Why Seventeen?

Well, I’ve neglected this blog for a long time. And it might be a surprise to see two posts for two weeks running, but it certainly won’t be a surprise to realise this is about numbers.

In fact, it’s about 17. In the past I wrote a series here: seventeen posts about the number 17 showing where it  appears in Scripture and pondering why it is so mysteriously dominant—especially in the gospels and epistles. If there’s a long list, chances are it has seventeen elements.

Check out some of the seventeens here.

Now, since it’s been nearly seven years since the majority of those posts, it’s about time I came up with some deeper insight. And hopefully I have.

One reason always clearly stood out for the use of 17 to structure the gospels and epistles. It was a number the Pythagoreans would never use. For religious reasons, involving the resurrection and re-memberment of Osiris, who apparently lost the 17th part of his body, they wouldn’t touch this number. And since the Platonists and Gnostics were overwhelmingly Pythagorean in their philosophic bent, and writers like John were determined to drive the Gnostic bent out of the church, it makes sense to use this number.

But that’s a negative reason.

What’s the positive reason?

I think, after seven years of reflection, that it’s because 17 points to 70.

In both Hebrew and Greek, it’s unclear whether forgiveness should be associated with 70 + 7 or 70 x 7. When Peter asks if it’s necessary to forgive someone seven times, Jesus responds that actually, it should be more like ‘seventy times seven’. But some translations think the ‘times’ there should be moved to the end and the answer become ‘seventy-seven times’.

Exactly the same problem occurs in the Hebrew when Lamech tells his wives that if anyone tries to kill him, he will be avenged ‘seventy times seven’—or maybe it’s ‘seventy-seven times’.

Clearly in both languages there’s an ambiguity about whether to add or whether to multiply. Thus 7 + 10 could be a sly way of saying 7 x 10. A list of 17 elements could be a shorthand way of implying that the whole list consists of 70 elements.

Take, for example, the list of 17 groups of people who heard the disciples speaking in their native languages on the Day of Pentecost.   It would make so much more sense if that was a list of 70. The number of nations dispersed across the entire earth in Genesis 10 is seventy. Deuteronomy 32:8 also mentions God allotting the boundaries for the nations, according to the number of angelic shepherds who were to rule over them. And that is seventy.

When Jesus sets up His own government of the nations, He sent out seventy disciples. (Luke 10:17)

So my conclusion is this: all those 17s in Scripture imply 70—pointing to the Kingdom of God covering the ‘entire earth’.

Leave a Reply

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.