What is the meaning of 666, the number of the beast in the book of Revelation?

In response to my last post about secret codes in the Bible, a reader commented that the number 666 in the book of Revelation is also an encrypted word.  That’s quite true. Let me summarize here what I say about this in my Daniel-Revelation study guide.

In many ancient languages, letters were used to represent numbers. (One example of this is the “Roman numerals” we know today: Super Bowl XLVI means Super Bowl 46.) Words and names in such languages had a total value, the sum of the values of their individual letters.  This total value could be used as a kind of  symbolic code in place of the word.  (This practice is known as gematria.) For example, as I discuss in an earlier post, the value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name adds up to 130, and in tribute to him, 130 proverbs were placed in the collection that was created under his patronage.

As I’ve show in another post, apocalypses like Revelation evoke the symbolic significance numbers. 666 suggests having pretensions to divinity or perfection, but falling short of it, since it’s symbolized in the book by the number 7.  But whose name adds up to this total, revealing the hollowness of his pretensions to divinity?

To answer this question, we need to understand the book of Revelation in light of the first-century events that occasioned its writing.  The book was written to warn followers of Jesus, who had experienced persecution under Nero, that persecution would resume under the current emperor, Domitian. So they needed to be faithful unto death in order to win the crown of life. When the book is understood this way, its figure of a “beast” is recognized to be a depiction of Domitian as if he were Nero come back to life.

The number 666 is part of this depiction. John writes that understanding this code “calls for wisdom,” meaning that the puzzle has a trick to it. The secret is, even though John is writing his book in Greek, the numerical values will be those of Hebrew letters. As many scholars have recognized, the consonants of “Neron Caesar” in Hebrew add up to 666. Tagging Domitian with the name (or in this case, the number) of Nero is like drawing a Hitler mustache on a leader’s picture today.  Domitian thinks he’s “lord and God” (as he proclaims on his coins), but he’s really just another evil emperor.

So the meaning of the “number of the beast,” 666, has a unique solution based on the conventions of apocalypses and the facts of history. Its main purpose is to delegitimize Domitian’s claims to divinity and to strengthen followers of Jesus who are being pressured by the emperor cult. But evil rulers in other places and times may also revive the tyrannical spirit of Nero, and they’ll have to be resisted with suffering and endurance. That is the significance of the number 666 for all who live after the time of the book of Revelation.

For some historical evidence that the earliest Christians understood 666 to mean “Nero Caesar,” see this post.

For the significance of the number 144,000, see this post.

Nero 666

Is “Atbash code” found “throughout the Old Testament,” as Dan Brown claims?

Q. Dan Brown claims in The DaVinci Code (p. 304) that “text encrypted with Atbash” is found throughout Jewish mystical writings and “even the Old Testament.”  Is this true?

Sheshak

Thanks to reader Don Johnson (see comment below), I am now offering an updated version of this post.

Exactly two words in the Bible are encrypted in a code known as Atbash.

The name Atbash comes from the first, last, second, and next-to-last letters of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph, Taw, Beth, Shin.  The name shows how this code works:  the first and last letters are substituted for each other; the same for the second and next-to-last letters; and so forth.

An equivalent code in English would be called AZBY:
A <-> Z,
B <-> Y,
C <-> X,
and so forth.
In AZBY the word “Bible,” for example, would come out “Yryov.”  This is how this kind of code works.

God gave the prophet Jeremiah the assignment of publicly announcing his judgment on the nations, including the Babylonian empire, which would soon conquer Jeremiah’s own country of Judah.  This assignment was fraught with danger for the prophet, so he spoke the word “Babel” (the Hebrew name for Babylon) in Atbash code, and it came out “Sheshak“:

“This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: ‘Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. . . . After all of them, the king of Sheshak will drink it too.'”

Enough of Jeremiah’s listeners could apparently decrypt this code that the promise of ultimate deliverance could be spoken without the prophet’s life being unnecessarily jeopardized.

Later in the book there’s another prophecy in which Jeremiah was able to speak more freely (perhaps because it circulated privately until it could be shared more openly), and in that prophecy he leaves no doubt about identity of the earlier Sheshak:

“How Sheshak will be captured, the boast of the whole earth seized!
How desolate Babylon will be among the nations!”

At the start of that prophecy he also identifies Babylon with Leb Hamai, Atbash code for Chaldea, another name for the Babylonians:

“See, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer
against Babylon and the people of Leb Kamai.”

But Babel and Chaldea in Jeremiah are the only two words in the Bible that have been put in Atbash code.  So we shouldn’t search the Scriptures for mysterious encrypted messages the way the characters would in a Dan Brown thriller.  There aren’t any messages of that type there.

Instead, we should be inspired by the faith and courage of prophets like Jeremiah, who were agents of a divine resistance movement that proclaimed the time when earthly pretenders would be put down and God’s kingdom established throughout the earth. And we should ask how we can be the same kind of agents in our own place and time.

Does the Bible condone slavery? (Part 2)

It took the United States almost 90 years after it was founded, supposedly on Christian principles, to end slavery.  Finally people understood it was wrong to own another person.  Even after that, African Americans have been kept down and discriminated against. 
In Leviticus 25 it gives instructions on how to purchase foreigners, even their children, and treat them like property.  But they were told that the people of Israel must not be treated that way.
In Exodus 21 it talks about how to buy a Hebrew slave—that they must set him free in the seventh year, and if he got married while he was in slavery, he can’t take his wife with him when he’s freed.  If he wants to keep his wife he has to say he’s happy with his master and have an awl pushed through his ear lobe, and agree to slavery for life.
Also in Exodus 21 it tells you it’s all right to beat your slave to the point of death, as long as he doesn’t die right away.
Jesus didn’t seem to condemn slavery either, and the apostle Paul even says that slaves should obey their earthly masters with respect and fear, as sincerely as they would serve Christ (Ephesians 6:5).
Why would God permit the Israelites, and later the Christians, to treat people like this?

In my first post in answer to this question I showed that when we look at the big picture in the Bible, we see that it presents freedom from slavery as God’s intentions for every person.  Let me now speak to the individual passages you cited.

•  In the instructions in Leviticus that allow purchasing foreign slaves, there is paradoxically an implicit teaching against slavery.  The people of Israel were supposed to create a society that would be model for all the nations around them.  They were not allowed to enslave fellow members of their society, and this implies that God’s ideal for society is freedom, not slavery.

And even though the laws in this part of Leviticus permit foreign slaves, we need to put these laws in conversation with laws in other parts of Leviticus that say things like, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”  If resident foreigners really were treated like native-born, they wouldn’t be enslaved, even though another law in the same book permits this.

This is the kind of puzzle in the Law—seemingly contradictory statements—that Jesus sorted out in the Sermon on the Mount when he taught, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you.”  For example, while revenge was permitted, Jesus said not to engage in it, on the basis of a higher principle.  While divorce was permitted, Jesus said to be committed to marriage, again on the basis of a higher principle.  We can see, on the same basis, that while enslaving foreigners was permitted, Leviticus itself contains a higher principle that would lead a thoughtful follower of the Law not to own slaves.

•  The regulations in Exodus about Hebrew slaves specify a six-year period of indentured servitude for those who sell themselves into slavery.  If a man is married when he first becomes a slave, he can leave with his wife and children.  But if the master provides a wife (presumably from among his female slaves), she is not automatically granted her freedom when her husband’s term of service ends.

But once again, this law needs to be put in conversation with another law, in Leviticus, that says that a fellow Israelite who sells himself into slavery must be treated as a hired worker and then set free with his children (and presumably his wife), with nothing said about an exception for cases when the master has provided a wife for the slave.

And so, if a master in ancient Israel had provided a wife for a slave, he could insist on the “letter of the law” and force the slave to choose between his freedom and his new family.  Or he could live out the “spirit of the law” and release them all.  Once again, this is the kind of dynamic that Jesus highlighted in his teaching, to encourage his followers to live out the highest principles in the law and so “be perfect, as their heavenly Father was perfect.”

• The law in Exodus about beating a slave should not be understood in any way as giving permission to masters to beat their slaves severely, so long as they don’t quite kill them.  For one thing, this law specifies that if a slave dies immediately from a beating, the master must suffer the death penalty, just as in the case of a free person being murdered. The Hebrew says literally, “vengeance shall surely be taken.”  The NIV says that the master “must be punished,” but this is not specific enough; the ESV says that the slave “shall be avenged,” and this is clearer.  The first part of this law provides the same protection for slaves as for free persons, an unusual and perhaps unique piece of legislation among ancient cultures.

The second part of this law says that if the slave does not die immediately, but after a day or two, “he is not to be avenged,” that is, the master does not suffer the death penalty.  The reasoning behind this stipulation is that the slave’s survival for a time suggests that the killing was not intentional. The law of Moses carefully distinguishes between the penalties for murder and manslaughter (that is, for intentional and unintentional killings).  The explanation “for the slave is his money” does not mean that the master has bought and paid for the slave and so can do anything with him that he wants.  Rather, the meaning is that the loss of the price of the slave, a significant sum in the ancient world, punishes the master sufficiently for manslaughter.  The master has, in effect, punished himself.

Even though understanding more about the background and intent of this law can help us recognize that it is designed to protect slaves, not the masters who beat them, it is still a very difficult law for compassionate followers of Jesus to read today in the Bible.

•  Paul’s encouragement for slaves to obey their masters comes within a section of Ephesians in which he stresses that authority relationships are reciprocal:  If wives must respect their husbands, husbands must also love their wives; if children must obey their parents, parents must also not exasperate them and bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  In the same way, if slaves must obey their “earthly masters” with respect and fear, then those masters must treat their slaves “in the same way,” that is, realizing that they are answerable to a heavenly Master, and so they must not threaten or abuse.

And we must put these comments here in conversation with Paul’s other statements, noted last time, about slaves gaining their freedom if possible and there being neither slave nor free in Christ.  Indeed, right here in Ephesians Paul arguably undercuts the master’s absolute authority by saying that the slave is really serving the Lord, not the earthly master.

In conclusion, we may still wonder how the Bible could regulate an institution like slavery instead of opposing it outright.  But I hope I have shown that the Bible does contain principles that would lead a thoughtful person, ancient or modern, who wanted to live out its highest ideals to realize that slavery was not something God intended, and to work actively for freedom for everyone.  This work is certainly the historic legacy of the community of Jesus’ followers and its continuing mission.

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Does the Bible condone slavery? (Part 1)

Q. It took the United States almost 90 years after it was founded, supposedly on Christian principles, to end slavery.  Finally people understood it was wrong to own another person.  Even after that, African Americans have been kept down and discriminated against. 
In Leviticus 25 it gives instructions on how to purchase foreigners, even their children, and treat them like property.  But they were told that the people of Israel must not be treated that way.
In Exodus 21 it talks about how to buy a Hebrew slave—that they must set him free in the seventh year, and if he got married while he was in slavery, he can’t take his wife with him when he’s freed.  If he wants to keep his wife he has to say he’s happy with his master and have an awl pushed through his ear lobe, and agree to slavery for life.
Also in Exodus 21 it tells you it’s all right to beat your slave to the point of death, as long as he doesn’t die right away.
Jesus didn’t seem to condemn slavery either, and the apostle Paul even says that slaves should obey their earthly masters with respect and fear, as sincerely as they would serve Christ (Ephesians 6:5).
Why would God permit the Israelites, and later the Christians, to treat people like this?

Statements like these that the Bible makes about slavery are very troubling to thoughtful and compassionate followers of Jesus.  It’s important to emphasize that we get a very different picture of the Bible’s view towards slavery when we consider the big picture rather than individual verses.  So let me speak about the big picture first in this post, and then in my next post discuss the statements you have cited.

The central redemptive metaphor of the Old Testament, echoed throughout that part of the Bible, is God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  To me this sends a clear message that God did not create slavery and does not approve of it; God wants people to be free.  Slavery is instead like divorce, which, as Jesus explained to the Pharisees, is something that’s regulated in the law of Moses to protect people when it happens, not something that God commands.

While Jesus didn’t speak directly against slavery, he did use the image of being set free from slavery as a metaphor for the salvation that he brought.  He could only do this if slavery wasn’t something that God instituted and upheld.  For his part, the apostle Paul said that in Christ there was neither slave nor free, and he told slaves to gain their freedom if they could.  He lived out this big vision in a practical situation when he appealed personally to Philemon to set Onesimus free.

It was Christians inspired by this big-picture teaching of the Bible who fought successfully to end government-sanctioned slavery in Britain, the United States, and other parts of the world.  Contemporary Christians are equally motivated by their biblical convictions to fight modern-day slavery through organizations such as the International Justice Mission.

man&brother“Am I not a man and a brother?” Influential cameo created by Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the British pottery company and committed abolitionist.

By contrast, people who wanted to maintain slavery appealed to individual verses.  In response, people who wanted to end slavery argued that slavery in ancient times—the situation the Bible actually speaks to—was very different from slavery in the American experience.  They challenged slaveholders who appealed to the Bible at least to practice a much more moderate, “biblical” form of slavery (the slaveholders declined to do even this):
• Ancient slavery was not racially based and did not presume that some races were inferior to others and so could justifiably be enslaved.
• In biblical times masters owned their slaves’ labor but not their bodies or persons; that’s why masters were required to set their slaves free if they caused them permanent bodily injury.  They were also required to set free concubines (female slaves they had married) if they did not honor them as full wives.
• Freedom could be purchased for slaves by their relatives; slaves could even buy their own freedom.  In Roman times some slaves were adopted into their masters’ families and even became heirs; many interpreters believe this cultural practice lies behind the metaphor of “adoption to sonship” that Paul uses in Romans to describe salvation.  In a more ancient example, Abraham’s household servant Eliezer would have been his heir if he hadn’t had a son.
So when we see the Bible regulate slavery rather than abolish it outright, we need to recognize that it’s regulating a very different institution than the one known from the American experience, which violated at every turn the biblical laws designed to protect slaves.

(In my next post I will address the individual passages you cited.)

Were the verses really put in the Bible by someone riding on horseback?

Q. I’ve heard that the verses were put in the Bible by someone who was riding on a horse, and that when you come to a bad verse division, that’s where the horse stumbled.  Is that true?

This story is almost true.  The verses were added to the New Testament by Robert Estienne (also known as Stephanus), a French printer, linguist, and classical scholar.  He  wanted to create a concordance to the Greek New Testament and needed to mark off small stretches of text so words could be easily located.

Robert Estienne, the French printer who added the verses to the Bible

His son Henri finished the concordance project in 1594 after his father’s death and tells us, writing in Latin, that his father put in the numbers in 1551 while traveling inter equitandum from Paris to Lyon and back.  This could mean “on horseback,” but it more likely means “while traveling by horse” or simply “while on a journey.”

Bruce Metzger explains in The Manuscripts of the Greek Bible:

“Although some have understood [inter equitandum] to mean ‘on horseback’ (and have explained inappropriate verse-divisions as originating when the horse bumped his pen into the wrong place!), the inference most natural and best supported by the evidence is that the task was accomplished while resting at inns along the road.”

Caspar René Gregory says similarly in The Canon and Text of the New Testament:

“Henri uses the words ‘while riding,’ ‘inter equitandum,’ and it has sometimes been supposed that he actually did it while jogging and joggling along the road upon the back of his steed.  . . . Yet I do not think that he did that, or that his son Henri says that he did that.  It seems to me to be more likely that the words ‘while riding’ simply mean that he did it in the breaks of this long ride.  When he got up in the morning he may have done something before he set out.  During the morning he may have rested a while at a wayside inn, and certainly at noon he will have done so.  And at night he doubtless . . . ‘divided’ away until it was time to sleep.”

So Robert Estienne wasn’t actually on horseback when he added the New Testament verse divisions.  Nevertheless, as Gregory notes, this was a hasty, distracted job.

The verse divisions in the First Testament (Old Testament) have a different history.  As I explain in my book After Chapters and Verses:

“By the early centuries of our era, those who read the Hebrew Scriptures aloud in the synagogues had to pause at regular intervals to allow for an Aramaic translation, since most Jews no longer spoke Hebrew.  By the year 500, the short stretches of text that were read before a translation had become standardized.  They were indicated in manuscripts by a soph pasuq mark (:).  Even so, two different systems remained in use, one in Palestine and the other in Babylonia, until they were harmonized by ben Asher in the tenth century.  When Stephanus versified the New Testament five hundred years later, similar ‘verses’ were created in the Old Testament by numbering the stretches of text between soph pasuq marks.”

So the First Testament verses were created in a haphazard process over the centuries, and this, too, made for some arbitrary and senseless divisions, as anyone who reads through the Bible, rather than picking out a verse here and there, will find out very quickly.

And so we shouldn’t think there’s any such thing as a “Bible verse,” a portion of the text that has been carefully marked off for us as a unit of meaning and authority.  The verses as we know them today are historical accidents that are just as likely to mislead us as to inform us.  Indeed, there are many places where it would almost be preferable to appeal to a horse stumbling than to admit that a person had introduced a verse division there intentionally!

Why does Ruth speak in poetry when she pledges loyalty to Naomi?

Q. Having translated the book of Ruth, I’m curious about the poetic lines that Ruth recites to Naomi when she makes her pledge in chapter 2.  I’m wondering if you know where these words come from in Hebrew culture?  Given the marriage themes in the book, I have wondered if they might have been part of the ancient Israelite marital vows or something similar.  The poetry absolutely stands out there.  Any insight on this?

Pieter Lastman, "Ruth Declares her Loyalty to Naomi"
Pieter Lastman,
“Ruth Declares her Loyalty to Naomi”

To respond to this second question of yours, you’re right, Ruth’s words to Naomi really do stand out as Hebrew poetry, in parallel couplets.  It’s surprising that Bibles don’t format them this way:

Entreat me not to leave you
or to return from following you;

for where you go I will go,
and where you lodge I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,
and your God my God;

where you die I will die,
and there will I be buried.

After elegantly concluding her poem by varying the you-I progression with a solemn final statement, Ruth swears an oath that she asks God to enforce:  “May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you!”

I don’t think this language is actually taken from an ancient Israelite marriage ceremony.  (The opposite is true: people have taken Ruth’s words and turned them into marriage vows.)  Rather, it’s characteristic of Hebrew narrative that when someone has something crucial to say, on which the story line turns, they say it in poetry. In the ancient oral culture, this would make the saying memorable and repeatable (kind of like an advertizing slogan today).

For example, when Sheba son of Bikri foments a rebellion against David, he shouts in poetry:

We have no share in David,
no part in Jesse’s son!
Every man to his tent, Israel!

To give another example, David’s promise to Bathsheba about who will succeed him is also spoken in poetry, and it’s quoted several times at crucial points in the succession narrative:

Solomon your son shall reign after me,
he shall sit upon my throne in my stead.

Samuel speaks similarly in poetry when he announces God’s rejection of Saul as king and when he pronounces judgment on Agag.  The Israelites proclaim their refusal of Rehoboam as their king in poetry as well.

Examples like these show that poetry was used for important pronouncements in Hebrew narrative, probably reflecting the actual customs of the culture.  And we have to admit that among her many other qualities as a “woman of noble character,” Ruth was a fine poet.

Did Boaz already have another wife when he married Ruth?

Q. I see that you are posting about Ruth on your blog.  I have two questions for your, a little more in depth.  Here goes:

1) Having translated the book of Ruth, I’m curious about the poetic lines that Ruth recites to Naomi when she makes her pledge in chapter 2.  I’m wondering if you know where these words come from in Hebrew culture?  Given the marriage themes in the book, I have wondered if they might have been part of the ancient Israelite marital vows or something similar.  The poetry absolutely stands out there.  Any insight on this?

2) I have also heard the theory that Boaz was already married when this story happened, and that he probably took Ruth as a second wife (or perhaps more).  I think this view is based on the fact that Boaz seems to be a wealthy and presumably middle-aged man.  What are your thoughts about this?

That’s all.  I am enjoying your blog!

Thanks for your kind words and for following up on my recent posts with these questions.  Let me begin with the one about Boaz.

While it’s possible that Boaz did have another wife (in this culture, this wouldn’t have kept him from marrying Ruth), it doesn’t say anywhere in the book that he did, so we shouldn’t assume this.  What we do know about Boaz, as we’re told when we first meet him, is that he’s a “man of standing,” prosperous and influential.  As I explain in my Joshua-Judges-Ruth study guide:

“To get enough money to live on, Naomi is selling the portion of the fields around Bethlehem that belonged to her late husband Elimelek. The hope is that, as the law intends, a goel (family guardian) will ‘redeem’ this property, buying it from Naomi, but also on her behalf, so that she has both the money from the sale and the field’s produce year by year. The other family guardian is initially willing to make this sacrifice. But when he learns he must also marry Ruth and give her children in her late husband’s name, he backs out, explaining, ‘I might endanger my own estate.’ (He can’t afford to part with the money for the property and then divide his remaining worth among his current children and those Ruth will have in the future.) But Boaz is a ‘man of standing’ who’s in an adequate position to help out financially in this way.”

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, "Ruth in Boaz's Field," 1828
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Ruth in Boaz’s Field,” 1828

This explains why Boaz is the right husband for Ruth.  If he did have another wife, which is possible (although again, not mentioned in the book, so we should not assume it), this would raise the further question of polygamy.  We need to appreciate that in this culture, women were dependent on male relatives for provision and protection. So the commandment in the law of Moses for a close relative to marry a widow, even if he was already married himself, was a compassionate provision for her needs and those of her current and future children and dependents.  (Naomi, an older widow herself, is one of Ruth’s dependents, and so Ruth’s proposal to Boaz, as I noted in this post, is also an act of compassion to her.) 

I’ll answer your question about Ruth’s poetic promise to Naomi in my next post.