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.

30 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Dr Schaser
    Thank you for the lesson on the link between numbers and Hebrew letters, I didn’t know 40 (arbaim) denoted judgment and 10 (eser) denoted divine creative power, this helps towards explaining the message of the Torah and Gospels

    • The rabbis don’t teach that “18 means life,” but rather that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “life” (חי) equals 18 — which is true based on the alphabetical-numerical system of gematria, but this is a method of biblical interpretation that postdates the original Israelite writers of the Hebrew Bible.

  2. Wow! Thank you for revealing this and pointing to the number significance. It clearly went over my head. Rightly dividing Dr Schaser, the Word of God.

  3. However in this case, no conflict ensued but rather reconciliation.
    There are, undoubtedly, mysteries in the scripture. The mystery here is “what else can the number 400 mean and where else can we find examples of this?”
    Does 400 equal reconciliation as well?

    • Cheryl, 400 is associated with conflict, rather than reconciliation. Thus, in Esau’s interaction with Jacob the number 4000,000 is ironic.

  4. It’s amazing how the Spirit of the Lord works with us when we seek Truth.

    I have been looking into Gematria and gain a better understanding.

    Blessings

    • Gematria can be interesting, Roberto; but do know that gematria is a system of interpretation that postdates the Hebrew Bible, so the ancient Israelites were not using it to provide their readers with hidden meanings.

  5. Thanks for your explanation!
    So the 40 days that Jesus fasted and was lead to temptation; it also has the meaning that from the human point-of view, our Lord carried, fasted and prayed for the judgement of human beings?

    • Thanks for reading. The story isn’t about judgment on human beings in general, but rather about Jesus’ own time of judgment in the sense of “testing.”

  6. Getting to the 40 one needs to take that 10 and multiply it by 4. In Hebrew what does number 4 represent? It’s meaning must have a shared significance to the decerning of to number 40 with 10?

    • Good question, Thomas. Since “four” occurs far more often than 400 in the Bible, it’s more difficult to determine a specific meaning. In order to assess all the interpretive options, one would need to look up the instances of “four” in Scripture, take a look at the contexts in which the number appears, and then decide which meaning(s) the number might have.

    • Hi, Claire. There are all sorts of grammars that will teach you the Hebrew letters, but the enrollment fee for our class on beginning biblical Hebrew is actually cheaper than most grammar books, and we will take you slowly through the alphabet (whereas if you purchase a Hebrew grammar you’ll be on your own). Gematria is a fairly simple system (each letter represents a numerical value). However, I wouldn’t put too much stock in gematria when it comes to understanding what the original Israelite writers of the Bible were trying to convey to their audience (gematria is a post-biblical interpretational tool).

  7. Thanks so much… Dr Nicholas J.Schaser i’m so glad to reading your aswer to every question, I like to follow your teaching, I pray one day we meet in Israel the promise land,
    I love you from Ps Thomas M.simanjuntak Indonesia Palangkaraya

  8. Hi Dr Schaser
    Re David’s campaign against the Amalekites, 1Samuel 30:1-31David left notone of the Amalekites except for 400 who escaped on camels. When the division of the booty came David overruled the protests of the 400 who accompanied him into battleandshared equally with the 200 guarding the baggage train.

  9. Do you think Amalek could be described as oppression of the poor and where Saul failed to exterminate Amalek, David put all Amalek to the sword except those that fled battle, as Samuel also with Agag, king of the Amalekites, in butchering him

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