Seven (שֶׁבִע, sheba). The frequent recurrence of certain numbers in the sacred literature of the Hebrews is obvious to the most superficial reader; and it is almost equally obvious that these numbers are associated with certain ideas, so as in some instances to lose their numerical force, and to pass over into the province of symbolic signs. This is more or less true of the numbers three, four, seven, twelve, and forty; but seven so far surpasses the rest, both in the frequency with which it recurs, and in the importance of the objects with which it is associated, that it may fairly be termed the representative symbolic number. It has hence attracted considerable attention, and may be said to be the keystone on which the symbolism of numbers depends. The origin of this symbolism is a question that meets us at the threshold of any discussion as to the number seven. Our limits will not permit us to follow out this question to its legitimate extent, but we may briefly state that the views of Biblical critics may be ranged under two heads, according as the symbolism is attributed to theoretical speculations as to the internal properties of the number itself, or to external associations of a physical or historical character. According to the former of these views, the symbolism of the number seven would be traced back to the symbolism of its component elements three and four, the first of which = Divinity, and the second= Humanity, whence seven =Divinity+ Humanity, or, in other words, the union between God and man, as effected by the manifestations of the Divinity in creation and revelation. So again the symbolism of twelve is explained as the symbolism of 3 x 4, or a second combination of the same two elements, though in different proportions, the representative number of Humanity, as a multiplier, assuming a more prominent position (Bähr, Symbolik, 1, 187, 201, 224). This theory is seductive from its ingenuity and its appeal to the imagination, but there appears to be little foundation for it. For
(1) we do not find any indication, in early times at all events, that the number seven was resolved into three and four, rather than into any other arithmetical; elements, such as two and five. Bengel notes such a division as running through the heptads of the Apocalypse (Gnomon, at Re 16:1), and the remark undoubtedly holds good in certain instances, e.g. the trumpets, the three latter being distinguished from the four former by the triple "woe" (Re 8:13); but in other instances, e.g. in reference to the promises (Gnomon, at Re 2:7), the distinction is not so well established; and even if it were, an explanation might be found in the adaptation of such a division to the subject in hand. The attempt to discover such a distinction in the Mosaic writings — as, for instance, where an act is to be done on the third day out of seven (Nu 19:12) appears to be a failure.
(2) It would be difficult to show that any associations of a sacred nature were assigned to three and four previously to the sanctity of seven.. This latter number is so far the sacred number κατ᾿ ἐξοχήν that we should be less surprised if, by a process the reverse of the one assumed, sanctity had been subsequently attached to three and four as the supposed elements of seven. But
(3) all such speculations on mere numbers are alien to the spirit of Hebrew thought; they belong to a different stage of society, in which speculation is rife, and is systematized by the existence of schools of philosophy.
We turn to the second class of opinions, which attribute the symbolism of the number seven to external associations. This class may be again subdivided into two, according as the symbolism is supposed to have originated in the observation of purely physical phenomena, or, on the other hand, in the peculiar religious enactments of Mosaism. The influence of the number seven was not restricted to the Hebrews; it prevailed among the Persians (Es 1:10,14), among the ancient Indians (Von Bohlen, Alt. Indien, 2, 224 sq.), among the Greeks and Romans to a certain extent, and probably among all nations where the week of seven days was established, as in China, Egypt, Arabia, etc. (Ideler, Chronol. 1, 88, 178; 2, 473). Cicero calls it the knot and cement of all things, as being that by which the natural and spiritual world are comprehended in one idea (Tusc.
Quoest. 1, 10). The wide range of the word seven is in this respect an interesting and significant fact with the exception of "six," it is the only numeral which the Shemitic languages have in common with the Indo- European; for the Hebrew sheba is essentially the same as ἑπτά, septem, seven, and the Sanskrit, Persian, and Gothic names for this number (Pott, Etym. Forsch. 1, 129). In the countries above enumerated, the institution of seven as a cyclical number is attributed to the observation of the changes of the moon or to the supposed number of the planets. The Hebrews are held by some writers to have borrowed their notions of the sanctity of seven from their heathen neighbors, either wholly or partially (Von Bohlen, Introd. to Genesis 1, 216 sq.; Hengstenberg, Balaam [Clark's ed.], p. 393); but the peculiarity of the Hebrew view consists in the special dignity of the seventh, and not simply in that of seven. Whatever influence, therefore, may be assigned to astronomical observation or to prescriptive usage, in regard to the original institution of the week, we cannot trace back the peculiar associations of the Hebrews further than to the point when the seventh day was consecrated to the purposes of religious rest.
Assuming this, therefore, as our starting point, the first idea associated with seven would be that of religious periodicity. The Sabbath, being the seventh day, suggested the adoption of seven as the coefficient, so to say, for the appointment of all sacred periods; and we thus find the seventh month ushered in by the Feast of Trumpets, and signalized by the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles and the great Day of Atonement; seven weeks as the interval between the Passover and the Pentecost; the seventh year as the sabbatical year; and the year succeeding 7 x 7 years as the jubilee year. From the idea of periodicity it passed, by an easy transition, to the duration or repetition of religious proceedings; and thus seven days were appointed as the length of the feasts of Passover and Tabernacles; seven days for the ceremonies of the consecration of priests: seven days for the interval to elapse between the occasion and the removal of various kinds of legal uncleanness, as after childbirth, after contact with a corpse, etc.; seven times appointed for aspersion either of the blood of the victim (e.g. Le 4:6; Le 16:14) or of the water of purification (14:51; comp. 2Ki 5:10,14); seven things to be offered in sacrifice (oxen, sheep, goats, pigeons, wheat, oil, wine); seven victims to be offered on any special occasion, as in Balaam's sacrifice (Nu 23:1), and especially at the ratification of a treaty, the notion of seven being embodied in the very term (נַשׁבִּע) signifying to swear, literally meaning to do seven
times (Ge 21:28; comp. Herod. 3, 8 for a similar custom among the Arabians). The same idea is further carried out in the vessels and arrangements of the Tabernacle — in the seven arms of the golden candlestick, and the seven chief utensils (altar of burned offerings, laver, showbread table, altar of incense, candlestick, ark, mercy seat).
The number seven, having thus been impressed with the seal of sanctity as the symbol of all connected with the Divinity, was adopted generally as a cyclical number, with the subordinate notions of perfection or completeness. It hence appears in cases where the notion of satisfaction is required, as in reference to punishment for wrongs (Ge 4:15; Le 26:18,28; Ps 79:12; Pr 6:31), or to forgiveness of them (Mt 18:21). It is again mentioned in a variety of passages too numerous for quotation (e.g. Job 5; Job 19; Jer 15:9; Mt 12:45) in a sense analogous to that of a "round number," but with the additional idea of sufficiency and completeness. To the same head we may refer the numerous instances in which persons or things are mentioned by sevens in the historical portions of the Bible e.g. the seven kine and the seven ears of corn in Pharaoh's dream, the seven daughters of the priest of Midian, the seven sons of Jesse, the seven deacons, the seven sons of Sceva, the twice seven generations in the pedigree of Jesus (Mt 1:17); and, again, the still more numerous instances in which periods of seven days or seven years are combined with the repetition of an act seven times; as, in the taking of Jericho, the town was surrounded for seven days, and on the seventh day it fell at the blast of seven trumpets borne round the town seven times by seven priests; or, again, at the flood, an interval of seven days elapsed between the notice to enter the ark and the coming of the flood, the beasts entered by sevens, seven days elapsed between the two missions of the dove, etc. So, again, in private life, seven years appear to have been the usual period of a hiring (Ge 29:18), seven days for a marriage festival (ver. 27; Jg 14:12), and the same, or in some cases seventy days, for mourning for the dead (Ge 50:3,10; 1Sa 31:13).
The foregoing applications of the number seven become of great practical importance in connection with the interpretation of some of the prophetical portions of the Bible, and particularly of the Apocalypse. For in this latter book the ever-recurring number seven both serves as the mould which has decided the external form of the work, and also, to a certain degree, penetrates into the essence of it. We have but to run over the chief subjects of that book — the seven churches, the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven vials, the seven angels, the seven spirits before the throne, the seven horns and seven eves of the Lamb, etc. — in order to see the necessity of deciding whether the number is to be accepted in a literal or a metaphorical sense — in other words, whether it represents a number or a quality. The decision of this question affects not only the number seven, but also the number which stands in a relation of antagonism to seven, viz. the half of seven, which appears under the form of forty — two months, =3 ½ years (Re 13:5); twelve hundred and sixty days, also =3 ½ years (11:3; 12:6); and, again, a time, times, and half a time, =3 ½ years (12:14). We find this number frequently recurring in the Old Test., as in the forty- two stations of the wilderness (Numbers 33); the three and a half years of the famine in Elijah's time (Lu 4:25); the "time, times, and the dividing of time;" during which the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes was to last (Da 7:25), a similar period being again described as "the midst of the week," i.e. the half of seven years (Da 9:27); "a time, times, and a half" (Daniek 12:7); and again, probably, in the number of days specified in Da 8:14; Da 12:11-12. If the number seven express the notion of completeness, then the number half-seven =incompleteness and the secondary ideas of suffering and disaster: if the one represent divine agency, the other we may expect to represent human agency. Mere numerical calculations would thus, in regard to unfulfilled prophecy, be either wholly superseded, or, at all events, take a subordinate position to the general idea conveyed. See Journal of Sacred Literature, Oct. 1851, p. 134 sq.; New-Englander, No. 1858. SEE NUMBER.