The Number 3: E-pistle 06.16.11

The Number 3: E-pistle 06.16.11

As we look to Trinity Sunday this week, Harold Camping’s recent debacle with numerology and the rapture makes me pause. Is there really any deeper meaning in numbers? Can they somehow reveal to us how the world really is? Do they hold prophetic power?

I once heard a fundamentalist preacher declare that “3” is built right into the very structure of reality:

~ 3 dimensions encompass everything on earth — length, width, and depth.
~ 3 divisions of time — past, present and future.
~ 3 forms of matter — gas, liquid, solid
~ 3 kingdoms in nature — animal, vegetable or mineral.
~ 3 aspects of human ability: thought, word and deed.
~ 3 attributes of God: omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence; or love, light, spirit; or holy, righteous, just.

Such ontological questions I will leave to… whom? Let’s assign them to the nanotechies among us! I will venture to suggest only that numbers, in the ancient cultures in which the Bible was birthed (and perhaps more so in the immediate generations after the canon was composed) were understood to have added significance or meaning.

Some of the meanings associated with numbers are connections that people reflecting back read into after the fact. 7 days in a week and 14 generations each between Abraham and David, David and Josiah, Josiah and Jesus (actually, Bob Robinson taught me: 13 generations between Josiah and Jesus’ birth; the 14th was to Jesus’ second coming)…

Many of the “revelations” in biblical numbers are mere speculation. Nonetheless, for the biblical actors… for the oral storytellers who passed down their thoughts, words and deeds… for the biblical writers who authored the canon… all of them lived in a pre-scientific world wherein all sorts of invisible forces were given reality we cannot quite imagine. And number had an import, even a power that added to their message.

Noah’s flood lasted 40 days and nights; the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years; Jesus was tempted in a period of 40 days at the beginning of his ministry.

One of the interesting features of Hebrew and Greek is that in both written languages there are no numeric characters. Whereas, we have numbers and letters; they have only letters. So, in each language, the letters are also used as numbers. Therefore, when a word is written, it also has a numeric equivalent. This contributes to some of the significance people deduce, attribute or read into various numbers.

For example, In Hebrew culture, number 7 for example, connoted “infinity,” hence the power of Jesus’ answer to the question of how many times we must forgive… “7 times 70.”

The number 3 signified “perfection:”

~ 3 sections to the Temple — the court, the sanctuary, the holiest of holies.

~ 3 times that the Father’s voice bore testimony of His Son: at Christ’s baptism, at his Transfiguration, when he was speaking with some Greeks after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

~ during his ministry, Jesus brought 3 people back from the grave to show his perfect power over death.

~ Peter denied Jesus 3 times, but Jesus 3 times gave Peter the opportunity to repent.

~ on the cross above Jesus was a sign that said, “King of the Jews”. It was written in 3 different languages.

~ Peter had 3 visions to convince him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.

~ In 1 John, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood all bear witness to the Gospel, these 3 agree in 1, a divine unity.

~ Christ began, according to the narrative that was constructed, his ministry at the age of 30 and died at the age of 33.

~ Jesus was raised on the third day (again, by a way of counting that’s a bit hard to grasp…).

~ God was experienced and described as the Creator, the Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Maybe God is a mathematician after all.

Or… who knows?

All I am sure of is that the importance of 3 goes back to my childhood. It still has some cultural “cred.” I can still sing 3 different versions of Sesame Street’s “Number 3” song. And then there are the 3 Little Pigs, Goldie Locks and the 3 Bears, 3 Blind Mice and Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.

Three — a mystery! Maybe a blessing too…

Come to worship on Sunday, where we’ll consider an even bigger question: how the Trinity adds to our life. (We’ll remember Dads too.)

See you at church,
Michael

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