Seven: the Number of the Gentiles

seven1It has been pointed out elsewhere that when you compare and contrast the two, the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000 make a very significant theological point about the make-up of God’s eschatological people, namely, that Jews and Gentiles alike are to inherit the kingdom of God. Some might think this a bit overwrought and forced, but what else are we to make of Jesus’ words in Matthew 16, where he scolds the disciples for not understanding the symbolism embedded within his miracles?

Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered [Twelve! cf. Mt 14:20]? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered [Seven! cf. Mt 15:29, 37]? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Matthew 16:9–11a

The feeding of the 5000 most likely took place in Jewish territory (cf. Lk 9:10). The significance of the twelve baskets left over symbolizes the twelve tribes of Israel. Any Bible-literate layman could tell you that twelve is a number that symbolizes the nation of Israel.

The feeding of the 4000 most likely took place in Gentile territory (cf. Mk 7:31). Therefore, by analogy, the significance of the seven baskets left over should stand for the Gentiles. But where in the Bible do we find the number seven symbolizing the Gentiles? This numerical symbolism is substantiated from one of the most conspicuous places imaginable: in the Torah, in the middle of a retelling of the Exodus narrative.

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” Deuteronomy 7:1–2

When God delivered the Israelites from Egypt, he intended to bring them into the land that he promised to Abraham, the land of Canaan. There was just one problem: Canaan was inhabited by Gentiles nations. Seven Gentile nations, to be exact. In Deuteronomy, the Gentiles nations are not just listed like they are in the rest of the Torah, but instead they are grouped together and given a label. The Gentile nations that stood between God’s people and God’s promise were seven. And they had to go.

This numerical designation for the Gentile inhabitants of the land is picked up significantly in the book of Acts.

“And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance.” Acts 13:19

It is for these forgoing reasons why, when turning to Acts 6, I see the same Jew-Gentile (Hebrew-Hellenist, twelve-seven) numerical symbolism up and running in the Apostles’ decision to appoint seven Gentile men over the ministry to the widows.

“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.” Acts 6:1–6

Do you see the beautiful irony in all of this? Twelve Jewish Apostles appointed seven Gentile men to be over the early church’s mercy ministries.

These twelve Israelites—descended from the very same Israelites that had put to the sword the men, women, and children of the seven Gentile nations—placed seven Gentile men in positions of servant-leadership over their own women and children so that they might be cared for.

Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ could have accomplished something so profound. Ethnic barriers have no place in the kingdom of God.

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4 thoughts on “Seven: the Number of the Gentiles

  1. Wonderful piece, and I had heard this analogy before as our Pastor was going through a study of Mark. I was recently reading Exodus (I am on a Chronological reading plan) and ran across Exodus 33:2 in which only 6 tribes are indicated (Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – also in Exodus 3:8, 17; and 34:11). So, I am puzzled why the addition of the Girgashites and inconsistencies (word used lightly) in certain references (also Genesis 15:20-21 (10-tribes are actually listed) , Deuteronomy 7:1) , where it is left out of others. Your tie to Acts certainly verifies that the Apostles would have understood Christ’s scolding of them (and re-iterated it in their actions), I just want to be sure I wrap-up the loose ends (certainly in my own mind). Any suggestion of source, or reasons for the inconsistency would be appreciated.

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  2. Thanks for reading Todd! I would say that the different lists represent different snapshots of the land from different perspectives and time periods. What is key for my argument is that when the nations are not just listed, but actually summarized numerically—like they are in Deuteronomy 7:1—then this number (7) would become for later biblical authors a symbol for the Canaanite nations. And this is what I think we see in Jesus’ feeding miracles and in Acts.

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