialists) believe in a literal 1000 year reign of Christ. Amillenialists view the 1000 years as being a symbolic time period.

I think many numbers in scripture are used symbolically, and some are used literally. Deciding which is which is really a matter of interpretation. (For example, does God not own the cattle on the 1001st hill? The Bible says he owns the cattle on 1000 hills.)

The line should be drawn based on the following:

  • Are you trusting in numbers over God?
  • Are all your waking thoughts taken up by trying to figure out the numbers, instead of focusing on God?
  • Is your interpretation of the numbers mentioned in Scripture unduly skewing your interpretation of other clear passages?
  • Are you using numbers in some way to excuse some attitudes or actions that aren't glorifying God?
  • Is your interpretation of the numbers leading you be fearful, instead of leading you to be comforted by the sovereignty and love of God?

I think if any of those questions were answered "yes", then perhaps there's a problem.

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It is a superstition, but one that is co-incident with the development of the Scripture. In many ways, it is like a preacher who uses references to television shows in the sermon - it is a touchstone which communicated meaning well to the original hearing. Additionally, preachers like numbers such as 3 because they are memorable (and because then you have have a thesis, anti0thesis, and synthesis, but I Kant digress...)

The exact set of numerical rules in ancient Hebrew society was called gematria. Numbers like 1 are associated with God, 6 with man, 7 with heaven, and 12 with Israel. Because these numbers communicated to the hearers, the symbols were continued.

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Numbers as language

Ordinarily, what a number refers to is more important than the number itself. 153 fish is a lot of fish. 2 small copper coins is a tiny amount of money. 14 years is a certain period of time. But to quote Bill James, sometimes numbers "have acquired the powers of language." When that happens, the numbers themselves begin to have meaning independent of what is being counted.1

God began using numbers literally from the beginning to communicate to humanity—our week is a continual reminder of Who ordered the universe and how.2 The number 12 carries particular significance since it was the number of Israelite tribes. Moses went so far as to separate out Joseph's inheritance into two half-tribes so that the number of territories was kept at twelve3. The early church made replacing Judas a top priority in order to bring the number of apostles back to twelve.

Sometime during and after the Exile, a new genre of Jewish writing appeared that is labeled "apocalyptic". As a genre, it has close links to dream interpretation, such as we see with Joseph in Genesis 37, 40, and 41. Notice that numbers are of critical significance in each of the dreams and have a significance beyond simply counting things up. The second half of Daniel, a textbook case of the apocalyptic genre, extends the dream interpretation structure to reveal God's purpose, not just for one person, but for all of humanity. Revelation, which clearly uses Daniel imagery, tells us to "calculate" 666 in the most famous use of numerology.

Numbers as superstition

Numbers surround us and some of them tell a story. Unfortunately, not all numbers are meaningful. We tend to give more credence to ideas that make good stories and so we sometimes assume more about numbers than is warranted.4 If 12 is "good" or "lucky" or "blessed", than it seems reasonable that 13 (or 11) is the opposite. God uses numbers as language, but not all numbers and not at all times. When we assume otherwise, we start down the path of superstition.

Numbers for discipline

The question, however, brings up a somewhat different use for numbers: as a discipline or reminder. To remember that, for instance, Jesus was tempted in the desert for 40 days by observing Lent, seems only fitting. As long as numbers themselves point to God and do not replace Him, I think they can be worth observing.

Parting shot

Having posted this on Friday the 13th, it's sure to be downvoted and probably will destroy the internet. I'm sorry you asked.


1. Baseball is a great example of this. To a fan, the title the movie 61* is completely descriptive. We know exactly what the story will be about without reading the summary. SciFi (and humor) nerds don't need to be told the significance of 42 (as pointed out in the comments). In the US, we all recognize 911, 1776, and 13 as being important symbols, though there might be several interpretations of their meanings.

2. Depending on how literal or not you take Genesis 1, this could be seen as a just-so story, but that does not alter the fact that the number 7 acquired meaning independent of what was counted.

3. Levi received no land for an inheritance.

4. A good place to explore the narrative fallacy is Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness.

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