After Jacob steals his brother’s blessing and birthright, Esau is understandably upset: “Esau lifted up his voice and wept” (Gen 27:38). Soon, sorrow turns into anger and Esau resolves to kill Jacob (27:41). For several chapters in Genesis, the reader is in suspense as to whether Esau will find Jacob and make good on his pledge. This suspense reaches its apex when messengers come to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him” (32:6; cf. 33:1). As tension mounts, Jacob prays for divine protection from his brother as he anticipates Esau’s attack (32:8-12). Understanding the symbolism of Hebrew numbers heightens the stress of this moment even more, since “four hundred” signifies military conflict in the Bible.
Four hundred (ארבע-מאות; ‘arba-meot) is a number associated with the kind of corporate judgment and physical exertion that leads to battle. A bit of mathematical research into Jewish digits can offer insight into why 400 carries this militaristic connotation. The number forty (ארבעים; ‘arbaim) denotes judgment, which can sometimes have cataclysmic outcomes. For example, God judges the earth with the forty-day floodwaters in the time of Noah (Gen 7:4-17; 8:6). The number ten (עשׂר; ‘eser) conjures the divine creative power by which God can accomplish seismic feats, including the manipulation of the natural world—recall the ten instances of God speaking in Genesis 1 or the ten plagues against Egypt. When we multiply these climactic numbers, it’s little wonder that we get a number symbolizing physical struggle: 40 x 10 = 400.
For the number “four hundred” to accompany such struggle is commonplace in Scripture. David serves as military commander over “about four hundred men” (1 Sam 22:2), and his subsequent military campaign against the Amalekites ends with “four hundred young men” fleeing the battleground (30:17). More, Judges’ description of intertribal warfare reads, “The men of Israel, apart from Benjamin, mustered 400,000 (אלף ארבע-מאות; ‘arba-meot ‘elef) men who drew the sword; all these were men of war” (20:17; cf. 20:2). Likewise, when Judah’s king Abijah fights against Israel’s Jerboam, the Judahite monarch has “an army of valiant men of war, 400,000 chosen men” (2 Chron 13:3). Clearly, “four hundred” and multiples thereof signify violet conflict according to the biblical authors.
Therefore, when Esau approaches Jacob with “four hundred men,” the reader attuned to Jewish integers expects a battle between the brothers. The numeric reference makes it all the more surprising, then, when Esau does not attack his younger sibling, but rather reconciles with him: “Esau ran to meet [Jacob] and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Gen 33:4). With reference to Esau’s four hundred men, Genesis builds tension almost to the breaking point, only to completely upend readers’ expectations with Esau’s heartfelt expression of peace. Knowing the significance of biblical numbers can heighten our readings of Scripture and help us to receive the riches of the Bible’s narratives for all their worth.