Category Archives: The Word

Full of Years–A Mathematical Excursion with the Patriarchs

As we learn in Genesis, the patriarchs of the Hebrew nation lived to ripe old ages. Abraham passed on at 175 (Genesis 25:7). Isaac was 180 when he died (Genesis 35:28). The next generation, Jacob, lived to age 147 (Genesis 47:28), while Jacob’s most celebrated son, Joseph made it to 110 (Genesis 50:26).
Aside from the fact that these men would have almost single-handedly bankrupted the Social Security system had they lived in the United States, what can we learn from these numbers?
The bit of mathematical conjuring that follows is certainly not original to me, but its origin is, from my research, obscure. Let’s look.

Within the Ages

Looking at those credibility-stretching ages, we see that each of the first three can be expressed by a formula: Age=X * Y2. In other words, each each age is a multiple of a perfect square. What are the odds of that happening by coincidence? I checked out every age from 1 to 184, dividing each by the numbers 2 through 9. That is 1,472 possible combinations. And of those 1,472 possibilities, only 46 yielded perfect squares. That’s 3.1%. The likelihood of two generations in a row being like this? It’s less than one tenth of 1%, and the chances of three in a row matching are .0031%. That’s just north of 3 chances in 100,000–more likely than a lottery win but still very unlikely.

Not Just Unlikely But Following a Pattern

Looking more closely, not only do all three of those first three patriarchs have such X * Y2. ages, but there’s a pattern to their ages.
Let me demonstrate.
Name
Age
X
Y
Y
Sum
Abraham
175
7
5
5
17
Isaac
180
5
6
6
17
Jacob
147
3
7
7
17
So if you noticed, the value of X decreases by 2 with each generation while the value of Y increases by 1 in the same generation. I’m not sure how to calculate the probability of that progression, but it is clearly far less probable than even the .0031% we saw above.

All that and 17 Also!

A great deal has been made by previous writers of the fact that this pattern also features all of the digits adding up to equal 17. When you think about it, however, that consistency is simply a feature of the progression. If X decreases by 2 and Y increases by 1 but is counted twice, then what else can that “Sum” column do but remain steady. Still, if there’s significance to the number 17, there might be something to it.
It turns out that 17 is a significant number for a couple reasons:
  • It is a prime number.
  • It is the seventh prime number: 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17.
  • It is a combination of 7 (the number of the divine) and 10 (which appears several times in Genesis). E.W. Bullinger explains this sum as a combination of “spiritual perfection, plus ordinal perfection, or the perfection of spiritual order.”

Have We Forgotten Joseph?

I know that you’re wondering if Joseph, our fourth patriarch, fits the pattern. If the progression continued, then we would expect Joseph to be 1*(8*8) or 64 years old when he died. Instead, of course, he lived to be 110. So is Joseph the pattern buster?
Perhaps it is nothing but Joseph’s age can be expressed with the expected X (1) and the sums of the three preceding squared Ys (5, 6, and 7). That is, 1*(25+36+49)=110.
Of course, even though I suggested that might signify nothing, I don’t really believe it. What are the chances that happens by accident?
Let’s assume that we’re adding up three numbers hoping to reach 110. We could use dozens of different combinations if we didn’t care about those perfect squares. But if we restrict ourselves to perfect squares, there are only three combinations: 2 (4), 5 (25), and 9 (81) on one hand, and the 5,6, 7-combination noted above. In short, there is very little chance that Joseph’s age just happens to combine the squares that were found in the ages of his three preceding ancestors.

So What Does It All Mean?

Hopefully I have convinced you that the numerical play afoot in the ages of the patriarchs is not just an accidental occurrence. Assuming that it is not an accident leaves us with the sense that some intent lay behind these numbers.
The mere presence of these numbers does not prove anything about the interpretation of these numbers and it does not prove or disprove the hand of God in the creation of the Genesis text.
  • Could a human author have deposited mathematical Easter eggs for readers to discover? It’s possible.
  • Could God have controlled the ages of the patriarchs in order to produce these numbers? That’s possible as well.
Either way, what does it mean? That’s a question for a later post.

Don’t Step in It!

[Abstain from sexual immorality] that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.–1 Thessalonians 4:6

When I attended the recent college composition teachers’ convention last week, I walked into the strangest of sessions. Although I don’t recall the exact title of this colleague’s presentation, it had to do with the communication employed by strippers and exotic dancers as they protested legal changes in New Orleans. If you’re wondering how any of that could even remotely help college students to write better, then get in line behind me, but that’s not my point here.

The assumption behind the signs and slogans of the strippers and behind the conference presenter was that “sex work” was a victimless crime. Opposition to this work, they argued, represented a typical male-dominated effort to disempower women and blah, blah, blah.

The reality, however, is that sexual immorality, at whatever level it occurs, is not a victimless crime. Paul says so very clearly here. There are two positive effects of avoiding sexual immorality (which was mentioned much earlier in the sentence, back in verse 3). First, we won’t transgress the laws of God. That ought to be enough by itself, but second, we won’t wrong our brother or wrong another person.

How does sexual immorality wrong another person? It’s obvious how this works in the whole #metoo environment, but what of more “innocent” things. What if both parties consent? What about pornography? What about those nice girls in New Orleans who are putting themselves through college doing pole dances?

One of the realities of life is that every action generates effects. Consensual sex does not leave either party precisely the same afterward. Let’s take a hypothetical case. “Harvey” goes to a local club where lithe young ladies prowl the stage. “Lulu” particularly catches “Harvey’s” attention. She performs for him. He gives her cash. Everybody’s happy, right?

I can’t speak to “Lulu’s” situation other than to agree that it improves her bank account. But “Harvey” will go home to his wife or his future wife or his girlfriend or whoever and will not be able to keep from comparing her physique to that of “Lulu.” Is that fair? Not at all. Transgression. “Harvey” will have associated, at least to a subconscious degree, sexual gratification with money. That leads to transgression against every woman “Harvey” will encounter.

Sex is supposed to be a powerful overflow of the love that binds husband and wife. It’s supposed to mirror the love relationship between Christ and the church. It should involve self-sacrifice, mutual respect, and enduring, eternal love. How tawdry to reduce it to a money transaction.

Walk around my backyard carelessly and you’re likely to step in something objectionable. That only affects you until you walk into the house or sit in someone’s car. To think that you can magically clean your shoes and not affect anyone else is naïve.

So it is with the sexual stuff. While we cannot erase every sexually impure action, image, or thought from our past, we can move in the direction of purity and do our best not to step in it.

Controlling the Belt Buckle

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God. –1 Thessalonians 4:3-5

Recently, as I looked around a group of godly men, most of them my age or a few years older, I noticed something that nearly all had in common: bellies bulging out over their belts. I say that fully conscious that my own profile on that evening looked pretty similar to theirs.

What makes men of a certain age put on weight? You don’t expect a sixty-year-old to have ripped abs, but is there really some reason why we should all look as if we’re a pregnant woman who hasn’t just started to show?

In my case, the explanation is quite simple. Over the last couple of years, I haven’t controlled my body very well. Lest you hear that and recall the verse quoted above, let me hasten to say that my lack of control isn’t in the sexual arena. No, my lack of control involves the amount of food that goes into my mouth and the amount of physical exertion that consumes that food.

It didn’t take me a long span of life to learn that food tastes good. Lots of food tastes good, and it doesn’t stop tasting good when you’ve eaten a bit of it. The fifth piece of pizza is almost exactly as rewarding as the first.

Gluttony–just like sexual immorality–is a sin. My body requires stewardship just as surely as my bank account, regardless of whether that stewardship deals with my sexuality or my fitness. Bad behavior in either area can ruin me for effective Christian ministry.

“Control your own body,” Paul insists, as if it were an easy thing. But of course he knew that it wasn’t an easy thing. It’s not an easy thing to hit the gym in the morning. It’s not an easy thing to stop at one or two pieces of pizza. And it’s not easy to keep your mind from thinking sexually impure things. But actually that’s where the key lies.

Unless I am completely wrong, I will probably never stop looking at at least some workouts as something to be dreaded. I will probably never cease to long for more and richer food. And I will probably never stop being tempted in that other carnal area. Still connected to that “body of death” of mine, I’m subject to temptations.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul does not say that his readers had to escape all temptation. Instead, he urges them to control their bodies and not act upon the temptation. With God’s help and my own efforts, I have mastered my sexual desire. I’ve seen the same combination of forces master my physical shape. Now, wearing a larger size of pants, has God stopped helping? Of course not.

“Learn to control your own body,” Paul insists. Did he suggest it was easy or automatic? Apparently not since it had to be learned. I may not be able to control the physiques of my brothers, but I can, with some effort, make a change to my own.

Who Am I Pleasing?

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.–1 Thessalonians 4:1-2

With a four-hour gap between obligations at school yesterday, I headed off campus and visited one of the few indoor malls remaining in the Kansas City area. My purpose for the visit lay in getting some exercise without heading to the gym. Yes, I am old. I’ve turned into a mall walker. But as I strode around both levels of the Oak Park Mall, I witnessed a string of things that should have come as no surprise. That retail pseudo-utopia rests on the notion that we as humans ought to live to please ourselves.

I’ll admit that Auntie Anne’s Pretzel’s smelled awfully good and would, I’m sure, have tasted just as transcendent. The burgers and pizza in the food court spoke to me as well, but I’d eaten lunch at school.

If I counted correctly, there were three shops dedicated to lingerie in this place. To keep my mind where it belonged, I mostly ignored those, resisting the temptation–and that temptation never seems to die–to ogle the images of Victoria’s Secret models.

Nordstrom’s, through which I entered and exited the place, sports all manner of exceptionally nice clothes. A person could drop thousands of dollars in the widely spaced displays of the store, coming away with a gorgeous wardrobe and the credit-card bill to prove it.

Elsewhere, I walked past any number of stores selling overpriced athletic shoes–designed more for appearance than function–and a huge selection of ball caps, so that no one need face the indignity of wearing only a single K.C. Royals hat.

They had a store that offered some service for eyebrows, which I didn’t entirely understand, and a more comprehensible one doing nails. Massage chairs waited for my money in a number of places, and, should I want to drop a serious chunk of change, jewelers held down important spots.

What struck me in that mall is that there really wasn’t much of anything that seemed particularly useful. Clothes, of course, are useful, but the bulk of the clothing in this place struck me as long on price and short on quality or practicality or both.

But how on earth will our consumer-oriented economy continue to expand if we don’t buy new phones every year or dress them up with the perfect case? After all, you only live once. Grab the brass ring and all that. Make yourself happy, because nobody else is going to do it.

As he begins to draw the first letter to the Thessalonians to a close, Paul utters words that are positively un-American. We are supposed to live not to make ourselves happy but to live in such a way that pleases God. Crazy, eh?

Virtually everything at the mall revolves around making ourselves happy. Some of the things can be justified, but most of it is simple self-indulgence. Am I reading into Paul–and I don’t think I am–to suggest that if we live a life aimed at pleasing God, He is likely to give us a life that pleases us. Maybe we won’t get a nice, butter-soaked pretzel, but we’ll get something truly good.

Keep Lifting High the Banner

On February 19, 1945, American Marines stormed onto the beach at the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima. In the grand scheme of things, this little dot in the Pacific amounts to very little, but in the ways of strategy, it could not be left in Japanese hands as the American juggernaut moved inexorably toward the Japanese home islands and the close of the war.

In Washington, D.C. (or actually just across the river in Virginia), the Marine Memorial captures in bronze the iconic photograph of sixof those Marines raising the flag atop the island’s only landmark, Mount Suribachi.

I’ve had occasion to think about that battle and that statue recently after speaking with a veteran of the fighting. As I’ve reflected on it, it occurred to me that there’s an important lesson to be taken from the memorial.

First, we have to recognize that those sixMarines had no idea that they were making history to quite the extent that they were. Three of them would not survive the struggle for the island. I’m sure all of them knew that they were involved in something significant, but did they realize that this would probably be the most celebrated moment of their lives?

Second, that statue catches the Marines in mid-motion. There’s another photo snapped a bit later by the photographer, Joe Rosenthal, showing the erected flag and Marines standing around saluting, but it’s not the one that earned the Pulitzer Prize. It’s not the one that fires the imagination. The struggle seems to be captured in that photo, and the struggle almost always seems more interesting than the aftermath.

However, that flag in Washington will never be fully raised. For 63 years it has remained at precisely the same angle, always yearning toward but never reaching its final position. That statue locks six men and a flag in time, potentially forever.

My friend who survived the battle–in fact, who survived five combat landings without receiving a Purple Heart–understands that while the events on Iwo Jima might be the most exciting and historically significant part of his life, he cannot remain locked in time like those statues.

When I think over my life, I can point to some moments that, if not statue-worthy, are certainly moments of some glory, the exciting times when I felt as if I might be performing the most significant work of my life. Hopefully you have those moments as well, but we would both be foolish to allow ourselves to latch on too firmly to our glory days.

As believers, we understand that the “flag” of our faith will never be fully raised under our power, and our glory days will pale when compared with the day of Christ’s triumph. Until then, we need to be, Marine-like,semper fidelis, always faithful. We need to strive to lift high the banner of Christ, keeping faith with those who have come before and still striving into the future.

The day will come when the end result will be far more exciting than the struggle. But until then, let us stand firm.