by Michael Maciel
The ancients who wrote the Bible saw science and religion as one and the same thing, and they expressed their knowledge in symbolic language. Unless we understand what the symbols mean and how they were used, we cannot fully understand the Bible. Symbols were the “scientific notation” of the day, which the writers of the Bible and their readers already knew. No one had to be told that the stories were not necessarily literal accounts of historical events. So, let’s consider some of what we know about the symbolic language of the ancients.
Whereas we only use numbers to quantify things, the ancients also used each number to symbolically represent a principle or law of nature. The Greek philosopher Thales said, “God’s first thoughts were in numbers.” He and the other early philosophers saw a direct relationship between mathematical and spiritual truth.
When numbers in the Bible are taken literally, the stories become nonsensical, which only serves to discredit them. They lead us to believe that in order to accept what the Bible says, we have to separate our rational mind from our intuition. This “divorce” has literally torn the world apart. If we refuse to admit our ignorance of the deeper wisdom of the ancients, this ignorance threatens to destroy the world altogether.
The prime example is the current debate about the age of the earth—that the earth was created in seven days. Since the Bible says that each day is the equivalent of a thousand years, a Seventeenth Century minister calculated the age of the earth to be 6000 years. Because of this, a deep schism now exists between fundamentalists and scientists, which has led to dangerous political polarizations regarding pollution and global weather patterns. But if we examine the symbolic meaning of the number 1000, these accounts in the Bible suddenly make better sense.
Each number represents what we now call a “scientific principle.” By combining numbers, the ancients could indicate the relationships between different principles of nature. The number one, for example, indicates “unity,” the condition in which there is no “other.” In modern scientific language, we would express this as an “integrated system,” one where everything has a functional relationship to everything else.
In order to make this integrated system universal so that you didn’t have multiple systems opposing each other, the ancients modified the number one with their own brand of exponential value—the zero. Zero symbolically represents universality. But when you add three zeroes, it indicates that the laws of the universe are absolutely unified—the entire universe becomes an integrated system.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.”
Jesus reiterated this principle when he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Scientifically, we could say that mathematics is “one.” NASA uses the same math here on earth as it does to calculate the trajectories of spacecraft millions of miles out in space. What works on earth works in heaven.
So now what does it mean that God created the earth in seven days? If each day is a universal principle, it becomes immediately evident that we are not discussing a period of time. Instead, we are looking at a sequence, the steps that God took in His creative act. Rather than an historical account, the story becomes a formula hidden within the narrative. The reason for hiding the true meaning was simple: stories are less subject to interpretation; they tend to survive intact over time.
Forty is another number that stumps most theologians: forty days and nights of rain for Noah, forty years in the house of Pharaoh for Moses followed by forty years wandering in the wilderness, and forty days in the desert for Jesus. If you believe that God wrote the Bible Himself, then forty must have been one of His favorite numbers!
But forty is actually an exponential value of the number four, which symbolically represents the principle of crystallization or solidification. And because forty is always used in the context of time, we know that adding a single zero means that what we are really talking about is a process. It also indicates that this process has a cyclical quality to it. It is ongoing. It happens in time, but it is not restricted by time. We know this as the spiral—each cycle of evolution places us one level higher than where we began. So, Jesus’ forty days in the desert is a story of the process he went through in order to prepare for his mission.
Forty weeks is the human gestational cycle. Four years is how long it takes to graduate from college, at which time we are “matriculated.” Four-year-olds reach a new level of independence from their mother, typically starting pre-school at that age. Interestingly enough, the grand cycle of time in Hinduism is the Yuga, which “lasts” 400,000 years. This, of course, was never meant as a literal length of time, because it is used in the context of eternity or timelessness—the symbolic number four raised to the level of one hundred, then placed in its cosmological context by raising that to the level of 1000. This points to the largest frame of reference, the ultimate or eternal interpretation of the symbolic meaning of the number four.
The number twelve symbolizes the Zodiac, the twelve aspects of the personality of God. Because of this, twelve also represents wholeness of being. When the Bible says that only 144,000 people will be allowed to enter into heaven, the writers assumed that the reader would know that they did not mean it as a literal number. Multiplying a number by itself, or squaring it (square = four), and then adding three zeroes to it, raises the meaning of the symbolic number twelve to the level of absolute universality.
This just barely scratches the surface of how symbols are used in the Bible, and it shows that our tendency to take them literally is a product of our current scientific mindset. Unless we understand that the teachings of the Bible were written in story form and that the stories were written in symbolic language, we cannot understand the teachings themselves. We will always try to overlay our way of thinking onto theirs. So far, this really hasn’t worked out well for us.
Note: this is a rewrite of an article posted in 2001.